Author Gregg Shapiro's new book "How to Whistle."

‘How to Whistle’ brings out author Gregg Shapiro’s best

In How to Whistle: Stories, author Gregg Shapiro hopes his 15 short stories connect with his readers and elicit an emotional response.

Indeed, many will recognize Shapiro’s characters and the situations in which they find themselves. The author’s talent comes in spinning insightful narratives that may offer insights into alternative solutions to the characters’ inevitable conflicts.

In addition to being a Wisconsin Gazette contributor and entertainment journalist, Shapiro is a writer of poetry and prose. In his latest work, a follow-up to Lincoln Avenue: Chicago Stories, Shapiro examines remembered and imagined family and friends through a sharp personal lens that clearly articulates their actions and emotions.

Shapiro will give a reading from How to Whistle and other works Aug. 24 at 7 p.m. at Outwords Books in Milwaukee.

Shapiro talked with WiG about his new work and what it means to him as an author and gay man in today’s world.

WiG: Beyond being a collection of LGBT-themed short stories, what is How to Whistle about?

Gregg Shapiro: I would say that these are stories about identity, survival, family and friendship set in urban and suburban locations during the late 20th century. They are meant to elicit an emotional response from all readers and to make a connection, regardless of background.

The volume’s title appears to be taken from the story “6th & E.” But is there more to selecting the title than just that?

The title of the collection does come from the last line of “6th & E.” Titles are very important to me. How to Whistle, my fourth out of five books, is my second short story collection. Because the common thread of my 2014 short story collection Lincoln Avenue is that all the stories are set in and around Chicago, it was relatively simple to choose the titular story as that book’s title. Lincoln Avenue is a major thoroughfare on Chicago’s North Side that goes as far north as the suburb in which I was raised.

How to Whistle wasn’t the original title for this new collection. The working title was Defending Karen Carpenter, which shares its title with the book’s shortest story. Steve Berman, my publisher at Lethe Press, thought the title would limit the audience, especially since, 30 years after her untimely passing, fewer and fewer people are aware of who Carpenter was.

The decision to go with the title I chose is twofold. First, I like to read “how-to” books and playing on the idea of those books with the title appealed to me. Second, I liked the thought of using a line from a story instead of an actual story title.

You write in multiple genres. How does your poetry writing inform your prose work, and vice versa?

As we were all taught in school, one of the main attributes of poetry is economy of language. Concrete imagery is another poetry characteristic. I hope that my being a poet brings both of those literary devices to my fiction.

As a poet, I tend to write in a narrative form, so it’s not much of a challenge to transition between the two genres.

The stories in this volume move from Boston to Chicago to Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., and even Milwaukee. Does that mirror your personal experience?

As I said earlier, titles are important to me. If I had to put something of importance above titles, it would have to be place. As a reader of fiction, poetry and nonfiction, I enjoy reading about places I’ve been as much as places that I’ve never been.

I have lived in Chicago, Boston and Washington, D.C. I hope that when people read the stories set in those cities that I create a sense of nostalgia, even homesickness, if you will, for those places.

As for Philadelphia and Milwaukee, those are both cities that I love and have spent a fair amount of time in over the years. I now live in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and I look forward to filling future stories and poems with the streets, neighborhoods and sites of the region.

All writers are reflected in their work. How much of your personal experience is reflected in the stories in this volume?

The 15 stories in How to Whistle are fiction. Some of the stories are based on real events. For example, I did work as a receptionist in a Washington, D.C., hair salon, but it was in Georgetown, not in DuPont Circle as the story depicts.

More than anything, even with the more serious stories such as “Best Friend,” I hope that my sense of humor comes through. Laughter is the great equalizer. In this especially dark, depressing, violent and hate-tinged period we are experiencing, I hope that I can provide readers with something to take their mind off whatever is bothering them, both personally and on a larger scale.

Were the stories and characters who populate them cathartic for you in any way?

I guess it’s hard to read a story such as “Bully in a Bar” and not feel that way. As the writer of the stories, obviously I was compelled to create and tell them. Again, with readers in mind, I hope the catharsis to be one that is shared.

Which of the characters in which of the stories are you most like?

I am all the characters and none of them. How’s that?

Which story would you pick to stand as your literary legacy?

You know how parents say they could never pick one child over another? That’s how I feel about my fiction and poetry.

I know from doing readings that there are pieces that are audience favorites. I often get requests for my poem, “My Mother Says the F-Word,” from my 2007 book Protection. But I can’t make “Sophie’s choice” when it comes to my own writing.

Shapiro reads from How to Whistle and other works at 7 p.m. Aug. 24 at Outwords Books, 2710 N. Murray Ave., in Milwaukee.

Editor’s note: Gregg Shapiro is a Wisconsin Gazette contributing writer.

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