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Interview with B.A. Shapiro, Author of The Art Forger

Questions and introduction by Carly Cassano; Interview executed by Francis McGovern

The Literary Traveler Boston team recently had the opportunity to sit down with author B.A. Shapiro at the 2012 Boston Book Festival. Her novel, The Art Forger, was released only a few days prior to the festival but we were prepared. It wasn’t even a challenge to read it so quickly, because the book refuses to be put down. It beckons in the night, ‘wake up and find out!’  It was an absolute pleasure speaking with Shapiro, whose  humble grace and humor made our conversation feel like reconnecting with a long lost friend.

When Shapiro decided she wanted to write a book about the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum art heist, she admitted, there was one problem. She didn’t know much about art forgery.  So, she did what she thought her protagonist Claire would do: she Googled it.  And once she got going, she was unstoppable. Page after page of exciting character development, beautifully-crafted descriptions of the setting–Boston’s South End–and “trouble, trouble, trouble,” would be good enough; but Shapiro’s mix of careful research and personal experience brings to life the art scene in Boston, as well as the history of the exceptional Isabella Stewart Gardner. It’s no surprise then that a highlight of the book is Shapiro’s ‘Note on the Research,’ in which she explains in a lighthearted but matter-of-fact way what’s truth and what’s fiction, describing for the reader how she painted such a colorful piece of literature.

Francis McGovern: Tell us in your own words, what is the book about?

Barbara A. Shapiro: The book is set against the backdrop of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist, which is the largest solved or unsolved art theft in history.  But it’s about a contemporary woman, who is a struggling artist and she’s become a pariah in the art world because of a scandal that happened previously.  And she’s approached by the largest gallery owner in Boston, and he offers her the proverbial deal-with-the-devil, that if she will paint a forgery of a painting for him, he will give her a one-woman show that will catapult her career. When he brings the painting to her to forge, it turns out to be a Degas masterpiece that was stolen during the Isabella Stewart Gardner heist.

So that’s what happens at the beginning of the book; that’s the set up, and as I tell my students, what they have to do is give their characters trouble, trouble, trouble…and that’s what she gets after that.

FM: You mentioned “solved or unsolved” —I consider, as a Boston native, the heist unsolved…

BAS: It’s unsolved. They have these thieves who went in there in 1990, and they were very bumbling and it’s rather unbelievable that this happened—they went in, they tied up the two guards, they left them in the basement, and then they spent 81 minutes going around the museum ripping these paintings out of their frames, which any professional wouldn’t do, because it decreases the value of the paintings.  So they ripped them out of their frames, put ‘em under their arms, walked to their Datsun hatchback that was sitting there, put the paintings in, and they drove away with 500 million dollars worth of paintings, and none of them—nothing—has ever surfaced. The FBI has followed thousands and thousands of leads, they have probably done tens of thousands of interviews, the police were on it, everybody was on it, and nothing; absolutely nothing. It makes no sense. It’s just a fascinating crime.

FM: I hate to say this, but it sounds like a crime that could only take place in Boston.  Speaking of Boston, you have an appreciation for Place in your work, and an artist’s impact on that place.  Can you tell us, what’s the connection between an artist and a place?

BAS: Well, I think there are a lot of connections—I think there are the physical connections with a place and its history, which Boston has plenty of in spades.  But I think also—and this comes from my research and interaction with it—that it has to do with the art community, and who people are hanging out with, and who’s influencing whom, and what’s going on. And although Boston is a smaller art world than New York, it has a very distinctive Self. If you go down to the South End, to on Harrison Ave., to First Fridays when all of the galleries are open and everybody’s mingling and all the artists are there and everybody is helping each other and influencing each other, it’s really, really exciting.

FM: In terms of choosing windows as the theme of Claire’s work, and how they draw a view of Boston, was that sort of an homage to the city?

BAS: Yes. I love this city. I came here to go to graduate school and never left. And then we lived out in the suburbs for a while, but then moved back into the city seven years ago.  And I got to spend all this time going to museums and galleries, and just being a part of it all, and the idea the Claire is going around taking photographs, the interior life of the city, seeing it from the outside in, and then from the inside out, just really appealed to me. I’m also a sociologist, and they say that sociologists are very nosy, so I’m just like Claire—I love it.  As the dark falls and people haven’t closed their blinds yet, and you can, like, look in and see what they’re doing…ya know, it’s just so cool!

FM: How has the experience of writing this book and connecting to the material, and the recognition you’ve received from it—how has that changed your view of Boston, or hasn’t it?

BAS: It’s interesting: my previous books were all psychological suspense, and I was involved in the mystery-writing world, and it’s a big, friendly, very supportive group of writers and readers, and they all told me that, you know, ‘you’ve got a literary novel and you’re gonna go into the literary world of Boston, and people are snobby and they’re not going to support you the way we do, blah blah blah,’ and that’s not been the case at all.  The writing community here has been so fabulous and so supportive. I was just speaking with another writer, Dawn Tripp (we were just having coffee), and I was telling her this story; that I’m finding the literary community so welcoming and she said, ‘well, what you had been hearing is more true of New York,’ that it’s not true in Boston; that Boston has a very supportive literary community. So it’s great that I’m getting to experience that.

FM: Claire had said something to the effect of, ‘she’d rather be dead then be left feeling cold in an art museum,’ something a musician had once said. What was that connection like for her, and is it like that for you, do you feel similarly?

BAS: I actually decided to write a book with a protagonist who was a painter because I can’t paint, and I love art.  And this way I could kinda pretend to be a painter, and get inside of her [the book is in the first-person], and try to see the world as a painter would see it, rather than how a writer would see it. So I started thinking about light and the effects of it, what a painter would see, and it opened my eyes, and helped me see the world in a different way; but I’m very moved by art, I always have been. And I brought that, I hope, to her. The feeling that, ya know, somebody is creating something in three dimensions that you’re getting their expression, and you’re getting the emotion from it as a viewer, because the painter has feelings as they are painting, and to me that’s so magical. It’s one thing to do it with words, where you’re telling things, but to be able to do it in three dimensions, I just have such incredible respect for artists.  And I have incredible respect for Claire.

FM: So, we see there are similarities between the artist and the writer…

BAS: Yes, they’re very alike!

FM: …but it’s different, too.  Can you talk more about that?

BAS: The main similarity is the whole idea of the struggling artist trying to become known, and this whole issue of ‘where does value come from, and how it is acquired?’ What are we willing to give up in order to reach our dreams? Every character in the book comes up against that fuzzy line of wanting something and what they’re willing to do, or give up, to get it. And the struggle to get known is felt by writers, artists, dancers, actors—any creative field where you have more people doing it for no money such that the competition is incredibly tight. So we all experience the same struggle, but the really interesting thing is—when I was writing this book, I was a struggling writer, and I wasn’t getting published, and I wasn’t getting any kind of renown, and so I poured that into Claire. And then the book got picked up, and now they’re making a big deal out of it.  And in The Art Forger, when Claire started to become known, she started thinking, ‘oh, all these years I said I was better than this artist, or I was better than that artist, but now that I’m out there, maybe I’m not that good, and maybe all of this acclaim is coming from people knowing my name.’  So when this book started getting all this acclaim, I started thinking, ‘oh no! I’m not really good enough! What if it isn’t as good as I think it is? Is this only because my publisher’s doing all of this publicity?’  So, I started pouring myself into Claire, and then I became Claire!

FM: Something you said reminded me that writing is like creating a forgery in some way—it’s trying to create something, that’s already been done, but in a different and unique way.

BAS: Well, my theory is that basically there’s only one story that you can tell.  This is what I teach in my classes.  And the one story is: something happens in a character’s life and it upsets their life; then they come up with a strategy to solve that problem; and as they try and reach their goal, they get trouble, trouble, trouble; and then at the end, there’s some big event, and you think it’s the worst thing that could ever happen to them; but then the character, based on what they’ve learned in the story, and who they are, then makes a decision that ends the story. And if the character makes the right decision, it’s a happy ending; and if they make the wrong decision, it’s a tragedy.  So, I think, except for experimental writing, we’re all doing the same thing over and over again.  The idea is to hang your unique story on that skeleton, and come up with a voice that’s coming from inside that skeleton that’s different than everybody else’s. So, you could say we’re all forging the original story.

LT:  Well put. We loved your research note, and what we came away with is that anything’s possible. Do you think possibilities are due to dedication or to imagination?

BAS:  That’s a good question, and it’s a tough question. As I’m experiencing it for myself now, I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. I think that there are a lot of people with talent, whether it’s writing or painting or whatever…so you have to have the talent, and then you have to have the ability to be rejected, and keep going, and be rejected and keep going, and be rejected and keep going…. So there is an emotional piece that you have to get a hold of. I know many, many really wonderful writers who cannot deal with that and they give up. And then you have to have a crazy amount of self-confidence such that, even when you’re getting all these rejections, you don’t on some level believe them so that you can persist and keep going and keep going and write. So I wrote four books after I wasn’t getting published, but I just kept writing the books. But that’s not enough either! Then you need to have luck. You can have the talent, the persistence, you can produce the product, you can be able to withstand the rejection, but if that book doesn’t come down, then it’s not gonna happen. That happened with this book. This book was rejected by big publishers everywhere. And it wasn’t until it was picked up by Algonquin, which publishes 25 books a year and gets behind everyone; versus Random House, which publishes 100 books a month. And it was my stroke of luck, and it came down. So you can control a certain part of it, but then the heavens have to be working for ya!

FM: Literary Traveler tries to tap into what inspires authors, but we’re also interested in their struggles. And you’ve had some challenges getting from there to here—what inspired you to keep going? Was it other writers’ stories, something from your own life, was it just dedication?

BAS: It was a combination of things. I did not have to make a living—although I have been teaching at Northeastern [University], that’s not really ‘making a living,’ because I’m just an adjunct professor, and they don’t pay you very much.  But I had the opportunity, which is also an incredible gift that most people don’t have—I was able to spend the time writing. I also wanted to write this particular book. I wanted to write a book about Isabella Stewart Gardner; I wanted to write a book about the art heist; and I wanted to write about an artist in contemporary Boston struggling. My three previous books had been rejected for a variety of reasons, and I had tried to fit them into genres, and this time I just said, ‘screw it, I’m gonna write the book I wanna write, if it doesn’t get published then I’ll quit.’  But I wanted to write this book. And the writers group I work with was incredibly supportive. One of the members who I’ve been writing with for 25 years said, ‘This is the book you are meant to write. You have to write it.’  And that pushed me to do it, and it was both pleasure and pain!

FM: What drew you to Isabella Stewart Gardner?

BAS: She was a woman way before her time. She was living in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century when women were supposed to know their place and they just did what their husbands said. And there was this [Boston] Brahmin society that had rules, rules, rules about everything—what you wore, where you went, to whom you spoke—and she just said, ‘screw it. I’m gonna be who I am.’  She amassed this fabulous art collection when women didn’t do it at all.  She used to hold soirees in her home filled with writers and artists of the day, mostly men, which was also something women weren’t supposed to do. She walked lines down Boylston Street; she went to the symphony wearing a headband that said ‘Go Red Sox’; there are rumors of affairs and other things that women just didn’t do; and I was just totally taken with her. Originally, I wanted to do a Gore Vidal type biography of her, but she’s so overwhelming, and her life was so incredible, I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. But I had read all of these letters she wrote to [Bernard] Berenson, who was the art curator who helped her amass the collection, and decided to write her story through letters. So I created fictional letters from her point of view, which was great fun!

FM: Was there a particular place where you came up with this idea, were you in the Museum?

BAS: I spent a lot of time in her museum, so that Place had a profound effect on me. When she started this collection, she had it in her home.  She had a big brownstone on Beacon Street.  And then she got so many paintings that they bought the house next door, broke down the shared wall, and filled it up.  But then when she ran out of room there, she decided to build what is now the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, called Fenway Court.  She lived in it with her collection, and planned to, when she died, leave it to the public.  So being there, and feeling her, and feeling the place that she had created had a very powerful effect [on me]. But the part of her story that interested me the most was her going to Europe where I’ve spent a lot of time. I love Paris, so I got to set some of the scenes there; and I love Venice, and got to do a little bit with Venice. Those were the two cities she loved the most. And to me, Time is a Place.  This late nineteenth-century world, and all of these artists and writers who were in it, is a fascinating place to be. So I really loved that too. I don’t know if you’ve thought about that…Time as Place?  I’m working on a book now that takes place just before World War II in New York City.  So it’s the depression and they’re coming into the war, and the politics are this and that—I’m fascinated with Time as Place—what’s going on in 1939 in the United States as a head.

So where Isabella Stewart Gardner was in Time defined who she was in her breaking out of it. Where Claire is in time, in the present, in this particular society, it touches on the idea of what gives something value. You know, you have a 50 million dollar Degas, and it’s been hanging in a museum, and people have walked by it and everybody loves it, and it’s beautiful, and they take pleasure it in, and then you determine that it’s a forgery—now it’s worth nothing. So is the pleasure that people took from it not pleasure anymore? What is it that gives something value?  Today, in our society, the Kardashians have value; whereas all these struggling artists and writers don’t?  So that’s also a Place in a sense.

FM: Who are your favorite writers and books?

BAS: I have many! I have, like, a top 50 list, and it keeps shifting… My inspiration for writing was when I read Gone with the Wind when I was about 8 or 9 years old.  I was a very voracious reader early.  I read it and I remember saying to my mother, ‘I wanna write.’ I wanted to write novels, I wanted to tell stories like Margaret Mitchell. She may not be my all-time favorite, but she probably had the most profound effect on me. And it’s criticized for many things, but whoa is that one hell of a story.

FM: It was her only book, wasn’t it?

BAS: It was her first and only novel…but if you write Gone with the Wind, you really don’t have to write anything else!

FM: And finally, here at Literary Traveler, we are doing a series called ‘One True Sentence’  inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s idea that “All you have to do is write one true sentence.  Write the truest sentence that you know.” Is there one sentence that is like that for you?  Either from your own work, or simply a sentence that has inspired you?

BAS:  “Once a piece of art crawls into your heart, you’ll never let it go.” The Art Forger

The End