"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Life News
Do you ever have the urge to sit down with an ex and ask them exactly what went wrong? Me neither. But writer Susan Shapiro did just that, with all five of the ones who got away. And as she describes it in her new memoir, “Five Men Who Broke My Heart,” this apparent suicide mission wound up saving her marriage.
What, you may ask, was she thinking? Was “High Fidelity” that inspiring? Well, Shapiro did not hatch the plot out of nowhere; rather, she was launched into it by the explosive fusion of coincidence and chutzpah. One day she got a surprise call from her über-ex, “Brad” (all names are changed), a Harvard scientist who wanted to talk P.R. for his new book. “Why did he get to publish a book?” Shapiro writes. “I didn’t invade his space by curing cancer.” Brad’s timing was both crappy and perfect: Shapiro, having just hit 40, was sweating out her “no-book-no-baby summer,” fielding — on the very day of the Brad call — bad news from both gynecologist and literary agent. Her husband’s sperm count was low and her novel had been rejected by several publishers. To top things off, Shapiro’s TV-writer husband (“Aaron”) had become emotionally and literally distant, heading off to work in Asia for weeks at a time.
So Shapiro sees Brad. Then she winds up lecturing at the college where George teaches. Then Tom calls. At that point, how could she not track down the other two? “Locating my lost loves was a way to hide out in my history. It was simpler than facing the future with a husband who wouldn’t be the father of my children,” she writes. (Her dalliances, if charged, never became physical.) Only her first love, David, winds up — after initial goodwill — flipping out and declining an in-person exit interview. “I didn’t give you what you wanted 24 years ago, why would I do it now?” he writes in an e-mail. “Forget the reunion. I would rather take out my own appendix with a bottle of Jack and a dull spoon.” And, later: “Come on girl. Let it go. It’s time.”
And that, ultimately, is exactly what Shapiro does. By reconnecting with the big five, she is able to both praise and bury them (“I had successfully declawed my past,” she concludes), to let herself off the hook for “what went wrong,” and to begin to realize, gradually and plausibly, that her imperfect husband is perfect for her.
I have to admit I was irritated by Shapiro’s frequent quoting of her therapist (“Dr. G. says …”) — a backhanded compliment, because the writer’s observations are sound enough that she doesn’t have to cite her psycho-sources; I also maintain that ideally, “closure” is achieved unilaterally, without information or permission from one’s ex. Still, “Five Men Who Broke My Heart” is a witty, canny, ballsy reminder that our past relationships are part of our lives, period, not just the parts that didn’t work.
I recently spoke with Shapiro about the experience of writing the book, revisiting the past, and having a husband who puts up with such things.
We all carry torches — lit with toxic gas though they may be — for our exes. We romanticize them, demonize them, wonder what they’re up to. Did these five guys live up to your memories of them?
I was pleasantly shocked at how interesting they all still were to me. I feel like I had good taste. There was no one who made me think, What did I ever see in him? Even at 14, when I met David, I had good taste. They were intelligent and interesting and looked good, and I thought that was great.
That was part of what I wanted to do with the book. I had this fantasy in my head of why each relationship had broken up — but what I found in each case, through each “exit interview,” was that I was able to pinpoint where I had screwed up. So instead of them being the cads and me playing the victim, I saw that I was simply not ready to get married until I was 35 — and probably not even then. It was about timing, not about their weaknesses or imperfections; it was about me needing a lot of years to figure out who I was and get my career together. What I realized in retrospect was that I would not have been happy with anyone until I’d figured out on my own how to make a living and take care of myself. I was going into my relationships with this big expectation that “this man is going to take care of me and make me happy and make my life work” … but that has to fail. That can’t sustain itself, that expecting someone else to do your life for you.
How did your husband react to this project?
He was kind of oblivious. He was working on three shows at a time and in Asia, Chicago, Los Angeles — he was in a different time zone in about 20 ways. He basically wasn’t around enough to stop me. He did make some mean sarcastic comments, but he always made mean sarcastic comments. He hates it when I write about him; when I started the book I thought, This is cool, I can write about the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll in my past and avoid writing about my marriage. In early drafts he just had a cameo role — he was just this sarcastic muttering husband in the background. But my writing group said that without his character, “You’re just this lonely pathetic woman, stalker of men you used to date. Having a husband you love is much more interesting and dramatic.” I realized that the book I was writing in order to not write about my husband needed him as the hero. Then I was afraid he’d divorce me when he read it. I didn’t show [the manuscript] to him until after I sold it — because otherwise why make trouble? The day I handed it to him I said, “Tell me what I’m going to have to change.” He came back and said, “Just make Aaron’s penis bigger.”
How did reconnecting with your exes help you, as you say, “repick” your husband?
When I started the book I was really depressed. My novel wasn’t selling, I was dealing with infertility issues, and my husband was being a workaholic. Part of what bothered me was that I thought I was being a really cool wife and saying “Go for it!” — and there he was leaving and saying, “OK, I’m going for my dream, and by the way you’re not allowed to write about the infertility.” Every time I’d tried to write about our marriage he’d try to stop me, so I was left with this “I shouldn’t, I should be a nice wife” in my head — but that was stopping me up. I felt like he couldn’t not “give me” a baby and control my writing. So writing the book was liberating, fighting with him was liberating. I didn’t realize at first that in a certain weird way I left him to write this book: I was preoccupied, I had something else going on, I wasn’t waiting up for him to call. But the thing was, when I said fuck it, I’m going to do what I want to do — and stopped waiting for him to give me what I want — at some point while I was writing I turned around and saw him and fell in love with him again. I sort of chose him again. Then I sold the book and got happier still.
Did he fall back in love with you?
Well, yeah, now he wants to hang out with me, too, because I’m much more attractive this way — happy and busy — than when I was like, “Why are you not taking care of me?” I mean, here’s your choice: You come home to a frustrated, angry, obsessed person who resents you, or you come home to a person who’s dancing and singing? Success is a total aphrodisiac. We’ve never been closer. I used to have this idea that I’d never get back to that mad, passionate feeling, but this is even better than first love. It’s just amazing. Now he’s going around saying he’s writing a book called “The Bitch Beside Me.”
Has this book been misunderstood as some sort of revenge mission?
Well, there are reviewers in the South who think I’m a brazen hussy who doesn’t deserve my nice husband … But really it’s a celebration of what it is about my exes that I adore. The revenge thing has been done — it’s too easy and clichéd. It’s not illuminating to play the victim, and of course, if these men are stupid, then what about the women who love them? It made more sense for me to focus on what was fantastic about them. If they’re more interesting, then I’m more interesting! No one is just the cad — even the ones who were cads were smart and successful. I even loved the fact that David was so mean, because come on, what I was doing was pretty insane, and his response gave the whole thing a realistic edge.
Some marriage counselors might argue that getting in touch with your exes –like flirting with a co-worker, say — qualifies as at least a certain kind of emotional infidelity. Do you think that’s what you engaged in?
I did leave my husband while writing the book. I fell in love — with writing the book. It was like a wild love affair. My heart and soul and brain were elsewhere. But I do think there’s a distinction between sleeping with someone and having two weeks of weird e-mail with someone. Of course my friends are joking that when they make a movie out of this the wife is going to have to sleep with one of the exes. I say maybe just a kiss.
Did you ever worry that your personal romantic history might not be interesting to other people?
No. You write best about the things that you are most obsessed with. A good writer can make anything rapturous and exciting. My writing group was like, “You should have gotten old and bitter a long time ago, ’cause this rocks.”
What about being pegged as yet another self-indulgent memoirist?
I asked a friend why my novel wasn’t selling and she said, “You have no imagination whatsoever — write a memoir!” She was right. I don’t like historical fiction; third-person narratives bore me to death. Naked honesty is engaging. I grew up in this nice Jewish repressed Midwest suburbia where if someone says, “How are you?” and you say, “Not well,” it’s a shonda [scandal]. At age 12 I was hiding in my room reading Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell and Ted Hughes. The confessional poets were so exciting to me because they really talked. They said something honest and deep, and really grabbed me. People talk about memoirs and spilling your guts as this new thing, but the confessional poets have been doing it for a hundred years. This brilliant advisor of mine told me to “lead the least secretive life that you can.” In order to stay happy, healthy and successful, that’s been the motto I follow.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)