Elena Mauli Shapiro was born in Paris and immigrated to the United States when she was thirteen years old. She earned an MFA in creative writing from Mills College. Her debut novel, 13 rue Thérèse, was published in February 2011 and has impressed critics around the world. It’s easy to see why—the book is a visual delight and a literary mind-bender. 13 rue Thérèse was inspired by a box of mementos found by Elena’s mother in the apartment of a woman who lived upstairs from the family in Paris. It’s illustrated with the images of the objects and photos found in the box: a handkerchief, a rosary, photos from the early 1900s, a diary, lace gloves, a pressed flower. Mauli Shapiro builds her fiction around these objects and creates the imagined story of Louise Brunet intertwined with the story of the narrator, Trevor Stratton, who finds the box and follows the clues to construct his version of Louise’s life. It’s much more complicated than that, of course. In a recent exchange of e-mails, we discussed 13 rue Thérèse, her story “Commuting” (which will be read at Stories on Stage,) and other aspects of her writing craft.
A blurb on the cover of 13 rue Thérèse refers to it as a “puzzle-novel.” Do you think of the book as a puzzle-novel?
Not really, since from my point of view there is a certain inevitability to the way the book is put together. It can definitely be read that way, but since I know the how and why of everything, it doesn’t register with me like that. The structure is a statement about the way stories are told, but I don’t think a blurb that reads “a novel with an elaborate metafictional framing device” would move quite as many units as “a puzzle novel.” The latter is much catchier!
Is metafiction (a style of writing that self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction, using techniques to draw attention to itself as a work of art in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality) where you are headed as a writer? I’ve read some of your other stories, and they seem very different in style and voice – almost as if they had been written by someone other than you.
I hear that a fair amount, that from one piece to another I sound like a different writer. It’s true. It’s one of the primary attractions of writing for me: being able to inhabit different viewpoints. Not only do I like to build a new protagonist with each piece, I generally also like to build a new voice. It’s a huge pain, very time consuming. But I cannot function another way. I don’t think that the voice of 13 rue Thérèse is where I’m headed as a writer in a career sense, no. I loved writing with Trevor; he was such sweet goofball. I do think I will probably write with him again, but I have other places to visit too.
Speaking of Trevor (the narrator of 13 rue Thérèse) you said in a previous interview that you invented his character so he could go a little crazy instead of you. At what point in the writing of the book did this happen? Do you think that in most good writing, the writer goes a little crazy, gets a little lost in his/her creation?
Trevor appeared quite early, when it was clear that writing this book was going to feel unusually intense. Transferring real objects from a real person into a work of fiction brought with it a great deal of energy that was a bit uncontrolled. There was something alchemical about it. It was clear I needed a framing device, some kind of secondary containment for all that gathering pressure. I needed to double-pane myself.
Hmmm. Does the writer go a little crazy… Well, when a piece of writing really gets going, it sort of permeates your entire consciousness, you filter life through it. All the sensory and emotive data from everything you experience gets channeled into feeding this thing. It becomes, in a way, your operating principle. Now, when you are insane, you filter life in a similar way–through, say, the overwhelming conviction that Russians have placed a radio receiver in your braincase, or that you are Jesus, or that everyone is out to get you, or maybe all three at once. Everything that happens to you, no matter how anodyne, feeds your conviction. So yes, I will hop on that old bandwagon and say that creativity and madness are not unrelated. They are both results of the human drive to create meaning gone awry, with the overactivity slanted in either a productive or destructive direction.
Fortunately for us, it took a productive direction! There are a lot of surprises and twists in 13 rue Thérèse What occurrence in plot or character or form of the book surprised you the most?
There were quite a few moments when the book would spring something on me, and I would go, “No way, I am not doing that!” And it would go, “Dude, you are totally doing that! DOOOOOOOOOOO IT!” The very end, where the identity of “Sir” is revealed, was like that. I was goading myself a lot with this book, doing a lot of stuff that I found sort of high-pitched and embarrassing, but I just decided to go for it. I had been accused in the past of being too subtle, and resolved not to fall into that trap with this book. It was a lot of fun.
Tell us about “Commuting.” Is there a visual inspiration or element, as there is in 13 rue Thérèse?
“Commuting” is a short story about adultery, which has to be one of my favorite topics, and about learning to let go of something when it is clearly time. The voice for it came to me on my commute to Davis from the Bay Area on Capital Corridor, and that setting made its way into the tale. The story was not inspired by, and does not contain, photographs, but it did unfurl from a very sensory place. The starting point was various farm animals that I knew growing up. I have such vivid memories of them, what they looked like, what they smelled like, their personalities. Dominant in the story is the image of a cat I had growing up. She was a sweet lap cat during the week, then on the weekends when we took her to the country, she would turn into a tiny mass murderer. Mice, shrews, rats, birds, moles, even the occasional reptile. I was so fascinated by how cuddly she could be versus the obvious glee with which she could rip small animals to pieces. I still dream about that cat on a regular basis; she will follow me as a lifelong allegory. I thought a lot about her and other animals I once knew on my commute to Davis, because the landscape the train rolls through is so rural. I wanted to write a rural story with an academic setting; I thought that writing about all these animals alongside a literature department would be interesting. (Also) I thought that since it is in the first person, and is so “voicy,” that it would be a fun piece for someone to perform.
You’re working on a new novel, In the Red. How is it coming?
That book is progressing… in fits… and starts… argh. 13 rue Thérèse had a very long gestation, then manifested as a whole. It seems this book intersperses periods of gestation and writing. Each story comes out in its own way, and this one sometimes makes me miss my dear, voluble Trevor! It is an interesting journey nonetheless. It is soaked in myth: its organizing principle is a collection of Romanian fairy tales and historical events that interweave and merge. Its point of view is very fatalistic. The protagonist is quite hermetic. I initially thought I would write this one in first person because she had a compelling voice, but the text just collapsed that way. She allows the camera on her but not “in” her. In terms of its genesis in my life, I would say that this book comes partially from my immigration experience as a teenager. There is a lot in there about foreignness. Also about human morality and lack thereof. I’ve been obsessed with that lately, with the lies people tell themselves and each other.
Sounds a lot darker than 13 rue Therese…
Yeah. It gets pretty heavy and existential sometimes. I’m kind of hoping my next book is about puppies and rainbows!
On a lighter note – your blog! I loved reading it. You seem to be curious about nearly everything – Legos, toothpaste, serial killers, mutants and zombies, defending the MFA. Do you enjoy maintaining it, and how much time do you spend on it?
Thank you! I hope it is as much fun to read as it is to write. It’s a great way for me to blow off steam, to write without the existential weight of working on a novel. Sometimes I feel that being a novelist is like painting a gigantic mural: there is so much planning, and you are working forever on one bitty piece at a time, and it takes eons before you get to see the whole thing. Sometimes you have to get away from the mural and just do a little sketch on a piece of paper: something small and instantly gratifying, that maybe shows a different side of you. That’s what the blog is for. It’s so great to be able to just riff on something and instantly publish it! With pictures! And somebody reads it! The very same day! It’s a nice break from writing a book for years, which then takes years to sell and edit and typeset and market and all that stuff–from inception to fruition, a book takes epochs! A blog post, you think of it, type it up, press the “publish” button and ZIP it’s out in the world. So yep, my hobby when I need to get away from writing is… More writing. I know. I need help. And maybe a new hobby.
Oh, no, please! We like your hobby! Here’s the link. http://elenamaulishapiro.com/
Sue Staats lives and writes under the shade of the Curtis Park sycamore trees in Sacramento. She recently completed her MFA in Fiction at Pacific University. She has published fiction, non-fiction, and poetry in the Suisun Valley Review, Susurrus, and Sacramento News & Review.