Barbara Shapiro finished writing “The Muralist” two years ago, well before America was fully engaged in the debate over Syrian refugees and whether accepting them into the country was a greater moral obligation or security risk.
So no, Shapiro says, there was no intended, history-repeating-itself message in harkening back in her new historical novel to the early days of World War II, to Hitler’s oppression of European Jews and resistance in the U.S. to giving them sanctuary.
“The Muralist,” like her 2012 best-seller, “The Art Forger,” is rooted in art. The title character is a French-born American painter who worked for the federal Works Progress Administration before vanishing in 1940. Her co-protagonist is her modern-day great-niece, a cataloger at Christie’s auction house. She’s trying to determine if the long-missing relative is tied to a newly uncovered cache of Abstract Expressionist paintings, a professional task that turns into a very personal quest to unravel the mystery of the woman’s disappearance.
“I had so much fun with ‘The Art Forger’ and people liked the art part so much that it was really a no-brainer for me to write another book about art,” Shapiro says. “But in a different moment in time.”
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Some will argue: an increasingly resonant moment.
Alizée, the artist and great-aunt, fears for Jewish family members who are in Hitler’s way and turns for help to Eleanor Roosevelt. Can the real-life first lady help get them passage to the United States?
But there’s no getting around another real-life character, Breckinridge Long, an assistant secretary of state to both Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt who was deeply anti-Semitic and determined — in the name of national security — to make it all but impossible for refugees to obtain visas.
In one of “The Muralist’s” most poignant scenes, Shapiro depicts a lament by Eleanor Roosevelt that she hadn’t done more to push her husband to admit and thus save more Jewish evacuees. Indeed, the Roosevelts’ eldest son, James, said it was a regret she held to the end of her life.
If Syria wasn’t on Shapiro’s mind in writing that thread, she says, “it kind of follows along with the point I was focusing on in the book, which is war and this is what happens when crazy men want to conquer the world. They create wars, and there are refugees who have to run from their homes and nobody’s willing to take them in.
“Sometimes, it’s hard for people to see through the rhetoric of the moment. Everybody knows Hitler was bad and the Holocaust was bad. It might be easier, reading this book, to understand that and say, ‘Oh, this is the same thing that’s going on now.’ ”
Shapiro, who splits time with her husband between Boston and a newly purchased winter home in Naples, Fla., recently discussed “The Muralist” and the decades of an eventful writing career that led up to it (excerpts are edited for length):
Q: What led you back to this particular moment in history, to the late 1930s and early ’40s and the outset of World War II?
A: My parents grew up in the Depression, and I’ve always been fascinated with how growing up in that moment affected who they were and how they thought and their actions 70 years later. Then, when I wanted to do a book about art and I started doing the research, the WPA came up pretty quickly. And Eleanor Roosevelt came up pretty quickly. And the whole politics of that moment, right before World War II, came up. There were so many aspects of this that I was really fascinated with.
Q: You write some affecting passages regarding the Holocaust. Was your family affected?
A: I had an uncle who escaped from the Holocaust. He came over here and ended up being very, very wealthy. Ten or 15 years ago, he hired a researcher to go back and find out exactly what had happened to each branch of his family — all he knew was that they were all dead — and this man took a year or so (to find out).
And then, my uncle took a bunch of family members, including myself, over to Poland with the researcher. We went on a bus tour following the path of the branches of his family, from the small shtetl where he started to where his mother’s whole family was burned in a barn to a couple of other concentration camps until we got to Auschwitz, where the rest of them were killed.
This was really powerful for me, but I didn’t feel I could write about it. It wasn’t my story, and it had been told over and over again. I just didn’t think I had the right. Then, when I came up with this (storyline) and learned Eleanor’s greatest regret was that she had not convinced Franklin to allow more refugees into the country, I thought, “Maybe I can do something with this moment in time.”
Q: You also write very knowledgably about art, not only about Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and other Abstract Expressionists but also the process of painting. And yet, you’re not an artist, right?
A: A number of artists were very generous and let me sit in their studios and watch them work, and they explained what they were doing. A lot of it, too, comes from being a writer, the passion I have for my writing and knowing how hard it can be sometimes and how other times you get in the zone. And there are people sniping at each other and a little bit of back-stabbing, but also support from your fellow artists or writers. I think a lot of these creative fields are quite similar.
Q: Can you walk through your struggles as a writer?
A: I had written five (psychological suspense) novels that were published but nobody read them. They went nowhere. I wrote another three that I couldn’t get published. And then, I sat down to write one more. I said if it didn’t sell, I was going to declare this my writing career. I was going to do something else. And it came very close to that.
I had agents rejecting “The Art Forger.” Every big publisher rejected it. They all said it didn’t fit into a genre so they didn’t know how to sell it. My (current) editor at Algonquin saw it and loved it. They’re small and nimble enough to be able to deal with a book that didn’t have a genre. And everything changed.
Q: You not only moved away from psychological suspense, you also changed from “Barbara” to “B.A.” Shapiro. Was that part of the reboot?
A: The first thing that librarians and booksellers look at when they order a new book is your past numbers. Those books didn’t sell so Barbara’s past numbers were really bad. With “The Art Forger,” we switched to B.A., who didn’t have any numbers.
Q: You have a Ph.D in sociology and taught that for a while, but you’ve said your inspiration to write goes back to childhood and reading “Gone With the Wind.” What was it that struck you?
A: I think I had to be 10 or 11. I was a voracious reader … and that book, I just fell in love. I fell in love with the characters, but mostly it was the story and the power of storytelling. The first few books I wrote went back and forth in time and had different historical settings. One was about the Salem witch trials. Another was about the Underground Railroad. I’ve always loved historical fiction, and I think that was Margaret Mitchell, too.
Q: There’s a paradox, isn’t there? You struggled through a succession of low-selling and rejected books. Mitchell wrote just one in her lifetime, and it was a Pulitzer Prize-winning classic.
A: Yeah. If you only write one book, that was a (darn) good one. It’s just too bad that Harper Lee didn’t write just one, but that’s another story.
Steve Wieberg, a former reporter for USA Today, is a writer and editor for the Kansas City Public Library.
Join the discussion
The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a book-of-the-moment selection every six to eight months. We invite the community to read along.
Kaite Mediatore Stover, the library’s director of reader’s services, will lead a discussion of “The Muralist” by B.A. Shapiro at 11 a.m. March 19 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Participants will meet at the visitors desk for a brief tour of the museum’s American Abstract Expressionist works before sitting down to discuss the book.
If you would like to attend, email Stover at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From Chapter 57 of “The Muralist” by B.A. Shapiro, published by Algonquin Books. Here, auction house cataloger Danielle Abrams surveys a collection of paintings by her great-aunt and her own re-creation of an ambitious mural that was recovered — incomplete — in sections.
“ ‘Turned,’ ‘Lily Pads,’ Alizée’s two triptychs, and the five paintings from Oncle’s house hang on the third wall. My reinterpretation of ‘Montage,’ sixteen feet by four feet, comprising four canvases, is on the fourth. It’s abstract, representational, and surrealistic all at once, colors and images and textures leaping from one canvas to the next, fusing the styles in a way that was far ahead of its time.
“The mural depicts the horrors of war on humans, plants, and animals as well as the greater horror of the indifference of each species to the destruction of its own. The details may be specific to 1940 — Alizée’s cry to wake Americans to the fate of the European refugees — but the emotions, the themes, speak to the human condition, to the now and to the future, transcending time and place. Which is its brilliance. Her brilliance. And I now understood in a way I hadn’t before, the power of great art.”