Tova Mirvis & Dani Shapiro: In Conversation

Two writers, both of whom left the orthodox fold, discuss the roles memory & imagination play in both fiction & memoir.
August, 20 2018

Authors Tova Mirvis and Dani Shapiro began talking about creative writing 23 years ago when Mirvis was a graduate student in Columbia University’s Master of Fine Arts program. Shapiro was a reader for Mirvis’s master’s thesis. Both women had been raised in Orthodox Jewish homes, and both had dreamed of writing novels from a young age. Beyond that, their lives at that time were very different. Shapiro had a troubled family background and abandoned Orthodoxy at age 17. She attended Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied with authors Grace Paley, E. L. Doctorow and Russell Banks and sold her first semiautobiographical novel while still in school. Since then, she has written four novels and five memoirs—most of them deeply personal, with few topics off limits.

Until she turned 40, Mirvis was on a very different path from the rebellious Shapiro. She attended an Orthodox school and studied Jewish texts in Israel for a year before enrolling at Columbia University. At age 22, she married a man she had met on a blind date 12 weeks earlier. The two lived within the Orthodox community and had three children. Like Shapiro, Mirvis found fame as a writer early in her career. After the success of The Ladies Auxiliary, which was based on her master’s thesis, she wrote two more popular novels and published numerous short stories and essays. Mirvis’s life appeared idyllic, but she struggled with both her marriage and her faith. Several years ago, in a move that surprised her family and friends, Mirvis divorced her husband and left the Orthodox community. 

Soon after, Mirvis and Shapiro reconnected. Mirvis was writing her memoir, The Book of Separation, while Shapiro was embarking on her fifth memoir, Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage. The two began an ongoing conversation about fiction and memoir, and last winter, they sat down at the Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest literary event in New York City to discuss the relationship between memory and imagination, the responsibilities of the memoirist versus the novelist and their Jewish pasts.

Shapiro: How are fiction and memoir different?

Mirvis: When I was your student, I believed I could only write fiction, and that felt scary enough. I remember struggling with writing about the Orthodox community in Memphis where I grew up: Whose stories was it okay to tell? Were you allowed to say certain things about the community, even in a novel?

I admired you so much for writing both fiction and memoir. I was 24 at the time and certain I would never write a memoir. It seemed impossible that I could write about myself without the mask that fiction allows you to create on the page. Before turning in the final version of my memoir, I called you and asked what it meant to take a story that is personal and put it out into the world. That conversation enabled me to hit “send” on that manuscript to my editor.

Shapiro: I actually think fiction exposes the writer more than memoir. Readers believe the reverse is true. But if you show me a fiction writer’s total work at the end of a long writing life, I can tell you everything about that person’s obsessions. I once visited a book group that read all my fiction. By the end, I walked away feeling I had just completed ten years of group therapy. They had made connections, seen themes and understood things in my work that were wholly unconscious to me. Conversely, writing memoir is a much more conscious act, because I am aware the reader will pick up the book with a sense that this is true. But what does that mean? What does it mean for memoir to be true? 

Mirvis: What you said about fiction being scarier is so interesting. Part of the thrill of fiction is a sense of freedom, the feeling that you can do whatever you want with it. Memoir is choosing to put something in or take it out. I always believe the parts I take out will remain private. In the back of my mind I think: “That’s what fiction is for.” In fiction, I take those stories and transpose and retell them in different ways. With memoir, I miss that sense of freedom. 

Shapiro: I wrote an essay in 2014 called, “Dear Disillusioned Reader Who Contacted Me on Facebook.” The story behind the title is that one day on Facebook, I got a note from a reader who read my first memoir. She really loved the book, so she Googled me and read extensively about various things in my past. She discovered that I had “left something out” of the book. She wrote that because I chose to write about that period of time in my life, I didn’t have the right to leave anything out. The exchange made me think about the difference between autobiography and memoir.

The contract between the autobiographer and the reader is that the reader wants to know about the subject. That’s not memoir. You don’t buy any book by a literary memoirist to know about the author. You read it because it’s a story you’re interested in. The writer carves that story out of life; not every fact and recollection belongs there. Memoir writing is about picking and choosing what goes in, what stays out, what is true to the story, which is not necessarily true in the same sense to life and its messiness.

Mirvis: With memoir, it’s not your job to tell your life story or to create a personal story inside a larger historical record. It’s to tell a very particular story. In that way, it’s like writing a novel, except it’s a very personal story using one’s own life and experiences. As with a novel, I thought thematically. So if things happened in a time period that didn’t relate to the theme, they didn’t belong in the memoir. They were true and they happened, but they weren’t part of the particular lens I was using.

Shapiro: Yes, it could even have been something dramatic, like being really sick during that period of time. But if that was not part of the story of your separation and your divorce, it probably wouldn’t be in the memoir. As the writer, you always ask yourself: “What is the story?” When I tell people I’ve written five memoirs, they look at me like, “You must think you’re really interesting.” That’s as if it is an act of self-absorption, when in fact, strangely, if the memoir is good, it’s the opposite of that, because you have transcended your life and seen it from the perspective of it truly being a story.

The contract between the autobiographer and the reader is that the reader wants to know about the subject. That’s not memoir.

Mirvis: Right, it has to be universal. Part of the process that made me love memoir writing was realizing the degree to which we each have our own story. Each of us has those universal themes, and even though you may not have had the same set of experiences, those themes overlap. Memoir reveals that you’re not the only one feeling something. One of the pleasures of reading memoir is when you have a sense of identification with someone whose life looks very different from yours. You feel that “this is exactly my story,” even though, of course, in its particulars it is not.

Shapiro: That is a wonderfully liberating and strangely healing thing for the memoirist. I remember when I was writing my book Devotion, I thought no one was going to read it. You would have to have been raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, left, and then moved from the city to the country and had a terrible relationship with your mother and a great relationship with your father who was the religious one. It was so idiosyncratically specific to my experience in the most truthful and vulnerable way that I could be. Then the book came out, and the first letters I got were from Mormons, and then Unitarians, and then atheists, people who grew up with nothing, Jews and Christians, old and young, men and women. They all said, “You’ve told my story.” It liberated me from that feeling of otherness and isolation because “you’ve told my story” is one of the most beautiful things a writer can hear. At first I thought, “No, I didn’t. I told my story.” But then I realized we all have the same story in a way.

Mirvis: I’ve had a very similar experience. Since The Book of Separation came out last September, I’ve been getting lots of mail. Much of it is from different people who have struggled with being part of a Mormon community. I did a podcast in September called “Mormon Stories.” All of a sudden, I got a deluge of emails from people who were struggling because they had either left that community or were questioning it. People said to me, “Sometimes it’s easier to see your own world when it’s not exactly your world. It’s easier for us to have someone write about it when it’s something removed and yet it’s so similar.” 

Shapiro: I think that’s true of literature in general for anyone who has fallen in love with a character on the page who pierced their sense of solitude. It’s why book clubs are so powerful, because people get together and they have a reason to talk about marriage, death, grief or despair. When we argue about characters in a book, or about what we liked or disliked about it, what we’re really doing is connecting with these big, scary human feelings.

Mirvis: Maybe it’s easier to talk about those feelings at a book club or when it’s literary characters as opposed to when it’s actually yourself that you’re discussing. I grew up in a world where there was a sharp awareness of the public façade versus the private inner experience and very few opportunities to express the inner experience. I was aware that it lurked, but to name that subjective, messy place was forbidden in a certain way. That’s what made me love reading, and it’s certainly why I became a writer. That curiosity about what it feels like to be someone else. 

Part of the thrill of fiction is a sense of freedom, the feeling that you can do whatever you want with it. Memoir is choosing to put something in or take it out.

Shapiro: People often say to me, “You must have an amazing memory because you write about earlier periods of time in your life.” But I have a terrible memory. I remember very little about my childhood. Neurobiology shows that every time we remember something, that memory is changed. So memory and fact get conflated and confused. In fact, memory is just the narrative that we are able to grasp and tell ourselves in a particular moment. Therefore, imagination is a part of memory. 

I think it would be amazing for a writer to decide to write the same memoir every ten years. If you think about it, your memory of a particular event or your relationship with a person changes over time. Even after they’re gone, it changes and changes. There’s a way in which imagination really plays into that. 

If we are limited to writing about only what we absolutely remember, given that memory is faulty, how would that work? Working on my fifth memoir, I realize I got a lot of things just plain wrong in my earlier books. Does that mean those books aren’t valid in terms of accurately representing what I remembered at that time? Memoirs are never the definitive “Now I’ve got it.” That’s writing in general. It keeps shifting because imagination and memory keep shifting and changing.

Mirvis: I conceive of imagination as a way of thinking, as a tool of sorts. It’s a way to imagine younger versions of ourselves. I really had to push to remember myself as a 22-year-old about to get married to someone whom I’d only known for 12 weeks, because it seemed like a good idea at the time. The deeper work is a kind of active imagining, to try not just to remember that person but to be that person again and not to look at my younger self as I now, 20-something years later, would look at her and critique her.

Whenever I’m working on a character, there’s always the moment at first when I’m above them or around them, but the pleasure comes when I enter them and become them—when I am inside their consciousness. It feels the same way with your own self when writing a memoir. I employ the same ability to escape myself and enter some other person, except that person is a younger version of myself.

Shapiro: It’s impossible to ever actually get to speak to, or hold hands with, touch, change, fix, comfort or console our younger selves, but there’s something powerful in the act of attempting it. There’s a repairing when we try to go back and be compassionate. It’s healing to supply language to the younger self who didn’t have that language.

Mirvis: My responsibility as a novelist is to create a world for you and then invite you inside. My responsibility as a memoirist is to be honest to the best of my ability and to recognize that I’m telling you a story only through my perspective, whereas in a novel I can enter many perspectives. Part of the responsibility of publishing a memoir is that it invites people to share their own stories. I have a sense of emotional responsibility when someone reaches out and says, “I’m struggling with something similar.”

Shapiro: There’s something almost sacred about that, because people read your book alone. Reading is a very intimate experience. It’s not like sitting in a movie theater or in a lecture hall. That intimacy is what makes someone write an author they have never met and say, “This moved me, and this is my story.” That exchange is very powerful and does feel sacred.

Responsibility also really depends on the relationship. With relatives, I’ve taken as much care as I could to tell the story I need to tell while being respectful of them and aware that I was the one with a public voice. I feel there is a scale in terms of my willingness to expose another human being. It is different for my son, my husband and my mother and father. When my mother passed away, I actually found it more difficult to write about her because I was plagued by the idea that I had the last word. A very wise friend of mine recently said to me, “You have a word. You don’t know if it’s the last word. That’s hubris to say you have the last word.” I realized that was true.

Mirvis: My memoir was supposed to follow the first year after I got divorced and left the Orthodox community. But part of writing is learning and discovering. It’s almost like a back and forth process in which you know something and then it takes you somewhere you didn’t expect, and you learn something new that then changes you. 

In a memoir, you’re not inventing the story. You’re not coming up with the characters. You have your raw material, but the way to tell it is the hardest part. There is the question of, how do you structure a memoir? How do you move through time? I think that is where you learn a lot as a writer, and it can take you by surprise.

It would be amazing for a writer to write the same memoir every ten years. your memory of a particular event or yourrelationship with a person changes over time.

Shapiro: Because ultimately, if the writer really knows what happens and is simply recording it, it’s not going to be of much interest. Your view of structure is really true. It’s probably the biggest difference between setting out to write a novel and a memoir. With a novel, you can begin with an image, a place or a character. But with a memoir you’re constrained by the terrain, the landscape. I’m an Orthodox Jewish girl from New Jersey. I don’t get to write about growing up in Mississippi or being in 1930s Paris or whatever. I’m constrained by the circumstances of my birth, my family and my experiences. So then the challenge is how to shape the chaos and the randomness into something that is literature and that’s artful and will connect with the reader.

Mirvis: For me, the process of writing a memoir was about pushing myself toward a willingness to say or willingness to know. One of the themes that was most important to me in my book was when you decide to look at those questions that are painful, that pushes you toward making a change.

It was a process of breaking myself open, about owning vulnerability and being willing to own a story that felt painful. It was not the story I had imagined myself living. I never thought that I was going to get divorced. I never thought I’d be anything other than an Orthodox Jew. The act of putting it on the page is like saying, “Yes, this is me and this is my story.” It has given me a greater sense of comfort with messiness and a greater ability to live inside things that feel uncertain. I have more of a willingness to live in a more vulnerable and open state.

Shapiro: There is also the experience of understanding that your life has chapters. I have a son who’s graduating from high school this year. I know you’re somebody’s parent forever, but the most active part is just 18 years in the span of a life. That’s not a lot of time. There are other, longer chapters.

There’s a certain kind of freedom in that, and an openness to what’s next. The last couple of memoirs I’ve written have changed me. They have fundamentally altered the way I think about my spiritual life and my marriage. I learned a lot about myself through writing them. It has opened me up to questions I want to keep asking myself, even though the book ended where it needed to.

Shapiro: I think Jews are especially fascinated by memory because of our attachments to stories and to the Torah. We have an awareness always that our lives are built on other lives, on the past and on history. In my family there was very much a sense of generations and connecting to our ancestors. Something about the passing along of stories has a connection to memory.

So much of writing a memoir is deciding to live in those hard spots, to push again and again on that raw spot.

Mirvis: It’s the same way that memory ties into imagination. Our collective memories become our sense of history. I just got back from a few days in Israel. I spent a lot of time in the Old City of Jerusalem, where my son is studying for the year. I found this was a very different trip for me than other times I’ve been there because I wasn’t viewing it from a religious angle the way I used to. I had to ask myself, “What is my connection to Jerusalem now? Where do I still feel that deep sense of connection?”

I was amazed by how personal history is a connector. I had a sense that there is a history that has played out here, and I’m connected to this history regardless of a religious disconnect. I believe that in Judaism there is a constant sense that history is something we each live personally. It’s part of our individual private memories as well as collective memory.

Shapiro: Another way I differentiate writing fiction from writing memoir is that the latter is much more painful. With fiction, it’s like there’s an entire world opening up once I’ve embarked on a novel. I can step into it and inhabit that world, and it’s thrilling and exciting.

With memoir, I am addressing the painful, knotty places inside of me. We all have them. The memoirist goes to that painful place and stays there for the duration of writing. You can leave that place and still make dinner. But as soon as you go back to writing, the knotted, painful place expands and becomes the whole world again. It’s not a masochistic, “I want to relive this” process. It’s that you actually need to go back there to make discoveries.

Mirvis: So much of writing a memoir is deciding to live in those hard spots, to push again and again on that raw spot.

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One thought on “Tova Mirvis & Dani Shapiro: In Conversation

  1. Thank you for this wonderful interview with two of my favorite writers. I’m a big fan of memoirs and found their descriptions of the process helpful for approaching my own personal essays.

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