B.A. Shapiro is the author of THE ART FORGER, a literary thriller about the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist that spans three centuries of forgers, art thieves, and obsessive collectors, revealing both the beauty of the artist’s vision and the ugliness the desire for great art can unleash. Booklist praised THE ART FORGER as “an entrancingly visual, historically rich, deliciously witty, sensuous, and smart tale of authenticity versus fakery.” Writing as Barbara Shapiro, she is the author of five suspense novels: THE SAFE ROOM, BLIND SPOT, SEE NO EVIL, BLAMELESS and SHATTERED ECHOES as well as the non-fiction book, THE BIG SQUEEZE. She lives in Boston and teaches creative writing at Northeastern University.
Q. What is your response when people ask you what the book is about?
Barbara: The first thing I do is assess whether they know anything about the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist, and tell them about it if they don’t. Then I begin: The novel is set against the backdrop of the heist and is the story of a struggling artist who makes the proverbial deal with the devil to forge a painting in exchange for $50,000 and her own one-woman show at the largest art gallery in Boston, which will catapult her career – which is flagging due to a previous scandal involving a past relationship with a married art professor which has made her a pariah in the art community. (a long sentence, I know). When the painting she is to forge is delivered to her, she discovers it’s a Degas stolen during the heist – and all she gets is trouble, trouble, trouble after that.
Q. What first got you interested in writing a novel involving Isabella Stewart Gardner and her museum?
Barbara: The backstory 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” headband. She also wasn’t afraid to assert herself and become the first major art collector in the United States – man or woman.
Q. You didn’t set out to write a contemporary novel about art forgery. What changed as you went through the planning, research, and/or writing processes?
Barbara: 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, at the time, called Fenway Court. This limited the scope of the novel, so I included the story of the robbery at her museum in 1990, in which 500 million dollars’ 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. Eventually, 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.
Q. You’ve written many novels, as well as screen plays, and you teach writing at Northeastern University as well, so we’re curious about your writing process. Do you do much planning beforehand, or just take off and write? When, and where, do you do most of your writing?
Barbara: 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.
Q. It’s a characteristic of your work that your characters are faced with complex moral dilemmas to which there are no easy answers. This novel blurrs the lines between right and wrong (and doing the wrong thing for the right reason), which makes it morally complex and thrilling to read. Your heroine hungers to be known through her art, to be acknowledged even as she’s doing suspect things. At one point, a character talks about how if someone gets real pleasure from a painting and doesn’t realize it’s a forgery, what’s the problem? Can you talk about this?
Barbara: First, I think life is very muddy: that good people do bad things and bad people do good things, that depending on your perspective a bad thing can be a good thing and vise versa. There are no blacks and whites, just lots of grays, and in some ways, this is the premise of the book. We see what we want to see, not what’s necessarily there, and these perceptions affect the value attributed to that object or person. Which gets to the question of how a society bequeaths celebrity and authenticity, and art forgery is the perfect metaphor. A Degas painting is admired and acclaimed, considered priceless, for over a hundred years, and then it’s determined to be a forgery. Is this painting no longer to be admired? Is it any less beautiful? Is it now worth nothing? Is this any different for an undiscovered artist – or perhaps an undiscovered writer, like myself?
Q. Your book weaves the present-day story of Claire Roth, Claire’s backstory, and the story of Isabella Stewart Gardner. How did you handle the weaving of the historical and the contemporary stories?
Barbara: There actually are three stories in the book: the present story about the eponymous Claire Roth, Claire’s backstory which takes place three years earlier and the story of Isabella Stewart Gardner and Edgar Degas which takes place in the late nineteenth century. I developed each story separately, using charts and diagrams and other such obsessive tools, and then pulled each one apart and put them back together as a whole in which one story pushed the next story forward which pushed the next story forward. It was really fun.
Q. Can you pick a line or scene from the novel that’s a particular favorite, and tell us why?
Barbara: 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 Goggles “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.
Q. So many aspiring writers think once you get published, you’ve got it made. Your own experience shows that isn’t so, even though you’re a terrific writer. Can you talk a little bit about the journey, and how you kept going during the “dark” years?
Barbara: Ah, the dark years… Between 1992 and 2004, I had five suspense novels published by some major houses. My career was supposed to be on an upward swing, and I wrote the sixth book with high hopes. Unfortunately HarperCollins, my publisher at the time, wasn’t interested – and neither was my agent. I spent quite a bit of time trying to get a new agent, found one, but she was unsuccessful. So I wrote another book. Same thing. So I wrote another book. Same thing. As you can imagine, I was pretty depressed, thought about stopping and started teaching writing at Northeastern University while I decided. My fabulous writers’ group, family and friends convinced me to give it one more try. I decided to just write the book I wanted to write, not worrying about genre or the marketplace, and when I finished, my new agent – Ann Collette at Rees Agency in Boston – sent it out. Rejection, rejection, rejection. Now I really was ready to quit, but Anne wouldn’t let me. She sent it back out, it landed on Amy Gash’s desk at Algonquin, and here I am staring my big break in the eye twenty-five years after I started in the writing game.
Q. In a recent book talk, you spoke about this book being “well published.” Can you explain what that means, and what your experience with Algonquin has been like?
Barbara: Although it comes as a shock to most people outside the book business, publishers do not promote the vast majority of their books. It’s very expensive and time-consuming to get behind a book, and many publishers choose one or two “big” books and let the rest of their list stand – or more likely, fall – on their own. These large publishers may put out between 50-100 books a month, and it just isn’t possible to back them all. This is what happens to most authors.
Algonquin Books – the best publisher ever from a writer’s point of view – works on a completely different model. They publish approximately 25 books a year – and get behind every one of them. As my editor once told me, “We can’t afford for a book to fail.” They back each book with a multi-person marketing and publicity team with some of the smartest and most talented people in the field, all of whom work their butts off for you. And they put money behind their efforts. Since last June, they’ve sent me to bookseller conventions in Florida, Colorado, Rhode Island and California and have set me up on a 30-city tour. They’ve also given away galleys (printed at least 3,000) and now finished books to booksellers, librarians, bloggers, and just about every news outlet in the country. Then they follow up on all of them. The Art Forger was named the #1 on the November Indie Next List and is on Fall Pick lists from Amazon, Publishers Weekly, Oprah’ O, Elle, Goodreads and more. No matter how good a book is, this doesn’t happen without being “well published” – and Algonquin gives you a hell of a cover to boot.