Interview with 2011 One Story Mentorship Award-winner, Dani Shapiro

For the past few weeks, we’ve been featuring brief interviews with each of our 5 Literary Debutantes. Now, in our final week leading up to the 2011 One Story Debutante Ball, we thought we’d do the same for our Honoree, Dani Shapiro.

Dani Shapiro is the bestselling author of the memoirs Devotion and Slow Motion, and five novels including Black & White and Family History. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, One Story, Elle, The New York Times Book Review, The Los Angeles Times, and has been widely anthologized. She has taught in the writing programs at Columbia, New York University, The New School, and Wesleyan University, and is co-founder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy. At this year’s Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be honoring Dani with our 2011 Mentorship Award, for her extraordinary support of emerging writers. Recently, I sat down with Dani to talk about her dual roles as author and mentor.

1. You’ve been a mentor for so many emerging writers. But who were your mentors and how did they help you along the way?

I’ve had extraordinary mentors, which is why, I think, it became so important to me to mentor writers myself when I found myself in a position to do so. I remember arriving at Sarah Lawrence as a freshman and wandering over to the building where most of the writing professors had offices, sort of like a homing pigeon. I knew where I belonged. Grace Paley was there, and her door was open wide, as it often was. Pillows were strewn on the floor. If memory serves, a student was sitting in her lap. Though I never sat in her lap, Grace became a mentor. She had a knack for saying things about the writing life that I didn’t understand when I was her student, but then years later, a lightbulb would go off in my head, and I’d think to myself: oh, so that’s what Grace meant. The writer Jerome Badanes was also a very important mentor to me. He became a dear friend over the years, and long after I graduated, he and I would meet in the city for expensive lunches we couldn’t afford and then we’d wander over to the old Shakespeare & Co. on Broadway and 80th Street and browse the stacks. He died far too young–he was in his mid-fifties and working on his second novel. I still think of Jerry nearly every day.

2. How difficult is it to balance your teaching and writing?

I’ve always aimed to be a writer who teaches, as opposed to a teacher who writes. And so the balance I’ve tried to strike has been to have the bulk of my time spent on my work so that I can approach my students’ work with clarity and generosity. To me, it’s a sacred relationship. Over the years, my teaching has morphed from doing a lot of university teaching to more private classes and writers conferences, which at the moment suits me well.

3. Any words of advice for our 5 debutantes?

Just after my first novel was published, some mean person sidled up to me at a cocktail party and said: “everyone has one book in them”. It was such a horrible thing to hear! It set me back for a while. We writers tend to take the nasty stuff to heart. And so I found my second book the hardest to write because there was suddenly this self-consciousness, this awareness that I was now A Writer. That I was no longer writing in the dark. That self-consciousness is deadly. We all need to trick ourselves, on a daily basis, into feeling like we’re back in that darkness. That’s where the best work comes from.

4. You’ve published 5 novels and 2 memoirs, but you also write short stories—you published “The Six Poisons” with One Story a few years back—any chance you’ll ever publish a collection?

I do tend to be drawn to the longer form, but very slowly, over the years, stories do emerge. I would love to some day publish a collection of stories, or perhaps a combination of stories and essays, if those hybrid collections are allowed to exist.

5. What are you looking forward to the most about the One Story Literary Debutante Ball on April 29th?

Seeing so many of my mentees from so many different writing workshops all gathered together in one room! I have a feeling that it will be a real “this is your life” moment. And of course, it isn’t every day that a writer gets to have a cocktail named in her honor. I’ll certainly have to have one or two “Six Poisons”.

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