Exclusive: Leanne Shapton’s Catalog of Very Romantic Stuff


If you’ve ever experienced a breakup then you’ll connect with Leanne Shapton’s latest (and awesomely, absurdly titled book, Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry. The art director of the New York Times op-ed page and a co-founder of J&L Books (a nonprofit publisher that focuses on photography, art, and fiction), Shapton has the visual acuity to distill a romance into a catalog of seemingly insignificant objects that when laid out together, magically create a narrative that’s bigger than you’d imagine is possible.

In other words, she has effortlessly explained why digging through that box of random stuff your ex left behind can sting more than your final argument. Or why we once found ourselves keening at the sight of a hoagie sandwich. It’s ridiculous when you’re not in the moment.

After the jump, we talk to Shapton’s about the real people behind Lenore and Harold, her gift for crafting mix-tapes, and the strange objects she places the most personal value on.

Flavorwire: Maybe it’s because we’re staring at all of their stuff, but Lenore and Harold felt incredibly real. Are the characters heavily based on people you know? Do their names have any significance?

Leanne Shapton: They are lightly based on a few different sides of people I know, and I share tendencies with both. No particular significance to the names — I knew a girl in fourth grade named Lenore and always liked it. I also thought it had a nice Poe-like tragic ring to it. The name Harold was partially inspired by the chef at the restaurant in my building.

FW: Both halves of this couple are flawed in different ways. Do you have one of the two who you side with more? Or that you intended for the reader to favor?

LS: I side slightly more with Hal as I think he is more susceptible to feelings of regret. He’s the one looking backwards on their relationship and kicking himself. Lenore wouldn’t wallow as much. I thought the reader might favor Lenore though, as she puts up with Hal’s avoidance and struggles with her artistic ambitions. [Editor’s note: She’s totally right. I did root for Lenore.]

FW: The catalog you’ve created is incredibly detailed. Have you paid attention to visual details since you were a kid?

LS: I think I’ve always paid attention to visual detail. My father taught industrial design and my brother and I read and drew constantly. I would rearrange the furniture in my bedroom on a monthly basis. I had a rolling hospital bed table my dad found, orange curtains, and my walls were usually covered with wildlife posters or small cut out construction paper dots I would scotch tape across the walls and ceiling. I also got into looping my Smurfs and dolls into decorative fishing nets in the corners.

FW: Leading the story with Harold’s admission of regret was an interesting choice. Are we meant to see this as a failed love affair that was doomed from the start?

LS: I wanted to indicate a failed relationship we’re looking back on. And wanted to point out that Hal is the one reaching out. I was interested in the the story being about the second or third greatest love of our lives, the one that got away, due to timing, incompatibility or fear, but that was true for a while.

FW: The mixes Harold makes Lenore are pretty fantastic. Are they a reflection of your personal music taste?

LS: I’m afraid they are. And my friends. I have two good friends, Michael Schmelling (who also shot some pictures for the book like the back cover) and Craig Taylor, who regularly make me mixes. I cribbed from those, and mixes I’d made, and ones my boyfriend and ex’s had made me.

FW: Can you describe the best Valentine you’ve either given or received?

LS: Given: a homemade card. Received: an apology.

FW: The stolen salt shakers the couple collects made us laugh. What gave you that specific idea?

LS: I think public misbehavior can be a bonding experience. I know so many people who commit tiny romantic crimes like stealing hotel keys (when hotels used to use real keys), linen napkins, salt shakers, all in pursuit of sentimental mementos, or thrills.

FW: What’s the one object in your possession that you place the most sentimental value on?

LS: I have a few. Some photographs, an ugly vase, a green blanket, a note on the back of a postcard, and a menu.

FW: Now that you’re done with the book, what are you going to do with all of Hal and Lenore’s stuff?

LS: Reduce, reuse, recycle!