By Joan Baum
“It’s strange,” laughs Renée Shafransky, former screenwriter, director and journalist, now psychotherapist, that she “waited so long to write a novel,” but it must be gratifying that googling “Tips for Living,” her debut work of fiction, turns up a bunch of perky, gnomic quotations from her book. All of which suggests that Shafransky, new to novel writing, is hardly a novice at creative writing.
Though her name might not ring a bell, Shafransky’s association with the famous monologist Spalding Gray will resonate. She was his muse and professional partner. After a long time living together, they got married in 1991, and she co-produced the 1987 award-winning “Swimming To Cambodia” (directed by Jonathan Demme). She was 26 when she met the older, talented, neurotic Gray, much given to infidelity. Though he was involved with someone else at the time (when not), he was attracted to her “good looks and intelligence,” as he wrote in his diary in April 1979, which didn’t stop him from betraying her during their marriage by impregnating an even younger woman, whom he eventually married. Is this backstory relevant, one might wonder — this is Shafransky’s time, not Gray’s.
The answer is yes. Shafransky felt “angry and heartbroken” at what Gray had done, she says – from the cheating on through to their “the dumpster-fire divorce.” But she also “began to observe other women who had been similarly betrayed, and came to see a process” in how they all, including her, “tried to reclaim their lives” and for the most part succeeded, until the hurt would come back. How to counter it? In Shafransky’s case, the answer was in a way inevitable: why not use it as a “springboard,” she said, creatively, therapeutically? And thus was born “Tips for Living,” a murder mystery narrated by alter ego Nora Glasser.
“Tips for Living” turns on the murder of a couple who is shot and brutally butchered. The man, Hugh Walker, was a famous artist, the woman his much younger wife, Helene Westing, whom he got pregnant while married to Nora. To Nora’s further dismay, the couple moved to Pequod, a small town where Nora has been living and writing for the local paper, the Pequod Courier. “I’ve lived in small towns like Sag Harbor,” Shafransky says, “they have a special community feel, everybody knows everybody.”
A New York City girl, Shafransky had been coming to Sag Harbor since the ‘70s before moving to Los Angeles to pursue writing for motion pictures and television. Eventually, she had enough of Hollywood and the changing movie scene, and returned to Sag Harbor because “it was close to nature. That was two decades ago, a time during which her practice grew, and a new man came into her life, someone she had met at the Pacifica Graduate Institute in California, where she studied Jungian psychology. The book is dedicated to him.
Like the author, Nora Glasser is funny, sunny and smart, but she can also feel low or disoriented, especially when she senses she’s had sleep walking episodes, or when, from time to time, she succumbs to fantasies of revenge and occasional spying on Hugh and Helene. Is it possible that she walked in her sleep to the Walkers’ house the night of the murders? She can’t remember. After Hugh’s desertion, she had vowed she would “come back to life no matter how long it takes,” and was on her way, with the support of her best friend Grace, folks in town, and, recently, from her growing attraction to her good-guy, solid-citizen editor who seems to like her a lot. Still, given the facts about her past, and an eye witness account of her having been seen in the murder area, she winds up as the chief suspect in the murder case, though others might also have cause, including Hugh’s religious fanatic brother and a couple of townies.
The novel, two years in the making, did not always come easily, says Shafransky. She would reach a dead end and “panic.” But then she would take her dog Hitchcock for a walk, and lo, “a way would present itself,” she says. The title, “Tips for Living,” she notes, has multiple meanings –staying alive when you know a murderer is on the loose; keeping your heart open to love when you feel wary; treating people in such a way “that they won’t want to kill you”; and, from Nora’s dad: “This world is rough, and it’s going to keep throwing things at you. Don’t let them break your heart.” The narrative is interspersed with extracts from Nora’s column, slyly suggesting that an angry reader might also be among the suspects.
Shafransky is pleased with the favorable online response, noting that her readers include some men. For sure, Nora’s self-deprecating “dark humor” endears her to readers, and the device of a malfunctioning GPS that has Siri intervening at inappropriate moments, is inspired. Secondary characters have diverting, if obvious, roles, including Nora’s elderly Aunt Leda whose Yiddish-suffused Russian proverbs add bite and compassion. Overall, however, character seems more successful than plot which sometimes strains credulity, as when the police rush to judgment against Nora, and when she alone solves the crime, with the aid of happy accident.
She was encouraged to write a novel, Shafransky recalls, when Nora Ephron, to whom she once sent a script, said, “do a novel, you have the voice.” She always loved murder mysteries, she says, as did her mom, and she is a great admirer of Susan Isaacs’ 1978 debut novel “Compromising Positions,” about a Long Island housewife and former journalist involved in a murder investigation, pointed the way. And she is a fan of “all the work” of award-winning Louise Penny, the Canadian mystery writer whose chief inspector cleverly sees through red herrings. Their influence, says Shafransky, encouraged her to write what she hopes readers will see as an entertaining “murder mystery with soul.”
“Tips For Living: A Novel of Suspense” by Renée Shafransky. Lake Union Publishing, 359 pp., $24.95. Shafransky will read from “Tips for Living” at Harbor Books, 20 Main Street, Sag Harbor, on Saturday, February 17 at 2:30 p.m.