How to Turn Your Most Humiliating Secrets Into Novels

In the novel What's Never Said, author and journalism professor Susan Shapiro reflects on her affair with her poetry professor

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The cover of Susan Shapiro’s latest novel, published by Heliotrope Books

Bestselling author Susan Shapiro (who also has contributed articles to the Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal and The New York Observer, among many other publications) was told by a critic that she writes best about people she loves. Ms. Shapiro employs that talent in her latest novel What’s Never Said, a fictionalized tale about her own affair with her poetry professor as a student at NYU. After writing and searching for a publisher for six years, (a lifetime for a journalism professor who teaches “instant gratification takes too long” classes) What’s Never Said is released this week.

What inspired you to explore the relationship between student and teacher?

My most successful book to date was my debut memoir, Five Men Who Broke My Heart. And the way I see it, I spilled all my secrets of my past loves, but there was one story I couldn’t tell until now, and I couldn’t tell it in non-fiction so I had to fictionalize it.

Lila, the protagonist, finds herself thinking about her professor, Daniel; do you often find yourself thinking about long-past relationships like that?

I have no imagination whatsoever, so it’s based on a true story, I just fictionalized it later.  I actually hadn’t thought about it in a long time but then I went to a literary event with my husband, five or six years ago, and I bumped into my former professor who I was indeed involved with when I was in school and hadn’t seen in many years. I was going up to say hi and he just walked away.  I thought he didn’t recognize me, and I freaked out. I thought does he have Alzheimer’s? Or is it his sight? Or did I just overblow it in my head, and 30 years ago I was just a student and he slept with so many that he doesn’t recognize me? So on the way back I told my husband why I flipped out and he just started laughing, and he’s like, “That guy knew exactly who you were.”

You wrote a piece for the New York Times about assigning your students the “humiliation essay.” Does that apply here?

The worst comment you can give a writer is “there’s no blood here”—you really want to mine for darker secrets. The assignment I give my students is to write about your most humiliating secret. So this was like a humiliating hour where I was putting myself through the worst feeling in the world, and when I got home I just tried to write about it. … I have a really tough writing group and they were just enthralled, and at the end somebody said, ‘You should have gotten old and bitter a long time ago because this rocks.’

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Susan Shapiro (Photo: Courtesy of Susan Shapiro)

What is the significance of your book’s title?

At one point, the professor, who actually was a poetry professor, said to me that I had too many words, not enough music, and poetry is about what’s between the lines—what’s never said. And I really liked that and it really stayed with me. And then what interested me in the story, there are two poets who spend their lives writing, and spend their lives with words and language, and they completely miscommunicate.

Can you talk about your history with poetry, and how you decided to become a novelist and memoirist instead?

I call myself a failed poet, I love poetry, I have my MFA in poetry, but its extremely hard to make a living doing it, so maybe my expectations were unrealistic, or I was just impatient. I often tell my students to follow their poetry and it’s interesting because following my poetry led me to prose.

What’s the best advice you can give an aspiring writer?

  1. Write about your obsessions.
  2. The first piece you write that your family hates means you’ve found your voice.
  3. No never means no.