Dani Shapiro’s plaything is time and how it takes its toll on us. Over the last 30 years or so, she has written 11 books and given us three books of memoirs. She occasionally helped pay the bills by teaching others how to write about memory and the spaces it creates in our lives. She taught writing classes and workshops at various universities and in more informal settings including an annual writer’s workshop that takes place on the beautiful Amalfi Coast of Italy.
The success of her 2019 memoir, “Inheritance,” chronicles the search for the truth about how she was conceived during the early 1960s, when fertility clinics were relatively new and ethical considerations were lax. It was a secret her parents kept from her until she discovered it herself, after she mailed in a do-it-yourself genetics test and discovered she wasn’t exactly the Ashkenazic Jew she had always imagined herself to be.
It debuted at No. 11 on the New York Times best-seller list and took off. It won a National Jewish book award and was on many of the best book lists for the year. She even showed up in Temple Sinai in Sandy Springs where it was standing room only in the main sanctuary. It helped launch a successful podcast about family secrets that has had millions of downloads.
In “Signal Fires,” her novel that came out two years ago this month, she combines her penchant for the role that memory plays in our lives with the secrets that we keep from the world and even our own families.
Like “Inheritance,” it has received rapturous critical reception and won another National Jewish Book Award.
It was on my AJT list of best book bets for 2022 that didn’t make it into that year’s festival in Dunwoody. Not surprisingly she’s currently working on a screenplay based on the book for television.
But unlike her own family memoir, which adopts a strong, focused, narrative timeline, “Signal Fires” gives Shapiro an opportunity to play with her conception of time that she has found so appealing.
It first takes us back to 1970 to describe how a fatal automobile accident has impacted the lives of two families in Westchester County, N.Y. Over the course of the novel, Shapiro leads us back and forth over the years, 1970, 1999, 2014, 2020, before bringing us back to 1985 to awaken in us the power that our thoughts and our secrets have over our lives, sometimes in ways we scarcely understand. One reviewer called “Signal Fires,” “the intersections of time and memory, the reality of the human soul and the unexpected bonds between strangers.”
Shapiro, who speaks almost as beautifully as she writes, has had plenty of time to polish her thoughts during the past two years. She should have a number of profound insights about the subject she has chosen to write about.
Her interviewer, Jessica Handler, who like Shapiro is a novelist and educator, should have little difficulty leading the author at the MJCCA Book Festival through her journey over time and memory, and the impact it has on human connections. But get there early. The event is free and good seats go fast.
Dani Shapiro is at the MJCCA Book Festival at 7:30 p.m., Nov. 9.