rett Shapiro’s book L’intruso (The Intruder), published in Italy by Feltrinelli, is a family saga with a difference. “It’s a mix,” says Shapiro. “Yes, it is a memoir in that it deals with a particular period in my life. An unusual period — well, not unusual for me because it’s my life, so it seems normal — a particular and difficult period. But it is also a lot of other things.” Philadelphia-born Shapiro lives in a leafy suburb of Rome with his teenage son, his partner and, on a part-time basis, his partner’s son. He admits that having spent the last twelve years in Rome was not part of his plan. The years have passed quickly, he says, smiling. At different times, he has been an author of tourist guides, translator, successful children’s book author (together with celebrated illustrator Chiara Chiarrer). He’s also been a journalist, an editor, worked in Italian television, and loaned his mellifluous voice to audio guides. He currently works as a consultant to the United Nations. He spoke to Michael Reynolds in Rome.
Can you tell me about that period you dealt with in L’intruso?
I was living with an Italian journalist. We met in the States when I was in New York and shortly afterwards we moved in together. We both had young sons and we kind of joined forces. We were married not long after in a synagogue in New York. When we met he was HIV-positive and asymptomatic. Within several months of our meeting he became extremely symptomatic. Essentially our family consisted of me, two children, 11 and three years old, and Giovanni, who was basically an invalid by then. The book deals with our life in that period. But it’s a mix. It’s not only about living with AIDS, but about love, about non-traditional families, about Judaism, and about being an expatriate. We moved here to Rome together when he was dying and wanted to be closer to his family. I had never been here before and I really had no intention of staying. My idea was to bring him home to die. Twelve years later I’m still here. Yes, the book is about a lot of things. It is very much concerned with family life. A lot of it talks about the kids, about trying to keep a normal household going in the midst of this hideous, all-consuming nightmare that was going on.
How was the book received in Italy?
Surprisingly well. I certainly didn’t expect it to go so well. I think Feltrinelli was surprised, too. Before publication they were hopeful about it, but they didn’t commit to a massive advertising campaign. Nonetheless, it was on the best seller list for a couple of months and it went into eight printings. The first year after it was published, I was caught up fulltime in book tours and TV appearances. I think the book’s success was due to a number of reasons: Firstly because my companion, Giovanni Forti, was fairly well known in Italy as a journalist. And the subject was a very unusual one for Italy. In the States… Well, I wouldn’t say books of this kind were common, but it wouldn’t have been, well… I don’t want to use the word “scandalous” because it has a negative connotation. It wouldn’t have had the same shock value — I mean shock in a positive way — that came from talking openly about homosexuality, talking openly about AIDS and about gay parenting. Of course, I would like to think that the quality of the writing pushed it along as well.
Based on your experience with reactions to L’intruso, do you have the impression that Italy is catching up with other countries in terms of how these issues are considered and how care is provided for people suffering from AIDS?
I would like to say yes, but I really don’t think so. One of the reasons the book got such a positive response was because it wasn’t a gay book. The family figured so much that it garnered broader readership in Italy, this being such a family-oriented society. At the center of the story, there was this loving, nurturing, attentive family. This fact made people more reluctant to jump to the usual generalizations and conclusions. This is also the case personally. I have never, ever had a problem with that. I am fairly open about the fact that I’m gay and that I have a companion and that we are raising this family. I don’t shout it on the streets, but I certainly don’t hide it. Everybody knows. Our children’s teachers know, the shopkeepers in our neighborhood know, the parents of our children’s friends know, the neighbors know. Either they are extremely well-behaved or they just find that it’s okay. So, I think on the personal level people are flexible. When it comes to political, institutional positions, however, I think that Italy still has a long, long way to go.
Were there any negative responses to your book?
Not a one. Not a single one. In fact, there were certain types of positive responses that I’m not sure I would have gotten in the States. There were a couple of occasions in which I was asked by different schools in fairly small towns to give a presentation of the book. And before I gave the presentation they required the students to read it. We’re talking about 200 high-school age students having to read a book of this type and then having to confront the issues it deals with by meeting me and asking me a lot of questions. This happened on several occasions and I was absolutely floored. I also noticed that at many of the presentations I did for the book the audiences were thoroughly mixed. At first I expected predominantly gay audiences and they weren’t by any stretch. They were all types and all ages: men, women, married people, housewives, professionals, senior citizens, the whole gamut. It was a very pleasant surprise. But then on certain legal issues like gay marriage, single adoption, it’s not even worth considering here yet. It’s all pushed way, way underground.
On first impression I sense that Romans have an antiquated and narrow-minded attitude toward homosexuality; that they don’t have much of a feeling for integration nor a great opinion of people of color; that they are rather indifferent to contemporary art and artists. You’ve lived here for 12 years, are openly gay and Jewish, and your adopted son is a person of color. You are also a writer. I wonder if you share some of these impressions of mine, and if so, how you have dealt with these issues personally and within your family.
I agree with you. I too feel all of these things here in Rome, although I don’t feel them oppressively. They surface from time to time, a comment here and there, in subtle ways. Most of the time, I just shrug my shoulders and get on with my life. I don’t know if this is the best way of dealing with it, but it is my way of dealing with it. I would not characterize myself as a “crusader.” I am not out to enlighten people. My primary concern is being able to live my life with a modicum of serenity and in so doing demonstrate to those around me that my “diversity” is perhaps not so diverse as they imagine, that my concerns and desires are more or less the same as theirs. I think one of the most important things for me has been to create a kind of extended family — made up of real family members, and very close friends and colleagues — to serve as a microcosm of support.
You seem to be active in so many fields, and you have a family to take care of. I wonder how you find time to write.
Actually, I don’t find nearly as much time to write as I would like. But this is a fairly common complaint, and I wouldn’t want to make my circumstances seem exceptional. I just keep setting the alarm clock earlier and earlier each morning!
Do you have a particular writing routine, an hour of the day, a place or a period that you dedicate solely to writing?
I would love to have a routine — say, three solid hours at sunrise — in order to devote myself entirely to my writing. But since I have to get up at 6:30 each morning to get my son ready for school, I can’t realistically wake up each morning at 3:30 to write for three hours. I’d be a zombie by lunchtime. What seems to work best for me — at least in this rather complex phase of my life where I have an adolescent to fine tune, and a chaotic consultancy career at the U.N. — is to escape to my beach house from time to time and take nothing with me but some blank paper and a pencil. I find that stepping out of my life in order to write works better than trying to somehow integrate my writing into my daily life.
In your short story, Fair Game, a female character passes her time inventing love stories for herself. It is something more than a hobby for her; it is almost an obsession. She follows the men whom she imagines are her lovers, even packing a bag for a departure that will never happen. Do you consider this story to be in some way a comment modern relationships?
As usual, part of that story is autobiographical. I often find myself inventing aspects of a relationship that perhaps in reality do not exist. Often, what I don’t know about people — not about the facts, but about people — I tend to make up. I think it’s out of a desire to feel that I really know the person. I do try to keep in mind, or to separate, what is real and what is pure invention just in case real stuff comes in to substitute what I have made up. But there’s definitely a desire for the picture I have of someone to be complete. If the person in question is only giving me up to a certain point, I’ll finish it off with my own constructions and see what happens.
Sometimes this happens with people I encounter on the street, as it does with the character in Fair Game. I will try to “hook on” to somebody for the sake of making up a story about him or her and to see where that story takes me. I think this happens more often when real relationships with people are absent or few. I don’t mean necessarily intimate relationships, but any kind of relationship. By nature, we seek communion with people, and when this doesn’t happen, when it’s not possible, I think we sometimes act in the way my character acts. Perhaps not to the same extent, but many people engage in similar activities. However, I wouldn’t want to think that I have put any kind of moral value on what she does.
At the same time, I’m not sure how much that story was a reflection of the ideas I had as a writer at that time. I was thinking very much in terms of writing to be published in certain types of magazines and so I wanted to keep the story down to earth, and I was careful to ensure it had a kind of mass appeal. So even from the beginning, it had certain parameters. This wasn’t Brett jumping off into the abyss to see what happens. It was Brett jumping off into the list of magazines that he hoped to get published in.
Do you find yourself inspired to write on Rome? To set your stories here and/or to use your experiences and the people you meet here in your work?
The story that I have been working on recently, entitled Four Winds, is set in Rome close to my home. This is more an example of Brett untethered, free of any pragmatic concerns. I went off and tried to explore what I wanted to explore without any kind of censorship, external or self. It’s a more recent work. I consider it a work in progress, in that I would like to take what exists of that story even further. When I began it, I would go away to the beach and take that story with me and just sit at the beach for hours and try to figure out what the next letter would be. I didn’t have a plot, and I think that’s evident from what I’ve written so far, though the general sense of a departure was something I wanted to deal with. I don’t think I wanted to have a plot. I always have difficulty talking about these things. It always sounds so pretentious. Nonetheless, the idea was an attempt to capture the rhythm of my thoughts, the flow and flux of their seeming randomness, and how ultimately those kinds of thoughts are not random. I was trying to capture that. It’s very difficult to talk about, which is probably why I’m trying to write the story rather than describe it.
Do you find it difficult, then, living in a country where people speak a language that is not your native language? Or do you feel your relationship with Italian is as intimate as that with English?
Sometimes I’m aware of what I’m missing. When, for example, I go back to the States and I go to a bookstore in New York, and I see all the books that I am completely unaware of because they’re not listed in the International Herald Tribune and I can’t afford The New York Times every week at €26. I see this mass of contemporary, probably great, stuff; new ways of using the language; and I think boy, what am I missing here? At the same time, I feel like I’m in a self-imposed protective zone that also enables me to work calmly without feeling that I’ve got to be up on everything in order to write well. It forces me to work with what I have, so it becomes a more inquisitive process rather than an acquisitive process. And most of the time, I like that. So, on a writerly level, most of the time I don’t feel that lack. In terms of my interactions with people, however, I do. There will be periods in which I don’t speak English for weeks. It feels fine until I go back to speaking English with somebody and I realize just how much fuller my capacities to express myself are and how much more my personality comes out. I feel that difference, yeah, and I always will. People will often remark on how good my Italian is, how correct it is, and they’ll ask me, well, why don’t you write in Italian. I wouldn’t even dream of such a thing. Ever! And people don’t understand that. When I read Italian, for example, I’m capable of understanding with ease, very rarely do I have to look up words in a dictionary. But I don’t get much beyond that. I can understand easily, but I can’t say, God what a beautiful sentence. And if I can’t do that reading, there’s no way I can do that writing. And if I can’t do that writing, there’s no point in writing.
Do you read a lot of Italian contemporary fiction? Are there any authors you particularly like?
Unfortunately, I don’t read a lot of anything these days. I envy the people who can read for an hour or so before going to bed. I’ve tried lots of times but I start to doze off after reading two lines, no matter how compelling those lines may be. Most of my reading I do at the beach house or while I’m in transit — on trains, planes, in cars, between where I’m coming from and where I’m going to. I hardly read any Italian contemporary fiction. For two reasons I’d say. One is probably unfair, but I’ll say it anyway. I’m not sure I trust contemporary Italian fiction. Judging from contemporary Italian art and film, I’d say that Italy is not in its most productive period right now. The other reason is pure laziness. I have so little time to read that when I do have the time, I immediately jump into some literary miracle written in English. To choose an Italian piece of fiction — and to read it in Italian — would mean to miss out on so much of the music behind the story, if indeed there is music behind the story.
What is your opinion of the public reading of fiction and poetry that seems to be slightly in vogue in Italy at the moment? Do you think these occasions help writers?
Recently, I have been invited to do a number of public readings and these instances have provoked a lot of thought about the relationship between writing and reading in public. Very obviously, the former is a private act while the latter is public. The material is the same but the activity is fundamentally different. Personally, I find the friction between these two acts and the possibility of reconciling the public and the private fascinating. When I write something, I of course read it over and over and over, but this reading is totally silent and private. It is just an eye looking at the page.
When I read, I find myself judging the sound of what I’ve written, making it more of a musical enterprise than an intellectual one. And I think that’s extremely important, because the music behind the language is just as important as the meaning or the actual content itself. Reading and writing are naturally two different skills. I think they pull from different parts of you. To be a good writer doesn’t mean you’re a good reader, and vice versa. My sensitivity to reading comes from a fair amount of experience I’ve had in public speaking in different milieu. The work I do at the UN is one of these. There, I basically give seminars in front of 30 or 40 people and I think of them as performances: I have to be careful the day before, be rested, knowing that I am going to be completely depleted the day after from my “performance.”
I’ve done work on audio guides for art tours where the voice and intonation are really what carries it. I did a little bit of acting here and there. I have actors in my family. I think all of this has kind of fed into a kind of sensitivity to voice, to intonation, to body language, to all of those things. My interest in voice, however, began very early. I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia and when I was fifteen I went on my first trip abroad with a student group that consisted of 250 students from all over the country. We arrived in Europe and I gradually got to know many of the students traveling with me. Many of them, to my shock and horror, made fun of the way I spoke because I had this very strong Philadelphia accent. I was so mortified by the experience that I decided I was going to get rid of my accent; not adapt another one, just neutralize the way I spoke. In making that effort to strip away any regionalism in the way I spoke, I become very, very sensitive to the sound of language as opposed to the sense of language.
Critics of the poetry slams, book readings, etc. say that this trend is not helping literature, that writing and reading are, and must remain, private acts; that when they leave their private domain for the public one, they are trivialized and become little more than banal spectacle, which doesn’t do any service to literature. You obviously don’t share these opinions.
Well, I’m not so sure. I think a lot of writers are private people. They like to exhibit themselves in terms of the work but they don’t want to exhibit themselves in any other way. So to ask a writer to get up in front of a public and read really could be anathema to a writer. Not all writers, but many writers, want to just sit at home in solitude, quietly, produce their work, and that’s it. They don’t want to deal with the public so much. Their way of dealing with the public is providing this text that somehow, hopefully, gets circulated among the public. Their relationship with the public doesn’t go beyond that. So to ask writers to read is a very delicate proposition for a lot of us. I … I’m not a shy person. I feel fairly confident when I have to speak in front of people and I enjoy it very much. I welcome it. I don’t get nervous about it. I don’t consider it a distasteful activity that I somehow should do because it’s part of a writer’s job. When I start a reading, I enter. That’s the feeling I have when I start to read. All of a sudden, everything drops away and I feel as if I’m sinking into the story. Peripheral vision blurs and I inhabit the world that I have created alone, at my writing desk. It’s very, very interesting.
Going back twelve years, if you had the chance to decide anew, would you stay in Rome?
This is something an expatriate can’t help but think about, and I’ve certainly done my share. My desire to stay in Rome — or to move on — seems to come in waves. And the waves can be practical ones, mildly rhapsodic ones, existential ones. When I discovered that Rome wasn’t the international cosmopolitan center that I had thought it would be, which happened fairly quickly, I wanted out. I missed New York. But time went by, I created a life here, and it’s a life that suits me beautifully. Moreover, it’s one that I don’t think I would have been able to pull off in New York, especially the freelance-but-not-poor part. I have a house in Rome that I love, a house at the beach that is my mini-paradise, many dear friends with whom I now have a solid history, a cerebrally demanding freelance career. And probably most importantly, a companion with whom I’ve been for 12 years. What more can we ask from a “place”? At the same time, I am allowing myself to consider the possibility of a radical change when my son goes off to university in three years. If he goes to university, that is. Once he leaves the nest, this father bird may open his wings and fly off to some very other place. But for now, and for the next three years, I am here. Contentedly so.
Except from Brett Shapiro’s “Four Winds”
“The train was not departing for another hour. There was more than enough time to arrive at the station by foot, at a pace that needn’t be driven by a sense of destination. While others would arrive breathless and sweating, and still others would arrive early only to end up pacing back and forth along the platform with their luggage carts, Jake created a smooth choreography in which the tempo of his departure kept pace with that of trains as they are pulling out of stations — slow, strenuous, almost plodding. The 40-minute walk was not to be about getting to Trastevere Station. Rather, it was to be about taking a walk, as one would in a field, on a beach, at a river’s edge. He had traveled this street countless times, but always as the most expedient means of getting to point A. As such, the street had no visual resonance. Standing on the landing and placing his keys in his pants pocket, Jake tried to evoke some details of the street. A phone booth began to take vague form — graffiti etched into its glass casing, the phone itself, a puerile attempt at innovation with its slightly bulbous body of matted chrome. And the dogs. How many of them trotted along the sidewalk, pulling their leashes taut as if needing always to feel their tetheredness. But of a particular dog, or a particular dog owner, or a man or woman inside the phone booth or entering a shop (were there shops on this street, he wondered), nothing stirred within. Just one phone booth and a sensation of dogs straining on leashes.
So, this street, then, which he traveled at least three times a week, was more unregistered than the goats’ testicles hanging like jewels over the glass cases in the market at Bogor. Could this be possible? What valve is it that shuts off, turns on? Yes, he thought, I will observe this street for the first time today.
“Buon giorno. Sta in partenza?” The size of his black duffel bag suggested a night or two away. Jake wouldn’t have needed such a large bag — the beach house in Tuscany was fully equipped with everything, including a second umbrella should it rain so hard that the first one be violently inverted by the wind, which always accompanied the rain there. However, because he decided to bring a reading cushion, which was firmer and thicker than a bed pillow and didn’t need to be continually fluffed and pummeled to achieve the proper contour and angle for reading in bed, he had to take his black duffel bag.
“Si.” He smiled at his neighbor, whom he’d seen regularly in the stairwell or entrance of the building, but never on the street or in the neighborhood. She wore a wedding band, although he wasn’t sure who her husband was. He didn’t know whether to pause long enough to allow her to say something else, or to continue going down the stairs as if he were in a hurry. The consideration in itself created just the pause necessary for her to think that he wanted her to continue. “Qualche posto speciale?” she asked.”