April 2009

Jessica Ferri


An Interview with Leanne Shapton

Leanne Shapton is interested in how images tell a story. Her first book, Was She Pretty? chronicles an endless chain of ex-girlfriends, each defined in portrait with an accompanying sentence or two of descriptive text. “To his friends, family, and girlfriend, Anton’s ex-girlfriend was known only as ‘The Ballerina.’” A treatise on the darker side of curiosity, the structure of the book works to pin point our obsession over the minute details we know about those who have come before us in relationships.

As an artist and publisher of art books (J&L Books), Shapton could have written another illustrated book for her sophomore venture, but instead she’s moved into the realm of photography and found objects. Her new book is an auction catalog entitled Important Artifacts and Personal Property of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry.The story of the four-year failed relationship between fictional characters Hal and Lenore is built through a combination of personal snapshots of the two, still-lifes of goods for sale, and the accompanying captions that describe each piece.

Heartbreakingly, their objects work as memento mori, inextricable from the stories behind them: scrabble letters sent as a thank you note, unused Annie Hall tickets, an engraved cake server (Doolan is a cake columnist for The Times). The accessibility of Shapton’s work is obvious -- we all have exes and relationships that crash and burn -- but her reconstruction of Hal and Lenore’s story, through images and objects, is where she blooms, not only an illustrator, but as an author.

How did you get the idea for the book?

I had heard of a Truman Capote auction that was happening in 2006, the day after the launch of Was She Pretty?. I didn’t go to the auction, but I read the catalog like a book and I realized that it told the story of his last eight years in Hollywood. He was holing up in Joanne Carson’s place in LA, rejected by New York society -- the catalog showed what he was wearing, what he kept from his childhood; it showed that he was really into his pets. There was a Polaroid of him taken after his last flight to L.A., two days before he died, wearing a purple vest that was also up for sale.

And Hollywood really changed him -- wasn’t he in bad shape before he died?

Seemed so, even the dry catalog descriptions were telling, explaining that the lots from his wardrobe were in “various states of condition, many pieces having stains, rips, tears and other issues…” Everything was so rich with this living he had done. I realized that this was a really good read, and started looking for other auction catalogs. I found a great one of Marilyn Monroe. There was a lot of the glamorous stuff, like the Happy Birthday Mr. President dress, but there were also two tortoiseshell headbands, which I found so poignant.

One thing that struck me about the book was its novelty feel. Lenore and Hal write to each other -- letters, postcards, even notes around the house. For me, so much of that has been lost, since nowadays people communicate over e-mail or text message.

It’s invisible. I only print out an e-mail to save when there are directions or a number. I had to deliberately choose years like 2002-2003 when we weren’t as reliant on e-mails for emotional subject matter.

That’s fairly recent -- even three years ago, I wouldn’t have written emotional things in an e-mail, whereas now I feel compelled to.

Now letter writing is passé and it’s novel, rather than actually carrying import -- people still send Christmas cards, but now it’s the IRS who sends you a letter. It doesn’t mean that you have manners, like it used to.

Part of it was that in the book Hal is traveling so much -- it’s another layer to their courtship.

Yes, and they had to be interested in ephemera, too. I made them bibliophiles and paperphiles -- is that a word? -- so that they would send things on letterhead. I wanted them to have a love of design.

In addition to the notes, their gifts really spoke about their emotional status in the relationship. Lenore’s gifts to Hal tended to be more thoughtful than his to her. In the beginning he’s very into the gift giving, but then it tapers off. Is it more of a female thing, this compulsion to give gifts and to make romantic gestures?

I think women do want to be romantic, and want to make an original impression. Not all women, but I think there’s...

It’s a sentimental thing.

Yeah, you want what you do to be the first time for that person, and then you up the ante every time.

Do you side with either of the characters? To me, it seems that Lenore is much more invested in the partnership, through her gestures and gifts. She’s in it for the long haul, whereas Hal’s ego made it impossible for me to like him. She does all of these nice things for his fortieth birthday and then he spends it with his friends.

You know, yes, and that sort of thing happens all the time. Obviously I side with Lenore, but I know Hal, because I have huge Hal tendencies myself. If you’re noncommittal, then you’re noncommittal. That kind of relationship is something you aren’t ready for at that point in your life.

So you wrote the book knowing this wasn’t going to be a marriage thing.

I wanted it to the relationship before the one you get married, the one that isn’t quite the love of your life. The one where you try SO HARD, and is very romantic, perhaps because it’s based on ideas and picture-making rather than on reality Not the love story you tell your children, but the one that still tugs at you.

The training wheels.

Exactly. I’m interested in that relationship because you can either look back and say, “Thank God that didn’t work out,” or you can look back and say “I really fucked that up.” Hal is the kind of person who looks back and says, “I fucked that up,” whereas Lenore looks back and says, “I dodged a bullet.” I hope that comes through -- I wanted those things to motivate their characters. Hal still holds a torch, Lenore is heartbroken.

When I finished the book, it was funny, I was having all these conversations with Sheila Heti (who played Lenore) and I said I still don’t know how to start the book, I don’t know what the book is about, and she said “let me interview you about the book.”

That’s a great idea.

On top of being a wonderful writer, she’s a master interviewer, and she transcribed as we spoke. Part of the way through we realized she should be interviewing me as Hal, because I knew him more than I knew Lenore. His is my story -- I’m never sure of relationships, I tend to end them and then look back with regret. Lenore has her own faults: she ignored his warning signs and put him on a pedestal. She’s complicit, it’s not just him dicking her around. When we got to that point in the interview, everything slotted into place, it was so helpful, and the beginning came out of that exercise.

You allude to moments when Lenore’s temper flares, but it was more difficult for me to imagine those moments, because they weren’t happening on the page. But her pain, that she would record after fighting with Hal in her lists, “apple / iced coffee / cried in shower,” was very real to me. Especially after her pregnancy scare when he just splits.

People stay in relationships like this. Hal’s biggest mistake was then to buy her the most expensive thing in the book as an apology -- which is the watch -- and I liked that it was a time piece, because the message really was: don’t waste your time with this guy! Four years is enough. Obviously Hal is the easier one to pick on, but Lenore takes it for a long time. And I do think women take it for a long time.

Women beat themselves up a lot about the way that they handle fights and unpleasant situations. And then feel guilty.

Definitely, I always overreact.

I’m a big fan of your first book, Was She Pretty?, which is mainly made up of illustrations. In this book, was it a difficult transition for you to make into photography and found objects? Did you take all the photos yourself?

At first I thought I would draw all the lots, but that’s not how a real auction catalog looks, so it was really a decision to be true to the form. I’m very comfortable with photography. Jason Fulford, who is my partner in J&L books, shot all of the still-lifes, and I shot all the snapshots, along with my friend Michael Smelling, who is a photographer. My brother and his girlfriend are also both photographers and they contributed images too. I knew it shouldn’t be illustrated.

And you wrote all the descriptions?

Yes. I followed both Bonhams and Christies catalog style. I liked their wording, but I then had a woman at Soethbys go through it for me to make sure it sounded right. The form was really important, the very clean, detatched, cold, still-life image, and evaluative voice helped the story come through.

The form allows you to accomplish subtle things in the explanation of the object -- there’s one that I love where it’s the mug that Lenore breaks and the note says “I sorry I broke your favorite mug, I promise I’ll fix it,” and then it’s still broken.


Another theme similar to that of Was She Pretty? is the photograph of Lenore wearing a pair of sunglasses -- and Hal’s note saying “I’m sorry I totally forgot they belonged to her, they look better on you!” And the glasses are from his ex-girlfriend.

Yes, I had to get some of the ex-girlfriend stuff in there.


That’s how I see the two books as companion pieces -- when you’re dating someone, you have these little things about their ex that obsess you. Was She Pretty? is a collection of these moments, these unique things, and in a way these people become objects, like the objects in Important Artifacts.

The way I see that is they’re both about something inspiring a haunting, something having a slightly intimidating ghostlike quality in a relationship. It’s in the past, or it’s in your head, but your feelings feed it, and it comes alive.

You assign it meaning and it becomes something else. That’s what’s so great about the gifts in Important Artifacts. I’m always afraid that I’ll get a meaningless gift from a significant other. As if the quality of the relationship can be gathered from its gifts! This is dangerous because some people...

Just don’t know how to give gifts. This is a huge thing. And women are expected to be more thoughtful.

When you and I talked before about the book, you told me you had gotten the idea from a Groiler club show on Sylvia Plath.

Yes, originally I was thinking in terms of a single person after I saw the Capote catalog. But when I saw the Groiler club exhibition catalog on the correspondence between Plath and Hughes, I thought it could be something that dies, like a relationship, rather than a person. Then there was this whole period where I thought, should they be famous people? I needed a paper trail. For a while I wanted them to be poets and I did a lot of reading on Robert Lowell, but then I realized I just didn’t know enough about poetry! But I know photography and I know journalism. The Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath was the seed of turning them into a couple.

There’s a moment in the book when she casts them as celebrity couples in a photography project. This strikes me as common behavior among artists, to compare their lives and relationships to other people. It’s almost a way you can justify your actions.

Or you just want to take lessons from the way other people have lived. Like saying, I want a relationship like Lee Miller and Man Ray, or Leonard and Virginia! It’s ridiculous because nobody knows what goes on in these relationships.

And the things we do know are totally toxic!

But the reason why I had her to do that project was because I wanted her series’ to be more soul-searching than his. His were lame, the beef jerky, the hotel ceilings, but many photographers go through these stages, it’s only like a having terrible drawings in your sketchbook. One of the reasons she’s attracted to him is because he’s creative. But I wanted her projects to go deeper than his. She starts by photographing her cakes, and then she goes on to photograph the inside of her friends refrigerators, which is a step further into self-awareness and document, and more interesting than beef jerky. In fact the fridge pictures are by Kristin Sjaarda, my sister–in-law. And the next step is casting herself and Hal as these doomed couples... which is very Cindy Sherman. I wanted her to take courageous artistic steps, rather than doing anything too vain. Whereas Hal is just stuck.

The text in Important Artifacts is longer than Was She Pretty? Have you ever thought of writing a traditional novel?

I have to admit I want the writing to get longer. I’m interested in writing stories. These were captions. I feel like I’ve gone from one sentence in WSP, to five sentences IA. This one took more writing, a lot of mapping out.

Did you write a complete narrative?

Yes. There’s so much more information about them in the histories I wrote for them -- she did gymnastics, her parents live in Guelph and were first generation Irish immigrants. I needed their background to inform their characters. I had to write a much bigger picture of the two of them, and to distill it down into very minimal lot descriptions.

It’s like poetry in a way.

It’s like that Ernest Hemingway story, “for sale: baby shoes, never worn.” My friend Adam Sternbergh brought that up when I was starting the project: how can I say the big things in the shortest amount of space?

You’ve really accomplished it.

Well, I did have a picture to help!

Of course the pictures help, but there’s also the risk that it remains a collection of objects. There’s a really strong narrative here.

There was a lot of re-writing, there was a lot of pruning away.

Did you have more objects you had to do away with?

Yes, and I had to cut down on the length of the descriptions. Friends helped me with this, they’d say: you can take that out, it’s implied. Sarah Crichton gave me good notes, and Andrew Wylie, my agent, was also really helpful.

Was he really involved?

He wasn’t involved in the production process, but he was so encouraging, and his assistant Rebecca was a great reader too. It just gave me more confidence, when he said I could be more spare. I have to give him credit, I came to him with ideas after Was She Pretty? and he kept advising me to do something weirder. He said: don’t think about what you think will get published, just do something weird!

That’s a nice thing for your agent to say! Your books don’t really fit into a commercial genre. There are, of course, young novelists who insert illustrations, but it’s in a gimmicky way. Not so in your book: the catalog is the thing.

I don’t come from a novelist’s background, I come from an illustrator’s background. And I’m always wondering how much you can read from pictures. To some degree my peers are graphic novelists. In my job as the art director of the New York Times op-ed page, I love working with illustrators who also write. People like Seth, R.O. Blechman, Jason Logan, Maira Kalman… There is a strong tradition there.

With this book you have a lot of collaborators. Do you like working in this collaborative way?

My main collaborator is Jason Fulford. At J&L books, the imprint we founded, we look at books and images all the time. We’re always looking for a new reading of visuals. We love stories. For years we both have been thinking of new ways of telling stories. I love working with him, and he shot all of the still lives in the book. Important Artifacts became more filmic when I had cast the characters. I had the written part, and then I had to kick into collaborative mode. Everything was props -- I had propped their life. I could understand how filmmakers use their palette. The nice thing was how the book shaped itself in the shooting. Paul and Sheila would say, “What’s my motivation?” And I’d have to tell them!

This is ironic considering that the rights have just been picked up by Paramount, for a film adaptation starring Brad Pitt and Natalie Portman! You must be really jazzed.

It's surreal, but I'm looking forward to what they do with the material.

Did Paul and Sheila know each other before the project?

No. I wasn’t even sure that they’d get along. It was tough. Paul’s not an actor, but Sheila had done a little before, which was really crucial. She did an amazing job..

I love the pictures of her in the photo booth with the croissant.

Those are awesome. I asked her, how can you transform into Lenore so easily? And she said, “I just think about what she wants!”

I’ve always thought writers and actors have a lot of common, because both are an art where you’re trying to understand people.

And their voices.

I’m sure people asked you this with Was She Pretty?, but are the things that happened between Hal and Lenore things that happened to you, or your friends?

In Was She Pretty?, a lot of that stuff had happened to me and women I knew. In this book, however, it was very practical character building. The writing on the playbills? That was just made-up. It was a code between them -- two people in love finding each other in a crowd. There weren’t very many things I took directly from personal stories. It was more about trying to capture what happens in four years in a relationship. A lot of the physical objects in the book are mine, but I invented different histories for them.

That’s a great way to repurpose objects for yourself.

I did shop for a lot of the things; the heart shaped toast rack for example, because I had written them in the story. I had to do some trolling on eBay.

Have you kept all these things?

I gave a few things away, but I kept most of it, in bankers boxes in my studio. On top of my own sentimental junk I now have Hal and Lenore’s.

It’s a strange thing, keeping stuff from a relationship once it’s died. Sheila and I would wonder -- how do you smother something that is already dead?

Even the bad experiences can haunt you.

Being able to really put something to rest, though, is crucial to going forward. Perhaps I wrote this book at this point in my life is because I want to have a decent relationship with my boyfriend.

Has it helped?

It has. And what’s funny is in the months after I finished the book, almost every ex-boyfriend in my past resurfaced.

Oh, of course! There’s a little bit of that with Lenore -- her ex-boyfriend asks her to dinner, and she goes.

But she doesn’t miss him.

There are people who throw stuff away, and people who keep stuff. There are people who are jealous, and people who are not. There are people who are forward-looking and people who are backward looking. Lenore is definitely always looking to the future, that’s why she picks four-leaf clovers whereas Hal picks flowers, at the end of the book.

I was wondering about that choice, why they were different.

Forward and backward. It ties into the first note in the front of the book, where Hal’s trying to reconnect with her. I’ve written those notes but never sent them.

Why do we do that?

If you’ve loved, you’ve loved. It doesn’t just end.