If you’re a historian, Antarctica buff, or dedicated Narratively reader—or if you’ve been in a bookstore recently—you’ve likely heard of Narratively contributor Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s acclaimed historical nonfiction book, The Stowaway. Released by Simon & Schuster in January, Shapiro’s book has earned rave reviews everywhere from The New York Times to USA Today. With extraordinary detail, Shapiro traces the journey of Billy Gawronski, a scrappy first-generation youngster from New York, as he sneaks aboard one of the first U.S. expeditions to Antarctica.
What you may not know, however, is that Shapiro is nothing like the stuffy, unapproachable academic you might imagine writing such a painstakingly researched book. Charming and quietly exuberant, Shapiro is a self-proclaimed “chronic eavesdropper” who speaks as though she’s unveiling a series of highly-coveted secrets.
“This cat is driving me nuts,” she says when I meet her in a Brooklyn coffee shop, revealing a small scratch on her thumb that’s just started to bleed. “It’s all right,” she laughs, gesturing for me to start the interview. “Let blood caking be a part of the impression of the author!”
Shapiro has worn a multitude of complementary hats—from novelist to documentary filmmaker, mother to nonfiction writer. We chatted about the evolution of her writing career, and how she’s been able to find power (and money) as a woman nonfiction writer.
Narratively: The Stowaway was your first nonfiction book, but this isn’t your first rodeo as a published author. Tell us a little bit about your early career as a writer.
Shapiro: My first book came out in 1998, called The Unexpected Salami, and it was kind of a wacky, rock ‘n’ roll romp. Basically…I wrote the book in 6 weeks. I showed it to a memoirist, and she slipped it to a pretty big agent. (I didn’t know, so all my neuroses were protected!) I didn’t even know I had an agent, and suddenly I had a book deal…it was so fast and Cinderella-like. The book was very well-reviewed—by Anthony Bourdain before he was really Anthony Bourdain—and got a film deal. [The film] never got made, but it was optioned for 9 years, which is a great way to make money: to have books you keep getting a check for.
So I had this early success and was young—sort of, Elaine-from-Seinfeld-young—so [my agent] thought I should be doing these chick lit books. They were easy money for young women…men were not steered into them. And I had a kid—and when you have a two-year-old, you really don’t want to be writing, you know, War and Peace. That’s not where your brain is at. But I was now no longer a literary writer.
Narratively: You were also making documentaries. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Shapiro: I directed a film called Keep the River on Your Right with my brother, about a man who disappeared in the Amazon jungle and lived with a tribe of cannibals, and it won the Independent Spirit Award. My films did well…but then there’s the sexism of film. You have ideas stolen, credit stolen, sexual harassment—it’s not easy for women to be in the film industry. Women win awards, but then they don’t get films to direct…whereas men will win an award and [are] given a film.
Narratively: So how did you eventually make the leap to nonfiction?
Shapiro: My daughter was a preteen—and very sassy—and I was like, what do I do now? I didn’t really feel satisfaction writing those novels…and I didn’t want to navigate the male power structure [of film.] So I had this epiphany—what if I took the filmmaking techniques…a crazy, true story that’s deeply researched…and brought it to a nonfiction book, but told it like a novel, in the way I had been trained to tell a story? You get a lot of history professors writing books, but there are very few storytellers in history.
Narratively: How did you find the crazy, true story that inspired The Stowaway?
Shapiro: I met an agent at an event who said, “I don’t even know what book you want, but I can tell you have a vision. I’ll rep it if you find the book.” We came up with a plan that I would write three big stories to show I can write longform. I reached out to Narratively for my first one, and they gave me this ability to go longform. That was my first clip—the story about my dad.
So then, I was working on an article…just for craft…about the history of the first American Polish Catholic church downtown. And while I’m doing research, I saw one tiny mention of this teen stowaway who went to this church, who swam across this river, and 500 kids had marched on City Hall…and I got the idea that this might be more important than the article I was writing for $200. I wanted [to find] a descendent, and that’s when my filmmaking techniques came in. I started schematically calling everyone who had his last name on the eastern seaboard. And I’d say, “Are you possibly related to this person who swam across the river and was a stowaway in 1900’s?” I got so many hang-ups. But on the 19th call, a lady answered: “That was my husband.” I called my agent, went out to publishers with it…and I had a book deal in 6 weeks.
Narratively: How did you transform the idea into a full-fledged narrative?
Shapiro: When you’re writing narrative nonfiction, you need truth. Things that you don’t know when you’re sitting in a coffee shop in Brooklyn, [like]: what does the overwhelming smell of penguin dung smell like? What does the light look like? You can only get these things from going places. So, much to my husband’s chagrin, I took most of the initial allotment of my advance and booked a trip to Antarctica. I felt the book would be bigger if I had actually followed [Billy] from the Lower East Side to Antarctica.
Narratively: Follow-up question…what does being surrounded by penguin dung smell like?
Shapiro: It smells like a big cow barn. It’s overwhelming. There are all these cute little penguins everywhere, and you just want to vomit.
Photo courtesy Laurie Gwen Shapiro
Narratively: You can’t make that up. So did you take any creative liberties when writing this story?
Shapiro: No. That’s something that’s really scary. As a novelist, you sweeten the story. But [with nonfiction] you have to make it past lawyers. Simon & Schuster is not putting out a true story that’s not true. So the actual dialogue that I used comes from interviews or speeches he gave…nothing is made up. You can say, “Perhaps he thought”—but the word “perhaps” is annoying when you’re reading. You can only get away with it a few times. That’s why it’s a difficult story to pull off, the true story. That’s why people don’t do it.
Narratively: You’ve done it now…and quite successfully! Is there another nonfiction book on the horizon for you?
Shapiro: I already have the story picked out! I can’t tell you the story, but I’ll tell you what it isn’t. It isn’t a wacky novel. It’s a crazy, jaw-dropping, true story…and no one else has told it. It’s funny…I remember jumping up and down on my bed when I sold my first book [at 28], but I did not know the dissatisfaction I would feel several years later. Now, in my early fifties, I feel like I should be jumping up on my bed…but I’m too old!
Narratively: Not true—you went to Antarctica! If you can do that, you can jump on a bed.
Shapiro: That’s the thing—if you were a gymnast, you’d be done. You had your little run at 16. Or an actress. But writers have this blessed extra time. If you have a story and you tell it well, you’ll get a book deal. You can be 78 and get a book deal. But you gotta do the work.
If you lock down the story, your power rises. As long as you’re the only one who has access to a crazy, true story, they don’t care if you’re a woman or a man. Women who are writing these stories are getting extremely big advances, whereas if you look at the pattern of how novels work, for the most part, women are getting half of what men are getting. But for a nonfiction story, you lock down your competition, they’re paying for it. Nothing sells books like, “this actually happened.”
Narratively: What would be your advice to nonfiction writers hoping to find a story of their own?
Shapiro: You have to listen and be open to stories. You have to get out of the house. It drives my husband crazy, but not only am I writing—I’m going to events all the time. I’m not a teenager—I’m not partying—but I’m going to lectures, I’m going to talks. I’m building my base that way, but I’m also hearing stories. The thing is, there are millions of stories to be told.