Last month, Leanne Shapton—a 35-year-old Canadian artist and illustrator, and the art director of the New York Times’ op-ed page—published her charming and inventive new book, a fictional love story disguised as an auction catalogue, called Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar Straus & Giroux). The slim volume instantly took on a life of its own, drawing effusive praise from cultural arbiters coast to coast. Dave Eggers, quirk connoisseur and founder of the journal McSweeney’s, called it “wildly romantic.” And from Amy Sedaris, author and comedian, she received one of the nicest compliments there is: “I truly am jealous.” Within weeks, the book itself landed on the auction block, with Hollywood’s elite clamouring to secure the film rights. Brad Pitt and Natalie Portman placed the winning bid.
Important Artifacts is a book about the ghosts that live in things. Specifically, it chronicles a four-year relationship between two fairly average people, albeit with above-average taste—Lenore Doolan, a 20-something New York Times food writer, and Harrold “Hal” Morris, a world-travelling photographer in his 40s—through their mementoes, snapshots, homemade gifts, and other detritus of a couple’s everyday life together. Lenore is clever, nervous and indecisive (we see her in one photo dressed for Halloween as a litmus test). Hal is romantic and restless; he jots wistful song lyrics in the margins of books. They’re played in the photographs by Toronto novelist Sheila Heti and New York graphic designer Paul Sahre, both friends of Shapton’s, who were paid in artwork.
The book, a kind of visual novel, consists of more than 300 exquisitely curated lots presented by the fictional auction house Strachan & Quinn, including: handwritten notes, men’s pyjamas, mixed CDs, a collection of stolen salt shakers, a stuffed squirrel, bras, the contents of Lenore’s cosmetics case, Hal’s favourite mug (smashed), and his and hers editions of Graham Greene novels. Through their stuff—accumulated over the course of their time together—we are invited to infer the story of what drew them together, and what ultimately wrenched them apart.
Shapton’s inspiration came from a 2006 auction catalogue of the personal belongings of Truman Capote, who died in 1984. Shapton couldn’t help seeing the photos and descriptions of the items on offer as an obituary in the form of cold, hard evidence. She decided to use the same device to tell a story about something else that lives and dies. “Love has a lifespan,” she says. “Love does die the way a person dies. I liked looking at it like a death.” The book is like an autopsy.
Although the love story is contemporary (the fictional couple meets in 2002), what’s left behind feels old, worn and dusty. (In part, this is because Lenore and Hal happen to be collectors of vintage everything, from books and travel clocks to foundational garments. In part, it’s because snapshots rendered in black and white inevitably feel a little misty and water-coloured.) The effect, a timelessness, serves as a reminder that there is a universality to the way love unfolds: the early punch-drunk days (see postcards from lot 1020); the comfortable-slipper phase (lot 1177: homemade preserves, labelled “Tidings of Comfort and Jam, Love From Hal and Lenore”); and too often, the growing apart, where even birthday cards are tainted with resignation (lot 1313: “We both need time . . . ”).
Each lot is photographed and detailed in a manner that is intentionally cold and clinical, and it’s from this contrast—the objects’ stark everydayness, their nothing-specialness, measured against their significance as imagined by the reader—that Important Artifacts derives its poignancy. Lot 1021, for instance, is described as “a Polaroid photograph of Doolan in a cocktail dress. A Post-it note affixed to the back reads: ‘Had to buy a new dress this weekend for the office Christmas party!—what thinks you?’ 3 1/4 x 4 in. $10-20.” Lot 1135: “A paper menu from the Oyster Bar restaurant, folded into a fortune-teller game. $15-20.” “The idea is that when you remove a lot of emotion from a love story, it can actually be more affecting,” says Shapton, “because where there’s a lack of direction on how to feel, people read between the lines and relate it to their own lives.”
Shapton, who grew up in Mississauga, Ont., first won critical acclaim as an author with her 2006 book, Was She Pretty?, which featured a combination of line drawings, stories and poetic musings about the insecurities women often project onto their boyfriends’ ex-girlfriends. She was a force in the art and design communities long before that. Straight out of school—New York’s Pratt Institute—she was awarded a series of prestigious internships that landed her a job art-directing the award-winning Avenue page of the National Post in Toronto, and then as art director for Saturday Night magazine, where she showcased a new generation of illustrators. Her own illustrations have appeared in New York magazine, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and on the cover of Time. She has designed lettering for the film titles of director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) and the novels of Chuck Palahniuk (Haunted and Diary). In New York, she started her own art-focused book publishing company, J & L Books, with photographer Jason Fulford.
Like Was She Pretty?, Shapton’s new book was born of her own need to revisit the past. At the time, she was in the process of moving in with her long-time boyfriend, now fiancé, James Truman. (A British transplant to New York, Truman is a media phenom in his own right—the former editorial director of Condé Nast, under S.I. Newhouse. He famously quit what many call the most coveted job in print in 2005 and moved to Spain for a time with Shapton. The couple eventually returned to New York.) Sorting through her belongings, Shapton found herself disturbed by nostalgia. “I do have that problem in that I keep a lot of stuff,” she said. “I keep all of these remnants from past love affairs and now I’m affianced and I needed to do something about this because I would look back and go, ‘Am I still in love with that person? What am I doing mooning over this thing?’ And I would moon.”
In fact, many of the items featured in the book belong to Shapton—things given to her by Truman or, in some cases, exes. “The clogs on page 16,” she says. “Those are me and [James’s]. The pyjamas are all his. The weird shirt that Hal buys Lenore: that’s something that I received from a boyfriend. I was given a bottle of Calon-Ségur (page 70) for Valentine’s Day once, but never a whole case. So there are these little notes of autobiography.”
Inevitably, the book created friction in her own relationship. “It dredged everything up,” she says. “And then I got a studio to finish it so I pulled away even further and my boyfriend was like, ‘We’re going to break up because of this book.’ I was really spending a lot of time in the past, rereading diaries and love letters from these important relationships in my life—that’s not a good sign. But I would read them to think, ‘Okay, at month five, what does it sound like? Are you still shy? Or at month 18?’ Your tone changes so much the more time you spend with somebody. I think my boyfriend was just rolling his eyes going, ‘Oh no. Here it comes. I can’t measure up to these ghosts.’”
As it turns out, the allure of the past doesn’t hold under intense scrutiny. Writing the book was like a purging process for Shapton. “I just sort of waded right in and said, I’m obsessed with my past love life,” she says. “When you admit it, you do get a little sick of it and I could kind of take a step back and say I’m ready to put this stuff in a drawer rather than have it on a shelf. I threw some stuff away but I still didn’t throw everything away.” Shapton and Truman plan to get married later this year in a small, private ceremony.
Meanwhile, almost as soon as the first copies of the book were dispatched, Shapton began to receive emails from people wondering who was handling the film rights. “I forwarded them all to my agent,” she says, “and he said there’s been enough interest that we should probably take this to one of the agencies in L.A, like CAA. They took it and sent it out and pretty quickly we got a few big responses.” (Shapton declined to identify the other bidders, but according to her publicist, among those who “expressed interest” were Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Aniston, and Julia Roberts.) Within 10 days, a deal was struck with Paramount Pictures and Plan B, Brad Pitt’s production company. Pitt and Portman are slated for the title roles.
“It’s funny that it might go further,” says Shapton. “Was She Pretty? didn’t do very well and so I expected this to fare as well, if not worse. I thought it was a weirder idea. So it’s nice to have that be rewarded.” Adapting an auction catalogue to film will be a trick, though. For this reason, she decided to relinquish creative control. “I don’t know how they’re going to do it. It’s going to be a complete challenge. But the thing is, that’s also how the book started. I didn’t know if it would work, if I could tell a coherent love story, so I think it’s interesting that they’re willing to go into something that they don’t know how to make. I think that’s actually kind of a good, brave artistic sign.”
Even if it turns out to be another schlocky Hollywood rom-com, she’s ready for it. “It’s flown the coop,” she says. “If that’s how it goes, then that’s how it goes. I can’t have any other attitude about it or else it would be courting heartbreak. Of course the inclination would be to say, ‘How terrible’—but it would actually be sort of funny.”