A Mother's Muse Breaks Away In her new novel, author Dani Shapiro explores the delicate balance between art and exploitation. Black & White tells the story of Clara, the daughter of a New York art photographer who becomes famous for taking artful, evocative photos of Clara in the nude.

A Mother's Muse Breaks Away

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/10103429/10103436" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up:

(Soundbite of whistling)

SIMON: It will make sense in a few minutes. But first, photography captures an instant, an unrepeatable moment. But what happens when the ephemeral persists and grows up?

Dani Shapiro's new novel, "Black and White," is about a New York art photographer, Ruth Dunne, who becomes famous for taking artful, evocative pictures of her young daughter Clara when Clara is nude.

The photographs are celebrated. But the innocence of Clara's childhood is abruptly sacrificed. At 18, she runs away to Maine, gets married and stays away for 14 years, until she learns that her mother is dying, and comes back to make sense of the woman who loved her, but perhaps her art a little more.

Dani Shapiro who also wrote the widely acclaimed novel "Family History" joins us from our studios in New York. Thank you so much for being with us.

Ms. DANI SHAPIRO (Author, "Black and White"): My pleasure.

SIMON: A lot of people will hear this and think to themselves, I've heard about this. And maybe we should explain there was a real life story on this planet, about a photographer named Sally Mann.

Ms. SHAPIRO: Yes. Sally Mann is a photographer who's still working but she became famous and in a certain way, infamous, around 1990 for a series of photographers that she took of her three young children that were very provocative. The children were nude and eventually they were collected in a book called "Immediate Family."

SIMON: And I have read in interviews, you didn't in any way, kind of, research that case, but you did look at the photographs.

Ms. SHAPIRO: I purposely didn't learn anything about what had happened to Sally Mann's children while I was writing the book because I wanted my imagination to really create a coherent narrative. When I finished the first draft, I ended up finding out that Jesse Mann, Sally Mann's oldest daughter, very much saw herself as her mother's collaborator and Clara was never able to do that.

SIMON: What made you write this novel in the third person?

Ms. SHAPIRO: It's actually the first book I've ever written in the third person. I couldn't have accessed, I think, any kind of sympathy for Ruth if this novel had been in Clara's voice. And it wasn't so much a conscious choice as much as it was that the material totally dictated that there needed to be a third person voice that could slightly remove itself at times. So that we could see just a little bit the bigger picture, even though, essentially we are in Clara's point of view for the whole book.

SIMON: When you're talking about your sympathies for Ruth Dunne, is part of those sympathies stem from the fact that novelists certainly exploit the people around them for inspiration?

Ms. SHAPIRO: It's something that in a way for me there is a bit of before and after moment in my own life. Before my son Jacob was born, no one was off limits to me. It has sort of a scorched earth policy about my family. And while I was aware and tried to be as careful as I could not to gratuitively hurt anymore, my feeling was, well, they are part of my story. And I'm trying to tell my story. But after I became a mother, it was really this feeling, literally, of holding this little baby in my arms and thinking, he didn't ask for this. And his narrative is only just beginning and I don't want to supply a public narrative to his life.

SIMON: There's a section in your own novel, which might speak to some of those circumstances. I wonder if you could read that for us. It's - Ruth gets Clara out of bed late at night so the two of them can go on a midnight shoot.

Ms. SHAPIRO: (Reading) What do you want me to do, Clara asks. She can hear the strain in her own voice. Can't her mother hear it too? I brought something, Ruth says, pulling a silk(ph) blanket from her tote bag. Here, wrap yourself in this. Clara does as her mother asks. She wraps the blanket around her shoulders. No, darling. Take off the jacket and your nightgown. That old feeling descends upon her, the numb floating, not altogether unpleasant, really. She can leave the shell of her body behind like those cicadas she's seen littering the ground in Hillsdale. She can shrug out of her skin, the same way she now shrugs out of her denim jacket. She then quickly, quickly before she can form a thought about it, pulls her nightgown over her head. The June breeze hits her ribs, the soft flesh of her buttocks. Like this, Ruth wraps the blanket around and around her, mummifying her. I can't move. Let me help you. Ruth cradles Clara in her arms, then lowers her to the ground. The moist spring earth is cool and damp. Clara can feel it even through the layers of the blanket. Ruth takes a couple of steps back, framing the image with her hands. Beautiful, she says quietly. She works quickly now, setting up her tripod on a flat patch of grass. She knows exactly what time the moon will be at its fullest, setting in the western sky. There are no pole lights, no generator running power to the six electrical wires. Just this, the enormous yellow moon bathing the park in its glow.

SIMON: What might wind up looking on the photograph plate is this unrepeatable moment of fretless(ph) moonlight innocence is the carefully crafted work of a professional?

Ms. SHAPIRO: Precisely, and in a way, those moments when those images are being shot in Clara's childhood, follow her into her adulthood and become - I think the way, for many of us, photographs become is, sort of, the inseparable from her memories themselves.

SIMON: As I mentioned, there are some people, who will hear about the book before they have a chance to pick it up. I wonder how with New York art photographer does is different than pornography. There are other listeners, I think, who will hear about the story and say, big deal.

Ms. SHAPIRO: The story that I really wanted to explore was for this one young girl...

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. SHAPIRO: ...who grows up to be a young woman, who then has a child of her own. So there are these echoes - this ripple effect through the generations -the work is the work. And what happened to make the work is the story that I wanted to tell.

SIMON: Without any judgment as to whether or not it's worthwhile?

Ms. SHAPIRO: Well, there is an interesting moment toward the end of the book. Clara takes Ruth - Ruth is dying. And she, sort of, in this end stages of cancer, but she has this birth of, kind of, manic energy and she asks Clara to take her to look at art, one last time. And Clara's young daughter, who's 9 years old is also with them. And the three women get into car, and they go downtown in Manhattan to Chelsea to where all these galleries are.

And there's a moment where Ruth goes into a gallery. She knows the owner. She's visited the owner at her home in Italy. And she'd look at all this work over the course of the afternoon and she doesn't understand this young artist. And there's one point she describes a photograph as E.T. drinking a martini. She's very alienated from the culture, and she asks to see the owner of the gallery.

And there's a 21-year-old assistant sitting there, who doesn't recognize Ruth and says, who may I say is calling? And Ruth says, well, it's Ruth Dunne. And the girl has never heard of her. And, in a way, everything is psychologically, emotionally, comes crashing down around Ruth at that moment because one of the torturous things in A way about being, I think, any kind of artist is, can you know - during your lifetime - whether your work will last? There's this moment where Ruth, I think, has this realization that her work may not last.

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. SHAPIRO: And that the price that she exacted upon her family, upon her daughter - upon both of her daughters - may not have been the equation in her mind as maybe this wasn't worthwhile.

SIMON: Dani Shapiro, thank you so much.

Ms. SHAPIRO: Oh, thank you.

SIMON: Dani Shapiro. Her new novel is "Black & White."

(Soundbite of music)

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.