An Interview with Deborah Shapiro, by Stephanie Feldman
November 15, 2016
Deborah Shapiro’s debut novel, The Sun in Your Eyes, tells the story of Lee and Viv, two best friends who reunite after years of silence. Lee is looking for a partner in her search for the final recordings of her father, dead rock icon Jesse Parrish. Viv is looking for an escape from her soap opera writing job and her domestic life. Together they travel through Jesse’s past, and their own, in search of a resolution to the bond they once shared.
Critics have lauded the book’s portrait of female friendship, and through that friendship, Shapiro explores art and celebrity, parents and romantic partners, and what happens when you’ve already come of age but find you still have more road to travel.
Writing about music is notoriously challenging. Did you have any particular strategies or techniques for writing about Jesse Parrish’s music, and Viv’s connection to it?
The thing that makes music so evocative—that makes us respond viscerally—is what makes it so difficult to get on the page. And language is its own kind of music, which I think is why a lot of writers can’t listen to music while writing. It disrupts what you’re trying to do sonically. So, I didn’t really listen to anything while I was writing, but I had certain albums on repeat when I wasn’t at the computer. There were a number of musicians I looked to in trying to shape Jesse into a character—Gram Parsons, Marc Bolan, Nick Drake, Tim Buckley. There’s a critic in the book who describes Jesse as a “lesser, campier Neil Young” and I went down some YouTube rabbit holes watching clips of David Bowie on talk shows in the 70s. There’s so much lore to draw on. It was harder to come up with Jesse’s sound. But I kept going back to Big Star’s 3rd/Sister Lovers record from 1974—this gorgeous record of falling apart—and I tried to write what I heard, more or less.
I also wanted to take into account the world around the music itself—not so much the industry, but the way listeners received it. I re-read work by Greil Marcus and Ellen Willis to get a feel for the way they describe music and performance, and how those descriptions become cultural commentary as well. And I wanted to explore the relationship between performers and fans, how intense and formative that worship can be. Lee connects to Jesse’s music, or wants to connect to it, as his daughter. But Viv connects to it, much like me, as a fan. Andy, Viv and Lee’s college roommate and obsessive audiophile, even more so. Being a fan is basically this strange one-sided relationship but it doesn’t seem that way when you’re fifteen, alone in your room with your headphones on, listening to a song that both expresses everything you’re feeling and takes you outside of yourself. Right?
Critics have focused on the novel’s exploration of female friendship, but the story also considers marriage and the bonds between daughters and parents. Did you begin with friendship, and find yourself expanding your scope as you wrote? How do these relationships complement each other within the story?
I did begin with friendship but it quickly moved beyond that. Viv and Lee don’t exist in a vacuum. They each have their own separate contexts that influence their relationship—that draw them together and pull them apart—and I wanted to examine that. Each of them envies and admires the other’s family and upbringing. Lee is drawn to Viv’s seemingly stable, level-headed parents and Viv is taken with Linda, Lee’s over-the-top mother. And both women learn about themselves as they learn about their own families. With Lee, this is more concrete, in that she actually uncovers a secret that’s essentially affected the unfolding of her entire life. But Viv also uncovers things about her parents, not necessarily intentionally-kept secrets, but the kinds of emotional discoveries or realizations that make you look at your family and yourself in a different light.
And there are lots of parallels and echoes and repetitions between the parents and children in this book. Lee, in particular, has such a conflicted connection to her mother. She can’t stand her, but she can’t escape her mother’s sway, in ways large (working for Linda) and small (using the same luggage Linda swears by for travel).
So often we describe books as either character-driven or plot-driven. The Sun in Your Eyes is a character study, but also invokes a classic plot arc: the road trip. How did you marry these two approaches, or do you think plot vs. character is a false distinction?
I think it is somewhat of a false distinction. Character is plot, of course. Any time a character makes a decision, or fails to make one—that’s plot, in a way. As a reader, I tend to be more interested in characters, in their psychologies, their layers and nuances, and if this is revealed in skillful way, that’s often enough “plot” for me. Still, as a writer, I wanted to use plot as a vehicle for exploring characters. I wanted to have some kind of engine for the story, and the “road trip” and the “quest” appealed to me—the “quest” especially, because it’s never really about the about object in question, it’s about the search. In attempting to track down Jesse’s last recordings, what Lee and Viv are really seeking is something much more ineffable and unresolvable about their relationship and themselves. So, the lost tapes are something of a MacGuffin. Finding them matters to Lee but searching for them matters a great deal more to her, not least because it gives her a reason to insert herself back in Viv’s life.
But back to plot vs. character—there’s a moment at the end of the book, from Lee’s perspective, where she’s prompted for an explanation she can’t articulate. She can’t say “this happened, then this happened, then this happened and here’s what it all means. It was all still sensation for her.” I like a satisfying conclusion as much as anybody, but I tend to like narrative best when it becomes like watching dance, especially one you’ve seen before. What “happens” doesn’t really matter, or maybe you already know what happens, but you’re still riveted by the movement and form and feeling. It’s why you can read great fiction over and over.
Lee and Viv come from very backgrounds, and social class—economic, cultural, ethnic—permeates everything. We see it in the clothes they wear, the houses they live in, and their relationships with their parents. Was this an inevitable part of describing these women? Or did you have particular goals in mind, and choose particular writing strategies?
It wasn’t really until I went to college, and then moved to New York City, that I was exposed to certain gradations of wealth and the signifiers of those gradations. And that’s something that Viv, from her upper-middle class suburban background, experiences when she meets Lee. Viv notes that the affluence she grew up around took the shape of “remodeled kitchens and glitzy bar mitzvahs.” Lee’s wealth, her pedigree, is on a whole other level. She’s sort of bohemian royalty. Not only does her family have money, they have cultural capital, they have connections. It allows her to move through the world in a different way. And I was interested in looking at those distinctions. So all of those things—the way they dress, their interior spaces—are signifiers I wanted to decode. And that’s something that draws Viv to Lee, her fascination with these signifiers. It’s not money or flash that interests Viv, but the kind of glamour Lee has as a result of her social class.
There’s a scene where Viv, looking for a potential roommate situation, goes to Lee’s apartment for the first time and sees a vase of flowers. It’s not an expensive arrangement, they’re wildflowers Lee must have picked, but just the fact that she has these flowers both throws and delights Viv. It connotes some kind of aesthetic sophistication and leisure that Viv is only beginning to comprehend. She notes how her mother never bothered with flowers because they’re frivolous. But it’s their very frivolity that Lee is after and this is what charms Viv.
Details like this emerged fairly inevitably in the process of writing. But there were also certain decisions I made, like making Lee’s mother, Linda, a fashion designer. It was a way of getting at some of those sartorial choices that give off a signal only to whoever is ready to pick up on it. You know, two people can both be wearing a black dress but because of the cut, the proportions, the fabric, their looks can be read entirely differently.
You’ve named Gram Parsons’ music, Nicholas Mosley’s novel Accident, and the William Eggleston photo that graces the cover of the book as some inspirations for this story. Do you find your inspiration mostly comes from other art? How does your experience as a listener, reader, and viewer inform your writing process?
I’d say inspiration comes from art and life. But there’s something transformative about experiencing good art or music or literature; it influences my writing process in that it generates a sense of possibility and usually makes me want to go create something myself. (Though it can also work the other way around, when something is so maddeningly great it just makes you think, Why bother? It’s all been done. But I’ve usually been able to push through that.) The references to these experiences or certain works of art may not be direct or even noticeable in what I’ve written, but I like to think on some level the aesthetic traces are there.
The book employs both first- and third-person narration. How did you come to use these different points-of-view?
The book is told mostly from Viv’s first-person POV and Lee’s close third-person POV. But there’s also one section from Linda’s perspective. I don’t write particularly linearly and Linda’s section came to me pretty early on, before I had figured out a way to work it in. I began writing this in first-person, from Viv’s perspective, and one book I kept going back to was The Great Gatsby, where you have the narrator, Nick Carraway, telling you about this dazzling, deceptive, complicated world he gets involved in. He’s in that world—so much that he almost disappears at times–but he’s not really of it. I wanted Viv to be a little like Nick Carraway, but she didn’t turn out that way. I couldn’t make her disappear enough. At a certain point, I wanted to hear from Lee, not Lee via Viv. Lee isn’t in her own head as much as Viv, so third-person seemed more fitting for her. She’s closer to her emotions, in that she doesn’t need to talk something through in order to understand how she feels about it, she doesn’t need as much language around it the way Viv does. But she’s also not as forthcoming about her emotions and experiences as Viv is. The slight distance of third-person, I think, works for her character in that way.
When you read the first chapter at your book launch, the audience laughed again and again. Did you consciously use humor to off-set the darker aspects of the book, or is it a natural part of your writing?
It’s not so much conscious—like, let’s insert a joke here or this scene needs some levity — it’s just the way I tend to think and how I relate. But there’s also another kind of false distinction, between darkness and humor, and between seriousness and comedy. The notion that if something is comic it’s lightweight, unless it’s a social satire tackling Big Important Themes. Maybe the more helpful and true distinction is between solemnity and seriousness. Solemnity doesn’t allow for the kind of irony that I think is an essential part of being human. But you can be serious and ironic. There are so many writers who do this expertly but I’m thinking specifically here of Robert Stone, who writes about the heaviest subject matter but he does it with such deft irony and shots of dark humor. The humor doesn’t diminish the weight; it only adds to the depth.
Deborah Shapiro is a writer in Chicago. Her work has been published in Open City, Washington Square Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Tin House, Literary Hub and Sight Unseen, among other places. The Sun in Your Eyes is her first novel.
Stephanie Feldman teaches fiction writing in the Arcadia University MFA Program. Her debut novel, The Angel of Losses, is a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, winner of the Crawford Award, and finalist for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award.