David Shapiro is the pen name of a writer who created a Tumblr blog called Pitchfork Reviews Reviews. He then wrote a novel (You’re Not Much Use to Anyone, out now) about a character named David who created a Tumblr blog called Pitchfork Reviews Reviews. We talked about his career and his money.
What do you do?
I work as a summer associate at a white-shoe law firm. I hope to get an offer to come back to my firm after I graduate law school next year, meaning I would start full-time around September, 2015. I also write a little bit at The Wall Street Journal (in the paper) and The New Yorker (online). And I also wrote this book, obviously, the reason we’re here.
What does white-shoe mean?
It generally refers to old, large, well-respected law firms. Like, my firm has about 1,000 lawyers. It’s peculiar—in America, in general, the biggest corporations are the best at one particular thing. ExxonMobil is the biggest/best at producing oil and gas. Pfizer is the biggest/best at making pharmaceuticals. In other parts of the world, it’s different—Samsung, the biggest/best corporation in South Korea, makes toilet seats, phones, coffee machines, cars. They own an amusement park. In May, when the CEO of Samsung had a heart attack, they took him to Samsung Hospital. But law firms in America, the biggest ones (which are generally the best ones), can provide any kind of legal service that you need—much closer to the Samsung model than the Pfizer model.
So that’s what I do, this summer. I work in the private equity group.
Is your real name David Shapiro?
No. My legal name isn’t David Shapiro. I’m a lawyer and law student under my legal name, and I write under the name David Shapiro. I picked it because it’s like the John Smith of Jewish names. It’s hard to Google. I wanted to separate my writing life from my legal life because when I was 22, me and my friend wrote a Village Voice story about heroin dealer/addicts and I thought no employer would ever hire me if they knew I had spent time with heroin addicts. That seems naive now (I didn’t actually do the heroin with them), but I felt paranoid about it then.
But being David Shapiro has some definite upsides—someone on Tumblr the other day reblogged my post announcing my book, and he said, “I’m so psyched about this book, I loved his scholarship on the Shakespeare author debate, I’m definitely going to order this,” and I was like, “Sick!” There is David Shapiro the poet, David Shapiro the party photographer, there was a David Shapiro in the index of my constitutional law textbook.
My publisher was not excited that I had chosen this name because it does indeed make my work very difficult to find through Google, which makes the marketing department’s job harder. I used David Shapiro, Jr. for a while, which is the opposite of David Shapiro, because among Jews, it’s untoward to name someone after a living person, so there are almost no David Shapiro’s, Jr. There is one, actually—I think he is about 14 and he may or may not have frosted tips [in his hair]. But then I switched back because it sounded really stupid. So now I’m David Shapiro again.
One reason I wanted to talk to you was because in the conversation you had with Emily Gould for Interview, you shared what I perceived as your total lack of romanticization about being a writer, which I feel is rare. Half the things on this website are about trying to be a writer. So I wanted to hear about that.
Almost everyone of even average intelligence could perform in many jobs and careers at a reasonably high level, or at least be functional. Like, if you decided right now you wanted to be a project manager or accountant, you could probably be pretty successful in those things.
So, I suppose, just because I achieved some microcosmic degree of success in a field that people romanticize, it doesn’t feel to me that I have to make a career out of it. There is no law that dictates that just because an artist does a good thing once, if my book could be considered a good thing, that they can make a career out of it. Think of all the bands with one good album and a career full of shitty ones that only exists because the culture industry suggests that if you can do one artistic thing successfully once, you can keep doing it. There is a song on the third Strokes album where Julian Casablancas just says, “I have nothing to say, I have nothing to say,” over and over. Then he says, “We could drag it out, but that’s for other bands to do.” But they are dragging it out. Because of money, I guess. The lyrics are actually otherwise amazing (often total nonsense, e.g., “Don’t be a coconut / God is trying to talk to you”) as the whole song is about how Julian Casablancas is famous but has nothing to say. “I’ve got nothing to give, got no reason to live.”
There was a time when I was 22 and I had this one thing to share. But I don’t have anything else. It’s all I got. I laid it all out on the floor in this book. Maybe when I’m 45 I’ll develop another thing. But it seems dangerous to be an artist as a career based on the one good thing you did. Maybe 1% of musicians can make a really good album, and 1% of those can make two or three.
One of my best friends is a successful artist, and he has told me, “Don’t talk about how you’ve got nothing left in the tank in interviews, no one will want to buy your book, because people want to invest in careers. They won’t buy your book if they think you are going to be immediately irrelevant, they want to know that there will be more where that came from.” And maybe he’s right and I’m really fucking myself here, but I’ve said it enough times that I can’t really go back on it now.
But you also wrote a screenplay right? How’d that happen?
I read at a reading for bloggers and there was a guy there who was a movie producer, and he was like, “Would you be interested in turning this into a movie?” And I was like, “Do you think that someone would actually make this into a movie?” And he was like, “Yeah, I guess.” And then he (and other producers) made it happen. It’s being edited now.
It’s based on the story of a kid who is a weed dealer and hates smoking weed. It’s the same character, David.
The character David, not you, real-life David, right?
Are you worried your writing projects are affecting your law career?
Law firms, as I understand them, don’t mind if lawyers have interesting lives outside work. But before I knew this, I was worried to talk to them about the book. But thanks for the suggestion!
Well, it sounds like you’ve separated your identities pretty well.
I’ve tried to be conscientious about it. In an earlier era, I could have not worried about it. But now, everything I do or say online will be available online, probably forever. So I’m conscious about what I say. I could never write anything interesting under my legal name because I don’t want to say something imprudent and have it ruin the rest of my life.
I saw something on Twitter today, someone was quoting an overheard conversation featuring a teenage girl talking to her parents about money and the girl said, “I don’t want the kind of life you have!” And I don’t know if I want the life that my parents have, but at least the option would be nice. So I don’t want to sabotage my chance of having a decent life (financially).
When I was editing here, I mostly wrote about how bad I am with money. And then when I needed to get a job, I was so nervous about that coming up during interviews. But no one mentioned it! I don’t think anyone even read it, and if they did, I think they were just like, “Youth on the Internet.”
A friend has a piece of notebook paper and in Sharpee she wrote, “I resolve to assume not everyone is as hard on me as I am on myself.” She hung it up in her room. And I first saw that and I was like, to myself, “stupid meaningless platitude, hate those,” and then I thought about it more and realized that living by that maxim is probably very wise if you have the discipline to do it. I am trying to incorporate it into my life.
In the book, you/your character is just out of college, which your parents paid for, being supported by your/his parents. Are you still?
No. I have a little savings. I get a good salary at my job. I have some money from the movie. I get some money from freelance writing. I get some money from my book advance. I keep jars of coins that I take to TD Bank’s coins-to-cash converter from time to time.
Who is paying for law school?
Luckily, my scholarships at law school pay for my tuition and some of my living expenses. I feel eternally in their debt for it. After I graduate, there is a small study room in my law school’s library that I would like to have named for myself (it’s my favorite room in the world, I spend almost all my free time at school in there), and so hopefully I can donate enough to the school (in a few years) to make that happen.
How’d you swing that scholarship?
Well, law school scholarships are negotiable. So if you get accepted to three law schools and get scholarship offers from two of them, you can call School B and be like, “School A is offering me $20,000 per year—why don’t you give me $30,000 per year?” And then you can call School A and say, “School B offered me $30,000 per year, why don’t you give me $40,000?”
Some older kids I knew who went to law school before me told me that you were sort of supposed to negotiate your scholarship. (Maybe it’s your opening foray into being a lawyer?) The commonality of negotiation is built into the initial scholarship offers/tuition prices, like mattresses—mattress sticker prices are out of control. To my knowledge, not a lot of people buy mattresses for the sticker price. You’re supposed to get them to come down and feel like you got a deal. That’s the real thrill of the mattress purchase. Same thing with law school scholarships.
Do you feel beholden to your parents?
Of course. They’ve always done their best to be as good to me as they could, even when I was throwing tantrums between the ages of 4 and 23. I owe them everything. If there was ever anything that they needed, and I had the money to provide it, I would be obligated to pay for it, but not in a begrudging way.
Do you know their financial situation?
I think they could live for the rest of their lives and not have think that much about money, but I know they’ll spend the rest of their lives thinking about it. I think they like to think about money. I think they would be okay regardless of what happens to me, but I feel an obligation to at least be able to take care of them when they’re older, regardless of whether they can take care of themselves, because I am an only child. I feel like I owe them an amount of money that is defined exactly by what they want from me.
They are very intense about saving money. They think saving money is a marker of being civilized.
I studied economics in school, and there is a generally accepted principle that people will save so as to spread their income throughout their lives, so the bad times won’t be materially much different from the good times because you can live from your savings. But my parents save probably 90 cents for every dollar that they earn, I suppose in anticipation of some really bad times that they are convinced will come soon.
My dad was born in Israel in 1951. He is a product of the Holocaust. And the post-Holocaust mentality is, at least for some, centered on not making the same mistakes complacent Jews did in Germany in, say, 1935—the mentality dictates that there is always some force, lurking around the corner, that wants to take all of your money away, and so people like my Dad will always guard against that. It’s weird to think of it as being tied to being Jewish, but Jews go into professions because of the centuries-old idea that at any point, someone could come in and take all your stuff. There aren’t a lot of Jewish farmers because it’s not hard to take someone’s land away from them. You can’t move your land, so whoever wants it can just come onto it and take it. My understanding is that Jews are commonly, for example, doctors, lawyers, or bankers, because you can take your professional skills with you when the persecutor comes. And I think that defines my parents’ financial life and maybe mine also in some way, because I learned from them.
So did you feel you had to be a lawyer or a doctor?
Yeah, I had to have a profession. In addition to the post-Holocaust mentality thing, my parents made it clear that I would have to have a profession, I think because they had professions. They are doctors. They only have one kid, and if the kid doesn’t have a profession, they would think of themselves as having failed as parents.
Did they say this to you?
No. But it makes sense, I think. I can see where they’re coming from and I owe it to them to obey their wishes when reasonable.
I read that you’ve forbidden your parents from reading the book.
For 10 years.
Do you think they’ll comply?
Yeah. My dad wouldn’t read if they like, kept his eyes open like in Clockwork Orange. You know that scene? Where they force his eyes open and make him watch the movie with those metal thingies? Not that he “doesn’t want to read it,” but… It just wouldn’t interest him. They could hold his eyes open and he would think about other things rather than reading the words on the page in front of him. He says, “David, these things you do, I just don’t understand them.” And that’s fine with me. We aren’t the same person.
And I talked to my mom about it and she was like, “Can you just explain why you requested we don’t read it?” And I was like, “Mom, it’s private. There’s, like, sex stuff. I mean, I’m 25—it would be weird if there hadn’t been any sex stuff in my life so far. But some of it is in the book. And we don’t talk about that kind of stuff.” And she understood. So I think they’ll adhere.
But sometimes my Mom will say, “I Googled you,” and I’m like, “That violates the spirit of our agreement.”
I’m also worried, regarding my parents reading it, that if my parents saw me how I really was, like how another adult would see me (rather than as my parents), maybe they’d be disappointed.
Maybe it comes down to this: In general, it seems, little kids think that their parents can solve any problem. If you’re a little kid and something goes wrong, because they’re adults, they can deal with it. And I guess I haven’t grown out of that notion of my parents. I feel like if anything bad happened to me, if my parents were there, they could handle it. And so in return, I feel like I owe it to them to be a son without blemishes. And the narrator of the book has only blemishes. Maybe this is a completely insane way to conduct the parent-child relationship from my end? But I’m sticking to it.
Did you ever consider not publishing the book because of your parents?
I guess I figured they’d be proud enough that I published a book and whatever feelings they had about the content would be negated by the fact that I published the book. Does that make sense? But I’m curious about what they will think about it in 2024.
Do you feel proud of your book?
When I wrote it, I sent it to my book agent and to my film agents, and in the email, it was all caps with the document attached, and it said, “IF YOU TRANSMIT OR SHOW THIS DOCUMENT TO ANY OTHER PERSON, THAT WILL CONSTITUTE THE TERMINATION OF OUR RELATIONSHIP.” I thought someone would read the book and call my parents and say, “You need to get this kid serious psychiatric care.” It was like the Seinfeld line where Jerry says to George, “You know, you really need some help. A regular psychiatrist couldn’t even help you. You need to go to like Vienna or something. You know what I mean? You need to get involved at the University level. Like, where Freud studied and have all those people looking at you and checking up on you. That’s the kind of help you need. Not the once a week for eighty bucks. No. You need a team. A team of psychiatrists working ’round the clock, thinking about you, having conferences, observing you, like the way they did with the Elephant Man. That’s what I’m talking about because that’s the only way you’re going to get better.”
I thought that’s what people would think when they read it right after I wrote it. But now I read it and it seems, I don’t know, not “normal,” but at least somewhat relatable? The narrator may be idiosyncratic, but I don’t know if he’s clinical. But I hope, at least, it’s somewhat relatable.
I think that’s more relatable than you think.
Maybe. Also, regarding feeling proud, I don’t know if it’s “a good book,” which would be another determinant of whether or not I should feel proud of it. Sometimes I think it’s a poor substitute for the therapy I should have gotten. But who knows?
Logan Sachon is a founding editor of this website.