By Leslie Lindsay
A one-of-a-kind, truly unique reading experience, GUESTBOOK: Ghost Stories will alight and frighten and also leave a deep residue begging for another look.
Since publishing her first book of drawings 15 years ago, Leanne Shapton has amassed a devoted following among critics and fans alike. A ground-breaking visionary, and multi-talented artist with an illustrious career in design and publishing, Shapton is unparalleled in her ability to weave entirely original narratives out of images and text. Her earlier works have earned her National Book Critics Circle award for her illustrated memoir, SWIMMING STUDIES and WOMEN IN CLOTHES was a NYT bestseller.
Now, blisteringly original artist, Leanne Shapton’s GUESTBOOK (Riverhead, March 2019) isn’t quite an art book, isn’t quite a traditional narrative, but here, she effortlessly and brilliantly combines so many different art forms into one highly intriguing experience.
“Shapton uses ephemera not to catalog our social ills but to collect evidence of well-heeled lives at risk of being forgotten or brushed aside. The effect is diffuse and eerie, more often mood than assertion or plot.”
Writing is no doubt an art form, but here, it’s elevated to something wholly original. Just a few adjectives that come to mind with this collection of photographs and narrative:
Uneasy…disturbing…unsettling…haunting…brilliant….strange…dark…wonderful…uncanny….fearless…exacting…a curiosity cabinet.
Combining layers of visual art in the form of photographs, drawings, floor plans, original paintings, Instagram-style portraits…this collection is about short passages, vignettes, observations, wordplay, and so much more. It’s about loneliness and social media, and the passage of time. While one might be tempted to race through the book in one sitting, it’s probably best suited for picking up and putting down over the course of time.Leave room to dwell on the white space, let it glimmer and coalesce.
Because it will and it should.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Leanne Shapton to the author interview series:
Leanne, thank you, thank you for taking the time. I’m always intrigued by a writer’s inspiration for a certain project. What was it for you in GUESTBOOK? Was it an image, an idea, a theme, a challenge? Was there a question you were seeking an answer to?
I’m a big fan of the ghost story, as a form, and I knew I wanted to write some. I suppose, though, the initial inspiration was the photo section in the book “White Mischief” by James Fox. I wondered if I could write a ghost story using that layout. I wanted to innovate the form, to see if images could do some of the heavy lifting in terms of suspense and emotion.
Do you recall the first set of images in GUESTBOOK that propelled a story? Did the story come first, or the images? How long did you work piecing this together from conception to publication?
Most stories were word-based first, then I’d try to remove as much language as possible and replace with image, or pair with a set of images so the pictures inflected the reading. For a while the text in “New Jersey Transit” had no images, and the images of public pools in that story had no text, but I knew I wanted to use them—they didn’t pair off until late in the process.
Many of these stories—these vignettes—are rooted in this idea that we, the readers, are guests in a bigger scheme, like a fly on a wall. But also, the images (and individuals) are visitors into our lives. We don’t know them but for a moment. Can you comment on that?
I love the idea of a guest being a version of a person, or oneself. And that the photographic image is only a version, and an unreliable version, of a person or place. I like the flicker of self, the idea that spirit (geist) can be host and guest and an ephemera l thing. Lives are so short.
This is a tough question, but is there a story or set of images that mean more to you than others? Maybe one that you feel a particular affinity toward or you think represents the overall theme of GUESTBOOK?
I like Billy Byron. It pulls together a lot of the experiments I was working with: A real phenomenon (The sensed presence) contemporary photography, media, a ghost story that is a sports story (there aren’t that many,) the ideas of desire and family and childhood trauma, and an homage to older stories “The Rocking Horse Winner” one of my favorite DH Lawrence stories.
I also found a bit of mental instability within these stories and images. Perhaps that it something that haunts us as a society. There’s also loneliness and trouble. Was that intentional?
I think that might reflect where I was, personally, and my preoccupations, when I was writing the pieces.
“A surreal look at everyday happenings, which is sure to leave you feeling uneasy in a good way.”
– Domino Magazine
Also, I think much of GUESTBOOK is about interior lives. Which we may or may not acknowledge. Many of these narratives and photographs have to do with houses or homes. Again, that interior world. For example, I loved Gymnopedies, the series of floorplans. And then Georgehythe Place where the animals die (not that I love that), and also Peele House. Why are homes so fascinating, do you think?
In a lot of traditional ghost stories, homes are characters. Haunting of Hill House, Rebecca, Turn of the Screw. I like the idea of a place of safety, a place of trust, becoming threatening. Also the idea of what we possess, possessing us. I think homes are fascinating because of that ability to be understood as an extension of the body. And the mind.
Losing trust can be so devastating, betrayal is like a death, and if home, your house where you sleep is not a comforting, trustworthy place it can really shake one’s foundations.
One last observation—your last name, Shapton, almost always makes me think, ‘shapeshifter.’ And that’s exactly what I like about the art in GUESTBOOK. You’ve taken such bland images and shifted their shape to make somethings wholly unique, to shift our gaze to the blank space. Is that how you see it, too?
Funny. I never saw it that way but my work (and career) has always shifted in shape, so it’s a totally fair analysis.
Leanne, this has been so illuminating. Thank you. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
No. I think this covers it. Thank you.
Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this.
For more information, to connect with Leanne Shapton via social media, or to purchase a copy of GUESTBOOK: Ghost Stories, please visit:
- Take a peek at this Guernica article, which shows GUESTBOOK in progress
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Leanne Shapton is an artist and author of several books, including Swimming Studies (winner of the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography), Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, and a coauthor of the New York Times-bestselling Women in Clothes. She is also the cofounder of J&L Books, a nonprofit publisher of art and photography books. She lives in New York City.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover image retrieved from author’s website. Author image retrieved from Guernica article. Special thanks to Riverhead Publishing for coordinating this interview. Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this]