e’re so excited to interview New York Times bestselling author Susan Shapiro about her new memoir, The Forgiveness Tour: How to Find the Perfect Apology, a poignant, heartfelt journey into emotional healing. From the Los Angeles Review of Books and CNN to Forbes, The Detroit News, The Jerusalem Post, The Brooklyn Rail, everyone is talking about this book.
A native of West Bloomfield, Michigan, Susan now lives in Greenwich Village with her scriptwriter husband. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Salon, Oprah, Elle, Wired and The New Yorker online. She’s written thirteen other books her family hates, she says, including Lighting Up, Only As Good As Your Word, and Five Men Who Broke My Heart.
Her inspiring writing guide, The Byline Bible was culled from her 25 years as an award-winning, popular professor teaching at NYU, The New School and Columbia University’s MFA programs. She pioneered “the instant gratification takes too long” method and since the pandemic has led numerous online classes and panels, which have helped countless students around the world find their way to publication.
WOW: Susan, thank you so much for spending time with us today. The January 2021 release of The Forgiveness Tour couldn’t have been more perfect, as we all emerge from our pandemic cocoons to rebuild our social lives. Did you and your publisher, Skyhorse, think about that as you scheduled the release?
Susan: I have luck launching books on off months, like January and August. But given the book’s ten-year history and the havoc the pandemic caused, it was a miracle it came out at all.
WOW: And we’re so glad it did! You write in the book about how the mentor who betrayed you predicted you would write about your rift later on. At the time you certainly didn’t feel like it, but when did you know you had a book?
Susan: Well, it was rejected and revised so many times over a decade. Two moments stand out. After Salon published a short excerpt that went viral in 2016, the piece won an ASJA (American Society of Journalist and Authors) award. In my thank you speech to a crowd of fellow writers, I said, “I’ve written 1,000 pages so it’s nice to know 1,000 words work.” Then, four years later, the smartest literary editor I know read it, got it, and wanted it. That’s when I felt like maybe I finally nailed it. Ultimately, she wasn’t able to buy it. (I’d sold four other books to her publisher that hadn’t earned out their advances, so I knew it was a ridiculous longshot.) But her response—and her edits—were empowering. Right before the pandemic, it found a home with Skyhorse. They’d published my earlier book, Unhooked and made it a New York Times bestseller. So, I felt like I was in excellent hands all around.
“It was rejected and revised so many times over a decade. After Salon published a short excerpt that went viral in 2016, the piece won an ASJA award. In my thank you speech to a crowd of fellow writers, I said, ‘I’ve written 1,000 pages so it’s nice to know 1,000 words work.’”
WOW: Of all the theories on forgiving that you discovered, which one surprised you the most?
Susan: I’d say the wisdom from Manny Mandel, an old family friend who was a Holocaust survivor and DC psychotherapist. He never forgave the Germans and thrived, in his life and work, out of spite.
WOW: The words of Dermott J. Walsh, the Buddhist professor you consulted, really resonated with me: “The chain of one person hurting another, refusing to apologize and then causing hurt must be changed by radical forgiveness or repentance.’
What lessons can we draw from the fact that so many faith leaders and gurus agree on the importance of forgiving?
Susan: I’m a Manhattan journalist and raging feminist, so I look at the world through a skeptical lens. There’s a billion-dollar Forgiveness Industry that makes money promoting radical forgiving of everyone everything. What I learned researching the book is that hurt, atonement, and forgiveness are very personal and nuanced. Gary Weinstein forgave the drunk driver who killed his wife and two children to honor his late spouse and sons and to be able to move on. Kenan kept a grudge against the Christian Orthodox Serbs who slaughtered his fellow Bosnian Muslims and by being a spokesperson enraged at their denial of genocide led him to his wife and new family. There isn’t one size that fits all.
“There’s a billion-dollar Forgiveness Industry that makes money promoting radical forgiving. What I learned researching the book is that hurt, atonement, and forgiveness are very personal and nuanced.”
WOW: The personal sagas of the 13 other people in search of their own closures are fascinating. I loved what you told Sharisse, a former student: “Writing is like talking without being interrupted.”
Susan: Sharisse’s story showed how it’s sometimes healthier not to forgive. After being pushed by clergy to forgive her late father for raping her when she was a teenager, he tried to assault her again. A watershed moment of the book is when she unforgives him. And she forces her mother, a good editor, to read, revise and correct the spelling and punctuation of her memoir detailing what her father did to her and her mom didn’t protect her from. As Joan Didion said, writing is “an aggressive, hostile act.”
The idea of interruption came out of therapy, when I was recounting how, in my conservative male-dominated Midwest family, I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. No wonder I became a teacher in charge of the class and an author, which in Latin means founder, master, leader, and contains the word “authority.” I often quote Tom Robbins’ line, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” Though of course, my therapist argued it is.
WOW: From a craft point of view, I admired how the chapters covering other people’s struggles have a satisfying story arc but also contributed to your own chronicle. How did you accomplish this?
Susan: At first I wanted the book to be a funny sequel to my comic memoir, Lighting Up: How I Stopped Smoking, Drinking and Everything Else I Loved In Life Except Sex. But critics I trust said the betrayal by my mentor and eventual reconciliation wasn’t enough to hang a book on. Since he was a therapist, it came off too Manhattan-centric and shrinkadelic for a large audience. It kept getting heavier and darker. Interviewing other people who’d suffered wrongs never righted, and doctors and religious leaders added the wisdom and gravitas I was searching for on a personal and literary plane.
WOW: You quoted more than a dozen experts across the spectrum and read at least eighteen books in the ten years you invested in this project. When did you know that your research was complete?
Susan: Writing and revisiting it, I wasn’t sure. One editor said, “It’s too Jewish and New York shrinky,” a second one asked, “What’s with the Swami and Buddhists? Not enough Jews.” A third one suggested, “Take out the first-person angst and make it a self-help book.” When I saw the galley and reread the memoir, I was happy with it. I did a whole candle lighting ceremony when I put the stack of eighteen forgiveness books that had been living on my desk for so many years back on my shelves.
WOW: I bet that felt good! Even though we’re writers, ironically, words often fail us when we try to write about the people who’ve hurt us. What advice can you offer writers?
Susan: For my first memoir, Five Men Who Broke My Heart, a smart critic said if each male character is just a jerk, then you’re a jerk for going out with him and I don’t like either of you. So I tried to capture the moment where I fell in love, showing why, with each love story. And that way when my heart was broken, the readers was too. My rule for all first-person writing is you have to question, challenge, out, and trash yourself more than anyone else.
“My rule for all first-person writing is you have to question, challenge, out, and trash yourself more than anyone else.”
WOW: Great advice! In your book, you give 10 terrific tips for extracting the perfect apology. I’ve meditated on #9: “Try to view the estrangement as a mystery, not malice.” This is such a beautiful thought. Do you try to live life this way?
Susan: On a good day.
WOW: Well said! What I love most about the book (and your writing in general) is your dark humor. Your father, Jack Shapiro, said: “If you want to moon the world, use pseudonyms so you don’t embarrass the family,” and then you follow with “This was his way of acknowledging my latest personal essay in Marie Claire.” Can you talk about the relationship between humor and pain?
Susan: I tell my students, “The first piece you write that your family hates means you’ve found your voice,” and “Writing is a way to turn your worst experiences into the most beautiful.” Since I like to be self-deprecating, I could add: “hilarious.”
WOW: You actually dedicated The Forgiveness Tour to your father, who died while you were writing it. What would he say about this book?
Susan: I was thrilled and flattered when he kept buying copies and praising my coauthored memoir, The Bosnia List. Then I realized it was because the book was about someone else’s family instead of ours. But towards the end of his life, he told me, “You stuck to your guns and became a big success. I’m proud of you.” And he told his doctor Olaf—an aspiring writer—that I could help him get published. A student who was now an editor bought a great piece of Olaf’s and we later did a reading together, which was very cool and cathartic. I felt like my father was there watching.
“The first piece you write that your family hates means you’ve found your voice.”
WOW: That’s amazing. In addition to being a prolific and talented author, you’re a dedicated teacher who balances multiple classes and daily communications with your students. How do you do it all? Do you ever sleep?
Susan: I don’t have kids or pets and my husband is also a workaholic writer/teacher, so we can prioritize our careers and each other. Freud said the two life forces are work and love, so I feel blessed. And my students keep me young and inspired.
WOW: What else do you have coming up that you’d like to share?
Susan: World In Between, my first middle grade novel, coauthored with my Bosnia List coauthor Kenan Trebeincevic, comes out in July. And my new writing guide, The Book Bible: How to Sell Your Manuscript—No Matter What Genre—Without Going Broke Or Insane comes out in January 2022. It’s a sequel to The Byline Bible. Hopefully by then I can do in-person book events. I’m in withdrawal!
WOW: You are one busy lady. I hope you can carve out some time to rest soon. Thank you again for spending time with us today and sharing your wisdom. No wonder your Jungian astrologer believes your superpower is helping others soar. You are such an inspiration.
For more about Susan, visit susanshapiro.net or follow her on Twitter at @susanshapironet or Instagram at @Profsue123.
Ashley Memory has written for many magazines, including Real Simple, Wired, Permafrost, Rooted in Rights and O.Henry. She writes the monthly submissions column for WOW and serves as critique editor and judge for the WOW flash fiction and creative nonfiction contests. She lives in rural North Carolina, southwest of Asheboro, and when she's not hollering for the dogs, she's marveling at the antics of the nuthatches and chickadees on her birdfeeder. Find her on Twitter @memoryashley or ashley-memory.com.