By Hope Katz Gibbs
Be Inkandescent magazine
“I’m a cowardly writer,” admits Barbara Shapiro, author of the critically acclaimed bestseller, “The Art Forger,” a twisty tale of the largest unsolved art theft in history, of paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.
“Some writers sit down and begin a novel without knowing where it will end, trusting the process to bring their story to a satisfying conclusion,” explains the writer of nine books, including five published suspense novels.
“But not me. I need an outline that allows me to believe my idea might be transformed into a successful novel. I need a working plot. Which is why it takes me so damn long to get from the first glimmer of an idea to a complete manuscript.”
The good news for readers
Shapiro fell in love with Isabella Stewart Gardner back in 1983. True, the heiress died in 1924, but when two men dressed as police officers broke into her museum in 1990 and stole 13 pieces of art that today are worth more than $500 million—Shapiro knew she had plenty of juicy details to work with.
But wasn’t the topic too vast and complicated? Wouldn’t someone else beat her to the publishing punch? Or, perhaps, the mystery would be solved before she could finish writing a book about the heist.
Shapiro’s doubts kept the idea for her literary thriller tucked in her imagination as she wrote other books, raised two kids, and put her PhD in sociology to work teaching creative writing at Northeastern University.
Then one day, 19 years after the heist, when the fate of Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” Vermeer’s “The Concert,” and the other artwork remained unknown, Shapiro had a breakthrough.
“I was ruminating on how difficult life was for anyone in the arts, and feeling more than a bit sorry for myself, when my missing link appeared in the form of a question: What would any of us be willing to do to secure our ambitions? Unknown artists, famous artists, collectors, brokers, and gallery owners? Me? Isabella Stewart Gardner herself?”
Shapiro expanded her cast of characters, and gave each one a temptation their egos couldn’t resist.
The result is a 355-page story that includes a Faustian bargain for Claire Roth, a talented young Boston artist who agrees to forge a Degas painting in exchange for a gallery show. When she begins to suspect that the Degas in her studio may be the original stolen during the 1990 robbery, Claire begins an investigation that uncovers secrets about the relationship between Degas and Isabella Gardner. Thievery, romance, danger, and intrigue ensue.
Who could ask more for more?
Shapiro, perhaps, who at 61 struggles with the mystery of why some authors hit the big time, while others take decades, if ever, to realize their dreams of writing a bestseller.
“It is bizarre, after all of these years, to have it happen now—and it is just blowing me away,” Shapiro tells the “Costco Connection” from her home office in Boston. “I have some friends who made it really early in their careers and then they spend the rest of the time trying to keep up with their first books.”
“Yes, I feel like I ‘deserve’ this success in the sense that I’ve worked really hard, and I think I wrote a pretty good book. But I also know many people who have worked just as hard, and have written good—if not better—books, and they aren’t getting this gift. I chalk it up to the whims of fate, and a big chunk of luck.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of the Costco Connection.