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Barbara Shapiro: LibraryThing Entrevista a autor

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B. A. Shapiro teaches creative writing at Northeastern University. Her new novel, The Art Forger, was the top-requested book in the August Early Reviewers batch, and is just out from Algonquin Books.

What first got you interested in writing a novel centered on Isabella Stewart Gardner and her museum?

The back story of my first novel, Shattered Echoes, took place in Boston in the late nineteenth century. During research for the book, I met Isabella and fell for her. In that staid, oh-so-proper society, she wasn't afraid to be herself, to step out of the constrained female conventions of the day. She befriended artists and writers, mostly male, wasn't afraid to walk lion cubs down Boylston Street or go to the opera wearing a "Go Red Sox" hat. She also wasn't afraid to assert herself and become the first major art collector in the United States—man or woman.

How did you first envision the plot of the book, and what changed as you went through the planning, research, and/or writing processes?

Originally I planned to write a novelized biography about Belle Gardner, but as I did more research on her, I realized I was most interested in the years when she travelled the world to purchase her collection and built her home/museum, which was called Fenway Court at the time. This limited the scope of the novel, so I included the story of the robbery at her museum in 1990, in which $500 million worth of art was stolen. But as the heist is still unsolved, this also limited me; I didn't want to venture a solution and then have it proved wrong. So I set all of this against the background of a struggling artist in 2012 and added art forgery into the mix, which is where the plot ultimately ended up.

You obviously did extensive research for this novel: what were some of your most useful or favorite sources that you'd recommend to others?

Yes, the research was extensive – but also one of the parts I like the best about writing a novel. Two books in particular were extremely helpful. The Art Forger's Handbook, by Eric Hebborn, was an invaluable how-to about the intricacies of art forgery. The Letters of Bernard Berenson and Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1887-1924, edited by Rollin Van N. Hadley, gave me insight into both Belle's character and the somewhat crazed mind of a collector.

What do you think the chances are that some museums have high-quality forgeries hanging on their walls instead of the "real thing"?

100%. The New York Times estimates that 40% of all artwork put up for sale in any given year are forgeries. Theodore Rousseau—an expert from the Met—made the statement that, "We can only talk about the bad forgeries, the ones that have been detected. The good ones are still hanging on museum walls." And now with all the recent forgeries and forgers coming to light, is there really any other way to think?

Can you pick a line or scene from the novel that's a particular favorite, and tell us why?

This is such a hard question—it's like asking you to pick out your favorite trait in your favorite child. But there is a section in Chapter Four where Claire sits down at her computer and Googles "how art forgers make money." This is her first introduction to the dark world of forgery, rather than the legal world of art reproduction in which she works. She finds the information intriguing, feels the pull of self-recognition and realizes that there's no crime in copying a painting, that the criminal part doesn't come until a copy is put up for sale as the original—which means that the seller, not the painter, is the crook. This is a crucial turning point for her in the story.

Have you developed any theories about who might have been behind the Gardner heist? Do you think the stolen artworks will ever be returned to the museum?

I, along with hundreds of cops, art lovers and FBI agents, have my theories, but so far there is no proof to back any of them up. And it's now been 22 years since the robbery. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say it would be the work of the IRA, which at the time, was fighting against Great Britain. The heist was quite sloppy and amateurish, and it seems to me that the only way someone could have managed to get away with it is if they immediately got the artworks out of the country and plunged them deep into the black market as collateral for drugs, guns and/or money. Still, why haven't any of them surfaced in all this time? It doesn't make much sense, but yes, I do think they're out there and hopefully, someday, will be returned. My fingers are crossed that whoever has them is taking care of them.

Describe your writing process for us. Do you do much planning beforehand, or just take off and write? When, and where, do you do most of your writing?

I'm a very organized, structure-first writer. I do a good chunk of research and plot out the entire book before I start writing. Not that the plan doesn't change, it's just that I need to know there's a beginning, middle and end before I can start. I also make all kinds of plot and character charts, then keep numerous other tables and charts as I write. I can't imagine any other way to write a multi-story novel which shifts back and forth in time, but I know lots of writers who just sit down and go. I have a wonderful second-floor study in my home with a desk that sits in a bay window and looks out on a pedestrian park in the middle of Boston. I do almost all my writing from that perch.

What's your own library like? What types of books would we find on your shelves?

I have a very extensive library—so extensive that when we moved recently, a good chunk of the renovation process was focused on building bookshelves. I have a Ph.D. in sociology so there are many sociology, psychology, social theory and statistics books. I have been a voracious novel reader since I was eight and have multiple rooms with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with a wide range of novels, many nineteenth century, but most twenty and twenty-first.

Which books have you read and enjoyed recently?

I just finished Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea which I can't really say I "enjoyed" in the usual sense, but it's powerful, eye-opening and wonderfully written—if horrifying. I'm currently reading By Blood by Ellen Ullman and Life Among Giants by Bill Roorbach, both of which are wonderful novels.

Are you at work yet on a new project? Care to give us any hints about it?

I just finished a rough draft of a new novel: working title, Montage. It's set in pre-war New York City and is a literary thriller about an up-and-coming young French-American artist named Alizée, who disappears on the eve of WWII amidst personal and political turmoil. No one knows what happened to her. Not her Jewish family living in German-occupied France. Not her fiancée, recently escaped from the Vichy police and trying to make his way to neutral Portugal. Not her American boyfriend, a member of her gang of soon-to-be world-renowned abstract expressionists including Jackson Pollack, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko and Wilhelm de Kooning, all of whom work with Alizée in the WPA art program. And not her patron and protector, Eleanor Roosevelt. But maybe Joseph Kennedy, Charles Lindberg and J. Edgar Hoover do. All are arch isolationists afraid of the stir Alizée's interventionist paintings are causing in both artistic and political circles.

—interview by Jeremy Dibbell

Libros de Barbara Shapiro

Blind Spot (25 copias)
Shattered Echoes (21 copias)
Blameless (19 copias)

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Sobre las entrevistas a autores

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