Inside Shapiro’s Writing Process

            The “One Book, Tri-Town” program has now officially concluded, but not without a grand finale that found the Mattapoisett Public Library meeting room packed to capacity on May 19 to hear best-selling novelist Barbara A. Shapiro talk about her book, The Muralist

            For the past several months, Tri-Town residents have had the opportunity to participate in a wide variety of public events with themes that touched on the programs developed by the WPA or events surrounding The Great Depression.

            Shapiro’s novel, The Muralist, was center stage throughout the weeks leading up to the finale as readers devoured that book and then plunged into others with plot lines and settings that added to the overall theme – American artists and artistic invention pre-WWII.

            Now, if you think the subject matter was purely academic, you’d be very wrong. For while Shapiro is herself an academic (PhD in sociology) and while she employs linear thinking (i.e. spreadsheets and index cards), both sides of her brain are fully engaged as she develops personalities for the many characters that populate the landscapes in her novels.

            All this was humorously brought to light as local journalist Lauren Daley sat down with Shapiro to discuss her books and writing methodologies.

            Shapiro said as a child she had dreamed of becoming an artist. Her childhood was rich with opportunities to visit museums during family vacations and her parents had provided not only materials to express her budding artistic predisposition, they also gave her a studio space in their home. She was quickly disabused of the notion she’d have a career as an artist, but her deep interest in the arts remained. Years later it would manifest itself in her writing.

            Shapiro explained that writing was a critical part of who she is, but that when her children were small, she wrote only while they were in school. Once the kids were on their way she could focus on writing.

            “I write,” she said. “I don’t cook: I don’t garden: I don’t have any hobbies – I write.”

            With all her novels, Shapiro uses research skills that she has honed over the decades. She described elaborate processes for character development and explained how plot lines could shift, endings could change, and lovers may roam at will. In the theater of her mind, long before a single word is crafted, scenes are played out and explored, planted in rich soils to grow then maybe pruned or plowed under.

            Of writing The Muralist, Shapiro said her first draft took her two years to finish.

            “It was one of the more difficult books to write,” she said.

            There were nine total rewrites, she said. “Every page was probably rewritten twenty times.” But it is the process of securing data points and doing the research on her subject matter that inspires, she shared. “The research gives you ideas.”

            The era of the book’s setting is one that Shapiro truly enjoys visiting. Her appreciation of the importance of the WPA, how it granted artists the opportunity to produce works and explore their own individual capabilities at a time when economic suffering plagued the country, could be summed up this way: “I simply love Eleanor!”

            Shapiro was able to take Eleanor Roosevelt and weave her into the storyline. When asked what she would wish to discuss with Eleanor if she could do so she said, “Well, she was gay, but where did she get the courage as a lesbian in those times? I’d love to talk to her about that.” 

            Shapiro entertained her audience with details of how she brought each character to life in her novels, the difficulties of writing historical fiction, and the joy of having creative freedom to take her creations wherever she wished, to allow them to be more than what pure history had assigned to them.

            There was some discussion on the publishing process itself and the strain of having to let go in some areas of the novel, like the cover art for instance. There was also the effort required to get a book in the hands of consumers, and to get the number of units sold to satisfy the publisher. Yet, all this paled in comparison to having one’s own artistic endeavor become a bestseller.

            After the success of her earlier novel, The Art Forger, Shapiro’s emotions were “flying high,” as she put it. That success gave her the incentive to write The Muralistand, more recently, The Collector’s Apprentice.

            Having completed what could be referred to as a trilogy, Shapiro says her next book places her characters in a rather unique environment, one where people from disparate walks of life might meet.

            “They could all have contact at a self-storage facility,” she said.

            Her audience roared with laughter.

            The One Book, Tri-Town event was sponsored in part by the Marion, Mattapoisett, and Rochester Cultural Councils, Friends of the Mattapoisett and Rochester Public Libraries, and the library trustees. To learn more about Barbara Spiro you may visit

By Marilou Newell

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