Aug 1, 2014
David Shapiro Is (Maybe) Not Much Use to Anyone
I met David Shapiro outside his apartment in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, around 11 on a Wednesday morning. We shook hands, and he told me this was the first interview for his recently published novel, You’re Not Much Use to Anyone, that he’d done at home. Honored, I followed him up four flights to the sunny, quiet apartment he shares with two roommates.
David Shapiro is not David Shapiro’s real name, but a pseudonym he adopted in order to protect his identity when he began writing the Tumblr Pitchfork Reviews Reviews.
I sat down on a weathered, mid-century leather sofa facing a large television across a cluttered coffee table with drop leaves, under which was a teeming collection of DVDs. Facing me was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Just as he sat down on an adjacent couch, David hopped up to fetch me something. He brought back a small, red pill and handed it to me. “Just let it dissolve in your mouth,” he said. “What is it?” “It’s a B-12. It just makes you feel good.” Not in the habit of accepting pills from strangers, I thanked him and then, when he’d turned his back, I dropped it into my tote bag. (Sorry, David.)
He lay down on the couch beneath the windows, which was draped in a photo blanket of him and the rapper J. Cole at the Museum of Natural History that he’d bought on a dare (kind of), and we started talking.
Brooklyn Magazine: Is that the Seinfeld coffee table book box set?
David Shapiro: Yeah, I watch it every night before I go to sleep. When I first started watching Seinfeld every night, it made me think about people who you see reading the Bible and you think, “Don’t you already know the story? Like, don’t you already know what happens?” They’re not reading it for the plot. And then when I started watching Seinfeld every night I was like, “Oh, I get it. That’s, like, their comfort thing.”
It actually makes me feel, like, a little religious in a weird way? A friend of mine has never seen Seinfeld.
Yeah. And, like, her best friend is just a normal person who has seen Seinfeld, and so they set out on this project to watch the entire series. I’m doubtful she’ll appreciate it, coming at it at this point, you know? It’s not The Wire, you can’t just sit down and be like, “Oh my god.”
Yeah, it’s just about a way of seeing and thinking about the world. I feel like it’s more of a philosophy. I think there are a lot of times in Seinfeld where the creators try to make it known to the audience that they don’t think living in this really selfish way is the way you’re supposed to live, you know? But at the end, when they all go to jail for being bad people, it’s such a ham-fisted way of saying that living this selfishly is a terrible idea.
Yeah. I’m not a fan of the finale. I mean, I don’t know how else you could end it, except with, like, a normal episode and then it just stops.
Yeah! I think that woulda been the way to go. Originally, my book had twelve chapters, and one of the first edits that my editor suggested was just lopping off the last two chapters. He said, “This feels like sort of a perfunctory ending,” and I said, “But it we lop off the last two chapters, then there isn’t an ending, It just… stops, you know what I mean? Like, there isn’t sort of a resolution.” And he was like, “That’s a more natural way of ending it.”
I feel like the ending is sort of disappointing because there’s no resolution, but I’d rather leave the reader wanting more than feeling sated. I feel like a lot of really good albums are ten songs or twelve songs—you know, they’re 33 minutes long, and when they’re done, you think, “I really wanna hear the next album.” I feel like it’s a smart way to do that.
I actually liked the ending. I thought it made sense.
The book is a series of scenes, and I just thought, these are some things that I’ve observed, and some things that happened to me, and some ways I felt about them, but you as the reader have as good a chance at figuring out what this all means as I do. I think my editor’s suggestion to lop off the last 15 percent of the book was thinking along those lines. You don’t need a conclusion, it just is what it is.
Do you think that’s a trend? Not only in books, but also in broader culture, that things don’t necessarily have this neat and tidy ending that people are more comfortable with?
I don’t know, I mean, maybe it’s a trend… I don’t read that many books, I’ve read, like, fifteen books for pleasure in my life so I don’t know what’s happening, like, in literature. Although in Emily Gould’s book [Friendship], the ending is… not neat, but it is more of an ending, and it does feel really good and satisfying.
But that book is about a relationship, a friendship, and in my book there are no substantial relationships. The character doesn’t really connect with anyone. So it would’ve been hard to have an ending where there’s some resolution, like in a relationship, when no real connections have been established in the first place.
So what made you decide to write the novel after you’d been doing Pitchfork Reviews Reviews?
Well, one, I had been dating a girl who was working on her novel, and she wouldn’t tell me anything about it, and then she broke up with me. And I thought it’d be a really sweet way to get back at her—to write a book first. And so that sort of motivated it.
But also, I felt like I’d been given a lot of opportunities in my life. My parents provided a platform for me to do kind of whatever I wanted to do, and when I was twenty-one I just felt like I had done nothing, like I had failed. I hadn’t failed in a train wreck way, but I just hadn’t made anything of any opportunity that had been given to me. And then after the blog had become popular in this tiny world, I felt like for the first time I had done something successful—successful in obviously a really micro way.
But it was something tangible. Like, here’s this thing I made.
Yeah. And people seemed to read—even if they hate-read it, they still clicked on it. There was something there.
It’s like with reviews—if you get a good review, it’s great; if you get a bad review, it’s still good, because at least they read it. And if you get no review, that’s the worst. Even if people were clicking on it because they hated me and thought I was making a fool of myself, they still were clicking on it.
But then after a while I just ran out of things to say and I couldn’t do it. I had no gas left in the tank, and I felt like the one good thing I’d ever done I couldn’t do anymore. So I guess I wanted to memorialize it, so that I could remember it. So that when I was fifty I could read it and remember the time. Even if it wasn’t pleasant, it was something I wanted to remember.
I didn’t know anything about the publication of books. I think I had the assumption that if I wrote a book that someone would definitely publish it. Because there’s not an infinite supply of completed books, like, they’ve gotta publish something. It didn’t dawn on me that it wouldn’t be published until maybe after a year. I’d done a bunch of meetings with publishers and I had been totally unable to sell it. Someone asked me, “What’s the elevator pitch for this book?” And I was like, I have no idea. It’s a book, about a blog, about a popular music website? I didn’t know how to sell it, at all. But even after I’d made peace with the fact that it would not be published, I was still glad that it existed, because I could read it when I was older.
I talked to one of the authors who blurbed the book, Adelle Waldman, who wrote The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. I read that book and it made me feel like I was sitting at the kids’ table of writing books. She said she wrote her first book when she was twenty-nine or thirty, I think, and it was never published. And she said that she felt obviously upset that it was not published, because she spent a really long time writing it, but then after The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. came out, she said she was glad that it had never been published because she was embarrassed by it. She was like, “I’m glad that it can sit in a drawer, I’m glad that it exists, but in retrospect it’s probably a good thing that it wasn’t published, because it taught me how to write a novel.” And I think just because it’s a nice thing to have, to be able to read it later.
I wonder if the same thing should’ve happened to this book. Like, I’ll look back in years and think, “God, I can’t believe this has my face on it. Like, why did I do that.” But I go long periods without reading it, and I start to think, “Oh, it’s super, super bad.” But then I read it and I’m like, “Oh, this isn’t bad, this has some funny parts. There’s some decent stuff in here.”
Oh yeah. And it’s one of the few things I’ve read that captures that post-grad drift thing, like, you don’t really have a great job, and you want one but don’t really know what kind of a one. And then going out—like when the main character, David, goes out and is meeting all those bloggers for the first time and he doesn’t want to tell them what he does. I mean, I was sort of pseudo-employed for a year, and I totally recognize that! It’s such a rare thing to read so honestly.
Yeah, I wonder what people who don’t live in New York and aren’t around this age would think about it. It’s hard to have any perspective. Someone tweeted at me the other day with a picture of the book, something like, “Just got your book in the mail, I’m really excited to read it!” And I was like, Oh, sweet, a reader! Because I’m thankful for any person who reads it, like, demonstrates any interest. And then I read his Twitter bio and it was like, “Father, dog lover, believer in Christ.” And then the location line was Dallas, Texas. And I thought, like, whatever David Shapiro you think I am, it’s a different David Shapiro.
Like, whatever you think you bought… I wanted to be like, “I can give you a refund, I can explain myself. Like, we can talk about it.” Because it almost takes place in an alien world.
It’d be like reading a book set in Dallas, about a dad.
Yeah, but in a book by a dog lover in Dallas, there might be something in it that’s universally relatable. And I hope that there’s something in [my book] that a dog lover in Dallas might find universally relatable. But I don’t know if there is. When I first sent it to my agent, I was like, “Is this a book?” Now that it’s published it has book-like properties, such as being printed and bound, it has all the outward appearances of being a book.
I mean, the books I read are written by people around my age, who live, you know, within twenty blocks of here, who do similar things, for whom the Internet is often, like, a central catalyst of the plot in the book. And I know that there’s a wide world of books outside…
Beyond Brooklyn and the Internet.
Yeah, outside of Brooklyn and the Internet. And there are books about self-discovery, like, with symbolism and other stuff you learn about in high school English class. But I wouldn’t know how to write a book like that.
I think about Tao Lin, or someone like that, writing in a very specific mode and place.
If I hadn’t read Shoplifting from American Apparel I never could have written this book. Before I read Shoplifting I didn’t know that books could have conversations that were Gchats. I didn’t know that you could write about a specific neighborhood. I guess I didn’t know that you could write that specifically. Before I read that, it seemed like books had to have some universally relatable or imaginable circumstances. The main characters are a father and a son, and it takes place in a farmhouse by a river. But then to read about Gchat made me think that you could write a book like that. I just think Tao is a genius.
He wrote a post for the [New York] Observer about the state of the novel, and he writes with such a deep understanding of the history of the novel, and it makes me think that he could write anything that he wanted to. It’s like, Picasso could paint photorealistically, but instead paints weird faces with weird shapes. I think Tao could write the best John Grisham novel. He could write the best Eat, Pray, Love, with a little research.
You think of modern art—someone will study art and be an artist for forty years and then ultimately they’ll arrive at a place where they just splash paint on canvas and they’re like, “This is the sum of everything I have learned and come to understand.” And I feel like we come at writing from different places. Like, I couldn’t write in any other way than the book is written. That’s why Shoplifting is so significant to me. If I couldn’t write that way, I wouldn’t be able to write anything. I wouldn’t be able to write like Sherwood Anderson.
Did you start freelancing after the blog, or were you kind of doing that at the same time?
It was mostly after. Or, while I was doing it I started writing other places. I started writing for the Awl while I was writing my blog, at the end. When I first started writing for them, I thought they must be joking a little bit in allowing me to write for them. Like, even in publishing me, there must be some winking knowingness, like the editors knew that I was making a fool out of myself. But now I don’t think that that’s true. They might have just liked it.
Because it’s not my career, I don’t have that much to lose. I wrote a thing at the Awl a while ago about some party or other. Jann Wenner was there and he stirred the ice in his glass with his finger. There was another moment where someone spilled powdered sugar on Tina Brown’s shoulder, or something? Or she spilled powdered sugar on herself but she didn’t realize it? So she went through dinner with it [on her]—it was out of her line of sight. But I think I couldn’t have written stuff like that if it was my career, but I felt like the Awl recognized that if there’s someone willing to be a kamikaze about this, then… But yeah, writing for them was really nice. It was nice to be taken seriously, by anyone. So that’s how I started freelancing, writing for the Awl. Then I started writing about parties for the [Wall Street] Journal in a more formal way, and then a bunch of other places. I like freelancing. It’s fun, and because it’s not my career I get to do stuff I’m interested in, which is a great luxury.
I mean, already you have a career that people five, ten years older would dream of, just in terms of where you’ve written, which is awesome. It’s interesting to hear you describe it as not your career, even having had so much success. It’s not something you hear every day from people who are writing for these places.
I feel like I’m lucky to write for the people who I’ve written for, but I think part of what allows me to write stuff that’s sometimes good is knowing that I don’t have that much to lose. You know, it’s like with a romantic partner. Like, the less you seem interested in them the more they’re interested in you.
You must be doing a ton of these interviews. Do they get boring? Do you feel like you’re repeating yourself?
Sometimes I’m repeating myself, sometimes I have something new. [laughs] Generally the first question is, “How true is the book?” I thought about doing one interview that was entirely fictional and different from the others.
[laughs] Just to throw people off.
[laughs] But that would only be fun for, like, five seconds. If I was like, “I’m actually a forty-seven-year-old doctor. I live in Oklahoma and I did, like, a shitload of research.” [laughs] It would have to be a phone interview.
But yeah, especially given the way that we’re sitting [adjacent couches, him lying down and me sitting, listening attentively] it feels like free therapy, or something. But it’s weird, ’cause after I do an interview and I go hang out with my friends or something, I have to remember that my friends don’t really give that much of a shit. Like, my book is just a random blip on their radars. So I try not to talk about myself and the book, which I generally don’t do, except in this two-week period.
I was going to say, there are obviously parallels between your life and the fictional David’s life, and then also him in the book, and the fictional life he sets up, so you have sort of tiered fictional characters. Is it hard to think of yourself as going by a different name, socially? When you meet new people do you have to decide who you are?
I’m a little worried that people will read the book and think, “Oh, this is you”—like, not only “This is a representation of who you are” but “This is a complete representation of who you are.” People talk to me and then ascribe all the qualities of the narrator to me.
It’s the Lena Dunham problem, versus Hannah Horvath [on Girls]. People will talk about the show and say “When Lena does this…” and it’s like, Well, no, that’s the character.
It’s like, the narrator is part of me, whereas it’s all of the narrator. So I guess it’s weird to think of it as being a different character. Tao did an interview with the Believer where he said, “I don’t wanna talk about what’s a persona and what’s real, like, what’s authentic and what’s not authentic.” I think because he’s been being asked those questions for six years. I’ve been being asked them for, like, two weeks. So it’s still novel to talk about what’s authentic and what’s a persona. I’m just worried that people will think of me as the narrator. I have friends who were like, “I learned more about you in three hours of reading this book than I have in eight years of friendship.” And I want to think that’s not true, and that my relationships are fuller.
I’m seeing this girl who I talked to about the book a little bit, and eventually she was like, “Can I read it?” and I was like, “Sure,” so she took a copy and said that she read, like, fifty pages and said, “This is freaky, I can’t be in your head like this. It’s such a peculiar experience.” I understood that. I tried to think what it would be like if she had written a similar book and I was reading it. And it would freak me out, too, I think. I wouldn’t want to know that kind of stuff.
I have a deal with my parents where they can’t read it, because they don’t know me that way. They don’t want to know these details of their kid’s life. I wouldn’t want to know similar details of their lives. It would totally freak me out.
It’s interesting that there’s that kind of comfort zone.
I wonder what my friends think of it. I have a deal with my publisher where they can’t alert me to the existence of reviews. They can’t be like, “You got a good review here, read it,” or, “You got a bad review here, don’t read it.” The word “review” is verboten in our relationship.
But someone emailed me a month ago saying that they were gonna publish a negative review of my book, and they pre-apologized. They were like, “I have to publish a negative review but I see a lot of potential in you as a writer, I look forward to reading your next book.” And I responded very obsequiously, because I didn’t want to make them write an even worse review—like, “and in real life this kid’s a total dickhead.” But it was the kind of email where if they’d sent it to my publisher and asked them to forward it to me, my publisher would have known not to forward it to me. I felt like they had broken through my invisible wall of never coming into contact with any real feedback. Because, like, what would the point be? It’s almost definitely my last book, and so I’m not looking for tips on how to do the next one better. I can’t imagine a situation where reading a review would have a positive outcome for me.
There’s an interesting part in the book, too, when David realizes that he’s been writing about these Pitchfork writers and they exist, and he’s also getting feedback on his own stuff. It’s interesting when those sides of the Internet meet, two people on either end of a computer.
I know. The possibility of reviews hadn’t even entered my mind until I got this email. Like, the possibility that people would be thinking critically. I was like, Boy, do I live in a glass house here. People say, like, a hundred things about you on the Internet; ninety-eight of them will be nice, two of them will be mean, the nice ones are all instantly forgotten and the mean ones I’ll remember into, like, deep stages of dementia. I’ll be, like, seventy-three, I won’t be able to remember what I ate for breakfast, but I’ll remember the one time in 2010 when someone wrote, like, one cutting thing about my writing. I feel like if you don’t like the book, then you don’t like me. Which I know is not true. Someone might hate the book and then might like hanging out with me. But it’s hard to remember that.
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