Bookish: Barbara Shapiro, author of the bestseller The Art Forger and many other novels, talks about being “in love with story”
Barbara Shapiro, AG76, AG78, had published five novels before she became a proverbial overnight success with her 2012 book The Art Forger, a bestseller about a young artist asked to forge a painting apparently stolen in the Gardner Museum heist in Boston.
She went on to write two other art-themed novels, the most recent being The Collector’s Apprentice. Shapiro is stepping outside of the art world now with a new novel about a disparate group of Cantabrigians, slated for publication in 2021, and is already working on another book.
She wasn’t always a novelist. After receiving a Ph.D. in sociology at Tufts in 1978, Shapiro ran a research project for a program in Dorchester helping low-income women with substance abuse problems, and later became a statistician and systems analyst, and headed a software development company. She also taught sociology at Tufts and later writing and creative writing at Northeastern University, before taking up writing full time.
Tufts Now: What are you reading now?
Barbara Shapiro: I usually read two books at a time—I listen to one and I read the other one. The book I’m listening to now is Deacon King Kong by James McBride, who wrote The Color of Water. It’s about a Black community in New York City in 1969, talking about the police coming into these projects and how they’re viewing Black people and what these people’s lives are like. It’s a really good book, and he’s a really good writer.
The one I’m reading is Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau, which won a Pulitzer years ago. It takes place in the South right around the time of World War II, and it’s about white landowners and the Blacks who live not that far from them.
I also just finished another great book, The House of Broken Angels, by Luis Alberto Urrea. It’s about a Mexican-American family, and takes place in the present, and it also has a slew of these crazy characters. It shows another subculture that I don’t know anything about, which is what I love.
Do you reread books?
I keep a list of all the books I’ve read since 2000, and rate them on a scale of one to five. I go back through the list and I see ones that I gave four or more, and I’ve been rereading them—Keepers of the House is one of those books.
What are a couple of the other books that are got four or five stars from the last twenty years?
The most recent one that I read was Olive, Again, by Elizabeth Strout. Her novel Olive Kitteridge was one of my very favorite books. Another is The Echo Maker by Richard Powers, which was really good. I also reread The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy, and that stood the test of time. Another old one that I reread, The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, is just fantastic. It’s a historical novel about the rich and the poor in London, about prostitutes and a rich guy. Another four-star: East of Eden by Steinbeck.
Do you have favorite novelists?
I love Russell Banks, Elizabeth Strout, and Michael Eugenides—and Joyce Carol Oates is another person who I read all the time. I think Jonathan Evison’s books are just hysterical. Who else? I love F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Do you have favorite books from when you were growing up that have stuck with you over time?
I was a voracious reader very young and just went through books. My mother took me to the library every week, and I would take out three or four different biographies and read them and then come back to the library and read three or four more biographies. I went through my different phases.
One of my favorite books as a kid was A Wrinkle in Time. I just loved that book, and I reread it and reread it.
Are you working on a new novel now?
I’m working on two, which is something I never do. The first takes place in Cambridge at a self-storage unit facility on Mass Ave down near MIT. It’s a book about class. It’s got seven main characters, and they all come from different class and racial backgrounds: straight, gay, Jewish, Catholic, atheist, Black, white, brown. They don’t have anything in common except they all have something to do with this self-storage unit. The stories start to come together over time.
I finished the fifth or sixth draft and gave it to my editor in February. In the meantime, I needed to work on something, so I started researching the next book on a person with multiple personality disorder who is an artist, and each one of her personalities does different kinds of art.
I had to do a lot of research on DID, dissociative identity disorder, which is what multiple personality disorder turned into, but the whole book also kind of hinges on the fact that right now, multiple personality disorder or DID is not considered a valid diagnosis. They think that it was really kind of faked by patients and clinicians, and so that’s also a big part of it. Is it real? Is it not real?
Do you read nonfiction for pleasure or is it mostly just for research for your books?
Mostly it’s research, although I do read memoirs, and I’m in three different book groups. Often, for the book group, someone will pick a nonfiction book, so I read it, but I am in love with story. I just love story. Reading is my hobby, and so I read what I want to read, and 90 percent of it, maybe even more, are novels.
Taylor McNeil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.