Food, Wine and Family Secrets with Dani Shapiro, Bestselling Author of Signal Fires



How can wine and food back memories of more than just the food and drink themselves? Why are so many family secrets associated with food and drink? How has the publishing world changed, and what does it mean for up-and-coming writers?

In this episode of the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast, I’m chatting with Dani Shapiro, bestselling author and host of the Family Secrets podcast.

You can find the wines we discussed here.


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Three of you in the U.S. will win a copy of Dani Shapiro’s fabulous new book, Signal Fires.


How to Win

To qualify, all you have to do is email me at [email protected] and tell me that you’d like to win the book. I’ll select the winners randomly from those who participate.

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  • What are Dani’s strongest childhood memories of gathering for family meals?
  • Why did Dani especially love her mother’s brisket?
  • Which important life lesson did Dani learn via a bottle of olive oil from Provence?
  • How does biodynamic winemaking bring an extra layer of care to the process?
  • What’s Dani’s ideal setting for having a glass of wine?
  • Why did Dani fall in love with California’s Thumbprint Cellars’ Cabernet?
  • What makes the sense of smell unique compared to our other senses?
  • Which types of food would Dani pair with Thumbprint Cellars’ Cabernet?
  • How did Dani end up on the path of a writing career?
  • Why does Dani urge young writers to slow down?
  • How has the publishing world changed, and what does it mean for up-and-coming writers?
  • What was the most embarrassing moment of Dani’s writing career?
  • How can you build a successful career in a creative field?
  • What has been the best moment of Dani’s writing career so far?
  • Why did Dani move away from fiction and into the genre of memoir?


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About Dani Shapiro

Dani Shapiro is the author of eleven books, and the host and creator of the hit podcast Family Secrets. Her most recent novel, Signal Fires, was named a best book of 2022 by Time Magazine, Washington Post, Amazon, and others, and is a national bestseller. Her most recent memoir, Inheritance, was an instant New York Times Bestseller, and named a best book of 2019 by Elle, Vanity Fair, Wired, and Real Simple. Dani’s work has been published in fourteen languages and she’s currently developing Signal Fires for its television adaptation. Dani’s book on the process and craft of writing, Still Writing, is being reissued on the occasion of its tenth anniversary in 2023. She occasionally teaches workshops and retreats, and is the co-founder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy.




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Dani Shapiro 0:00
We tend to have wine with dinner. We built a fire pit and it’s beautiful stones that were laid in the ground. And then there are a couple of chairs out there with some sheepskins on them. And is such a wonderful place to enjoy a glass of wine as the sun is setting and the air is crisp and our dog romping around and sometimes people coming over and gathering. But there’s something really lovely about being outside and near the earth and taking in nature and enjoying a glass of wine.

Natalie MacLean 0:37
I think a fire pit is so tribal, too. So communal when you gather around whether it’s just two of you or with other friends.

Dani Shapiro 0:43
It’s also elemental. You actually have to make the fire. It’s not like flipping a switch.

Natalie MacLean 0:55
Do you have a thirst to learn about wine, the love stories about wonderfully obsessive people, hauntingly beautiful places and amusingly awkward social situations?  Well that’s the blend here on the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast. I’m your host, Natalie Maclean. And each week, I share with you unfiltered conversations with celebrities in the wine world, as well as confessions from my own tipsy journey as I write my third book on this subject. I’m so glad you’re here. Now pass me that bottle please. And let’s get started. Welcome to Episode 211. How can wine and food bring back memories of more than just the wine and food itself? Why are so many family secrets associated with food and drink? And how has the publishing world changed? And what does that mean for up and coming writers? You’ll hear those stories and tips in my chat with best selling author Dani Shapiro, whose latest novel Signal Fires has been named one of the best books of 2022 by Time Magazine, The Washington Post, Amazon and others.

Three of you in the US are going to win a copy of her book. All you have to do is email me at [email protected] and let me know you want to win. I’ll choose three people randomly. Now a quick update on my upcoming memoir Wine Witch on Fire: Rising from the Ashes of Divorce, Defamation, and Drinking too Much. One of the biggest challenges with this book was to write it without thinking about the backlash that I’ll face from a number of online trolls when it’s published. Writing with an eye on social media is impossible. It’s like trying to write and edit your work at the same time. The brain or at least mine can’t do both at the same time, especially when the self editing comes from a place of fear. Writing requires freedom of expression and an expansive feeling to create new connections and patterns of meaning without worrying about the implications. The time for editing is later with a professional after the words have made it to the page. This is also when a legal review of the manuscript calms remaining anxieties. Deep breath.

All right. Here’s a review from Sharon Romany, a beta reader from Boothbay Harbour, Maine. “Written with sharp wit and humour, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The author narrates her struggle through an unexpected divorce and the scrutiny she faced as wine critic at the hands of the misogynist wine industry. Told with authenticity and vulnerability, you feel as if you’re chatting with an old friend over a glass of wine. Make no mistake. This memoir isn’t written with a woe is me mentality. It’s written by an incredibly empowered woman to help other women who have been silenced by chauvinistic behaviour to find their voice. Thank you, Natalie, for sharing your story. It’s an important one and a must read for all” Well, thank you, Sharon, for sharing your thoughts on the book. I’ve posted a link to a blog post called Diary of a Book Launch in the show notes at This is also where I share more behind the scenes stories about taking this memoir from idea publication. If you want a more intimate insider seat beside me on this journey, please let me know that you’d like to become a beta reader and get a sneak peek at the manuscript. Email me at [email protected] Okay, on with the show.

Natalie MacLean 4:53
Dani Shapiro is the author of 11 books, and the host and creator of the hit podcast Family Secrets which really is terrific. Her most recent novel, Signal Fires, was named Best Book of 2022 by Time Magazine, The Washington Post Amazon and others and it is a national bestseller. Her most recent memoir, Inheritance, which I also loved, was an instant New York Times bestseller and named Best Book of the Year of 2019 by Elle, Vanity Fair, Wired, and Real Simple. Dani’s work has been published in 14 languages and she’s currently developing Signifiers for its television adaptation. Dani also teaches workshops and retreats and is the co founder of Sirenland Writers Conference in Italy. And she joins us now from her home in Connecticut. Welcome, Dani. So good to have you here with us.

Dani Shapiro 5:41
Thank you, Natalie. It’s great to be with you.

Natalie MacLean 5:43
Awesome, awesome. So you’ve been busy. Your book tour is just winding up. But you’re a trooper. You’re here with us this evening. So thank you for that. Now, before we dive into Signal Fires, which I loved, I’m of course going to tease out the food and drink elements given the focus of this podcast but tell us about your family meals when you were a child where they important.

Dani Shapiro 6:04
They were important. And I love that question because it’s so evocative of childhood. So I was raised in a very religious home. And so when I think of family meals, I think of the Sabbath. And it was an Orthodox Jewish family so the Sabbath, Friday nights, Saturday lunches, they were evocative, but they were also tense. And so I particularly remember the Saturday lunches because everything had to be served cold because it was not within the belief system to use electricity on the Sabbath. So everything was sort of cold brisket, cold peas, gefilte fish, which to this day, I’ve never developed a taste for it. And of course, like usually a beautiful loaf of challah bread.

Natalie MacLean 6:58
Unleavened, I assume.

Dani Shapiro 6:59
No, no. That’s on Pass Over. It’s that braided bread. You’ll see that actually, quite delicious. So I have very clear memories of those. And I was an only child. So it was me and my parents. The three of us.

Natalie MacLean 7:12
Me, too. Excellent. Nice to meet an only brat. Why were they tense?

Dani Shapiro 7:17
I think they were tense because my parents did not agree on the religious belief system. My father was the one who was devout. My mother was a self described atheist, who had agreed to raise their children or child in that belief system. But it wasn’t one that she believed in. So there was just a lot going on. There was a lot simmering beneath the surface always. And I was a very sensitive child. And I felt a lot of that. And just. I think a lot of things come out of family meals. It’s where else do we gather in really. Throughout our lives, where else do we gather with family with extended family other than around a table?

Natalie MacLean 8:01
Exactly. And it’s one of the few times in our busy lives with social media and jobs and everything else that we slow down, perhaps, to enjoy each other along with the food and drink. But yeah. And so was wine served at those meals?

Dani Shapiro 8:16
The wine that was served I don’t think would make the cut. It was sweet Manischewitz. Do you know what that is?

Natalie MacLean 8:23
Yes, I do.

Dani Shapiro 8:25
Yea that’s what I thought wine was for a while as a child.

Natalie MacLean

I’m so sorry. No, just kidding.

Dani Shapiro

Yeah, it’s a wonder that I didn’t develop a taste for it because that would be the wine that was served. But it was really more for ceremonial purposes.

Natalie MacLean 8:38
Sure, sure. And do you have any favourite dishes? That you’ve mentioned one that you don’t have a taste for as of today, but was there anything your mother made or your father that you still love?

Dani Shapiro 8:49
Yeah, my mother made a really wonderful brisket. Just a really, really delicious, very tender brisket in you know practically falling off you know. Like sort of like in the shredding, falling off the fork kind of wonderful flavours. My father, I think as was true as a lot of dads of that era, had one dish that was his specialty. And I loved that as well. And that was breakfast. It was what he called Novi eggs and onions. So it was nova salmon and scrambled with eggs and with onions until the onions were carmelized and I can taste that right now as I’m talking.

Natalie MacLean 9:33
I can smell it. Thank you. Sounds wonderful. Oh my goodness. Do you make either of those dishes today yourself?

Dani Shapiro 9:40
I do make a brisket but usually holidays. I would say when I make a brisket I probably have graduated more likely to make a beef bourguignon or something in my crock pot or my slow cooker. If I’m going to make a big sort of meaty dish that simmers for many hours. About once or twice a year, a brisket is just the thing. And then in terms of the Novi eggs and onions, my husband also has basically one specialty. And it also is a kind of very slow cooked eggs with he likes shallots caramelized shallots, and sometimes nova in there as well. So that tradition has continued in our home, I would say.

Natalie MacLean 10:24
Some good resonance between the two generations they’re food wise. Now, you mentioned in another interview that as you progress through the years, you’re less likely to play it safe. You had a story in another interview about a bottle of olive oil that you brought home from Provence. What was it?

Dani Shapiro 10:42
Yeah. Two bottles, actually. It’s very sad.

Natalie MacLean 10:45
It’s a sad olive oil story. Okay.

Dani Shapiro 10:47
It’s funny and instructive. So my husband and I spent our honeymoon in Provence, in Paris and Provence. And then toward the end of our honeymoon, we started buying things to bring home. Some beautiful pottery, a few other things here and there, beautiful tablecloth. And we went to this very special olive farm and really extraordinary olive oil. It had had a big recommendation to us from a friend who knows Provence really well have special this olive oil was and this was still during a time where you could bring bottles on airplanes. So we very carefully packed and carried a shopping bag of this precious olive oil all the way back from Marseille to Paris to New York home. And then we didn’t open them. Because they were so precious that we just were saving them for the right moment. And I don’t know how long we waited, but we waited too long. And when we did open that first bottle, of course, it had gone rancid. And both of them had gone rancid. And there was really a lesson in that.

Natalie MacLean 11:54
Yes, absolutely. You know that happens with wine, too. It’s whatever carpi the bottle today em. You can wait so long for that special occasion that you miss it, but it’s so emblematic of life. It’s like make tonight or make today a special occasion with how you live it.

Dani Shapiro 12:13
Exactly. I’ve become much more likely to say let’s open a nice bottle of wine tonight. You know, I mean we have a wine cellar that has very much everyday bottles in it and very much sort of special bottles that you know we’re gifts or you know. My husband has a very good memory for exactly where he has bought a bottle of wine. I don’t have that gene. But I will sometimes we’ll just celebrate a wonderful Thursday night where we’re home and it’s snowing and the fires going and we’re feeling just like yeah, carpe diem. Absolutely.

Natalie MacLean 12:52
Is there a particular bottle that you’ve had recently that stands out one of those special bottles? Or was it more than night and maybe the label of the brand was even irrelevant or unmemorable.

Dani Shapiro 13:04
Well so often that is the case. I think that’s when we travel when we do our writers conference in Italy or also this was the case in Provence, the amazing feeling of stumbling into some bistro or some trattoria and it’s the house wine. And it’s so delicious. And some of its deliciousness is everything about the environment that you’re in while you’re enjoying it and the food and the ambiance and just the feeling of that moment in your life. But we did open recently a special bottle for absolutely no reason. And it was an Italian wine called Testi. And it has a history with us, which is that we were in Tuscany at a beautiful, very small boutique hotel villa. And this wine, Testi, is a nearby vineyard. And it’s kind of like something out of the mind of like a beautiful madman. I mean the way that he harvests his grapes has something to do with the constellations and astrology. There’s some very fine wines that have come out of that vineyard. And so we have the occasional bottle of Testi and it brings all that back.

Natalie MacLean 14:20
That’s great. Yeah, he’s probably perhaps a biodynamic farmer who looks for the alignment of the moon and the stars and burying bull’s horns and all kinds of things. But even if you aren’t a big believer in that, to me it certainly says the winemaker is paying attention to the vines and the earth. Like anything that draws your attention closer to what you’re doing is a good thing perhaps.

Dani Shapiro 14:44
Absolutely. Absolutely.

Natalie MacLean 14:46
So do you have an ideal setting for a glass of wine? I mean, do you and your husband generally have wine each day? Or is it sort of a weekend thing?

Dani Shapiro 14:56
We tend to have wine was dinner. The spot that comes to mind is during the early days of the pandemic, when it just felt like we were going to be outside for a very, very long time if we ever wanted to socialize ever again, we built a fire pit. And it’s a beautiful stone sort of. It’s very organic looking, but it’s not a neat little circle. But it’s it’s these stones that were laid in the ground. And then there are sort of half stone walls surrounding it. And we have a couple of chairs out there with some sheep skins on them and a fire pit. And that is such a wonderful place to enjoy a glass of wine as the sun is setting and the air is crisp. And I have some really, really happy memories of doing that even just in this last period of time. And our dog romping around and sometimes people coming over and gathering but there’s something really lovely about being outside and near the earth and taking in nature and enjoying a glass of wine.

Natalie MacLean 16:04
Absolutely. Yeah, under the stars. And I think a fire pit is so tribal, too. So communal when you gather around whether it’s just two of you or with other friends. That’s very evocative. And I just love the way you describe it. It’s very much like your writing. You’ve got an image here and an image there. And it does paint a picture in our minds, and we fill in the rest, but it’s beautiful. It’s also elemental.

Dani Shapiro 16:27
There’s something about you actually having to make the fire. And in our case, go gather the little bits of kindling. And a lot of our wood is stacked up on a hill. And kind of you know climb up the hill. And bring down the logs. And set it all up. And so you’ve earned something in that moment. You’ve worked for it a little bit. Yes. It’s not like flipping a switch.

Natalie MacLean 16:50
Absolutely. Well, I always think bodies in motion that’s you know also a way of expressing time. I was a dancer as a younger woman. And I mean, we’re gonna get to that but you experiment with time so beautifully. But you know, the whole gathering of the logs in the effort, as you say makes it more worthwhile. But also there’s some motion there that brings it to sort of crescendo or whatever. A spark a signal fire, perhaps anyway. So which one do you have with you today? I’d love to know what you are sipping on there.

Dani Shapiro 17:23
I chose this especially for our conversation. So this is a Cabernet from a vineyard in Healdsburg, California called Thumb Print.

Natalie MacLean

I love the label.

Dani Shapiro

It’s actually on the bottle. And we discovered this wine while I was on book tour. I had a book tour stop in Northern California in Sonoma in Healdsburg, which is quite a mecca for food and wine lovers. And it’s such a special place. And I actually did an event in the tasting room. It was set up by a bookstore, but they wanted to do a special thing and so they did it. The bookstore is called Copper Fields. And they did it next door in the tasting room of Thumb Print Cellars. And I had never done a book event like it. It was really special. And we spent the night there. And the next day we went back and we spoke with the winemaker heard a little bit more about the story of this vineyard. The thumb print actually was a mistake. Came as he was starting to make his bottles. He accidentally ended up putting his thumbprint on a bottle. And it was so cool that it became Thumb Print Wines. But it’s really just earthy, delicious Cab. And we had a case shipped home, any number of different wines from them. But again, it’s the wine and it’s the story of the wine.

Natalie MacLean 18:51
Exactly. Exactly. Yeah, I think of every bottle has a story. Every label is just the first page or whatever the cover, if you will, yeah until you dive in there. But I’m thrilled that you had an event at a winery, kind of like a spines and vines. I think reading and drinking wine go well together perhaps up to a point, as long as you don’t have too much wine. You fall asleep. But I think there’s so many similarities and Thumb Print that sounds just like such an incredible label kind of like associated with identity. And I don’t know, discovery.

Dani Shapiro 19:24
I believe it was started by the young man that we were talking to by his dad and then he’s taken it over. And then his partner is there you know sort of working with him and just feels like it’s a family business, which is also really nice to see.

Natalie MacLean 19:39
It is yeah. Many wineries are we think of the big ones.  The big labels that we all know but the majority of wineries in the US and Canada are family owned. They’re small operations, their grape farms is what they are. And people think it’s glamorous but it’s really it’s farming, fancied up farming but farming. But have you since had that while you’re having it now does it take you back? Do you feel like it takes you back there to that winery? Just drinking it or smelling it?

Dani Shapiro 20:05
I do drinking it or smelling it. Both really. Yeah. I mean there’s something that has I mean long since been true in literature you know. From Proust’s madeleine you know on forward and backward of scents and tastes, evoking emotion and memory. And sometimes we don’t even know in the moment what’s being sparked. But something is being sparked.

Natalie MacLean 20:34
Absolutely great. Great verb sparked. So the smell. Smell is our only sense, you probably know this, that is tied directly to the centre of emotion and memory. All the other senses have to go through a more circuitous route in the brain. But that’s why when we smell something like wine, or Proust when he was eating, that it was actually not the taste but the smell of the madeleine. And that would take him right back, perhaps to where he was in his childhood. And I think that’s the magic of why it’s like this sort of scent carpet that you can travel along back in time, looping time. And I know that I can be right back to where I tasted a wine for a first time. And it’s weird,  sometimes I think it’s just being a bit of a off kilter wine savant, knowing that you know what I was wearing, who I was with, what we were eating, where you know all that sort of thing, But I think it’s because of the power, especially aroma and smell.

Dani Shapiro 21:28
That makes sense. And I actually did not know that about scent being the only sentence that bypasses all that. But say it, no, that makes perfect sense to me.

Natalie MacLean 21:38
It goes right to the amygdala and the hippocampus. I think it is and in the limbic system and those are primal areas of the brain. And so that’s why it is so strong and evocative. So you know I’ll smell a National Geographic magazine on I’ll be back at my grandparents kitchen, because I subscribed to that. I love the smell of the magazine. It’s that more than anything else. I don’t remember the pictures in the magazine but I remember the smell of it. And that’s so powerful. Okay, so cool. And what would you pair with this wine, the Cabernet that you’re having right now? Would it go with that brisket that you make?

Dani Shapiro 22:15
It would go with the brisket. It’s a wine that I think wants to be paired with a kind of meaty, something that has a similar kind of like heft to it or it would pair with the brisket. It would pair with beef bourguignon. And it would beautifully. Yeah. Would also pair well with a bird of some sort with chicken. I don’t like turkey particularly but it would be a good Thanksgiving wine.

Natalie MacLean 22:41
Well your intuition is right on there, Dani, because you know often turkey is a bit of a dry meat. It’s certainly is if I cook it, which I don’t I try to stay cooking adjacent. But Cabernet has tannins which are drying. They’re those furry mouth feeling you get from eating walnuts are over steeped tea. And so you put a dry bird with a dry drink and it’s just not pleasant. So your brisket is right on. You want juicy kinds of meats with lots of protein. Well done. So do you remember the moment you knew that you wanted to be a writer?

Dani Shapiro 23:15
It wasn’t like there was a moment. I always wrote. But I did not know that it was possible to be a writer. I didn’t grow up surrounded by writers or artists. I was that kid who read constantly and stayed up late straining my eyes and reading under the covers with a flashlight. But I didn’t know that a life as a writer was something that anybody did. I didn’t connect to these books that I loved with the idea that somebody actually spent their life writing them. And it wasn’t really until I got to college that for the first time I went to a school called Sarah Lawrence, that’s just north of New York City, an easy commute. And so there were a lot of working writers who were teaching there, who would come up once or twice a week and the rest of the time they were writing their books or their stories or their essays. And that was hugely revelatory for me.

And so I think the first step was on this is a possible life. I didn’t think it was possible for me still but I thought this is what it looks like for somebody to do this. The great American short story writer Grace Paley taught there. And she was a mentor of mine, and she modelled for me. You know this was a woman who was a mother and a wife and probably a grandmother at that point. She was a social activist. She was always getting arrested and classes were always getting cancelled because Grace was doing her social activism. She was deeply passionate about life. And she wrote these magnificent short stories and she was a wonderful teacher. And seeing that was remarkable, seeing that modelled for me even though I don’t think she was trying to model it. This just was who she was. But it wasn’t really then. It was a few years later that I began to feel this, this sort of burning need to have this be what I did with my life. And that was a scary thing because I didn’t know if I could or if it would work or there’s no safety net in becoming a writer. But I went to graduate school, I stayed at Sarah Lawrence for graduate school. And it was Grace Paley, actually, who said to me sweetheart you should go there. There’s the door to the graduate program, just go through that door, you belong. And that’s where I wrote my first novel.

Natalie MacLean 25:42
That’s uncommon to publish a novel while you’re still in graduate school.

Dani Shapiro 25:46
Yeah, it is uncommon. And I’m glad that that happened. But in a way, I wasn’t really ready. The book wasn’t really ready. And so on the surface of things, I had this first book coming out with a major publisher and I was written about in magazines and newspapers and stuff like that. And I went from being kind of a late bloomer to being precocious overnight. Because you know it went from sort of what’s Dani doing with her life to oh she’s publishing a first novel at the age of 27. And it was good that it happened because it got me started. But I am always sort of encouraging young writers now, if they can, to find a way to slow down and. Your first book is your first impression.

And I now feel very thankful for the entire shape of my career because the shape of my career has been like this. I’ve been in book after book very much competing with myself, with I’ve done that now, now what can I accomplish. That it began was sort of learning how to write a novel in public and bringing out that first book, but it was also really thrilling. In Signal Fires, there was this line of change one thing and everything changes. And it’s kind of a motto of mine. In a way means something very different in Signal Fires but in life I can’t really wish that that had been any different because if that were different, everything that followed would have been different. And I wouldn’t want everything that followed to be different.

Natalie MacLean 27:18
That’s true. Even the traumatic moments they make us who we are.

Dani Shapiro 27:23
They do and they’re part of the map.

Natalie MacLean 27:26
They are aren’t they. A bit of the butterfly effect. Just going back to something you said, you know that first novel is your first impression. And today, I’m glad you’re urging writers to slow down because today there isn’t a lot of forgiveness if that first novel doesn’t work anymore. With big publishers, at least you’ve got to be.

Dani Shapiro 27:42
No, I’m very aware of that. And maybe someday I will be able to write an essay about it. Because what happened with me when I was 27 would be almost unheard of today. So I write a first novel, it comes out, it gets some nice attention, but it doesn’t set the world on fire. I write a second novel that also comes out, get some nice attention, but doesn’t set the world on fire. I remember between my second and third novel I was thinking about changing publishers and I was at a big publisher. And the Editor in Chief of that publisher said to me someday you’re going to be a big best selling writer and I want to still publish you when that happens. That kind of thinking would not happen today and it’s unfortunate because there’s such a sense of something needs to come out and explode and be noisy and be big. You know, it’s like be big or go home. It’s really unfortunate because it was my fourth book, Slow Motion, my first memoir when I really started to become known and really kind of really began to come into my own as a writer. Maybe the novel that I wrote before that, but it took me a while it takes a while.

Natalie MacLean 28:58
It does to develop a career and a voice and all that other.

Dani Shapiro 29:02
Yes. Exactly. And to think that that might not have been possible or I might have been discouraged or. You know, a writer today will often not be able to sell another book or have to move to a different kind of platform, to a smaller publisher or to self publishing. And it’s a very different world than it was when I was starting out.

Natalie MacLean 29:22
It is. It’s sometimes you wonder how many voices we’ve lost because there wasn’t that care for someone’s career to let them flourish and develop, to hone their craft. But we’re so glad you made it. Dani. Do you have a memorable, worst moment of your writing career?

Dani Shapiro 29:39
It’s funny that you asked that because just today there was this very interesting thing that happened on Twitter of all things. Which is that a young writer, with a first book coming out, had a really unhappy experience where nobody showed up at a reading. And she was really feeling quite despairing. She thought there were more RSVPs; she thought that people were really going to show up, it was going to be a crowded event; she was very excited. And I think two people showed up. And she was devastated. And it’s a very difficult thing when two people show up. Because they’ve shown up, so you still have to give a reading and a talk. You’re talking to two people. And so she wrote on Twitter or something like, you know, this was really hard. And this is what happened. And every writer in the world it seemed chimed in to say that has happened to me: everyone from Neil Gaiman to Margaret Atwood to Cheryl Strayed to Steve Martin for God’s sake. I mean, it just went viral. And there were just hundreds, I mean, there were just hundreds of us just saying yeah that happens.

And so I mean I’ve had more than one. But mine was most notably in Northern California at a great bookstore. It was for one of my novels. And you know my publisher had flown me out there. That was why I was there was to give this reading. And there were five people in the audience and they were surrounded by lots of folding chairs for the people that they were expecting to have come. And there was a young woman in the front row who was crying I think because my work meant a lot to her. There was someone who had wandered in who probably was just trying to stay warm and just have a place to sit for a little bit. There was the bookstore manager and there were my cousins. It always been fine if my cousins had not been there. But my elderly cousins who live not far from the bookstore had come over there to support me. And I could tell that they were sort of looking at each other like she makes a living with this. I mean, it was so mortifying and unfortunately a number of years later any number of times I’ve been back at that same bookstore with big crowds, and the cousins have come out. That really mattered to me that the cousins came back and that they saw

But there have been any number of moments like that. And I think part of you know what is endemic to being a writer – or an artist of any kind or somebody who’s entrepreneurial and is constantly making something where something did not exist – is to feel it, be miserable, and then go to sleep, and wake up the next day and brush it off, shake it off, whatever it takes and get back to work. And that really does separate those who, in the long run, have creative lives and pursuits and success and those who don’t. There’s this great essay called Writing in the Cold: The First 10 years and it’s by an editor who was no longer with us named Ted Solotaroff. And he was a great editor, a legend in his time. And he wrote this essay that was passed around when I was in graduate school where he wondered about the very talented students he had, and why had some disappeared and why had others flourished. And it wasn’t always the ones he thought would. It wasn’t always the ones who had the most fiery talent. And the word that he used, which I don’t even think is in the dictionary but I’ve never forgotten it, is that what separated those who did and those who didn’t was endurability. To have the ability to endure. And endurability is just the most wonderful word I think. The most wonderful quality to be able to have in so many ways in life. And so I think of that, when I think of those kinds of moments, I mean a writer of a first book saying nobody showed up at my reading. Of course they didn’t. Nobody knows you yet. It’s okay you know. And this writer has just gotten a huge boost of support from you know the whole universe to shower down on her. It’s okay. And I wish everyone could have that, to know that.

Natalie MacLean 34:14
Absolutely. Yeah. Well I mean that’s so relevant to other fields, too. That professionals just keep going you know. It’s the Navy SEALs sitting in the cold ocean, just grit and grace and keep going like you know. Keep going, just keep going.

Dani Shapiro 34:31
Which doesn’t mean you don’t feel. It doesn’t mean you don’t acknowledge disappointment and wallow in it for a minute. But ultimately, it is the feeling of enduring and of continuing and maybe even of getting mad at it. And I mean I know when I’ve had moments like that, I usually feel like you know in a good way a kind of I’ll show them. I’m going to be better. I’m going to write and even better book next time. That’s just been my way through life.

Natalie MacLean 35:04
Absolutely. Oh gosh, that’s so resonant, Dani. Like I mean, just in life. Every time I heard a no you can’t do that I leaned in with a harder yes. And sometimes I think if I had faint praise, I would have given up. But because you you know bump up against some of that no you can’t, you know you go in harder with oh yeah yes I can. Do you have a best moment of your writing career that comes to mind?

Dani Shapiro 35:32
In recent years, there have been so many. And they’d been different kinds of best moments. I would say that when Inheritance was published, I mean a writer never knows what to expect. You can’t know. You can have your hopes and dreams and worries, but you really don’t know what’s going to happen. And when Inheritance came out, it struck this chord. And part of it was that my story lined up with an important story. And I was, in this moment in time in this century in this in a world of ours, the person who got to tell it because I had written nine books. And I had the tools in my toolbox. And I had written memoir and I knew a lot about what makes a story feel compelling and universal. And this was a story that happened to me. And I wanted to send the story back. I didn’t want the story. I said to my husband, I want to send the story back to the store. I want to pick another.

But you know, you don’t get to send your stories back to the story store, not the stories of your life. And I wrote that book, which just very briefly for people who are watching or listening who don’t know it, I’d always written about secrets. I had always written about family secrets. And I discovered quite accidentally that I had been a family secret that my dad, my beloved dad, maker of the novi eggs and onions, had not been my biological father. And that my parents were both well aware of that because they used reproductive medicine and used a sperm donor and were told to never ever tell anyone ever, ever again and didn’t and took that secret to the grave with them. But then here I was, in the middle of my life, taking a DNA test just for the fun of it because my husband was doing that too. And making this really rather earth shaking discovery that spoke to so many different sorts of aspects of my identity and my history and my nature and the very face staring back at me in the mirror all of that.

And so that discovery in 2016, which led to my writing Inheritance, which came out in 2019. When that book came out, the very first event that I walked into, which was in New York City, was wall to wall people. And I had experienced crowded readings before and especially in New York City, which was sort of my hometown, nothing like this. I mean people couldn’t get in. The door was locked you know. They were at capacity. And I spoke and I read a little bit and then it became clear that a lot of the people who had shown up were grappling with different kinds of secrets of their own. And it became like this kind of organic kind of group experience that I had not remotely anticipated.

And that continued for a year. Everywhere I went, every city I pretty much toured. I mean, I came home in between, but I toured nonstop for all of 2019 and even into 2020 right up until the pandemic stopped me. And what happened was I mean every writer hopes that there will be a purpose you know. Like but the purpose is very often fairly simple. It’s connecting with readers. It’s moving people. It’s the one way that I don’t mind making people cry. This actually felt like a purpose that was greater, because people were reading my book: adoptees, people who had been conceived using donors, parents who had kept the secret from their children. Hundreds of thousands of them like they were reading my book and it was changing their mind.

Natalie MacLean

Wow, that’s powerful.

Dani Sharpio

So that you know in every city I went to there would be people coming up to me saying my dad sat me down and told me that he wasn’t my biological father. And he asked me to come tonight and say thank you to you because he really didn’t understand that it was important and why it was important.

Natalie MacLean

You started all these conversations.

Dani Sharpio

I started all these conversations and I had no idea that I was going to. My book is not political. It’s a story. But I very much wanted to really walk the reader through the story of what does it mean to find out that you’re not who you thought you were? And what does that mean on the level of identity? And what makes a family a family? What makes a father a father? And what is familiarity and nature, nurture? All of this. So this is a long way of answering you, but that period of time was so profound for me and really sort of life altering because I got to see the way that a book can make such a profound difference in a very dramatic way.

Natalie MacLean 40:39
Wow. Now I know why that woman in the front row was crying. You know you’re touching on these big universal themes and questions. But in your story is so specific, so personal. I think that’s how you get at it. I just you know you told your story expecting it to just sort of land one way but people made it their story because it just resonated with them. I just love that book Inheritance. I mean, my mom’s doing DNA tests and telling me about odd cousins everywhere. But that must have been just so moving. It must feel like you’ve almost fulfilled your purpose on this planet. I mean I know you’re gonna keep writing but that must have been just so satisfying.

Dani Shapiro 41:20
I did have a feeling of what if I had never discovered this. It would have been so easy for me to never discover this. And as a writer, I was always writing around I mean I’m proud of my previous books but there was a way in which I was digging for something. I mean, why did I start writing memoirs? Why did I move, I mean Signal Fires is my first novel in 15 years. Why had I moved away from fiction and in the direction of memoir? It wasn’t a career decision. It wasn’t an intellectual decision. It wasn’t anything like that. It was an imperative. I was digging. I was searching. I didn’t know for what, but there was something I didn’t understand. And then, really randomly and quite by accident, suddenly I did. And that felt to me like alright this part of my life, this chapter of my life, now feels really complete. A literary chapter I mean. I mean for the rest of my life, I will still be unpacking you know that discovery in a way. But in terms of my memoirs, it felt to me like now when readers say to me “where should I begin?”;”Do I begin with Inheritance and move my way backwards?”; “Do I start with Slow Motion and move my way forward?”. It doesn’t matter. It actually doesn’t matter. They could be sold as a box set.

I think there’s a beauty in we can only know what we know at any given point in time. And so when someone writes a memoir, they’re writing about what they know then and they will know more later. And I always knew that, but I didn’t know how much more I would know later. So there’s a way in which that sense that I had that something didn’t quite add up. If we go all the way back to the beginning of our conversation and the tense and unhappy childhood you know sitting at the dining room table. Oh I should add a detail about the dining room. So it was very special table. It was designed by Nakashima, who was a very big deal mid century modern Japanese woodworker. And it was such a big deal and valuable table that you couldn’t actually eat on the table. So there were mats. There were like thick you know mats on top of the table. And then on top of the mats, which were there to protect the wood, would be a table cloth.

Natalie MacLean 43:38
Many layers.

Dani Shapiro 43:42
Many layers. I mean it’s such a metaphor, but there was a lot going on all the way back then. There was stuff that I couldn’t get out, that I didn’t understand that was between my parents. And so finally, as a writer and as a thinker and as someone who – I’ve been described as a public contemplative you know. I’ve contemplated publicly for years, which I prefer to the term memoirist because I’ve always just trying to make inquiries into things and using my own life as the way in. But not because I thought my own life was all that interesting, mostly because my life was what I had. So that was my tool of discovery.

Natalie MacLean 44:20
Yeah, absolutely. And it’s almost like you know you’ve had this pattern, this arc of memoir and you get to the end with Inheritance. Of course, there may be others but it’s almost like that optometrist when you go get the eye exam and they do the little click, it’s just a slight.

Dani Shapiro

Oh totally.

Natalie MacLean

And all of a sudden, everything’s clear. It’s like oh that’s what I was trying to see.

Dani Shapiro 44:43
Yes, I have described it exactly that way. Like suddenly having the right prescription glasses for the first time and not realizing that everything had been a little out of focus, a little fuzzy.

Natalie MacLean 44:55
You don’t know why but something’s not quite right. Then you finally get it. You see clearly face to face. Wow.

Well, there you have it. I hope you enjoyed my chat with Dani. In the shownotes. You’ll find my email contact, the full transcript of my conversation with Dani, links to her website and books, and where you can find the live stream video version of these conversations on Facebook and YouTube Live every Wednesday at 7pm. You’ll also find a link to my free Ultimate Guide to Wine and Food Pairing. That’s all in the show notes at Email me if you have a sip, tip, question, or want to win one of three copies of Dani Shapiro’s new novel or to be a beta reader of my new memoir at [email protected]

If you missed episode 22 go back and take a listen. I talk about writing my first book Red, White, and Drunk All Over. I’ll share a short clip with you now to whet your appetite. Wine has given me an excuse to be extremely nosy and to ask impertinent questions that I would never ask. I’m an introvert, which is great for writing. But I also need a crutch. And wine is my crutch not just personally, but professionally. It allows me to go into people’s homes, to sit at their family dining tables, and to ask really blunt and sometimes embarrassing questions. And so wine has taken me into places that I would never have access to. Nor would my readers. And when I was on a book tour for my last book, they said, how on earth did you get into Domain Romanée- Conti? It comes out on sale at about a couple $1,000 A bottle. It’s not me who’s getting access. It’s the fact that I bring you, my readers with me. They want to reach you. They can’t accommodate all of you so they let me in. And that’s how I get to ask those juicy questions.

If you liked this episode, please email or tell one friend about it this week, especially someone you know who be interested in the tips and stories we shared. You won’t want to miss next week when we continue our chat with Dani. Thank you for taking the time to join me here. I hope something great is in your glass this week, perhaps a wine that brings back memories of eating and drinking around the family table.

Natalie MacLean 47:38
You don’t want to miss one juicy episode of this podcast, especially the secret full body bonus episodes that I don’t announce on social media. So subscribe for free now at Meet me here next week. Cheers.