Volume 74, Number 40 | February 9 - 15, 2005

For author, penning tell-all memoirs is perfect addiction

Photo by Dan Brownstein, courtesy Bantan Dell Publishing Group
Susan Shapiro

By Divya Watal

Most people have no particular career inclination when they are 3 years old.

But for 41-year-old author Susan Shapiro, who claims, “I was walking around my house reciting poems at 3,” there has always been one, and only one, raison d’être: writing.

Shapiro, a longtime Greenwich Village resident, recently released her latest memoir, “Lighting Up: How I Stopped Smoking, Drinking and Everything Else I Loved in Life Except Sex,” a witty book about kicking addictions and confronting underlying traumas. The book comes almost one year after her first memoir, “Five Men Who Broke My Heart,” another laughter-inducing personal diary — Bridget Jones cum “Sex and the City” style — on corrosive romances.

“I masturbate with my dubious past,” said Shapiro, during a guest appearance at a New York University journalism class last week. Her books certainly reveal more about her personal life than most people would like to share with strangers — intimate details about her sex life, for instance — but for her, writing a memoir feels natural. Personal stories are more powerful, she says, than novels.

Shapiro, an attractive brunette with an easy, outgoing manner and a propensity for black outfits — black jeans, black boots, black sweater and black jacket seem to be her staple attire — shoots off enough scandalous statements to keep her readers and listeners enthralled, while subtly projecting a more serious agenda.

“I like to be entertaining,” Shapiro admits. But “Lighting Up” is more than just entertaining; it explores the dark side, albeit using playful, poetically devoid language, of enslavement to substances like nicotine, dope and even food. The reader gets a vicarious glimpse into Shapiro’s world of two-pack-a-day cigarette smoking; her relationship with a Pierce Brosnan look-alike psychotherapist; and her improving conjugal life as she purges her addictions. It’s an entertaining story with a moral: If you want to live a happy, productive life, quit your “bad” addictions, and channel your energies into “good” addictions.

Like writing memoirs, for instance? Memoir writing may indeed have replaced chain-smoking in her case, Shapiro quips. She is currently working on a third one. There seems to be no dearth of sensational material in her life.

But if being a provocative writer means revealing not only her most personal secrets but those of her friends and family as well, doesn’t she antagonize people and create enemies?

“There’s a lot of stuff I don’t write about,” she said. “I am selective — I haven’t spilled everything.” She can’t help it, she says, if the voices in which she loves writing are outrageous — she has to be true to herself and not relinquish what makes her unique — but at the same time, she would never write anything to hurt the people she loves.

Her husband, a TV comedy writer, is not particularly thrilled about thousands of people reading about his intimate marital issues, she concedes, even though she camouflages his name using a pseudonym. In fact, he isn’t a big fan of her memoirs. “He’s a very private person and doesn’t like being written about,” Shapiro said.

But then, writing is self-involved, and to Shapiro, evidently, being good at the craft is more important than being popular, which is why, she says, “If you want to be a nice person, don’t be a writer.” Although it wasn’t always this way, her husband now understands that she has to do what she does to be happy. If it’s a choice between coming home to a happy partner who compulsively writes about her private life and an unhappy partner who compulsively smokes and has repressed creative potential, he would rather go with the former, she says.

In addition to writing memoirs, Shapiro also teaches at N.Y.U. and New School University. After quitting her numerous addictions and embracing a healthy, therapy-assisted existence, she says she has not only become a prolific writer but also a better teacher — her students, who are her substitute children, love her newfound energy.

“I’m probably the only happy writer in the history of the world — most writers aren’t known to be happy,” she said, laughing.

Shapiro will be reading from her book at the “Addicted to Love Benefit Reading” on Sun., Feb. 13, at FEZ Under Time Café, 380 Lafayette St. The reading starts at 7:30 p.m. For reservations and ticket information, call 212-533-7000.

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