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Dani Shapiro on her new novel 'Signal Fires'


Dani Shapiro's new novel begins with a crash but also contemplation. Let's ask the author to read from the very beginning of her new novel, "Signal Fires."

DANI SHAPIRO: (Reading) And it's nothing really or might be nothing or ought to be nothing. As he leans his head forward to press the tip of his cigarette to the car's lighter, it sizzles on contact, a sound particular to its brief moment in history when cars have lighters and otherwise sensible 15-year-olds choke down Marlboro Reds and drive their mother's Buicks without so much as a learner's permit. There's a girl he wants to impress. Her name is Misty Zimmerman. And if she lives through this night, she will grow up to be a magazine editor or a high school teacher or a defense lawyer. She will be a mother of three or remain childless. She will die young of ovarian cancer or live to know her great-grandchildren. But these are only a few possible arcs to a life, a handful of shooting stars in the night sky. Change one thing, and everything changes. A tremor here sets off an earthquake there. A faultline deepens. A wire gets tripped. His foot on the gas.

SIMON: Dani Shapiro joins us now from New York. Thank you so much for being with us.

SHAPIRO: It's wonderful to be with you.

SIMON: Wow. Does the selfless gesture Sarah, the older sister, undertakes for her brother wind up burdening their whole family?

SHAPIRO: Yeah, exactly. I mean, the Wilf family at the end of that evening has a shared secret - not just keeping it from the rest of the world, but keeping it from each other, never speaking of it within their family. And the novel in so many ways is about the aftermath.

SIMON: Yeah. And it's a very engaging family, the Wilfs. I mean, Ben, the father, is a doctor and, from the evidence we are allowed to see, a very good doctor, although he does make one mistake - his spouse, Mimi; Sarah, their daughter; Theo, their son. But tell us about the little boy across the street.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, the little boy's name is Waldo Shenkman. And when I began the novel, I really began by imagining Waldo and Ben. And the image that I had was of this older man, a doctor, standing in his home, and it's his last night in this home. He's alone. His children aren't there. And he's looking out the window. And across the street, Division Street, he sees this 11-year-old boy who is at his window, and he's holding what Ben thinks of as a contraption - turns out it's an iPad, but iPads were very new then. He's holding this contraption up to the sky because Waldo is obsessed with the cosmos. And so there are these two lonely people at the very outset of "Signal Fires" who are lonely in very different ways.

SIMON: Chapters move between 1985, 2010, 1999, 2020, 2014, 1970. I might be leaving out a few. What do you want us to discover in this shift between times and years?

SHAPIRO: It was really when I discovered the structure of those shifts in time that I discovered the novel. I had started "Signal Fires" 15 years ago, and I couldn't crack it. And at the start of the pandemic, I found it again. And the thought that went through my mind - and it was like a lightning bolt - was, and now it's 2020. Who would these people be in 2020?

SIMON: One of the many pleasures of this novel is the attention and the honor you do to professionalism and craft - Dr. Wilf's medical technique, Sarah's screenwriting. Let me get you to talk about Theo, who becomes a fancy, temperamental chef in Brooklyn.

SHAPIRO: His love of cooking begins with his mother when he's a boy growing up cooking with her. It's a place of comfort for him, and this becomes for him what saves him.

SIMON: I got to ask you about a line that has seared itself into me. Ben Wilf has come to believe we live in loops rather than one straight line.

SHAPIRO: I'm so glad that you - that that sentence meant something to you because it really meant something to me. We always carry our past with us. We always carry all the selves we've ever been. Like - you know, like a series of Russian dolls, they're always inside of us. And in some way or another, I think we're also carrying our future selves or our imagined future selves that we're not. I mean, time marches inexorably forward and in one respect, in the way that we experience it, but in another way it feels like there are all of these wormholes, if you will, all of these ways in which we are able to experience the totality of time. And I know that in the rare times for myself that I've been able to feel that, I am at my most alive.

SIMON: To borrow from your own words again, does the air shimmer with everyone we've ever loved?

SHAPIRO: I experience it that way. When I put this book in the drawer 15 years ago, I had a lot more life to live to be able to really tell this story. I'll tell you one very extraordinary, mystical thing that is part of the book, which is that - so I began the book 15 years ago. And then about seven years later, I discovered that my dad, who raised me, had not been my biological father. I created the character of Ben Wilf seven or eight years before I made that discovery. He is just like my biological father. He has the same medical profession. He looks like him. He very much has his nature. What does that mean, that I imagined and conjured this fully fleshed out character that was not - you know, was not something in any way based on someone that I knew existed?

SIMON: All right, I have chills now (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Yeah, so talk about shimmer. I mean, there's your shimmer.

SIMON: Dani Shapiro's new novel, "Signal Fires." Thank you so much for being with us.

SHAPIRO: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.