In a day and age when computer data rule book ordering and midlist authors can be penalized for their track records, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill is trying to give Barbara Shapiro a fresh start for The Art Forger. It’s a tack that the press, an imprint of Workman Publishing, used successfully six years ago when it bought Sara Gruen’s novel about the world of the circus. Water for Elephants became a huge hit and was turned into a movie. Although Algonquin never claimed that the book, which was widely embraced by independent booksellers, was Gruen’s first, it did nothing to promote the fact that she had previously published two others, Flying Horses and Riding Lessons.
To support The Art Forger, one of its fall lead titles, Algonquin printed 3,000 galleys, which it began distributing at BookExpo America earlier this month. On them it omitted any reference to Shapiro’s first name or her previous books, published between 1993 and 2002: five suspense novels and one nonfiction. Instead, Algonquin used the gathering to whet booksellers’ appetite for a tale of art and forgery interwoven with the real-life 1990 theft of 13 pieces of art worth more than $500 million from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The press sent out invitations from the fictional art gallery in the book, Markel G, to view the recovered Degas, which plays a central role in the story. The hoax was so convincing that at least one bookseller communicated her excitement at seeing the impressionist painting unveiled in the Workman booth—not far from a set of eggs about to hatch into baby chicks.
While some may think that the Boston setting could make Forger a regional book, Shapiro’s editor, Amy Gash, has always seen it on a national stage. “It never occurred to me that this was a regional book,” she said. “All books are set somewhere. She captures Boston incredibly well. Boston is a character. You can feel the pulse of the city. I was so completely taken by this book. I felt the voice and characters were so unusual. I loved it, and so far everybody in-house who has read it has loved it.”
For marketing director Craig Popelars, the trick will be using the book’s regional connections as a springboard. “It can be embraced by a region, but it can’t be contained by a region. That’s something we have here,” he said. Although Shapiro lives in Boston and will appear at the New England Independent Booksellers Association’s fall conference, she will also attend fall regionals in Southern California, Mountains and Plains, and the South, and do a 15-city tour.
Shapiro’s background as a sociologist—she taught sociology, criminology, and deviance at Tufts University—prepared her for writing The Art Forger. “When you get a Ph.D. in sociology,” said Shapiro, “they retrain how you think about people in relationship to other people and society. And that’s really useful for a novelist.” Still, she found it tough to break out of genre writing and move into literary fiction, and for a house to give her a new chance.
In the intervening decade since her last novel, she shifted jobs and now teaches creative writing at Northeastern University. She says that she prefers long-form fiction and spends about two to three years on each book (she’s hoping Algonquin will pick up her next one). Over time, her fiction has become more research oriented. But caveat to the reader, the research serves only as an underpinning; even the Boston Globe articles in The Art Forger have been made up.