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Volume 79, Number 8 | July 29 - August 4, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Artist Profile:Susan Shapiro

Photo by Dan Brownstein

Author and longtime Village resident Susan Shaprio

Village author mines humor from misery

“Speed Shrinking” released in the cruel month when therapists vacation

By Paula Rosenberg

“Writing teachers are like psychoanalysts — only they’re paid less,” jokes Susan Shapiro. Her debut novel, “Speed Shrinking” (St. Martin’s Press) hits bookstores in August.

Shapiro has lived in the Village for 28 years. She purchased an apartment around the corner from her first dorm at NYU because she wanted to “recapture the thrill of moving to the city from Michigan in 1981.” Her debut novel is a follow up to the hilarious 2005 memoir, “Lighting Up” — which chronicled conquering her additions to smoking, drinking and drugs. At the end, the only thing Shapiro needed to quit was her addiction to therapy.

In “Speed Shrinking,” it’s the psychoanalyst who ends up quitting New York — and his patient. The novel’s heroine, Julia Goodman, is about to plug her new self-help book on beating sugar addiction. That’s when her best friend, husband, and shrink all leave town indefinitely — sending Julia on a cupcake binge and a desperate mission to find the perfect replacement psychiatrist by visiting eight therapists in one week. The entire novel takes place in the Greenwich Village — which is very fitting, since its Shapiro’s idea of paradise.

She vividly recalls her first day in New York, where she moved to get her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from NYU.  “I was sitting in Washington Square Park and realized what was wrong with the first 20 years of my life. I was switched at birth and should have been here.” Like her fictional alter ego Julia, Shapiro rarely leaves her beloved neighborhood.

In the novel, Julia is also a Midwestern transplant. Like Shapiro, Julia can’t understand how people could want to live anywhere but downtown Manhattan. She seems especially irked when her best friend since grade school is whisked away to Cleveland by her new husband. This revelation is so shocking that after bidding adieu to her friend, Julia promptly heads to her local drug store to binge on treats from the candy aisle.

Julia’s antics of finishing off a half dozen Crumbs cupcakes while obsessively calling her best friend, Sarah (even though she is on her honeymoon) seem extreme. However, it’s Julia’s comical analysis of her situation, as well as her unselfishness, that ultimately wins the reader over. Even in the midst of her turmoil, she still makes her weekly commitment of volunteering at a soup kitchen and has genuine concern for Sarah’s difficulty adapting to her new surroundings.

Julia is the cool, quirky, creative friend that everyone wishes was in their circle. It’s her inventiveness that leads her to test out eight shrinks in one week (to replace her trusted Dr. Ness). On her hunt, she’s as critical of her would-be substitutes as she is of herself — dismissing them for having bad taste in art, only being available at 9AM on Saturdays, and suggesting she move outside of Manhattan.

Julia uses a similar technique when she realizes that she has packed on over 30 pounds from her sugar binges. She’s nervous about her book being dropped if her publisher gets wind of her weight gain and even more nervous about how she’ll look on her upcoming appearance on “The View.” Tired of being mistaken for pregnant, she decides to test out eight Overeaters Anonymous meetings in a week. She takes resourcefulness to a new level when she starts having her therapists take power walks with her during their sessions, rationalizing that she can unload her mind and burn off some calories at the same time.

The tall, dark haired, black clad Shapiro admits the novel is autobiographical. She was devastated when her therapist, Dr. Fred Woolverton, moved out of state and only came back to the city once every six weeks. He recommended a therapist from his East 9th Street consortium, The Village Institute, and promised to fly back to town to participate in her upcoming speed shrinking parties (think speed dating with shrinks).  “He was jealous I’ll be shrinking around,” Shapiro laughed.  She is also a fan of the institute’s close proximity to her apartment. “I found such fantastic shrinks within a few block. Why would I schlep anywhere else?”

Therapists aren’t the only people Shapiro is unwilling to travel for. When the author first met her husband, he lived in Murray Hill. This was a deal breaker. Colleagues tease that above 14th Street, she turns into a pumpkin.  Fortunately, her partner eventually agreed to buy a Village apartment and recently became a tenured TV/Film professor at NYC.

Shapiro writes by day and teaches by night. She has taught at Cooper Union, New York University, and the New School — where she will be receiving a distinguished teaching award on September 3rd. “Even if I was a millionaire, my life wouldn’t be any different.” The locations of her second profession don’t hurt either. “I’ll work anywhere in walking distance of my apartment.” Sometimes Shapiro doesn’t even have to go beyond her front door, as she has taken to teaching book seminars and essay classes in the comfort of her own home. She calls her method “the instant gratification takes too long” school of writing, where the goal is to write and sell a great piece by the end of the class to pay for the class.

While she admits the cost of an apartment has gone up dramatically in this neighborhood, Shaprio can’t imagine ever leaving. “I never want to live anywhere else. Vacations are difficult because I’m happier at home.” The only change in the neighborhood she laments is the loss of some of her favorite bookstores. She misses Postman Books and was “heartbroken” when the Astor Place Barnes and Noble right across the street from her closed. “The day we moved into our new place, I was giving a reading at Barnes and Noble and there was a poster of me in the window I could see from my apartment. I took it as good Karma,” she said. Having sold seven books in seven years it seems to be working. She currently frequents Shakespeare and Co., The Strand, the Sixth Avenue Barnes and Noble, and McNally Jackson Booksellers.

Since August is the month most of the city’s couch doctors are on vacation she’s calling her public readings, “The Shrinks Are Away Tour.” Hopefully, that will help her readers make it to September. 

Shapiro will be appearing 7:00p.m. on August 4th (along with Ian Frazier & Patricia Marx) at McNally Jackson Booksellers (52 Prince Street). She’ll also be giving a solo reading on September 7th, at 7:30p.m., at the Greenwich Village Barnes & Noble (396 Avenue of the Americas). Visit her at www.susanshapiro.net.   

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