Dani Shapiro’s ‘Hourglass’ Explores A Marriage Over Time
In her new memoir, Hourglass (Knopf), Dani Shapiro of Litchfield County excavates and celebrates her marriage of nearly 20 years to screenwriter/director Michael Maren. In her previous critically acclaimed memoirs—Slow Motion and Devotion —Shapiro has put her personal history under the microscope to come to terms with her parents’ deeply flawed marriage and to search for a meaningful spiritual practice.
Now, Shapiro focuses the lens on life with her husband and teenage son, Jacob, and the hard realities of looking into the rearview mirror in late-middle age: “Some things that definitely won’t happen,” she writes poignantly. “We won’t have more children; we won’t host big family reunions; we won’t own a compound where generations will spend summer weekends playing badminton and roasting s’mores. Jacob won’t grow up in the city. I won’t enroll in a doctoral program to become a psychoanalyst, nor will I go to rabbinical school. M. and I will not move to Nairobi, where he will be based as a correspondent. He will not accept a job from the CIA, or the World Bank.”
Shapiro has two readings this month in the Rural Intelligence region — on Wednesday, May 17, at the Merritt Bookstore to kick off the Millbrook Literary Festival, and on Thursday, May 18, as part of the White Hart Inn’s Speaker Series in Salisbury. She took time from her cross-country book tour to chat with RI co-founder Dan Shaw, who profiled her for The New York Times in 2013, after she had appeared on Oprah’s “Super Soul Sunday.”
In Slow Motion, you wrote unflinchingly about your “difficult” mother while she was still alive. In Hourglass, you expose your husband’s dreams deferred. “Where does hope go when it vanishes,” you write. “Does it live in a place where it attaches itself to other lost hopes? And what does that place look like? Is it a wall? A sea? Is it the soft bafflement I sometimes see in my husband’s eyes?” Who was it more challenging to write about?
In one sense it was easier to write about my husband and my marriage, because my marriage is much less conflicted than my relationship with my mother was. In Hourglass, I was attempting to write about a happy marriage from inside of it — to ask the question, what does it mean to walk alongside someone over time? It was, of course, still terrifying, because I wanted to tell the truth of my marriage without betraying it. Writing about my mother, on the other hand, meant writing about a thorny, enormously complex relationship. She was the single most challenging person in my life, but still, I never wanted to hurt her, so I tried to be careful, while still telling my story, a story which, by necessity, had to involve her.
Why did you call Michael “M” in the book?
It was an intuitive decision — and I think it came from two places. First, in a literary sense I just thought it was more poetic. Virginia Woolf, often when writing about Leonard, referred to him as “L.” And Mary Oliver, when writing about her longtime partner Molly Malone Cook, referred to her as “M” as well. It may also be that it made it purer, in a sense, to think of Michael as a character, which is what a writer of memoir must do, with herself and those she writes about.
Did Michael read every word of the final galley? Did Jacob?
Michael not only read every word of the final galley, but he read every word as I was writing Hourglass. He’s always been my first and best reader, and writing this book was no different. In a way, we were able to work together in the same way we always have. To put aside the fact that this was “us” and talk about the book in a literary sense. At the same time, Michael had total veto power, as far as I was concerned. If he had asked me not to write the book, I simply wouldn’t have. As for Jacob, he didn’t read Hourglass (by his own choice) until it was a finished book. It must be weird to read about your parents, and to a lesser degree, yourself, but he’s the kid of two writers, and he understands and thrives on the creative process. He told me he loves Hourglass, and that means more to me than just about any reaction from anyone else!
You are forthright that writing and promoting your books (especially on Facebook and Instagram) is the way you make a living and not about ego.
I can’t imagine what writing out of ego would be like. The writing life is way too fraught and full of indignities and rejection to be approaching it from an egoic place. If I can make the distinction, I don’t write my books in order to make a living (god knows there are easier ways to make a living!) but it is how I make my living, it is my “job.” And these days, a writer can’t simply publish a book and go back in the cave to write another one. I’m fortunate in that Knopf, my publisher, is sending me on a significant (26-city) book tour for Hourglass, and there’s a lot I enjoy about it — meeting readers, connecting with booksellers, traveling, running into friends I don’t get to see much. I think readers really appreciate meeting writers whose work they’ve responded to.
What aspect(s) of the book have readers reacted to most strongly?
It seems readers are seeing themselves, their own marriages, partnerships, relationships in Hourglass — whether they’re at the beginning of a romantic relationship or well into a committed one. I’ve had it said to me that every mother-of-the-bride should give her daughter Hourglass, and I really love that, almost as if the book is a glimpse into the future, after the bouquet and the champagne and wedding cake. But I have also had readers who have been married 50 or 60 years tell me that I got something right about contented long-time partnerships, and that means a great deal to me.