When writer Rochelle Jewel Shapiro and I first started discussing the possibility of doing this email interview, she was still in the midst of writing her sequel to her 2004 novel, Miriam the Medium. I am happy to note, as she acknowledges in the opening of our discussion–that she has put the new novel, Kaylee’s Ghost, in her agent’s hands. I greatly appreciated the range of questions she endured from me–and I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did. My thanks to Rochelle, for her time and thoughts–and hopefully before we know it, her new novel will soon be on the market.
Tim O’Shea: You are currently at work on a sequel to your first autobiographical novel. Will the sequel stay in the autobio vein?
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro: As in my first novel, Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster), Kaylee’s Ghost, which is now in my agent’s hands, also features Miriam Kaminsky who is a phone psychic from Great Neck like I am, Funny how people know call me Miriam and I have grown so tired of correcting them that I answer to the name of my character now. People always ask me, with sympathy, “What did you really do when Cara ran away?” My own daughter never ran away (phew) and her name isn’t Cara. But, just as I now answer to Miriam, I accept when people to refer to my non-fictional daughter as Cara. In Kaylee’s Ghost, Miriam has a granddaughter just as I do. I will be honored if readers begin to refer to my own granddaughter as Violet. It will mean that the story I’ve written is real to them, and that’s my goal.
O’Shea: When delving in the autobio realm how hard is it to read criticism of your work and be confident enough to understand the criticism is of the novel and not your life?
Shapiro: I’m delighted when anyone mixes up my life with Miriam Kaminsky’s, my character, because it means that I’ve breathed life into my book. I chuckled when a critic was angry with Miriam for dosing Cara with cures from her great grandmother. In real life, when my Bubbie needed urine from a pre-pubertal child to cure pink eyes (conjunctivitis), it was my urine she used. Bubbie’s drops were so effective that years later, my mother swore that Murine must really have urine in it, but the company added an M or no one would buy it. In my era, with a father from tsarist Russia, you didn’t question. You obeyed. A relative asked you for urine, you gave it. If you had pink eye, you used the drops, even though you knew the ingredients. Like my real daughter, my fictional one, Cara, born into a world of freedom, would have put up some fight against anything she didn’t want to do, and would certainly win.
O’Shea: Family was a central element to your first novel. Does it remain a prominent element in your current novel?
Shapiro: Yes, Kaylee’s Ghost is a suspenseful family saga involving four generations of both the living and the dead, each with his own forceful, clashing opinions. And, think of it. Whether you believe in ethereal beings that waft through your life like blown cheesecloth or whether you don’t, we’re all haunted by the lives that came before us.
O’Shea: What was the appeal to revisiting these characters?
Shapiro: Love. Love made me revisit them. I absolutely love these characters. And they are never static. They grow along with me. In Kaylee’s Ghost, Miriam Kaminsky is a grandmother like I am now. And I bet just as I answer to Miriam and readers speak of my real-life daughter as Cara, I hope that they will think that Violet is my actual granddaughter. That will mean that I have convinced the reader that these characters live. Also, returning to these characters gives me a chance to pay homage to my grandmother, Sarah Shapiro, who fled Russia with her five remaining children after the other five were killed in a pogrom, hiding with them in the forest, the stench of her burning village in her nose, the barking of the Cossack’s dogs close behind her. Sara Shapiro, who came to America, never speaking of the horrors that she went through as she healed her family and the neighborhood with her potions and cures and psychic advice.
O’Shea: Your first novel was released in 2004. When you embarked on the sequel, how hard was it to find the characters voices again?
Shapiro: The characters were talking to me the whole time. They never let up. I thought hat I had to prove myself by not writing about them. But every time I tried to write about something or someone else, their voices became louder and louder. I had no choice.
O’Shea: When we initially discussed this interview, you acknowledged that the demands in writing your new novel were quite different than on your first novel. How so, if you care to elaborate?
Shapiro: With my new novel, Kaylee’s Ghost, there were certain givens. The characters histories, their professions, their basic traits. But I discovered that once new characters came in, the characters I had before revealed new parts of themselves. The sequel became like a color field painting. When you put a red square in the center of a green canvas, it has one effect. When the background is red with a central square of green, you have another. The same happened when I pitted my characters against new obstacles and new characters. Surprises happened that made Kaylee’s Ghost not just a sequel, but a book that can stand alone.
O’Shea: Do you have beta readers who you run chapters by or are you waiting until you’re happy with the whole draft before sharing it with anyone?
Shapiro: I have a writer friend I share my work with in an ongoing way. We might call each other to talk plot or character and voila, the answer comes to us without input, just through being heard and cared about. Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton sometimes stayed on the phone with each other as they wrote poems, not reading them to each other, but just to have that link, the shared breath. Like Wilbur the Pig said to Charlotte the Spider in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, “it’s so nice to have a friend who is a writer, too.”
O’Shea: Did you ever hear of readers that did not believe in psychics before reading your book and it changed their mind?
Shapiro: Always. Most psychics write “Psychic How-To” books or memoirs such as Terry Iacuzzo’s splendid Small Mediums at Large. Even though I write fiction, what is real in my books is how images arise in a psychic’s mind, and how it is to live with the gift each day.
O’Shea: At least one review I read praised how effectively you captured Great Neck, NY. How challenging was it to convey location without making it an element that might ward off a reader unfairly with the area? Where does most of your new novel take place?
Shapiro: I have received emails from Hong Kong, Hungary, Holland, Belgium, the U.K., the Midwest, Alaska, etc., and everyone told me how much they related to Miriam the Medium. It’s strange how, the more specific you get about a character and his environment, the more universal it seems to become. Kaylee’s Ghost takes place in Great Neck and in Fells Point in Baltimore where, in this novel, Cara lives with her husband, Dan. Part of it also takes place in Brooklyn and in Massachusetts as well as in heaven.
O’Shea: How important is the internet to you in terms of a support network from your fellow writers, as well as building an interest in your work?
Shapiro: Using the internet is like having an out-of-body experience. You can be in your own living room while simultaneously appearing in Kenya. I teach writing at UCLA Extension in my pajamas. If anyone wants to tell a writer what he thinks of his book today, he can just go to the author’s website. Mine is www.miriamthemedium.com But I’m thinking of doing another with my name instead that will cover all future books. Sometimes I’m a guest writer on other people’s blogs. I also write a monthly article about writing on www.authorlink.com and I have a writing blog for UCLA Extension [as well as her own blog and Twitter account] Who would have thunk?
O’Shea: What do you enjoy most about writing?
Shapiro: Writing is a form of meditation. You have to just be thinking about what you’re doing in that moment. And as in psychic experience, the mind is making pictures, you hear things, smell things, taste them. Writing also tells you what you did with your day. So much of life is dashing about, doing errands, things that don’t stick, which reminds me that I bought a skirt in Macy’s and the sales clerk forgot to take off the plastic gizmo that beeps if you’ve shoplifted. It didn’t go off when I left the store. I haven’t had a chance to go back. I’ve actually worn the skirt twice with that gizmo on it. I recommend it. Store owners wait on you in a jiffy once they see you wearing one of those anti-shoplifting devices.