Zibby Owens: I’m here today Susan Shapiro who is the award-winning Manhattan writing professor and best-selling author of twelve books including Five Men Who Broke My Heart and Lighting Up: How I Stopped Smoking, Drinking, and Everything Else I Loved in Life Except Sex. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and New York Magazine among many other publications. Her latest book is The Byline Bible: Get Published in Five Weeks. She teaches writing classes like Instant Gratification Takes Too Long at NYU, The New School, and in private workshops. She currently lives in Greenwich Village, New York, with her husband who is a screenwriter. She was my teacher at The New School.

Welcome to Susan Shapiro. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Susan Shapiro: My pleasure.

Zibby: This is a super special episode for me because I took Sue’s class at The New School in 2004. I was trying to write full time for a little bit. Sue’s class was so amazing. It taught you how to get published in magazines and newspapers. I swear to god, everything I’ve written since is because of you, that’s ever been published. Thank you.

Susan: I remember you got published during the class. You were one of the stars. It’s exciting.

Zibby: Thanks. I’ve been following you ever since, your whole career, your books. Two of your books are some of my favorites, Five Men Who Broke My Heart and Lighting Up, which were so good. I’m a memoir junkie.

Susan: Thank you. Also, I read about you in New York Magazine. I’m reading about this famous podcast with all these famous writers. I was like, how come I never get to be on cool podcasts? Then I’m like, Zibby, I know that name. Then I googled and you had another name in my class. Then I’m like, oh, my god, it’s her. Yay, this is so exciting.

Zibby: It’s so exciting for me. Now you have a new book out, your twelfth book called The Byline Bible: Get Published in Five Weeks, which is basically the essence of all your amazing classes. In The Byline Bible — we’ll start with that book — you teach all of your hard-earned tricks of the trade. How have things changed since I took your class in 2004? Do you give the same advice? What are the time-honored pitching traditions? What’s changed the most? Obviously, the landscape has changed so much.

Susan: Interestingly, what’s the exact same is that everybody wants to get published that I know and that nobody teaches you how to do it. I did an MFA from NYU. I’ve taught at Columbia MFA program. I’ve taught at NYU journalism school at MFA, The New School. You could pay $70,000 a year, and you come out of it after two years not even knowing how to write a cover letter. That’s always what bothered me. As much as I love reading and studying with famous authors, I didn’t want to just memorize their work or analyze story structure, narrative voice. I wanted to figure out a way in. Fascinatingly, it seems like nobody is teaching what people really want to know. Luckily still, the classes not only fill up, I now do two and three and four sections of them.

Zibby: Why do you think nobody wants to teach it?

Susan: I don’t know. There’s a lot of reasons. On one hand, you get the snobbiness of, “This is literature,” so you don’t want to talk about that. Number two, a lot of people don’t know. If you really look at a lot of the administrators, for example, aren’t published, or the people that are heading programs, or they don’t make a lot of money. I do think you get people that really don’t want to share their secrets. It took them a long time to get an agent or a book editor or a New York Times editor. Somehow, they get it in their head that, “I have to hoard this. I don’t want to share it. A student would embarrass me,” or something to that effect.

Pretty early on when I started, I got together with some friends for a writing group, people that I knew from NYU when I worked at The New Yorker as an editorial assistant. We all band together and shared contacts. Within an amazingly short time, everybody was getting published. Everybody was helping each other. I thought, my friends and colleagues that are hoarding their contacts aren’t getting anywhere. We were exploding. At that point, I decided I’m not going to be a hoarder. I’m going to share contacts because I thought that was good karma. It has been. Luckily, the classes are still filling up. People still want to write. The great thing is that there’s a million more websites and webzines and different verticals of newspapers and magazines. There actually is probably more places that a beginner could start out, which is fantastic. The downside would be in the past, your average person that got published in my class could get a $1,000 when editors were paying $1 a word. Now it’s closer to $100. There’s still ways around that. The paper magazines still sell.

Zibby: Do you still have a thing where if somebody gets a four-figure —

Susan: — Yeah, they still owe me dinner.

Zibby: They still owe you dinner?

Susan: Yeah, and by the way, now —

Zibby: — I owe you dinner? Okay!

Susan: Actually, this is better than dinner. Interestingly I have, I think it’s 150 students who have had book deals in the last ten years. There’s really still a lot of money. The advances are between $1,000 and $500,000.

Zibby: What do they have to give you if they get a $500,000-book deal?

Susan: I’ll tell you this interesting phenomenon that started happening. So many of my young students were getting published. What happens is some of my books are small press and paperback. Also, I’m getting older. I would call the Barnes & Noble in West Bloomfield, Michigan, where I live, or when I’d visit in LA. My first books were Random House hardcovers. I was on The Today Show. When you’re doing a small book from a small press, they’re not as interested. They were like, “Could you combine with somebody?” Then all of a sudden, I would have a student that would have a huge Little Brown hardcover that was in The Times or a New York Times best seller or an award-winner. I wound up saying, “Hey, you want to do an event together?” Hilariously, now I do — I love doing book events with my students. They make me seem young and hip. I can tell them the ropes of how to get a lot of people or how to post and tweet about it and stuff like that. They’re younger. A lot of times, younger students, especially my undergrads, they get much more excited. I had a student named Aspen Matis who got a book deal when she was twenty-one. She became a spokesperson for RAINN. Her book was A Girl in the Woods. A lot of my undergrads were excited to see her because they look at her and they’re like, “I want to do it at that age.” Actually instead of dinner, now you have to do a book event with me if you get a book deal, which has been a riot, so much fun.

Zibby: Totally. I’ve said it here.

Susan: We’re doing an event together.

Zibby: For sure. I also don’t have to sell a book to have a book event with you. I would love to.

Susan: That would be great. Let’s do it.

Zibby: Yes. That’s a good insight too.

Susan: I sit at my desk all day, so I do walking-office hours at night. You come downtown if you want to talk out a book with me. I have a lot of students that they bring their tape recorder. They throw out ideas for books.

Zibby: Really?

Susan: A lot of books have come out of it.

Zibby: Interesting. I’ve been trying to mull around some ideas, but I haven’t found the one thing yet. I’ll figure it out.

Susan: By the way, you have a great title and a platform already. Maybe it’s called Moms Don’t Have Time to Read.

Zibby: That was how I started this podcast. I wanted to write a book called Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.

Susan: I think that’s your book.

Zibby: I don’t know. I’ve heard parenting essay-type books are not that easy to sell at the moment.

Susan: I think they are. I’ll teach you how. You come downtown for a walk, and I’ll tell you how to do it.

Zibby: Did you worry when you were writing this Byline Bible that you were giving away all this — it’s one thing to have people take your class and you tell them. You know them. Now you’re disseminating this information to everyone who wants to read it.

Susan: I got worried for a minute. For a minute I thought, is this smart? Will my editors have any room for me because I’m telling everybody all the secrets? Again, I found that the more that I share contacts and help people, the more the good karma comes back to me. That was part of it. Also, there’s an interesting thing which I do talk about in Byline Bible. I tell people what assignments they should do, and what topics are good, and what editors they should try, and how they should submit, and the word length, and everything. One of the things I say is, after you write a first draft, you need to get really tough criticism. You could go to a teacher. You could go to a colleague. You could hire a ghost editor. The truth is, I’m the toughest critic in the world. I thought I was giving away too many of my secrets, but luckily, I’ve got tons of people who not only want to hire me to help them ghost edit their pieces — I just did an event in LA. I had these three fantastic women from Los Angeles who just moved here for five weeks to take my class. Again, it was a good karma thing. I’m sure you feel it because when you help people, you promote other people’s books. I always say to students — they do everything right. They cross the T’s and dot the I’s. They’re doing everything right and they’re not getting a book deal. They’re not really being generous. There is a karma thing. A lot of editors will say, “Be a good literary citizen.”

Zibby: Yes, I’ve been hearing a lot about that.

Susan: When you help other people or promote other work, or even just posting and tweeting writing that you admire, I think you accumulate good karma. People notice, editors and agents. There are so many selfish assholes in the business that only care about themselves and that won’t help anybody else. Editors and agents really notice if someone is being kind or helpful. You want to work with that person.

Zibby: As long as you’re not doing it for the karma because then it backfires. You can’t be kind and helpful — do you see what I —

Susan: — Do you want to know something funny? I think you can because doing good is still doing good. Your motive can’t be, “I hate this person’s work, but I’m going to promote them to fake out everybody.” If you sincerely like something — people tease me because every day it’s like, “Look at this brilliant piece by this student. This is another brilliant piece by this student.” People tease me. I guess it does seem a little bit extreme. If there’s a sincerity attached and if you’re trying, I think you can get away with it.

Zibby: That’s what I was trying to say. You have to be sincere.

Susan: You could be sincere and you could also say to yourself, “I don’t want to be a selfish jerk. I want to promote other people’s work too,” and just try it. You could stumble a little. I’ve never met a writer who is not happy when somebody reposts or retweets their piece and just says, “Here’s a great piece I loved,” or “Here’s a classmate’s piece.” It’s a good thing to keep in mind. It takes a while to figure out how to do it well.

Zibby: It’s a win-win. We’ll just leave it that.

Susan: Yes. By the way, the more you promote other writing, the more it helps you. For an example, I’ve had the honor of working with Dan Jones at Modern Love. I did two Modern Loves. I have about forty students who have broken in there. I always said from minute-go, “If you like a piece, post it. Tweet it. Share it.” It turns out that, luckily, some of my students but also some of the Modern Loves have been the most-read pieces in The New York Times. When that happens, then you get The New York Times behind personal essays, which is so cool. Now there’s a podcast. Now there’s a TV show. Several of my students are in the new anthology.

Zibby: I just had them on. I had Daniel Jones on. I think I released it this week or last week, very recently.

Susan: I can’t wait for the TV series.

Zibby: I had Deborah Copaken, the author who wrote one of the essays. She’s amazing.

Susan: She’s amazing. My former student, Abby Sher, is in the TV show. Then Liza Monroy is in the new anthology. A few of my other students are in the new anthology.

Zibby: It’s really good. I just finished it. It’s right there.

Susan: So exciting. Liza’s is the one — her mom was an FBI profiler who used to profile her dates.

Zibby: Yes, that was a good one.

Susan: Wasn’t that a great one?

Zibby: She knew right away.

Susan: That’s amazing. Abby’s was a beautiful one about how she lost her father. Then there was a father that was like a father figure, older man. That was a great one too.

Zibby: Wow. How amazing does it feel to you, then, when you see the work? You’re out reading. It’s your students. Is that the best, super fulfilling?

Susan: It’s very exciting. I’ve been doing this for so many years that when I first moved here — I moved here from Michigan. The first piece I ever had in Cosmo, I ran twenty blocks in high heels to buy out every copy in the newsstand. I will say at a certain point, even with books — it’s my twelfth book. They’ve all come out in paperback and hardcover. I’m in a lot of anthologies. It’s still exciting. I will say there’s something about helping someone with their debut clip. I had several students this term, first piece ever in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and the Daily News, just my class Wednesday night. That’s exciting because then it’s vicarious. It’s a vicarious thrill.

Also, it makes me feel like all the years that I put towards this — there’s been a lot of rejections. There’s been a lot of banging my head against the wall and a lot of mistakes. Then I feel like it’s all worth it. That’s what I tried to distil in Byline Bible and in my classes, is take all the mistakes and the stupid things that I did and phrase it in a way so that, “Don’t do this. Do this instead. I wish I would’ve done this instead.” In fact, my first book, Five Men Who Broke My Heart, came out when I was forty-three. I have so many students in their twenties and thirties that are doing books. It’s very exciting. Sometimes it’s funny because I read their bios. I teach them how to do the bios. They have these gorgeous bios. My bio was so messy. I was doing every stupid kind of writing for every newspaper and magazine in the world. It’s a thrill. It’s almost like getting a do-over in a way.

Zibby: I feel like the don’ts in your book were particularly good, especially the cover letters. Those are so important. I think of you, too, whenever I’m trying to write somebody, that and the timely leads, like how you have to hook everything to something topical. In your list of don’ts — don’t be like — now I can’t think of anything funny, of course, off the top of my head.

Susan: Don’t start with, “Though I’ve never read your publication before,” or “Though I’ve never been published in my entire life before.” This one I hate. I say to my students, “You can use my name.” I always say, “Just say, ‘My teacher, Susan Shapiro, gave me your name.’” They always write the editors, “Susan Shapiro told me I should send this to you because you pay a lot of money and I want to get a book deal.”

Zibby: No, stop it.

Susan: Yes. I get editors who call me. They’re like, “Would you please tell your student not to write this?” Isn’t that hilarious? I make them show me their cover letters first before they go out.

Zibby: You should ask everyone to cc you from now on. That’s terrifying.

Susan: I know. It’s hilarious. I’ve definitely had some editors call me screaming.

Zibby: I bet.

Susan: Then you know what? They call me screaming. Then the next day they’re like, “Now I’m buying this piece.”

Zibby: There you go.

Susan: I’m working with a student now who — this is actually a good karma story. I had an editor at The New York Times Magazine who bought my work not long ago. He has a brother in California who’s an actor. I was doing some events out in LA. He said, “Invite him to your events.” I helped him with a piece. A bunch of great stuff just happened. His piece is going to run in The New York Times Style section. I know he’s going to get a book deal out of it. It felt like that was a great karma thing.

Zibby: You’ve taught so many people so many amazing things. What are some of the things that you’ve learned? This is a cliché-type question. Even in Byline Bible, you shared a lot of amazing stories that happened with your students. Have you gotten any good tips even about your own writing, not just life lessons, but things that students do that you’re like, oh, that’s a good idea?

Susan: The greatest thing about having young students is I want to be young. I want to be hip. I want to be woke. I want to be cool. That’s been amazing. That informs my work a lot. I have a lot of writing workshops and critique groups and question-answer sessions. Yeah, I definitely incorporate what they say. Very, very important for me to — what do they call them? Early readers of my work. I definitely have incorporated tons of important things that they’ve taught me, everything from sexual fluidity to using the right pronouns to pinpointing subtle racism or homophobia or xenophobia that I wasn’t conscious of. I definitely have sensitivity readers now. It makes me feel younger.

It’s hilarious too because I’ll start out with a reference — I’ll say Mary and Rhoda. They’ll be, “Who? Who?” Then I’ll mention Sex and the City. They’re like, “Who?” Then Girls, Girls is off too. It was already off. Gossip Girl’s off. Regular Girls is up. One of my former students is now writing for Bold Type, Wendy Straker. That’s the hot new one that I’ll use, which is about a bunch of young women in New York who are working for a Cosmo-like magazine, or Younger on TV. By the way, the Me Too, there’s a lot of things that I used to say that my students are like, “You’re not allowed to say that. That’s not woke. That’s not cool. You can’t do that.” For an example, I’m always trying to help as much as I can. A lot of them are writing about really heavy stuff. I’ll say things that are offensive that I don’t even mean to be, like, “Don’t wear a miniskirt and have seven drinks and get stoned and then go to a guy’s apartment by yourself. Don’t do that.” They’re like, “Rapists cause rape. My skirt doesn’t cause rape. Me going to their apartment doesn’t cause rape.” Okay. Sorry, you’re right. Still, don’t get sodded drunk and go to their —

Zibby: It’s still not a great idea.

Susan: But I like hearing it. I like understanding. I feel like it’s a way to stay young and to understand what’s going on, which then helps to be able to help them in terms of writing.

Zibby: You have such an incredible body of work. The one thing that you’re so good at in all of your essays and in your books is that you have such great ideas. They’re all so clever. It makes you immediately interested versus a lot of books which sound very similar to other books. For example, take Five Men Who Broke My Heart. Start with that. What was that about? How did you think of that? Then we’ll go from there.

Susan: I’ll tell you the real story.

Zibby: Yes, tell me the real story.

Susan: A lot of writers are listening to this and a lot of my students. I started writing a book about a friend of mine from The New Yorker whose father was a famous fiction writer, wound up married to my brother, and moved to Michigan. He’s a doctor like my father. I wrote a piece for a woman’s magazine that did very well that got optioned about two women who switch lives. I thought I’m going to write a book about this because everyone said it’s so great and it’s so funny. Instead of two writers, I made them two photographers. I called it Overexposed. I tried to sell it. Everyone said, “You’re so funny. This is so great.” For seven years, nobody bought it. At this point, I’m teaching. I’m helping other students get published, publish books, and I can’t publish books. I’m like the wedding planner who can’t get married.

I always say to my students, get tough criticism. I’m a tough critic. Ask for good criticism. I have this great friend in Michigan who’s a tough critic from The Detroit News, Laura. I said, “Read this and tell me what’s going on here.” She reads it. She says, “Number one, you have no imagination whatsoever. Stop writing fiction. Number two, sister-in-laws is a really boring subject. Write about sex. Number three, you’re ambivalent about this person. You write better about people you love.” I’m like, “I shouldn’t keep sending it out?” “Put it away.” I went home swearing and thinking she’s an idiot. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about, crying. Next day, I was reading High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. He has this scene where he goes back and he re-meets his top five heartbreaks. When a man does it, they look at the woman and they say, “She’s still hot. I’ll still fuck her.” Then the whole thing is over. I thought, god, if a woman was re-meeting her ex, there would be twenty thousand pages of journal entries. There’d be all the therapy sessions. There’d be the gum wrapper from the first date. I was in Michigan when this was happening.

I happened to go out to dinner with an old boyfriend. Instead of just asking him questions vaguely, I started asking him what really happened between us. All of a sudden, I heard Laura’s voice. Then the next day, I launched a book, Five Men Who Broke My Heart, about a forty-year-old journalist who goes back to meet her top five heartbreaks of all time to find out what really happened. That book sold right away. People said, “How long did it take to write?” I banged my head against the wall for twenty-three years, and then it took six months. That was Random House and Today Show. That was foreign rights and film rights. That was very exciting.

Then at the time, I was in addiction therapy. I was in therapy because my husband basically said to me, “If you don’t quit smoking and drinking and drugs, I’m going to divorce you.” I wound up in therapy. I found this brilliant shrink who helped me quit everything and also helped me do the book deals and figure out how to be a good businessperson. I was taking notes during it. The next book was Lighting Up: How I Stopped Smoking, Drinking, and Everything Else I Loved in Life Except Sex. I found out I was much better at nonfiction. I will say, even with my nonfiction, I have two really brilliant, amazing writing groups. I’m bringing in every page to the writing group, and then getting a tough critique, and then writing it again and again. I remember with Five Men Who Broke My Heart, when I first brought the first chapter, which was about meeting an ex who had broken my heart, I brought in this chapter and I wasn’t sure what they were going to say. There was this one really tough critique, Marilyn. I remember after she heard it, she looked at me, and she said, “Well…” I got really nervous. I thought, she’s going to kill it. She said, “You should’ve gotten old and bitter a long time ago because this rocks.” I was like, yay!

Then I started figuring out nonfiction. Not only would I do both writing groups and then rewrite, rewrite, then I would hire a ghost editor. There’s a whole story about ghost editors. One of the editors I used had been a Doubleday editor for twenty years. Then I hired her. She helped me. It was a long process. I got really good at nonfiction. Then finally I went back. Taking what I learned with nonfiction, I went back to that first book, Overexposed. I finally rewrote it. I found a great editor. From the time I started until the time it got published, it was thirteen years. Instead of a book launch, it got a book mitzvah.

Zibby: Which is hilarious.

Susan: It took a long time. I was writing professionally all through college but also starting at age twenty. Five Men Who Broke My Heart came out at forty-three. It really did take a while to figure out how to do it.

Zibby: Then you have all these other books. You were so kind to bring me this stack, a lot of which I had, but some of which I didn’t. I’m going to go through these quickly, Only as Good as Your Word: Writing Lessons from My Favorite Literary Gurus.

Susan: That was an interesting one. I had done a couple books from Random House, so I wrote this book about these brilliant, amazing people who really helped me career-wise. I gave it to my editor there and my agent. They said no. I said, “Why?” They said, “It’s not commercial.” I’m like, “Why isn’t it commercial?” They said, “Because it’s seven profiles of old people, three of them dead.” It turns out I went to a small press with that one. Interestingly, my students really liked that one because I tried to give as much information, the brilliant things that they said to me. For example, my cousin Howard Fast who is a best-selling novelist, at one point I said to him that I had writer’s block. He said, “Don’t be self-indulgent. Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block. Wake up in the morning, you get to work.” Then he said to me, “A page a day is a book a year.” I thought about that. That really helped me. No matter what I do, one page is 250 words. Basically no matter what else is going on in my life, I have to write 250 words.

Zibby: Still now?

Susan: Every day, I still do. What’s interesting is some of my books are short. They’re only two hundred pages. It’s actually more. That’s a good way to look at it. All you have to do is you have to write one page a day. That’s a good start.

Zibby: Wow. Can you tell me what you’re working on now?

Susan: Yeah, I’m working on a couple projects now.

Zibby: Then I’ll go back to the stack.

Susan: I did Byline Bible. It did well. It won awards and sold well. I mention in Byline Bible, there’s a section where I have twenty-seven short pieces that led students to get to literary agents and books. After that, so many people read it and started calling and said, “I like Byline Bible. I did what you said. I published a couple pieces. Editors and agents didn’t call me. Now what do I do?” or “They did call me. How do I get it?” Now I’m working on a sequel to it that’s called The Book Bible: How to Sell Your Manuscript No Matter What Genre Without Going Broke or Insane. There’s going to be twenty different chapters. People don’t really understand — for example, you say you want to write fiction. There’s so many different categories. You could write young adult, middle grade, new adult, romance, thrillers, mystery. Each different chapter is going to be a different genre. That, I’m working on now. That’s fun.

Zibby: You should team up with Courtney Maum who has a new book coming out called After the Book Deal, everything you need to know about what happens after.

Susan: That’s interesting. That would be a perfect combination because mine is how to get the book deal. The other book I’m working on is — it was 2005, as I mentioned, I wrote Lighting Up: How I Quit Smoking, Drinking, and Everything Else I Loved in Life Except Sex. That was with this brilliant diction specialist. I’ve actually been working on a sequel to that. I had this huge, horrible, unbelievably heartbreaking falling out with him.

Zibby: Oh, no.

Susan: It totally freaked me out because for fifteen years, he was really like my guru. He helped me get clean and sober. We had this huge, horrible falling out. He would not apologize. He did horrible things. He wouldn’t apologize. I thought I was the type of person that I will forgive anyone anything if they say “I’m sorry.” I had two roommates who slept with my boyfriend in college. They just said, “Hey, we were on magic mushrooms. Sorry, didn’t mean to.” Okay. I’ll forgive you. Just explain it to me. I’m a very forgiving person. He would not say “I’m sorry.” It made me crazy. It led me on this journey to ask a lot of the gurus in my life — interestingly, they turned out to be religious. A have a colleague who’s an orthodox rabbi who comes in from Israel. Actually, I helped him quit smoking with Lighting Up. I have a reform rabbi and a Chassid. Then I have a student who introduced me to her swami, a Hindu student, and an imam.

I started asking everyone their concept of forgiveness and specifically, how do you forgive someone who refuses to apologize? It’s one thing if somebody — it’s Yom Kippur. If somebody repents and wants atonement, of course you should be open to that. If somebody doesn’t acknowledge that they did anything wrong, should you forgive them? Is it dangerous to forgive them? Then I wound up asking very close friends and colleagues and students. I wanted to hear stories of someone who hurt them that never apologized, like the worst story in your life. It became a new memoir that I’m working on which is called The Forgiveness Tour: How to Find the Perfect Apology.

Zibby: You have such great titles.

Susan: Thank you. I’m actually, right this minute, about to send that one out. It took a long time. There’s really some very fascinating stories. There was someone that I met in Michigan, a man who forgave the drunk driver who killed his wife and two children. In front of the court and publicly, he was able to forgive the person. He asked for forgiveness. He was able to publicly forgive them in order to move on. He came from a humanistic Jewish — I had the most fascinating interview with him. I’m like, “Teach me how you do it.” By the way, there’s a Holocaust survivor. I also had a student who writes brilliantly about how she was raped by her father. He died, but she never forgave her mother for staying with him and not protecting her. She’s written some amazing things about that. Her struggle was, how do I forgive my mother? It was fascinating. I wound up including all of these amazing stories about people who wound up having horrific things happen to them but found ways of forgiving. I incorporate all that knowledge into how I want to deal with this scenario. Then there’s a great, shocking ending to it. I just finished that. I’m very excited about that.

Zibby: I can’t wait to read this.

Susan: That’s very fun.

Zibby: What is your trick? Is there a trick to a good title? All your titles are great. This is Unhooked: How to Quit Anything. This looks sad, The Bosnia List: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Return. What’s Never Said. Overexposed, which you told me about. Speed Shrinking. Say the concept of Speed Shrinking. You were just telling me about it.

Susan: The concept of Speed Shrinking was after I wrote Lighting Up, that particular therapist who helped me quit everything, he moved away. I got really nervous because I thought I was going to relapse on alcohol, drugs, cigarettes. He was $200 a session. We got this new insurance where if you went to someone in their network, it was $25 copay. I was gung-ho about finding a replacement that I thought for the price of one of him, I could see eight shrinks in eight days. Instead of speed dating, it’s speed shrinking. One of the shrinks happened to be in the office of my agent. When I mentioned it to the agent, the agent said, “Write down Speed Shrinking. That’s Susan Shapario-ian.” I always say to my students, write the thing that only you can write. If someone else can write it, let them. That’s how that started. The funny story with that is I had this amazing publicist. We were talking about, how can you publicize a first novel? She said, “You never get on TV for a first novel. It’s really hard to publish and it’s really hard to promote.”

We were sitting at Knickerbockers, the great restaurant downtown. It has eight booths. I had this flash. I said to her, “What about this idea? I have all these shrink friends who’ve written books. What about if we put a shrink in each booth with their book? I get all my students. Instead of speed dating, you go around and you have three minutes to tell them your problems and get advice. That’s crazy, right?” She’s like, “We’re doing it.” We did it. It was so amazing that I had to keep doing them because everybody wanted new ways of meeting shrinks. Got on seven TV shows including the CBS morning show. The most hilarious thing was I wrote a piece called “Almost Famous for the Wrong Thing.” Jay Leno at one point called me. All these people wanted me in Japan. They didn’t know it was a book. They just wanted to do speed shrinking. I don’t want to be a speed shrinking facilitator. They wanted to do a reality TV show where I’d be the reality TV star doing speed shrinking. I want to write books. It’s a book. Nobody knew it was a book. It was very fun. Actually, it helped a lot of people get shrinks.

Zibby: And probably helped a lot of people with a lot of problems along the way.

Susan: I think so. It was really cool because I only would do the parties. We did a lot of them for charity at Housing Works, which goes to AIDS charity. What was cool is that I would only get therapists who I knew were brilliant and really smart. There was a Jungian astrologer and a hypnotherapist and a sex therapist and someone that specialized in ADD and sleep disorder, and psychopharmacologist, people from different countries, different languages. What was really exciting is a lot of my young students didn’t know about therapy. They certainly wouldn’t know how to go about getting a shrink. By the way, how do you find a new shrink? You either have to get a recommendation or you have to waste $100 or $200 doing an intake session. You walk in and you say, “He looks like my grandfather. I don’t want to talk about oral sex with someone that looks like my grandfather. Forget it.” It was really cool. I’d have all these young, interesting, weird, different ages, different backgrounds, shrinks. They’d give out their cards. They’d give out their books. A lot of people wound up trying them out and doing therapy, which is so cool. I feel like there was good karma in that too. Therapy really saved my life. I adore my family, but I felt that it was a very repressed suburban environment where you’re never supposed to say anything bad about yourself or your family, or the Cossacks will come and get you. Of course, I fell in love with the confessional poets who say terrible things about themselves and their family all the time. Therapy really saved my life in so many ways. I love being able to pass that on.

Zibby: Wow. What a gift. That’s a true gift.

Susan: You know what? Sometimes it really is because sometimes someone will remind me. I didn’t even remember that the therapist, the one who helped them get married or helped them have a kid or helped them break through their success blocks or get rid of drug addictions and stuff — that’s exciting.

Zibby: That should be a whole field, shrink matchmaking. I think you should do this as a side business. You’ve probably thought about it.

Susan: The speed shrinking was really cool. The shrinks loved it because there’s really no way to promote a shrink business that’s fun. This would be on TV. It would be on radio. It was really exciting. I still get people that want me to do it. Once in a while, I could do it for charity for fun. The problem with it is it only works if the shrinks are great. People all over the country and all over the world, like in Japan, they want me to come facilitate it, but you can’t interview a shrink for five minutes and know that they’re smart or not. If you’re giving bad advice, even if you’re only giving it in three minutes, it’s still bad advice. Unfortunately, the only places I’ve been able to do it are Michigan, New York City, and LA because those are the only places I know enough smart therapists.

Zibby: Going back for two seconds, how to come up with a catchy, clever title for a book or magazine?

Susan: Speed Shrinking?

Zibby: No, how do you come up with your clever titles? Do they just come to you? There’s something unique about all your titles.

Susan: Thank you. I studied poetry. Definitely, I like alliterations. I like interesting phraseology. Also really, my writing group is extremely helpful. Quite often, what I find is that I write about something and either something like a phrase in the middle works, or sometimes I’ve found that the headline that the editor for a newspaper, magazine writes helps. I’ve fixed up thirty couples. At one point, I wrote a piece about it for The Forward. The editor wrote, “Secrets of a Fix-Up Fanatic.” I thought, that’s fun. I wound up doing that. At the time, I had fixed up my editor with the guy that she married. She got interested in that topic. With Bosnia List, that was actually my physical therapist Kenan, a Muslim survivor of the Bosnia genocide. It happened when he was twelve years old. When we were working on the book together — physical therapy exercises are so boring. I’m a journalist, so I kept driving him crazy asking him questions.

Actually, when I tried to get him to write about it, I remember I said that the first assignment I give my students is write three double-spaced typed pages on your most humiliating secret. He laughed at me. He said, “You Americans. Why the hell would anyone do that?” I said, “Because my students want to get in The New York Times and do book deals and because it’s healing.” He was like, “Your students get in The New York Times and do book deals?” I said yes. I sent him some of the pieces. When he was writing the story — what’s the most humiliating secret from being a war survivor? What he never told anybody was that he had a list that he kept of people who sabotaged and screwed up his family and betrayed him. He had friends. He had a karate coach. He had a teacher who held a gun to his head. He had kept a list even though he was twelve years old because at some point he wanted to go back and confront them about what they did to him.

We called it the Bosnia List. That was in the first piece he wrote. I thought, that’s a great title. That was really cool. The beautiful story about that, which I love — we did the book together. English wasn’t his first language. He still works full time as a physical therapist, so he needed help writing it. We wrote it. The best story of that was — he would tell me the story and sometimes I would write it in more of a poetic way. He was telling me why it sucks to be exiled when you’re twelve. His older brother had gone to bars and been to Sarajevo, the capitol, and had all these girlfriends and driven a car. He’d never done that because he was twelve years old. When I was writing it, the way I interpreted it is I wrote a line that said, “And I never kissed a girl from home.” He was embarrassed by that. He wanted to take it out. I’m like, “No, that’s a great line. You have to leave it in there.”

Then there’s a certain place I take author photos on my roof where you can see the whole skyline. I made him take this great picture on the roof. He was very cute, and thirty at the time. The book comes out. “I never kissed a girl from home.” He was single at the time. Every woman from the Balkans in the world was sending him naked photos and trying to find him on social media. All the grandmas and the aunts and the moms were saying, “You should marry my daughter. You should marry my cousin. You should marry my niece.” The sweetest one he got was just a very unobtrusive little note without a picture that said, “Your book meant so much to me. I lost my father around the time you lost your mother. Thank you for what you did for my people.” He looks her up. She’s gorgeous and single. They’re now married.

Zibby: No!

Susan: Yes. What was really cool is he wound up in Sarajevo taking her family out for drinks, driving, and proposing. What I said to him, which was so cool, was, “By being willing to go back to your past, you found your future.” That was a great story. I find that happens a lot because I am very psychologically oriented. Write about your most humiliating secret. It sounds like it’s a fun assignment. It’s also heavy. It’s Arthur Miller who says the only thing worth writing about is the unspeakable. It’s really digging deep and find the things that you’re afraid of and putting it out there. Great things happen. I always say to my students that writing is a way to take your worst experiences and turn it into the most beautiful.

Zibby: That’s so nice.

Susan: That happens.

Zibby: Thank you so much. We’re out of time. I could talk to you all day. I’m so glad we’re back in touch.

Susan: This is so much fun.

Zibby: Thank you for doing this.

Susan: Tell me what you think of Byline Bible, if there’s anything else that I missed that I should go back and .

Zibby: No, it was amazing. I loved it. It was so comprehensive. It was fantastic. The examples were great too, propping up your students again. Great job.

Susan: Fantastic. Cool. Thank you.

Zibby: Thank you.