Interviewed by Melissa
A playwright and screenwriter for more than 20 years, Jan Shapin has recently added first-time author to that list with A Snug Life Somewhere, a work of historical fiction set in the 1910s and 1920s. She has two grown children and lives in Newport, RI with her husband, a photographer.
MF: How did you decide to become a writer? Is it something you've "always" wanted to do?
JS: I began writing plays in my mid-thirties. I had another career and family (neither of which I was in a position to give up) but I had a growing sense there was a huge hole in my life that I had to fill. In retrospect, I can see that as a child I was very active in writing plays and performing them and the performing part, at least, carried over into adolescence. Then I stopped after college when real life took over. So it was a way to reclaim the creative part of my nature.
MF: How much research did you have to do for this book?
JS: Not too much. I had written another book (not yet published) that I did lots of research for and this book drew from historical bits and pieces that were left on the cutting room floor.
MF: The story takes place around the time of World War I. What is it about this time period, or about unions and their stories that intrigues you?
JS: I studied American economic history in college, so I know a lot about that period. And my father was active in the labor movement when I was growing up, so I know a lot about that. I am interested in the left-of-center political continuum as it has played out over the last hundred years. At the time of Snug Life, radical politics and union politics were intertwined but I’m not much interested in unions of today. My plays about recent events focus on urban conflicts. I like the rough and tumble of local politics.
MF: Your author bio says that you've written plays and screenplays before this novel was published. What are the differences between the genres? Do you find one comes more easily to you?
JS: Plays are like writing sonnets. Very elegant and spare with a lot of rules. I found writing screenplays something like writing an opera or a musical. The non-textual demands of those media are so pronounced that you have to have a very firm grip on the story before you start. I find that screenplays are easier to adapt than to write from scratch. You can see at the beginning what to cut and what to emphasize. The real advantage (and disadvantage) of novels is that you don’t get to collaborate to produce the final, magical (or horrible) result. You must create the whole thing yourself. And then the reader reads it without you around to hear the clapping or lack thereof.
As for which one is easier for me, I used to find plays the natural medium. Now, after being conditioned to the flexibility of fiction, I wonder how easy it would be for me to go back. The last play I wrote (after writing fiction for a few years) has a narrator, which is really a fictional device.
MF: Do you see any part of yourself in your characters?
JS: This gets back to my playwriting training. In a play you write as if you are all the characters because some actor has to play each and every part. So you put yourself into all of the characters because you have to. But even then, there was always one character who has my eyes—who sees the action and the other characters more or less from my perspective. In “A Snug Life Somewhere” Penny Joe sees life pretty much as I do. So, of course, my friends hear me in the narrator’s voice and think it is autobiographical, which it is not.
MF: What writers have influenced you the most?
JS: Alice Munroe. I study her to understand how she gets the effects she does. The way her stories intertwine and how she places information and introduces what seem to be digressions that turn out not to be. John Casey, who wrote the wonderful novel Spartina, led a seminar I attended at Sewanee Writers’ Conference years ago and he taught me the importance of writing like the glass in a window—getting the author out of the prose so the reader can immerse himself in the story on the other side. Also how important it is to fuse different threads into a solid knot at the end.
MF: Where do you find inspiration for your stories?
JS: My first play (which never got to a second draft) was about the city council in Hoboken, NJ, where I was doing some work at the time. My second play was a reworking of my senior thesis. That wasn’t a complete success either although I later reworked it into a good screenplay. All of my four novels (three are still in process) come from the same historical source—the lives and preoccupations of a cluster of left-wing Americans journalists in the first half of the 20th century. After I get done with those rewrites I’ve got to find a new theme.
MF: Which is more difficult writing or re-writing? How much rewriting do you do?
JS: Thinking about the stories is the most fun. Next comes the first draft. The rewriting is excruciating. Particularly the second draft, where it all falls apart. John Casey told me I need to rewrite until every word, every phrase is perfect. That’s at least seven or eight drafts.
MF: Does anyone else read your drafts before your editor/publisher?
JS: I belong to a writers’ group and read whatever I’m working on chapter-by-chapter over a year or so. Then, when I have an almost final draft (many months or years later), I show it to a couple of people whose reading tastes I respect for a reaction to the whole thing.
MF: Do you have a favorite place to write? Any writing "rituals"?
JS: I used to go away to writers’ colonies to get complete isolation for the first draft. Now with my kids gone I write at home. Also, with three novels in the works, I am doing mostly rewriting these days.
MF: Do you work in longhand first, or do you do everything on the computer? Do you tend to complete drafts ahead of time, or work right up until the last minute?
What's your favorite part of the writing process? What's the most stressful?
JS: I work at the computer. I don’t like pressure so I tend not to get involved in deadlines. But I do insist I finish projects. First drafts and finished products are the most satisfying. Rewriting is deadly.
MF: Do you read a lot? What's your favorite book or author? What are you currently reading?
JS: Quite a bit. Less fiction when I am writing fiction. I guess I have to keep the stories from bleeding through into my imagination. Right now I am reading Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje. I just finished Servants of the Map by Andrea Barrett and loved that.
MF: Who, or what, inspires you?
JS: To write? Different people at different times have functioned as a muse for a particular work. I had a professor at Catholic University, Joseph Lewis, who really taught me how to write plays. I worked very hard to be worthy of his praise. The fiction I’ve written, more recently, has been driven by a need to reach some inner clarity on the matter of political radicalism.
MF: Aside from writing, what are your pastimes?
JS: I like to hike. I am chairman of the board of my city’s public housing authority. And I am involved with a charter school. I like to listen to music and have my husband stroke my feet.
MF: Any plans for other books?
JS: I have another one that should be ready for market in the spring.
MF: What advice would you give an aspiring author?
JS: Enjoy the work. That is the only part of the process you can control.
MF: If you don't mind telling us, what can we look forward to seeing from you next?
JS: My next novel (no title yet) is set in the 1930s and 40s and has two stories: the main plot about a love affair between a married woman and a union organizer and the subplot about a journalist who is trying to decide whether to join the Communist Party. Two stories of conflicted loyalties.
MF: How can readers get a hold of you if they want to know more?
JS: Check my website, www.janshapin.com where you can read the first chapter. There’s also a link where you can e-mail me.