It feels a little reductive, but perhaps it’s best to settle on "creative" to describe Leanne Shapton, who in March adds Guestbook (Particular) to her eclectic output. "I’m accused of this all the time," she laughs down the line from New York. "Are you a designer? Are you an illustrator? A writer? Are you a painter ...what are you doing?”
Readers of her National Book Critics’ Circle Award-winning Swimming Studies (2012) will know the polymathic Shapton trialled to represent Canada at the Olympics; those of a more visual bent may know her lauded book designs—often sporting her distinctive watercolour-style paintings—or her lively art direction of the New York Times’ Op Ed page. Many, judging by her modest sales on these shores, will have first learned of Shapton when she was named a judge of the 2018 Man Booker Prize.
She may become more renowned should a long-awaited film adaptation of her top seller in the UK, Important Artifacts... (2009), materialise. It’s been optioned by Plan B, with Brad Pitt and Natalie Portman rumoured to star; its author says the project is "still a nut to crack". That title, an annotated auction catalogue of items chronicling the ill-fated relationship of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, calls for what Shapton calls "visual reading". This is her intention again with Guestbook, a punning take on the "ghost-book" genre comprising 33 short stories and vignettes. Aren’t all of her stories about ghosts of sorts, though? From Artifacts... ("it’s about the remainders of a relationship and how possessions and objects are haunted") to Was She Pretty? (published in the UK in 2013) an illustrated exploration of how love, ex-lovers and lovers’ ex-lovers "haunt us".
Guestbook is a more literal take on the genre, she says, but as readers of her work will know, literal for Shapton does not necessarily mean linear, nor predictable. It is, though, compelling and often deeply, macabrely comic.
There’s the tale, told by way of stills from an online marketplace, of Italian vintage-garment traders who source stock by exhuming corpses and raiding ossuaries. A love of clothes (they punctuate Shapton’s oeuvre, in myriad forms) led her to wonder of "vintage" clothes-sellers: "How the fuck did you get that? Where are these clothes coming from!" Chuckling, she says that the story formed when she began to "imagine the cache of beautiful, beautifully decaying clothing that is, like... in the ground."
We also learn of the comically overcrowded social calendar of Edward Mintz, pictured at 38 different parties on one evening in a send up of society-party pages. The images are original, cast by Shapton, who "asked a bunch of friends, said, ‘Come—I will feed you—wear your fanciest clothes and we’re going to shoot 38 parties’. It was so fun." She originally cast a female protagonist, but felt a man "more in keeping with the Dorian Gray, Walter Mitty figure who exists in photographic terms to prove his worth... it became this idea of identity and identifying people". One of four full-colour stories in the book, Shapton says she wants Edward—notable for his blue suit and "played" by a friend of hers named Paul—"to come to every event I do [for the book] and be a sort of ghost in the room".
Shapton "read and read and read as many ghost stories as I could get my hands on" by way of research, and became absorbed by how "they change as society and technology changes". She cites M R James and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, and reckons "our ghost stories now involve images". Hence why they "do some heavy lifting in terms of how we read" her work: many of the photos are found-objects, or sourced from eBay or Etsy; others are from Shapton’s collection. There are her paintings too, and the odd illustration, as well as a prose-poem notable precisely for the absence of an image—it comprises the comments left under an Instagram post: "So beautiful./I love./That looks relly [sic] relaxing./Where can I find that dress?!"
There are a handful of other text-only stories which, as readers of Swimming Studies will attest, show Shapton as a wonderfully precise writer. Her world-building, seemingly so sparse, is arresting. The Edward Mintz story she describes as "almost a film production: getting people together, dressed up, acting out scenarios"; it took place over two or three nights. Why, then, concentrate such vast effort into a story spanning 38 images and captions that run to barely 30 words apiece? "That’s how I write: by shooting and captioning," she says. "I think fiction writers, especially genre writers, probably ‘build’ sets in some way... it’s production. More traditional writers probably do the same in terms of effort, it just isn’t ‘shot’."
Could it be a hangover from her time in magazine design, spending days creating something that to thousands is tomorrow’s chip-paper? "Understanding design and layout is huge, it’s part and parcel of how I write. With art direction, you can really direct a story and make it more efficient, and that influenced how I write—and read. You get more emotion," she says, by pairing text with images, joking that her inspiration was the glossy photo section at the centre of a biography, rather than the thousands of words around it. "I wanted a whole book of that," she laughs. "It’s very efficient. It’s condensed... and it’s fun."
Such insistence on economy may sound familiar to those who followed this year’s Man Booker: chair of judges Kwame Anthony Appiah said the panel felt editing could have been more "energetically performed" on some entries. Shapton says the judging offer came from the prize’s director, Gaby Wood, familiar with her work since Was She Pretty?, and visibly beams talking of the experience, hailing it "a delight... Each of us had heard what a slog it was, but it was the total opposite."
She also insists that "despite being ‘the graphic novel person’" on the panel, the decision to include Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina—the first such book to be longlisted—was "very, very much a group decision. It was a unanimous understanding, which was very gratifying to see, that these books are being taken seriously as literature. You could look at five panels of a graphic novel," she continues, now animatedly, "and there can be action in all of them with no words. I consider that editing. The language, whether it’s present or not on the page... that is reading. I’m so excited about how notions of how we read are changing."
What’s next for her? There’s an impending long-form piece of journalism for the New York Times about German dancer Pina Bausch ("it’s taken about six months"). She’s also working on coedition designs for Motherhood by Sheila Heti—who "played" Lenore in Artifacts...—and on a Faber rejacketing of one of her favourite writers, Thomas Bernhardt. When asked which other authors she would recommend, Shapton says fellow Canadian Miriam Toews’ Women Talking "blew her away", and nods too to Geoff Dyer and Miranda July, claiming: "I’m really drawn to people who don’t stay in their lanes... I love when artists write and photographers write, and when writers write about other artforms."
Of her book design, Shapton likes "finding a way to obliquely illustrate themes in a book [and] nail the sense of attraction, for the writer, the publisher, and hopefully for marketing too". She also loves hand-lettering, one part of the arsenal that makes her cover designs so distinct. "It’s a child-like thing... I just love painting letterforms," she laughs, then self-effacingly adds: "I know, that sounds like a coping mechanism."
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