The Muralist by B. A. Shapiro

The Muralist Blends Art and History in a Compelling Tale
An Authorlink interview By Columnist Ellen Birkett Morris


The Muralist
by B.A. Shapiro

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B.A. Shapiro is no stranger to blending genres. Her latest, The Muralist, which alternates between modern day and the Depression era is part historical novel, part romance and part mystery.

The book came out of her interest in art and a desire to explore the work of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which employed artists who would go on to find fame, including Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock.

“I read that Eleanor Roosevelt said her greatest regret was not helping refugees enough.”

“I read that Eleanor Roosevelt said her greatest regret was not helping refugees enough. I created a story that would link the Depression, Abstract Expressionism and the refugee situation of that day,” said Shapiro.

Told from the alternating points of view of several characters, the novel follows Danielle Abrams, a cataloger at Christie’s, as she tries to authenticate the work of her great aunt Alizée Benoit, who worked for the WPA. The sections from Alizée’s point of view put the reader in the room with fictional Alizée as she interacts with Krasner, Pollock and Rothko, who becomes her lover. At the same time, Alizée is working to obtain visas for her Jewish family living in German-occupied France.  Alizée’s disappearance is the mystery at the center of the book.

“I’ve never written a book with this many voices.”

“I’ve never written a book with this many voices. Having these voices allowed me to play with different aspects of the story. It was particularly challenging to write the voices of actual historical figures. I worked hard to make them sound different,” said Shapiro.

While the book resonates in terms of our modern refugee crisis, Shapiro said she was exploring the idea of whether or not we ever learn when it comes to war.

Shapiro has a Ph.D. in Sociology and began her literary education by taking a class in Novel Writing at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education.  Students from that class started a writing group that has lasted twenty years and produced 17 published novels.

The Muralist is Shapiro’s seventh published book. She has written eleven novels in all. “The writing becomes more difficult as I try to do new/better things with each book. The difference is, now I know that if I have a rough draft that sucks I have another two to three years to work on it and make it better,” said Shapiro.

Originally, The Muralist was written strictly as a historical novel. Her editor at Algonquin, Amy Gash, suggested Shapiro bring in a contemporary character. The change necessitated taking out major characters and ripping up the story as she knew it. The change added suspense as Danielle and Alizée’s sections played off of each other.

Shapiro relishes revising her work.  

“The most important part of writing a novel is revision. You will never be a writer if you don’t like to revise.”

The most important part of writing a novel is revision. You will never be a writer if you don’t like to revise.”

Her first drafts serve to “get the story out” and are followed by subsequent draft that focus on plot, character, theme, dialogue and word choice.

“The muse is a myth. I think writing is 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration,” noted Shapiro.

She said the best habit that a writer can cultivate is doing the work. “Set yourself a word, page or time limit. I write a minimum of three pages a day. Sometimes I write dialogue because it takes up more space.”

“It doesn’t matter if it is bad, just write it. Do the work. Relax and let it take the time it takes.”

Shapiro is currently at work on her next novel, tentatively titled The Collector’s Assistant. True to form, this book will mix history, mystery and romance as it look at the Post-Impressionist and Modernist art worlds in Paris and Philadelphia in the 1920s.

About the Author

B.A. Shapiro is the New York Times bestselling author of The Muralist, The Art Forger, The Safe Room, Blind Spot, See No Evil, Blameless, and Shattered Echoes. She has also written four screenplays and the non-fiction book, The Big SqueezeThe Art Forger has been on many bestseller lists—including the New York Times, Boston Globe, LA Times, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Amazon, and Kindle—and has won many awards including The 2013 New England Book Award for Fiction. She lives in Boston and is working on her eighth novel.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning journalist whose interviews and reviews have appeared in Authorlink, Prairie Schooner Online, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and reprinted in the reader’s guides to The Receptionist and Clever Girl. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Antioch Review, South Caroline Review and Notre Dame Review. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink.