The best-selling author will publish Signal Fires in fall 2022.

To start any announcement of Dani Shapiro's work without discussing her reign over the world of literary family secrets would be, quite frankly, to miss the point. Through her particular blend of breathtaking readability and introspection, she has collected legions of devout readers. Her 2019 memoir Inheritance became an instant New York Times best-seller and has moved nearly 200,000 copies to date. (It was also the catalyst for her podcast Family Secrets, which boasts more than 20 million downloads.) Now she's returning to her signature subject matter and a (relatively) long-lost form with her first novel since 2007's Black and White.

Signal Fires, which will publish next fall, follows a constellation of characters through three influential moments in their collective lives: New Year's Eve 2000, on the precipice of Y2K; December 2010; and 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic is about to descend. A horrific accident that involves the death of a young woman provides a troubling secret for the family of the driver responsible, and the characters become haunted by what they choose to ignore.

"I had originally thought that I would tell this story backwards in time, but there's a reason why it's next to impossible to tell stories that way," Shapiro tells EW with a laugh. "If you're going to upset chronology, you should really upset chronology. Something I love to do in all of my books is play with the way different periods of time bump up against each other."

Dani Shapiro
Dani Shapiro
| Credit: Courtesy Dani Shapiro

Shapiro first started writing what would become the new novel a decade ago, after a decampment to rural Connecticut from New York City and the raising of young children got her thinking about all the profound connections that seemingly unconnected people can begin to have with each other. She describes that period of time as filled with the usual preoccupations of early motherhood and her still-new setting — Signal Fires takes place in a small town that acts as another character in the book, and there's a boy the same age as her own son in the story (though the similarities between the two stop there). While the protagonists came to the author quite vividly, Shapiro wrote herself "into a corner" narratively, and banished the draft to a shelf in her closet. "That had never happened to me," she says, "and it was just so painful."

New ideas and new work came, of course. She published several more books, continued to teach at the Italian writers conference she directs, and signed on to adapt Sue Miller's Monogamy for the big screen. Then in the early days of quarantine, a Marie Kondo-esque urge to purge hit and she discovered the discarded manuscript. She was fresh off a year-plus of touring to promote Inheritance, time she spent immersed in her own thematic material. She quotes a line from the memoir that sums up that period: "I always knew there was a secret, but I didn't know the secret was me." As Shapiro read through those decade-old pages, the words, as they say, started flowing.

"Something possessed me," she says. "It was like a lightning bolt, and I knew what to do. I needed that space and time, and of course the small portion of the book that takes place in 2020 would never have taken place before."

It's worth prefacing that Signal Fires isn't a pandemic novel, at least in that sense. Instead Shapiro explores the different ways that lockdown and remote work changed the way we live now: There's a character who opens a restaurant in the 2010 story line and must struggle with the question of his business in 2020, and another who is suddenly able to sell his house outside New York City for a good sum as transplants flood the suburbs. "I've been using the word migrations a lot lately, because it feels like our patterns of living have changed so much," the author says. "And these 18 months have either completely alienated us or completely tenderized us."

For Shapiro's part, she feels incredibly lucky to have found this story to tell in the midst of everything. She had, like so many, spent the requisite days wandering around in a haze and baking sourdough bread, but once she rediscovered what is now Signal Fires, she began writing seven days a week to get the entire book down on paper. She quotes an email from her fellow author and friend Rick Russo — which she has now printed and placed on her bulletin board — as perfectly encapsulating the era: "Tell the story, any story. Something small, sweet, honest, true. It mattered before, it matters now."

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