Authors Tova Mirvis and Dani Shapiro began talking about creative writing 23 years ago when Mirvis was a graduate student in Columbia University's Master of Fine Arts program. Shapiro was a reader for Mirvis's master's thesis. Both women had been raised in Orthodox Jewish homes, and both had dreamed of writing novels from a young age. Beyond that, their lives at that time were very different. Shapiro had a troubled family background and abandoned Orthodoxy at age 17. She attended Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied with authors Grace Paley E. L. Doctorow and Russell Banks and sold her first semiautobiographical novel while still in school. Since then, she has written four novels and five memoirs--most of them deeply personal, with few topics off limits.
Until she turned 40, Mirvis was on a very different path from the rebellious Shapiro. She attended an Orthodox school and studied Jewish texts in Israel for a year before enrolling at Columbia University. At age 22, she married a man she had met on a blind date 12 weeks earlier. The two lived within the Orthodox community and had three children. Like Shapiro, Mirvis found fame as a writer early in her career. After the success of The Ladies Auxiliary, which was based on her master's thesis, she wrote two more popular novels and published numerous short stories and essays. Mirvis's life appeared idyllic, but she struggled with both her marriage and her faith. Several years ago, in a move that surprised her family and friends, Mirvis divorced her husband and left the Orthodox community.
Soon after, Mirvis and Shapiro reconnected. Mirvis was writing her memoir, The Book of Separation, while Shapiro was embarking on her fifth memoir, Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage. The two began an ongoing conversation about fiction and memoir, and last winter, they sat down at the Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest literary event in New York City to discuss the relationship between memory and imagination, the responsibilities of the memoirist versus the novelist and their Jewish pasts.--Marilyn Cooper
Shapiro: How are fiction and memoir different?
Mirvis: When I was your student, I believed I could only write fiction, and that felt scary enough. I remember struggling with writing about the Orthodox community in Memphis where I grew up: Whose stories was it okay to tell? Were you allowed to say certain things about the community, even in a novel? I admired you so much for writing both fiction and memoir. I was 24 at the time and certain I would never write a memoir. It seemed impossible that I could write about myself without the mask that fiction allows you to create on the page. Before turning in the final version of my memoir, I called you and asked what it meant to take a story that is personal and put it out into the world. That conversation enabled me to hit "send" on that manuscript to my editor.
Shapiro: I actually think fiction exposes the writer more than memoir. Readers believe the reverse is true. But if you show me a fiction writer's total work at the end of a long writing life, I can tell you everything about that person's obsessions. I once visited a book group that read all my fiction. By the end, I walked away feeling I had just completed ten years of group therapy. They had made connections, seen themes and understood things in my work that were wholly unconscious to me. Conversely, writing memoir is a much more conscious act, because I am aware the reader will pick up the book with a sense that this is true. But what does that mean? What does it mean for memoir to be true?
Mirvis: What you said about fiction being scarier is so interesting. Part of the thrill of fiction is a sense of freedom, the feeling that you can do whatever you want with it. Memoir is choosing to put something in or take it out. I always believe the parts I take out will remain private. In the back of...