Dani Shapiro, bestselling author of the memoir “Inheritance,” has written a deeply poignant new novel that follows two families as they contend with their own secrets and tragedies over the course of three decades, and as their lives intertwine in unanticipated ways. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
“Signal Fires” follows the members of two families that live across from each other in a New York City suburb called Avalon. Can you tell me about the Wilfs and the Shenkmans?
I was very interested in the idea of what happens in a neighborhood on a particular street over time. The families that have all chosen to live on Division Street and may not have a whole lot in common, yet kind of have their lot thrown in with each other. The Wilfs are a family who moved to Division Street in Avalon in 1970, when one child was a toddler and the other was not yet born. We see them at various points, but when we meet them in 2010 Benjamin Wilf, the father, is alone in his home. I was very haunted by this image of a man looking out the window of the home that he had raised his family in on the last night that he would ever spend in this house.
He spies this 11-year-old boy, Waldo, out his window. He’s looking out his window for very different reasons: because he’s obsessed with the cosmos. He’s brilliant and lonely, and he is really born to parents who don’t understand him. Just because we are bound to each other by blood doesn’t mean we necessarily are going to be able to know one another or understand one another.
Waldo is a boy that seems to have special insight into the world, and experiences it in a way that Friedrich Nietzsche would call “the eternal return,” but is also found in Indian and ancient Greek philosophy. How does Waldo come to have this philosophy?
Waldo embodies a great deal of the way that I’ve come to think about interconnectedness, which is the spiritual philosophy I’ve arrived at over the years. I have a longtime meditation practice, and if I lean in any direction now, it’s towards Buddhist thinking. Waldo reads Pema Chödrön. Waldo feels most grounded and most centered when he has a sense of himself as a tiny speck in an infinite universe. He also has a way of thinking about the connections between people that aren’t obvious. I would say that Waldo is probably the closest to my heart of all of those characters. He’s the glue of the novel; he’s the one who sees.
Carl Jung says the act of maintaining a secret is like “a psychic poison.” Secrets have long been a focus of your work, and you host a popular podcast called “Family Secrets.” What draws you to secrets?
I think I’ve always been driven to secrets all my life without knowing why. From the very beginning of my writing life, I wrote about the power of secrets within families. I knew that I had grown up in a family where my parents had secrets, but they felt like sort of reasonably sized secrets. Then when I made the discovery that I wrote about in “Inheritance,” that my parents had kept the truth of my identity from me, it was like needing glasses and never knowing that I had needed them. The world was slightly blurry and then suddenly I saw it all with so much clarity: my childhood, what formed me without my knowledge, my sense of outsiderness.
To me, writing has always been a tool as well as a craft. There is an aspect of excavation to it. One of the most extraordinary things to me when I go back and reread my early work, it’s all there. There were things I couldn’t think about that are embedded in those books. It was a live wire; it would have burned me to actually entertain these things, to actually bring them forth into consciousness. On some deep, bonelike level, I knew that my father was not my father. What is ironic is that if I hadn’t taken that DNA test, I never would have known. I would’ve continued excavating, and I don’t think I would’ve been able to finish “Signal Fires.”
Readers who read “Inheritance” may have noticed that your biological father shares the same name and profession as the father in “Signal Fires.” Can you tell me about that connection?
This is really very mysterious to me. Ben Wilf was a character who was fully developed in my imagination years before I discovered that I had a different biological father and got to know him. That first section in 2010 where Ben and Waldo meet under the tree is almost unchanged from when I first wrote it.
Not once, when I was writing “Signal Fires” in the present, did it occur to me that I named my character the same pseudonym I used for my biological father in “Inheritance.” They both have the same initials, which probably sounds like completely bananas, but I never consciously thought about that until my son, who is in his early 20s and is one of my early readers, stood in my office and pointed that out to me. What is that?
The file name for the novel, when I was originally writing it, was “The Magic Novel.” To go back to Waldo, there is something profound and mysterious about the ways in which we are connected. When I found out that my dad had not been my biological father, I had this feeling that I could be walking through an airport or in a crowded party or walking down the street, and someone could pass me who could be deeply connected to me, and I would have absolutely no idea. That is a dramatic example, but I think we all have something like that. Why do we feel comfortable with some people and really awkward with others? Why does it feel like some people are part of the fabric of our existence in some way? It’s got nothing to do with commonality. It’s like mirror neurons or something I can’t pretend to understand.
While reading this book, I felt that it was written with what could only be described as a palpable maternal energy. How does being a parent influence the way you think about your characters?
I think in certain ways I feel like a mother to all of my characters. Most notably to Waldo, who was the age of my son when I first started writing the novel. I hadn’t thought about this before, but there is an omniscient narrator, and even as we move into the inner lives of the main characters, there is still a knowingness that in some ways reflects this cosmic knowingness that Waldo is describing. This knowingness is very maternal, and is cast over all of these characters like a blanket, or like signal fires themselves.