Interview by Amy Fish
Context: Susan wrote a book that came out in January 2021 (Skyhorse Publishing) called The Forgiveness Tour: How to Find the Perfect Apology. I was intrigued by the title and by the author. I have never met Susan personally but have admired her writing and appreciated the generosity of her (online) advice and support of other writers for years.
About the Book (excerpted from Goodreads):
That’s the question haunting Manhattan journalist Susan Shapiro when her trusted advisor of fifteen years repeatedly lies to her. Stunned by the betrayal, she can barely eat or sleep. She’s always seen herself as big-hearted and benevolent, someone who will forgive anyone anything — as long as they’re remorseful. Yet the addiction specialist who helped her quit smoking, drinking, and drugs after decades of self-destruction won’t explain — or stop — his ongoing deceit, leaving her blindsided. Her crisis management strategy is becoming her crisis.
To protect her sanity and sobriety, Shapiro ends their relationship and vows they’ll never speak again. Yet ghosting him doesn’t end her distress.
In her entrancing, heartfelt new memoir The Forgiveness Tour: How to Find the Perfect Apology, Shapiro wrestles with how to exonerate someone who can’t cough up a measly “my bad” or mumble “mea culpa.” Seeking wisdom, she explores the billion-dollar Forgiveness Industry touting the personal benefits of absolution, where the only choice on every channel is: radical forgiveness. She fears it’s all bullshit.
First Meeting: Susan suggested an e-mail interview but I was kind of looking forward to zoom-meeting her so I suggested a few dates for a call.
Then: She responded to my suggestion with two or three options.
COVID Time Machine: I completely missed her email, and the whole project slipped my mind.
Later: I emerged from lockdown hibernation/lethargy briefly to review my pile of responsibilities and this interview was at the top. I wrote to Susan, cracking a joke about asking the Forgiveness Tour person for forgiveness as I had clearly dropped the ball on our supposed zoom meeting.
Still: Susan graciously agreed to be interviewed and did not mention the month or two it took me to get back to her. She again suggested doing it over e-mail and offered some examples of interview questions and clips of successful interviews.
Below: Susan’s responses to the questions I sent her.
Amy Fish: Let’s start at the end. I loved your list of books you were reading while you wrote The Forgiveness Tour. What made you decide to include them in this book? Did any stand out as being particularly impactful? Is there anything you’ve read lately that would fall into the “don’t miss” category?
Susan Shapiro: I stole the idea. Two acclaimed authors Erin Lee Carr (All That You Leave Behind) and Gretchen Rubin (The Happiness Project) both included a memoir I’d published in their lists of books they’d read and admired while working on theirs. I was very touched and flattered by that and wanted to pay it forward.
I rarely plug famous authors because I hate seeing the same bestselling acclaimed names everywhere and they certainly don’t need my help. (And I wish my students would stop doing that, it’s like they think the author will see their Facebook post and recommend their agent or editor. They won’t! Plug a debut or less known author instead.) I am reading and rereading several books by former students now and this week I’m doing an event with Judy Batalion, author of The Light of Days, and Keisha Bush, author of No Heaven for Good Boys, which are both brilliant.
AF: The diversity of forgiveness stories and examples you used was truly compelling. How did you select who to interview? Was there anyone you were hoping to meet with but didn’t get the chance? Were there any chapters that hit the cutting room floor as they say?
SS: I interviewed hundreds of people writing The Forgiveness Tour. I pretty much asked everyone I knew, ‘What’s the one apology you deserved but never received?’ To show the nuance and range of forgiveness and atonement, I chose the stories that were the most compelling. And I wanted each one to have a different lesson to teach, even if they were contradictory. I did an event with Manny Mandel, the Holocaust survivor who never forgave Germany but thrived, in work and love, out of spite—as well as Gary Weinstein who forgave the drunk driver who killed his wife and two children.
And I loved the chapter on Leah, the mom who did nothing wrong but kept apologizing to her son for eight years—until they reconciled. I wanted to share her wisdom, that reconciling with someone you love can take a long time, the opposite of the pop culture cliché, ‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry.’
What if love means always having to say you’re sorry even if you have nothing to be sorry for?
Amy Fish: I loved the structure of The Forgiveness Tour. Was it obvious to you from the beginning that each chapter would be a different forgiveness story or did you play with other options? What can you tell us about your writing process for this book? How was it similar or different from other books you’ve written?
SS: No. I started out trying to write a funny sequel to my earlier comic memoirs Five Men Who Broke My Heart and Lighting Up: How I Stopped Smoking, Drinking, and Everything Else I Loved in Life Except Sex, which was about my successful addiction therapy with Dr. Winters. He’s also the main character in Forgiveness Tour who I have a horrible falling out with that motivated the whole journey.
But it didn’t work. The book kept getting darker and heavier and was rejected everywhere over the course of 10 years. And I didn’t want to trash therapy or the student involved with the conflict. I kept asking guidance from tough critics I listened to. I tell my students that with writing, ‘No never means no. It means revise it, make it much better and show it to another editor.
So I took my own advice. And it was my first starred Publishers Weekly review. So I never gave up! And also I did wind up reconciling with Dr. Winters—first without an apology, and then he later did apologize. Then we wound up writing an addiction book together that became a New York Times bestseller, one of my goals in life. So that seemed to underscore how fruitful forgiving can be.
Someone who wrote a review of the book complained the ending was too happy. Let her write her own book that leaves everything confusing and depressed. I felt like shooting her since I waited so long because I wanted to have a very happy, wise end that readers would find inspiring.
AF: I think I told you that I’ve used the title of one of your other books as a computer password. Have you ever used a book title as a password?
Thanks. Haha, I shouldn’t admit this in public—but yes—with odd variations to trick potential hackers. My brother Eric and JT—my IT geniuses—keep making me change them and not use the same passcodes over and over. Guess I have to keep publishing new books.
AF: As you know, the readers of Hippocampus Magazine are mostly writers. Any advice?
SS: The rules I share with my nonfiction students are:
write about your obsessions and worst secret humiliations. Study with writers you admire who are good critics. If anyone loves your work and tells you how smart you are, show it to someone tougher. Hang out with people you want to be. Lead the least secretive life you can. And my favorite: The first piece you write that your family hates means that you’ve found your voice.
More about Susan Shapiro:
Susan is an award-winning writer and professor, freelances for the New York Times, NY Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Elle, Oprah, Wired, and The New Yorker online. She’s the bestselling author/coauthor of 15 books her family hates like Five Men Who Broke My Heart, Lighting Up, Unhooked, The Bosnia List, and The Byline Bible. She lives with her scriptwriter husband in Greenwich Village where she’s taught her popular “instant gratification takes too long” courses at The New School, NYU, Columbia University, and in private classes & seminars—now online. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, or her website.