Elena Mauli Shapiro is the author of 13, rue Thérèse, and her newest novel, IN THE RED, just came out in mid September from Little, Brown. She kindly answered a few of my questions about the new book, and much more!
Tell us more about Irina and IN THE RED. What inspired you to write the novel?
When Communism fell in the Eastern Block in 1989, Romania was my favorite revolution because it was the most sudden, the most violent. A hasty tribunal executed the dictator Ceausescu and his wife on Christmas day. The wife’s name was Elena, and I think when I saw the dead body of a woman bearing my name on television, a seed was planted.
In the summer of 1997, I was working as a bank teller to raise tuition money for Stanford. The rhythm of the work made phrases pop into my head; my workspace was littered with snippets of poetry written on receipt tape. One morning I heard this slightly accented voice tell me, I am not a child of America. All morning that sentence skittered at the top of my consciousness, so when my lunch break came, I went upstairs to a room where there was nothing but a desk and a typewriter and typed until I had to go back to work. That was the first time Irina manifested. I’ve had this Romanian girl in my head since then—I’ve written lots of stories about her. It took me a long time to find the right one.
You have degrees in literature, and IN THE RED is actually your 2nd published novel, but have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us more about yourself and your background?
Yes, always. My brain has been structured by stories as long as I can remember. Even before I could read, I used to draw fairy tale figures, princesses and dragons and such, then I would cut them out of the sheet of paper and have them interact, tell myself stories. The first story I can remember writing was about a prisoner in a dungeon who was given nothing to eat every day but a cup of water and a crust of bread. I must have been five or six years old. I can’t remember what happened in the story, but I remember that when I gave it to someone to read, I was asked whether I had copied it from somewhere, and that very much irritated me.
I was born in Paris and lived there until I was 13, so I have a fracture in my life between France and America. I remember the transition being quite traumatic. All the architecture, all the food, all the sounds and smells, everything was wrong! Worse, I suddenly didn’t speak the language, so that I could not tell anyone what I was thinking. It was awful linguistic confinement. I used Irina and the other characters in IN THE RED to write about that immigrant fracture. In a way I am working it out in my novels: my first novel was about French people in the past who have an American from the present channel them; my second novel was about the shock of being foreign in America. My third novel will be about Americans in America because I am an American now, albeit a somewhat odd one.
What kind of research did you do for IN THE RED?
Everybody always asks me if I went to Romania and the answer is no. I didn’t have the time or the money—so that was partly why I chose to have Irina not remember Romania, to have the first years of her life disappeared down the memory hole. I think it’s actually more poignant that way, so yay! I immersed myself in Romania in the way that I could, which was through research in books. I read about Romanian history, and when I started to look up Romanian fairy tales, I was completely fascinated. These stories are wild, like primal dreams. Nobody has sanitized and Disneyfied them. I was hooked; I had to put some of the in the novel.
The other thing I had to research was criminal behavior! That was actually pretty fun, to sit with the dark chaotic part of my psyche and just dig around in it. I had to do some pretty fantastic experiential research, like go to a gun range because I had never shot any kind of firearm. I also went to this sex show in Barcelona (as in live sex on stage, not a strip club) that I found so wrenching I had terrible, terrible cramps in my womb afterward on behalf of the women there. That definitely went in the book.
Irina is Romanian but is raised by American parents. How much do that dichotomy and her cultural identity influence her later actions, and is this something that you particularly like to explore in your writing?
The dichotomies I wanted to explore with her being Romanian raised by American parents were these: the immigrant fracture I mentioned earlier, which is repressed in her because she doesn’t remember her early childhood in her native country—that repression leaving her more vulnerable to shady characters like Andrei. Because he calls to some deeply recessed part of her that she cannot grasp. There is also the adoptee dichotomy of being both unwanted and wanted: your first parents didn’t want you, but there’s another set of parents who did, and went through significant trouble to get you. That’s got to be a really weird experience, something that could “keep you occupied philosophically for the rest of your life,” which is what Andrei says to Irina about it. Basically she doesn’t feel like she belongs anywhere, which is a very common feeling for people to have, but for her it’s particularly exaggerated, because I wanted to talk about a certain homelessness that is innate to the human experience.
What is your writing process like?
It is a huge pain the ass. I don’t get people who “want” to be writers. It’s like your soul is itchy all the time, and you’re just trying to find ways to calm it down. You write about something in order to ask your soul, is this what’s bothering you? And it says, yessssssss. So you keep writing about it in order to work it out, to take the itch out of your soul. You write the hell out of it, all you can, in the hopes that your soul will stop being itchy. When it continues being itchy, you ask it—I thought that was the thing that was bothering you, didn’t I help make it better? And your soul says, maybe, but while you were writing you made this other itch come up here, see? A writer is someone who is trying to scratch a perpetually itchy soul. Some scientist needs to come up with an effective soul unguent or something.
IN THE RED and 13, rue Thérèse, are quite different stories, but what is a thread that you would say commonly runs throughout your writing?
I took it as a compliment when someone who read two pieces of my writing told me that it felt as if two different people had written them. I want that. I want to find out what it’s like being different people. But of course I am me, and there are threads that will always come up. Sexuality will always manifest in some form in my work. It is such a central and widely misunderstood drive. I am also obsessed with memory, how we chose to record things. What we chose to put in and what we chose to leave out and why. Individual memory and also collective memory, history. Myth. Memory is how we situate ourselves in the universe, and my soul will never stop itching about it.
What’s one of the first things that you can remember writing?
Wow, I already inadvertently answered that question! I wrote that story about the prisoner in a small notepad with a pink cover and little squares on the pages. I filled that whole notepad with weird, tiny stories. There was another one about a whale. I illustrated all the stories, and I remember there was one about a whale because I remember drawing that whale, a big gray mass spouting water from its blowhole. I don’t remember throwing that pad away, it might be in my childhood stuff that I keep in a trunk, and now you made my soul all itchy about it, and I’m going to have to go dig up that trunk that is under a bunch of other crap, and fall into that damn drunk (it’s big) trying to find that one artifact that I can sort of remember but not quite! That right there is an allegory for the whole writing process.
What do you like to see in a good story? Is there anything that will make you put a book down, unread?
When I was a kid I was a story junkie and read anything. ANYTHING. My mother got me a library card because my habit became expensive. Every week we went to this big supermarket that had a little book section and every week I would demand one of those books. I was also a news junkie: I loved investigative reporting, which is how I got so involved in the 1989 revolutions. I wept with joy watching the Berlin wall come down. Now we live in a world that is so saturated with information that I avoid the news as much as I can; I can’t deal with this constant firehose of brain grit. The important news finds its way to me anyway, it’s inevitable. Plus now that I am grownup and that I have read so much I have gotten extremely picky about language. I will put down a book if I feel that it is not well written. I’ve read so many stories that I know the shape of stories now, I more or less know how everything is going to turn out, so the hook for me as an adult is beautiful language
What authors or novels have been big influences on you, in your writing, and in life?
I read so much from the French 19th century growing up that I feel that I am from there to a certain extent. I am from Paris in the 1850s and in a way I am completely flummoxed by everything that’s happened since then! I was 25 when I married my husband which is young by today’s standards but it felt old to me, because I’d read so many books where the pretty young girls marry at 17. These books were my church. You can grow up and not believe in the church anymore but it will always be inside you if it got inside you when you were a kid. The most stunning authors from the French 19th century that I will still read if I want to get totally drunk of amazingly beautiful language are Flaubert, Maupassant, Stendhal, Baudelaire, Zola. They’re all dead white dudes but who cares, they are magnificent dead white dudes.
What’s next for you?
The book about Americans in America! To be more specific: a sugar baby and her Silicon Valley millionaire lovers. You can’t write about Americans without writing about money. Capitalism is our God. Some days I am genuinely terrified that maybe Capitalism is the God, but let’s hope not. Let’s hope that we evolve into something gentler.
About IN THE RED:
When Irina–Romanian by birth but brought up by American parents who have never understood her-arrives at college she quickly abandons ordinary student life for an affair with an older, mysterious Romanian man named Andrei.
Andrei awakens a powerful sensuality in Irina. And he has money – lots of it. For the first time, Irina feels free. But the longer she stays with Andrei, the more she is certain that she can’t leave, and that may be complicit in Andrei’s work – whatever that “work” might be. Then an unexpected friendship with a young Russian bride opens the door to escape, and also revenge.
A tantalizing, edgy exploration of women and love, power and money-interwoven with potent, unusual, and nervy Romanian fairy tales-In the Red asks what the legacy of love is, and who will be left unscathed.