Writers & Company

Artist and author Leanne Shapton on what objects tell us about the lives of others

In this 2019 interview, the author of Guestbook: Ghost Stories speaks with Eleanor Wachtel about how our worldly possessions define and reveal identity and status.
Leanne Shapton is a Canadian artist and graphic novelist based in New York City. (Robbie Lawrence)

This interview was originally broadcast in 2019.

The work of artist and author Leanne Shapton is truly unique — inventive in both form and content. In her graphic novels and conceptual books, she combines drawing and painting with found material, photographs and written text. Her widely praised memoir, Swimming Studies — about training as a swimmer for the Olympic trials — won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 2012. In 2018, she was a judge for the Man Booker Prize. 

Shapton's latest, called Guestbook: Ghost Stories, is an imaginative work made up of 33 short stories that revolve around the power of objects and ghosts. In addition to text, the vignettes are conveyed through photographs, illustrations, paintings and invented scenes, redefining the very nature of narrative experience.

Leanne Shapton was born in Toronto and grew up in Mississauga, Ont. In this 2019 interview, she spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from New York City, where she lives and works. 

Object of my eye

"I navigate the world through my love of objects, photographs and the shapes of things. My father was an industrial designer and taught industrial design, so the value of design and objects was instilled in me pretty early. It increased my appreciation for things and gave me a certain design literacy from an early age. I understood that everything around us is industrial design — that someone has to actually design things, like the snow brushes you buy at a store. 

"Everything is designed. That meant to me that everything has a history and a story. And so, when I look at things, I see layers. I've always done that with things — I've become attached to blankets or a quilt made by my grandmother who died before I was born and I never met. I've always been interested in the stories behind things." 

Everything is designed. That meant to me that everything has a history and a story.

Where your eyes go

"Guestbook: Ghost Stories collects a lot of interesting themes for me. Part of my method in research is asking people for their own stories. For instance, with [my 2006 book] Was She Pretty? I asked people if they were jealous, both from a relationship and sexual perspective. And for Guestbook: Ghost Stories, my questions for people were, 'Do you believe in ghosts? Do you have a ghost story?'

"More people had ghost stories than jealousy stories. I think it's less taboo to have a ghost story than to admit that you're jealous."

"A lot of stories started with, 'One day or one night I woke up … and there was something at the foot of the bed.' This idea of the 'foot of the bed' came up again and again — there was a woman at the foot of the bed, there was something at the foot of the bed — and so on. 

"And so I started thinking, why are we looking at this empty bed? Who is in this real estate where the camera is? What are we looking at when we look at a bed like this? It's supposed to be aspirational and dreamy and informational but the camera's always in the same place. What does this mean?

"We are spoon-fed images, over and over again, through advertising and media. I really look at what we collectively look at, in passing and in flipping through catalogues. It's about being thoughtful about where the camera is."

Reading a person 

"I like reading photographs and looking at other people's possessions. What other people collect is, to me, a far more interesting portrait than a family picture or a posed picture at a formal event. You don't get as much through a face. That's also why I like looking at posture — when people are caught mid-movement. I like to read people indirectly.

"I remember a friend of mine in London was house-sitting and threw a dinner party in this stranger's house. I knew that a couple lived there. So I went room by room to try to figure out the state of their marriage, just to see how far off I was. By their interior decor, you could tell if they wanted kids. By the size of the shoe, you know how tall a person is, and so on. It was so fun and interesting. And I was on the mark."

I like reading photographs and looking at other people's possessions. What other people collect is, to me, a far more interesting portrait than a family picture or a posed picture at a formal event.

Leanne Shapton's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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