Friday, September 28, 2012

B.A. Shapiro: The highs and lows of publishing

JAN BROGAN - This may be one of the happiest interviews I have ever posted on this blog.  Today, I am welcoming Barbara Shapiro, who I first met 23-years ago in a novel writing class.  We were both aspiring authors and we formed a writer's group. In the years that followed, we have beaten up each other up over structure and prose,  drank champagne over successes, (it became a rule) cried over disappointments (involuntary) and stuck together as others came and left our group. 

Barbara was the first to get published, but after five novels, she hit a  dry spell. For eight years, she couldn't get published and even with this last manuscript, The Art Forger, she heard a lot of rejection.  Inexplicable rejection. The book was terrific, which made the rejection worse. Editors kept saying it didn't fit neatly into one of their genres. After being insanely persistent, Barbara started talking about retiring from this crazy, nonsensical industry.  How much rejection, she asked me, can one person take?

But she had a wonderful agent, Anne Collette of the Rees Agency, who wouldn't give up and one day Barbara got the call we all wait for.  Algonquin Books wanted to publish The Art Forger.  Not much later, it became an in-house favorite. They started to view it as a big book. The publishers planned to send her on a 30-city tour.  Publishers Weekly named The Art Forger as  one of Ten Promising Titles of the 2012 BEA (Book Expo of America), Amazon chose it as Editor's Pick for fall;  The Art Forger was named the number 1 Indie Nextpick for November.

 The Art Forger, which Booklist praised as   “an entrancingly visual, historically rich, deliciously witty, sensuous, and smart tale of authenticity versus fakery," is about down-and-out Boston artist, Claire Roth who subsists on painting reproductions until she gets her big break.  Her big break arrives in the form of an offer from a Newbury Street galley owner and kingmaker who will give her her own show, if she agrees to forge a painting for him.  The painting he wants her to forge is Degas' After The Bath - one of the paintings stolen in the storied Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum heist. 

JAN:  How did you come up with the idea for The Art Forger?

B.A. Shapiro: I started with the idea of writing a novel about Isabella Stewart Gardner, which led me to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist in which $500 million dollars of art was stolen – the largest unsolved art robbery in history – which led me to art theft and art forgery. I suddenly had a book about many things at many different points in time, but no real story nor any idea of how to weave it all together. So I started playing with the idea of a contemporary character who might interact with all of the things I was so fascinated by, and after many iterations I came up with a working outline that became the skeleton for The Art Forger.

 JAN: The novel also interweaves the story of Isabella Gardner's procurement of the Degas painting. How did you handle the  historical and the contemporary stories?

B.A. Shapiro: 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.

JAN: How much of your own experiences with rejection helped inform the creation of Claire, your struggling protagonist?

B.A. Shapiro: It’s funny, when I was writing the novel, I wasn’t really thinking that Claire’s struggles were mine – I’m a writer after all and she’s an artist – but in retrospect, I’ve got to say that there are strong similarities. So much so that when I was doing the final edits for the book – once it had become clear that my publisher was getting behind it in a major way – I realized that I was experiencing the same emotions Claire had under similar circumstances. I guess I was being a wee bit thick.

JAN: How much do you think moving to Boston from the suburbs may have shaped this novel?

B.A. Shapiro: A lot. In two different ways. The first is that I could suddenly walk to hundreds of museums and art galleries, which I took great advantage of. I visited as many as I could, multiple times, took classes at the MFA and joined a group that wandered museums and galleries with an artist/art historian who opened my eyes to everything art. The second is that we moved to the South End of Boston, home to many artists, which is where Claire lives and works.

JAN: How did you survive the eight years you went unpublished? What kept you going and what advice would you give other authors struggling in this tough market climate?

B.A. Shapiro: The support of my family and my friends as well as a driving desire to tell stories. It wasn’t easy – and I’m not sure “survived” is even the correct term – after five published novels I wrote four more that couldn’t find a home. I was thinking about a career change when The Art Forger was acquired by Algonquin Books after many, many rejections by other publishers. I immediately bagged the change idea and started writing a new novel. As far as advice goes, all I can say is that sometimes – not always – but sometimes when you want something badly enough, it can happen. You’ve just got to get your butt into the chair so that you’re there when it strikes.

JAN: The Art Forger doesn't hit the shelves until mid-October, but you can pre-order it online today.  Barbara will be stopping by to ask any questions you have about the book or how to stay positive in this grueling business. 

One name will be chosen at random from the comments page to receive a free copy of The Art Forger, stop by with your questions or comments for Barbara.

And please come back  tomorrow when John Barylick talks about why he had to write Killer Show, America's Deadliest Rock Concert, a narrative non-fiction account of  The Station Nightclub fire that killed more than 100 people in 2003.  It's like Christmas around here at Jungle Red, three free copies will be given away.


  1. Barbara, I think you win the prize for Persistence! Well, you and Ann, clearly. I can't wait to read the book. And the next one, and the next one...

  2. Congratulations, Barbara, on a simply fabulous book -- it deserves all the pre-pub buzz! I'm so happy for you!!

    A lot of us have had to press RESET after an initial run of five novels. It's great to see it followed by what is already a smashing success.

    My questions:
    What did you learn about Belle that you didn't know?
    Do you think those paintings are still out there?
    Do you think it was an inside job as I've seen speculated?

  3. Barbara, this is such a wonderful story--couldn't be happier for you! Have you retired the other novels permanently or will you go back to them?

  4. I suppose all of this simply proves once again that not giving up on something that is important to you is, in the end, rewarded. Lucky thing for all of us, who now get to read “The Art Forger.” Congratulations! Your book sounds fascinating and I am looking forward to reading it. [And I hope those other four books will ultimately find their way into print as well.]

  5. One line tells the story why The Art Forger was published: She had a wonderful agent, Ann Collette, who wouldn't give up.
    Best wishes for the two of you.

  6. This book has been on my radar for months now. Having read this backstory, I'm even more excited about it.

    The plot sounds delicious.


  7. Oh wow, I love that you didn't give up and love that The Art Forger has become "A Big Book!" Yay!!!! The book grabbed my attention the very first time I read anything about it and pre-ordered it that very day. I'm very excited to see you here and read your story.

    And I'm interested in hearing your answers to Hallie's questions. The Isabella Steward Garnder Museum is fascinating, as is she and, of course, so is the mystery of the heist. Cannot WAIT to read this book!

  8. The Art Forger sounds fascinating. I found myself actually exclaiming out loud when I read that Claire was asked to forge the Degas. Can't wait to read the book and glad Algonquin came through.
    Barbara, could you talk a bit about anything your writers group might have done that helped you persist?
    And, like Hallie, I'd like to know your thoughts on the heist and the probability of recovery? Do you think Gentile is involved?

  9. Thanks to Edith, Joan, Brenda, Kaye, Lucy, Giora -- and yes, Ann Collette is great -- and everyone else for your kind words. As you read in Jan's piece, this is all new to me, and I'm a pretty blown away by it all.

    To answer Skipper's question: I absolutely could not have persisted without my writers' group. It was, as Jan said, an amazing support group in both success and failure.

    To answer Hallie's question about Belle: I think the most surprising thing I discovered about her was that in the last years of her life, she was pretty much living in poverty, saving every dime she had left -- she had spent multiple fortunes on the museum and its artwork -- to leave an endowment to keep the Gardner running after her death.

    About the heist, 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, the Irish Republican Army, which was at war with the British at the time. 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 to be used 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. And no, I don't think Gentile was involved.

    As to Hallie and Skipper's question about the Gardner Heist

  10. I can't wait to read this!

  11. Hi, Barb!!! I'm as thrilled today as Jan! (For those of you who don't know, Barb is one of my oldest writing buddies. We were fledgling writers together--we even set up our own book tours!) So this Big Book success is so well deserved, not only for your persistence, but because it's a GREAT book! Congrats, congrats, congrats, and a toast to you from Texas!

  12. Barbara, I just got Amazon money for my birthday and now I know what to spend it on. I love books that blend real characters and events with fiction and that put good people in a moral dilemma.

    I'm so glad your story had such a happy ending and the book found a home. This is a good moral for writers who have been dropped. KEEP BELIEVING!

  13. Hurray hurray hurray!! Cannot wait to read it!


  14. I've been eager to read The Art Forger from the moment I first heard of it. I'm going to love it.

  15. Thank you for sharing your story of persistence and holding on to your dream, Barbara. Art forgery has always fascinated me anyway, so I'm looking forward to this book.

  16. I love happily-ever-after publishing stories, and this one in particular. Thanks, Barbara. So inspiring. And the book is right up my alley -- look forward to reading it!

    Did you ever think about self-publishing? I'm starting to think about it, even though I still dream of the traditional deal...But it's difficult. I've had an agent; she left the business. Since then, I've had a helluva time, and been almost represented three times. It's weird. The feeling I'm getting is that agents don't want to work hands-on with the manuscripts so much...They want something immediately saleable, preferably fitting the exact genre boundaries that publishers like so much...

    I met a writer, a good writer, whose agent couldn't sell her cozy because it had some globe-trotting adventure elements to it. She's since self-published to great success...

    So, in any case, I'm trying to figure out exactly what to do next. I wondered if self-publishing ever entered your mind...

  17. Can't wait to read this. I recently read another book about this theft. Popular topic.

    Thank you, Barbara, for being persistent. We readers appreciate it when we get to experience what you authors produce. I'm looking forward to THE ART FORGER.

  18. Barbara, cheers and kudos to you for persistence! The Art Forger sounds like a great read. Wishing you many sales. :)

  19. So glad to see you back in a very big way! I'll never forget the Southwest Mystery Writers con in Austin. So sorry you had to share your room (and bathroom) with my bad case of food poisoning. Probably a memory you've been blocking--or trying to block--ever since. :-)

  20. Ah, the power of persistence, a supportive community, and a great story!

    Congratulations, and thanks for sharing your story with us.

  21. I can't wait ti read this.

    Barbara, what got you interested in Isabella Stewart Gardner? Was it the woman, the art or the heist that pulled you in?

  22. Thanks so much to all of you -- what a fun day -- Rhys, Marianne, Lisa, Susan, Darlene and Leslie and special thanks to my old friends, Deb, Diane, Hank, Barbara and Susan. You can't imagine how much this means to me.

    Deb: we've come a long way from the "Texas Tornado" but I'm guessing my professionally put-together tour won't be as much fun.

    Diane: of course I remember -- but more about the great time we all had together until you got poisoned. Hope all is well.

    Lisa: Self publishing has become an option in a way it never was before. If you're a member of SinC, they have lots of info and advice for how to do it right. And if you're not: join.

    Darlene: I fell in love with Belle Gardner when I first met her doing research on my first book, Shattered Echoes in the late 1980s. I always wanted to write a book about her but it wasn't until now that I was able to put all the pieces together -- with the help of the heist.

  23. Thanks, Barbara. I'm a SinC member -- I just haven't partaken off all they have to offer (yet!).

  24. This sounds like a super book, and an inspiration to make another visit to the wonderful museum.

    While you were "waiting," did you have day jobs?

  25. Oh, excellent, Barbara! I had put THE ART FORGER on my list when I first read about it, but I'm looking forward to it even more after hearing your heroic story. (Yes, I think it's heroic not to give up after so many rejections and disappointments.) And Jan, thanks so much for bringing Barbara and her inspiring story to us.

    That !@#$%^&* Captcha! It gave me a perfectly readable one, and when I typed it in and double-checked for accuracy, it still wouldn't let me post. I think adolescent geeks have set it up with programming to drive people wild.

  26. The Art Forger sounds like a great read and it's so heartening that Barbara persevered and overcame adversity with a huge success--an inspiration to all.

    Judy Copek

  27. What a wonderful story about stick-to-itiveness. I don't know how many of us might have hung in there for all that time, facing all that rejection, but it's obvious this was meant to be. Best of luck!

  28. Hi Barb,
    So glad to welcome you here! I was one of the lucky ones to get an advanced readers copy of The Art Forger and I join the chorus of "Well done you!"
    Just terrific - and so gladto see it's getting the buzz a finely crafted, well-written and smart book deserves!

  29. Terrific interview, thanks for posting. I too am fascinated by the Gardner heist and wrote a novel related to it. Not published yet as I've turned to other things and published other mysteries. But I haven't abandoned the one about, gasp, another heist at the Gardner.
    Cheers and may you have many sales.

  30. Thanks to everyone who wrote in today. It was a long, hard road, and I'm thrilled that all this is happening. I just can't quite get my head around the fact that it's actually happening to me... I only hope that all of you who haven't gotten your big break yet, will be in my place someday soon. Happy writing and reading.

  31. Congratulations Barbara; can't wait to read it. You should get a prize for persistance; may that prize be in the form of a top 10 Bestseller!

  32. Congratulations!!!!!!!!!!!That's a great publisher. Thanks for letting us know - your story gives others encouragement.

  33. I love the paintings by Degas and just reading this interview and the description of the story draws me to your book. I can't wait to read it.
    Thanks so much for giving us so much insight.

  34. Sounds like a great read. I can't wait. Thanks for sharing your story.