An Interview with Leanne Shapton

by Weston Cutter

Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts already has my vote for 2009’s book of the year, and I actually spent the last week or so arguing with a good friend (Matthew Vollmer, whose Future Missionaries of America just came out and is dynamite, really really really good in all sorts of ways, and of course I’m tempted to review it but fear that whole reviewing-one’s-friends dictum…who knows. Buy it, read it, write MVollmer and tell him how great the book is) about why Important Artifacts is so good and cool, which argument has really only further cemented my opinion of the book’s greatness. Here’s the main point that I had cleared up for me: Shapton’s Important Artifacts is a weirdly fragile book—fragile in that it could be easy to approach the thing with the usual post-millenial-American dose of irony and dismiss and/or tear down the thing as cloying and clever and gimmicky. I’d like to here argue full-throatedly, again, that the book’s as great as it is (which is really, really great) precisely because of this fragility, because of its willingness to risk what could be (by some) brushed off as mere gimmickry or whatever, and because it actually overcomes or moves beyond the cutely could-be-gimmick and is, in huge ways, a complete and moving and sincere and real story, interestingly and well told and, as if all that weren’t enough, gorgeous to boot. Anyway, enough: I’ve blathered more about this book than’s probably healthy at this point.


Miss Shapton, in addition to having written three books, works at the NYTimes and has been enormously obliging and kind and has answered some questions, all of which here follow:


In the most general possible way, what’s the stuff you listen to/read/see/taste/etc. that plays some role in yr stuff? I know that’s exceptionally vague; I also know/have read that plenty of people who create stuff have inputs that are beyond the field/discipline of just their work (which is especially interesting/true with you, since you’re doing both visual and textual work, which makes me doubly or triply curious).

I read a lot of fiction, and look at a lot of art books and pictures. Lately I’ve been reading DeLillo, James, Wharton, Richard Hughes, Japanese ghost stories and Jane Bowles. I’ve been looking at a book of photographs by and of David Hockney (and I have a picture of him in a green jacket and bow tie that I can’t get out of my head!) Have also been flipping through Casa Vogue, World of Interiors and a dummy of my friend Jason Fulford’s new pictures from Key West. I’m constantly ripping pages out of magazines and stuffing them into my bag or piling in a basket with the intention of filing or pasting somewhere. I am a huge bibliophile, and am very happy looking at books in bookstores. In my job I’m always looking at people’s work with an eye to op-ed page contributions. I spent some time on Guido Scarabottolo’s website:, and Tim Barber’s genius site today.

Along those same lines, do you see yourself as part of some artistic disciple/group/etc? I feel like Important Artifacts… might get considered more as a visual than narrative thing, or might be considered like some sort of photographic off-shoot from graphic novels. Do you have a sense of the terrain you’re working (since, really, Was She Pretty? wasn’t a graphic novel at all, either)?


I have a very generous but critical group of friends, and we all either write or make pictures and books. I’ll run stuff past them and if they seem to get what I’m doing I’m happy. I look at a lot of graphic novels and art books, and am really interested in finding new ways of telling stories. Chris Oliveros at Drawn and Quarterly publishes amazing books by Seth, David Collier, Julie Doucet,  and Adrian Tomine. I think there is a long and rich tradition of work by people who both draw and write, well outside of the children’s book world, and sometimes they’re called graphic novels, sometimes not. I love William Steig’s books, which he wrote and drew. When I was trying to get Was She Pretty? published I showed my agent a few Steig books. He grabbed them, shook his head and yelled: “CRIMINAL! IT’S CRIMINAL that these are out of print!” I felt he’d understand what I was trying to make. He’s been hugely supportive. After Was She Pretty? he encouraged me to do something weirder.

Without killing the fun mystery behind it, can you write a bit about how Important Artifacts… came to be the way it is? In the back you thank (the incredible) S. Heti for helping you see what the book really was. Had you begun with the intention of tracking a relationship but not an auction catalog, or a catalog but not a single romantic relationship? Go as much or as little into this as you’d like (I always get enervated/made uncomfortable by interviews where a book/album/whatever gets too unpacked by the artist, so don’t at all feel like you’ve got to set up some This Is Up roadmap-type thing).

One of my favorite books is “All The Clothes Of A Woman” by Hans Peter Feldmann, which is a small books of black and white pictures of a young woman’s wardrobe. I’ve treasured this book for years, giving it to friends and taking pictures of objects based on his. But I knew I wanted to use the auction catalog form after getting ahold of the Bonhams catalog for a Truman Capote single owner auction. At first I thought I might make an invented biography. I then found a beautiful hardcover exhibition catalog from the Grolier Club for a show of Ted and Sylvia Plath’s correspondence. Which got me thinking it could be the story of two people. I didn’t want it to end in death, but I wanted something to end, and finally came to the idea of a failed relationship. At the same time, I was moving in with my boyfriend, we were consolidating lives, and the opportunity came to throw a lot of my junk away. I had a pretty hard time of it and was constantly thinking about the past and what place it had in my reality. I kept thinking about relationships that don’t work, the stories like Annie Hall, the people we love but can’t live with etc. I wanted to write one of those love stories, where the pair were not meant to be, but not too tragically so. I wrote and shot the book, but towards the end of the shoot I was still puzzled as to what the introduction should be. I tried so many different ones, getting a few friends and my editor Sarah Crichton to read them and weigh in. I was talking to Sheila about it the night before she left New York to go back to Toronto (where she lives in an apartment I once occupied), and she suggested she interview me about the book. (She was working on a book of interviews at the time.) She transcribed as we spoke. A few questions in she started to interview me as Hal, who was the character I felt I understood slightly more instinctively. This led to the character bluntly articulating his feelings of regret, which then informed the intro. That exercise was crucial to how the book is set up and understood, at least by me. We stayed up till 5 talking about how hard it is to put dead relationships to rest.

In both Important Artifacts… and Was She Pretty?, there’s this way that the actual story is absent: the reader gets sort of ancillary, sideline-type stuff (not in a bad or limiting way). Important Artifacts lets the reader apprehend the whole story strictly through the stuff on display; Was She Pretty? doesn’t ever articulate some central character and his or her hurt or jealousy, but instead simply moves around different former lovers, establishing/inducing this very specific feeling without necessarily giving the reader a ‘story’ to hang that feeling upon. I haven’t read your Toledo, but on the J+L page the book’s advertised as being something you wrote when you were away from home and was written out of homesickness. The point of all of this is just a question about something like Longing: there seems, at least in Pretty and Artifacts, this ache that animates things, yet the ache itself doesn’t get just head-on engaged (for instance, there’s actual stuff that’s Present as Absence–the removed lots). Does this even make sense? I’m curious about all of this stuff, about how you feel your work is attempting to tell a complete story while leaving real key elements missing (and while using those missing things as actual, generative things); how your work seems more about a sort of flowing feeling (jealousy, homesickness, ache at a relationship) instead of the thing that caused those feelings.


            What is this? Therapy? This is such a good question, as it addresses a major motivating force for me– which is trying to reconcile my reality to what is NOT there.

            I will admit here that I am deeply, paralytically afraid of the dark. As soon as night falls I convince myself that there are things there that are not. My imagination can drive me to incredible levels of anxiety.

            Another way this plays out is that I am hyper aware of repercussions, choices not made, roads not taken and I am highly susceptible to regret. I’m not indecisive, but it is a weirdly delicious and compulsive agony for me think back on something I (probably falsely) thought was within my control. Or, in the case of Was She Pretty?, imagine the power other women once held over someone I love.

            The ache you describe is less longing and more a haunting. I let myself be haunted by the past, I invite these ghosts in and cower in a corner while they dance!

            In terms of trying to tell a complete story– perhaps what I do is more like telling a ghost story, there is mysterious evidence, maybe a legend, usually a great loss, but the story is delivered through the clues, inference, and implication. I read piles of ghost stories– am always reading them– and while finishing this book I read the short ghost story The Romance of Certain Old Clothes by Henry James, (which I liked a hundred times better than Turn Of The Screw.) It involves female competition, old clothes and ghosts– it’s like the perfect meal for me. I suppose what you’re picking up on is that I’m much more interested and driven by what ISN’T there, what is difficult to see, explain, examine, analyze– than by what is. Is that romantic? Or just tragic?

Sort of along the lines of the first question: who are the people that are doing work akin to yr own work (if there are people who are doing work like yours) that you admire/enjoy/etc?

I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying who is doing work like mine in case it caused offense, but I’ll give you a list of people whose work I admire: Alice Munro, Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, Lydia Davis, Julie Hecht, Jem Cohen, Ed Ruscha, Raymond Pettibon,  Maira Kalman, Seth, Sophie Calle, David Hockney, Hans Peter Feldmann, Jason Logan, Benoit Van Innis, Folon, Floch, Paul Cox, Emmanuel Pierre, Peter Doig, Sam Taylor-Wood, Rachel Whiteread, Vanessa Bell, Luc Tuymans, Lucian Freud, Saul Steinberg, Pierre Le-Tan, Louise Bourgeois, Giorgio Morandi, Henri Fantin- Latour, Susan Sontag, Cindy Sherman, Paul Graham, Duncan Grant, Hugo Guinness, Rupert Brooke, Vladimir Nabokov, John Currin, Sophie Dahl, James Ensor, Ellsworth Kelly, Cy Twombly… I could go on and on.

            Oh and I should mention the editors of McSweeneys are coming out with a book fall 2009 of art that uses both words and pictures– called More Things Like This. It’ll be put out by Chronicle Books

How much, if at all, does your day job play on your work in your books? I’m maybe ridiculously curious about this because you work not just at a newspaper, but at the newspaper of record, and not just at the newspaper of record, but on it’s op-ed page (know that I attach/harbor all sorts of romanticism to newspapers, stupid though that maybe be and archaic though it probably makes me). I have no idea if this question’s even got something akin to an ‘answer,’ but it seemed worth asking.

            Well I got the Op-ed page job two months before I finished the book, so at the time it didn’t have much impact.

            However, since beginning the job I’ve become a much better reader. The department is small and the editors I work with are all brilliant and it’s pretty thrilling to work closely with them. It’s been jarring to go from a very quiet (me, dog, teapot, in my studio) pictures and fiction-driven life to a place where so much crystal clear, nationwide, factual communication has to occur overnight. Another great perk is that I get to work with brilliant illustrators, designer and art directors every day. And it’s part of my job to seek out good work to publish.