Elena Bowes spoke to the supremely talented, award-winning author, podcaster and teacher Dani Shapiro about Dani’s latest novel, Signal Fires. Named a best book of 2022 by Time Magazine, Washington Post, Amazon, and others, Signal Fires is a magical novel that will stay with you, both haunting and hopeful. It deals with the secrets we keep and the unintended consequences that follow, as well as the healing power of forgiveness and interconnectedness.
For those of you who haven’t read Signal Fires, the story opens in 1985 on a summer night with a teenage car crash in which one person dies, and the other two are culpable. This accident will become a guarded secret for the respectable Wilf family, shattering each of their lives in different ways. Several years later another family with no knowledge of this tragedy moves in across the street. Events ensue involving that family’s gifted, brilliant and lonely son Waldo that somehow bring grace and forgiveness to the accident that happened decades earlier.
Before I get too deep into the book, I’d love to hear about how you got into writing in the first place? Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
I didn’t grow up knowing that it was possible to become a writer, to spend one’s life writing books. I didn’t know any artists or writers. I was a voracious reader, though, and wrote constantly, in journals, or letters, or attempts at stories. I have always been someone who needs to write in order to know what I think. It wasn’t until I got to college, at Sarah Lawrence, that I met real working writers for the first time, and began to see that such a life might be possible.
You write Signal Fires, I think, from the omniscient observer’s point of view – letting the reader know that certain moments in time will have great significance later. Was that an easy decision to write from this all-knowing point of view?
That all-knowing point of view was a huge part of the puzzle that fell into place for me after my years away from the manuscript. It wasn’t so much a decision as a point of arrival and certainty that this was the only way I could tell this story.
Your title Signal Fires comes from a poem by Carolyn Forché called Mourning. Can you expand on your choice of title and how it relates to the novel.
When I stumbled upon the Carolyn Forché poem, on Twitter of all places, the phrase Signal Fires leapt off the page. I have long thought about our interconnectivity, the ways in which our stories might intersect without our ever knowing it, through time and space and history. I think of the seven characters in Signal Fires as beacons for each other in some way, lights in the night sky, sometimes hazy, sometimes not even visible, but always there, creating a kind of web or tapestry.
You said in an interview that you’re incapable of thinking about plot. The actions come to you because you know your characters so well. Is that what happened with Signal Fires – did your characters lead you to where the story needed to go?
Absolutely. One of my favorite quotes about plot comes from Aristotle: “Action is not plot, but merely the result of pathos.” What I love so much about this idea is that if you have people, or in literary terms, characters, you eventually have pathos – and people whose actions are based on that pathos do things. And the things they do (and feel and say) ultimately creates the plot. I don’t impose plot on my characters. They lead me to it.
There’s another character that has a leading role. The oak tree that sits outside the Wilfs’ house. It’s the site of the crash in 1985, and it also is the one thing in the neighborhood that doesn’t change over time. The magic tree. The tree sees everything. Can you tell us about the tree’s significance?
I have long felt a special bond with trees. There’s a particular one in the meadow outside our home, a poplar, and when I practise yoga, I often look at it – especially when I’m in tree pose. I think of that three as presiding over our home. It was here before we got here, and it will be here after we’re gone. The ancient oak tree that sits outside the Wilfs’ house is like a silent witness to their lives and all the lives of their neighbors on Division Street. Who knows what it has absorbed over time?
In the novel you jump around timewise from 1985 to 2010 to 1999 to 2020 and so on. Did these moments of time occur to you in the order they appear in the story? I heard you say in an interview they’re ‘electric moments, like a constellation.’
We return to most of those moments in time (except for 1999) more than once, and I did know that they’d recur, that we’d pick up where we left off at that particular moment. But yes, they did occur to me in the order that they appear. I wanted the story to unfold in a non-linear way, because the way we experience life within us is not linear. Memory is not linear. We hold within us many such moments, and I wanted to try to capture that in a novel.
You write about a lot of skillsets in your book – Sarah’s screenwriting, Dr Wilf’s medical skills and Theo’s love of cooking. Not to mention all those constellations that grip Waldo. How did you study up on these areas to be able to write about them so convincingly?
I researched as I needed to. Sarah is a producer, and I do know quite a bit about Hollywood, having done some Hollywood projects myself, and my husband is a filmmaker. I asked doctor friends about certain key moments when Benjamin Wilf takes certain actions or makes certain choices. Most of the research I did involved Waldo’s obsession with the cosmos and the constellations. I simply followed his lead, and read everything an eleven year old boy might have read in his quest. As for Theo and his culinary greatness, that was fun! I just had to dine out a lot. Painful as that was.
And you’re adapting this to a TV series (when the strike is over) Can you tell us about that process? Does the TV series hold strictly to the novel?
I can’t say too much about the TV series, other than that I’m excited to return to work on it. I hope it will be true to the spirit of Signal Fires, but certainly it won’t hold strictly to the novel. It’s a very different medium which necessitates a different approach. I will say that it’s thrilling for me to continue to be living with these characters I so love!
What books are you excited to read?
My house is filled with piles and piles of books taunting me! Jess Walter’s story collection, The Angel of Rome, Geraldine Brooks’ novel Horse, to name just two. I tend to cross genres often, dipping into poetry, Buddhist philosophy, and psychology.
What’s next? Might these characters that you write about with such empathy reappear in future novels?
I’ll never say never! Meantime, I have my podcast, Family Secrets, keeping me very busy as we enter the 9th season, plus several television and film projects that I will hopefully be able to resume soon.