Dani Shapiro Shares Excerpt From Her Upcoming Novel 'Signal Fires', Her 'Most Personal Book' Yet

The author of Inheritance shares an exclusive first look at the book cover of her latest novel Signal Fires, as well as a gripping excerpt, with PEOPLE

Dani Shapiro
Dani Shapiro. Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty

Bestselling author Dani Shapiro became even more widely known after she released her memoir Inheritance in 2019. Now, in a return to her roots, she's publishing her first work of fiction since 2007, with Signal Fires, which the celebrated memoirist says is like an "imprint" of her "soul."

On Tuesday, Shapiro is sharing an exclusive first look at the book cover with PEOPLE, as well as a gripping excerpt from its pages. (Signal Fires will be published by Knopf on Oct. 18.)

"This is going to sound like a strange thing to say, but it feels like my most personal book," Shapiro, 59, tells PEOPLE. "Even though it's a novel after all these memoirs — and it's not on the surface of things autobiographical — it feels deeply like a kind of imprint of my soul."

Signal Fires (excerpted below) is Shapiro's eighth book and almost didn't see the outside of her office closet, where it lived for 10 years. The novel follows two families, who are forever connected after a horrible tragedy occurs, across decades.

In 1985, the lives of three teenagers are upended after a deadly car accident, which leaves the Wilf family living in its shadow. Years later, the past comes back with painful force when a young boy, Waldo Shenkman, and his parents move across the street and he strikes up a friendship with Ben Wilf, a retired doctor. The result is a work filled with emotion and "haunting beauty," according to the book description.

Signal Fires by Dani Shapiro

"I've always wanted to write a novel that spans a significant amount of time with the same characters and really look at the way that a family or more than one family grows and changes over time," says Shapiro. "And I didn't want time to work linearly in this book. I think time moves around inside of us, when we have memories. It's like everything that's ever happened keeps on happening in a way, and I wanted to capture that."

Shapiro explains that the title of Signal Fires was inspired by Carolyn Forché's poem "Mourning." The poem is also quoted in the book's epigraph: "For if the earth is a camp and the sea / an ossuary of souls, light your signal fires / wherever you find yourselves. / Come morning, launch your boats."

More than a decade ago, Shapiro penned 100 pages of what would become Signal Fires, before giving up and stashing the manuscript in her closet. During the pandemic, she came across those forgotten about pages when she was purging her office.

"It was this shiny [thing], it almost was glowing," says Shapiro of discovering the manuscript. "It was just sitting there waiting for me."

When she started reading the pages, she says it was "like a thunder clap." Shapiro was ready to take on the story again, this time fueled by the experiences of the past 10 years.

During that time, she'd published Inheritance, in which Shapiro delves into her shocking discovery that the man who raised her was not her biological father. (The book was so popular it led to her podcast Family Secrets.)

She also supported her husband Michael Maren, a screenwriter, during his battle with cancer three years ago. (Now healthy, Maron is currently working on the script for the movie adaptation of Inheritance.)

Then March 2020 arrived. As was the case for many people during the pandemic, Shapiro was able to slow down and reconnect with different aspects of life, including nature. She watched as the tree outside her house changed with the seasons.

"I'm looking out my window right now as I'm talking to you," she explains, "and the branches are just starting to redden in that very early spring awakening. I don't think I had ever noticed that before in my life, because I was moving quickly."

Just as Shapiro pondered the tree with the rings inside it, she considers what it means to live with one's past in Signal Fires: "Can we ever transcend our history? Or do we continue to form ourselves around the choices that we've made?"

The result of that questioning is Signal Fires.

"If not for [my husband's] cancer, if not for the pandemic, if not for the discovery about my father, I don't think there would be this novel," Shapiro says. "It needed to simmer, as if it were in a cosmic slow cooker for all those years... It needed to simmer and deepen and grow, and I needed to simmer and deepen and grow."

Keep reading for an exclusive excerpt from Signal Fires.

And it's nothing, really, or might be nothing, or ought to be nothing, as he leans his head forward to press the tip of his cigarette to the car's lighter. It sizzles on contact, a sound particular to its brief moment in history, in which cars have lighters and otherwise sensible fifteen-year-olds choke down Marlboro Reds and drive their mothers' Buicks without so much as a learner's permit. There's a girl he wants to impress. Her name is Misty Zimmerman, and if she lives through this night, she will grow up to be a magazine editor, or a high school teacher, or a defense lawyer. She will be a mother of three or remain childless. She will die young of ovarian cancer or live to know her great-grandchildren.

But these are only a few possible arcs to a life, a handful of shooting stars in the night sky. Change one thing and everything changes. A tremor here sets off an earthquake there. A fault line deepens. A wire gets tripped. His foot on the gas. He doesn't really know what he's doing, but that won't stop him. He's all jacked up just like a fifteen-year-old boy. He has something to prove.

"Theo, slow down." That's his sister, Sarah, from the back seat. Misty's riding shotgun. It was Sarah who tossed him the keys to their mom's car. Sarah, age seventeen. After this night, she will become unknowable to him.

The teenagers aren't looking for trouble. They're good kids— everyone would say so. But they're bored; it's the end of summer; school will resume next week. Sarah's going into her senior year, after which she'll be gone. She's a superstar, his sister. Varsity this, honors that. Theo has three years left, and he's barely made a mark. He's a chubby kid whose default is silence and shame. He blushes easily. He can feel his cheeks redden as he holds the lighter and inhales, hears the sizzle, draws smoke deep into his lungs. His father—a pulmonary surgeon—would kill him. Maybe that's why Sarah threw him the keys. Maybe she's trying to help—to get him to act, goddamnit. To take a risk. Better to be bad than to be nothing.

Misty Zimmerman is just a girl along for the ride. It was Sarah who asked her to come. Sarah, doing for Theo what Theo cannot do for himself. Change one thing and everything changes. The Buick speeds down Poplar Street. Misty stretches and yawns in the passenger seat. Theo turns left, then right. He's getting the hang of this. He flicks the directional, then heads onto the parkway. As they pass the mall, he looks to see if Burger King is still open.

"Watch it!" Sarah yells.

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He swerves back into his lane, heart racing. He almost hit the guardrail. He gets off the parkway at the next exit and eases up on the gas. This was maybe a bad idea. He wants to go home. He also wants another cigarette.

"Pull over," Sarah says. "I'll drive."

Theo looks for a good spot to stop. He has no idea how to park. Sarah's right—this is stupid.

"Actually no, forget it. I shouldn't," she says.

As he leans forward, the lighter slips through Theo's fingers and drops into his open shirt collar. He lets out a yelp and tries to grab it, which only makes matters worse. He arches his back to shake the burning metal thing loose, but it's wedged between his shorts and his belly.

Years from now, when a lover traces the scar on his stomach and asks how he got it, he will roll away. But now—now their futures shoot like gamma rays from the moving car. Three high school students. What if Sarah had gone out with her friends instead, that night? What if Misty had begged off? What if Theo had succumbed to his usual way of being, and fixed himself a salami sandwich with lots of mustard and taken it with him to bed?

The wheel spins. The screams of teenagers in the night. Theo no stop jesus help god and there is no screech of brakes—nothing to blunt the impact. A concussion of metal and an ancient oak; the sound of two worlds colliding.

Upstairs, on the second floor of Benjamin and Mimi Wilf 's home, a light blinks on. A window opens. Ben Wilf stares down at the scene below for a fraction of a second. By the time he's made it to the front door, his daughter, Sarah, is standing before him—thank god thank god thank god—her tee shirt and her face splattered with blood. Theo is on all fours on the ground. He seems to be in one piece. Thank god thank god thank god. But then—

"There's a girl in the car, Dad—"

This is an excerpt from Signal Fires, Copyright © 2022 by Dani Shapiro, coming from Knopf in October.

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