Rochelle Shapiro is a writer. If that isn’t interesting enough Rochelle is also a phone psychic. In her debut novel she has meshed her experience as a psychic with her creative talents to craft Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster, 2004). In a nutshell, it is “a story about overcoming self-doubt and learning to trust your instincts.” Rochelle has been writing and journaling from a young age having been published in the New York Times and Newsweek. She is happily married and living in Great Neck, NY. Sit back, relax and get ready to learn more about this curious novelist.
Moe: Looking back was there something in particular that helped you to decide to become a writer? Did you choose it or did the profession choose you?
Rochelle Shapiro: Thirty years ago, Vincent Ragone, a famous clairvoyant, told me, “You will publish a love story with Simon & Schuster.”.
I thought his prediction was ridiculous. Back then, I hadn’t ever thought of writing as a career. In school, my writing had never received acknowledgement. I had never thought of myself as either having the talent for writing or even wishing for it, and continued on with my psychic readings for the next ten years.
Being a phone psychic is thrilling work. Each reading is as unique as a thumbprint. I never know what to expect. But when I’m finished with a reading, I have to let it go, like carbon dioxide on an exhale. More and more, I felt the need to create something that encapsulated my experiences. I began keeping a journal and writing became a habit, a need. Then I took a poetry workshop. My poems became longer and longer until I had to admit they were short stories. Eventually, MIRIAM THE MEDIUM took shape.
It wasn’t until my agent brought me into Simon & Schuster that I remembered Vincent Ragone’s prediction. I leaned over and whispered to my agent, “They’re going to buy it.”
She credited me with the prediction, but it had really been the late Vincent Ragone who deserved the kudos for knowing my destiny. Vincent is one of the people I dedicated my book to.
Moe: When did you ‘know’ you were a writer?
Rochelle Shapiro: In 1985, when I first saw my name on a published personal essay about my children bringing home a wounded pigeon, I knew I was a writer. The magazine was a born again Christian publication. I remember how awed I felt when the check they sent me for twenty-five dollars had a logo that said, “From the Blood of Christ.”
Moe: Were you a good writer as a child? Teenager? Etc.
Rochelle Shapiro: I wrote horrible mandatory essays every September called, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.” That was enough writing for me. But I did enjoy writing letters and had pen pals in three countries. However, I always loved making up stories and telling stories to whomever would listen. One of my favorites was about a Jewish boy who swallowed a snake egg while swimming in a bayou of Louisiana on a holiday that prohibited swimming. By the time of the high holidays, every time he tried to wish someone a happy Rosh Hashanah, (the Jewish New Year) a forked tongue would flash out of his mouth.
Moe: What inspires you?
Rochelle Shapiro: The spirits of my dead relatives inspire me. Every time I sit down at my dining room table to write, my father appears, his auburn curls mussed as if he’s flown against a strong wind to get to me. A cup of tea magically appears in his hand. He puts a sugar cube between his teeth and lifts the cup to his thin lips, the steam fogging the lenses of his tortoise-framed glasses, making his pale blue eyes indistinct.
“Nu?” he says. (Yiddish for “Well?” or “What’s new?”)
And then I begin to write.
Moe: Every writer has a method that works for them. Most of them vary like the wind while some seem to follow a pattern similar to other writers. On a typical writing day, how would you spend your time?
Rochelle Shapiro: If there were a camera trained on me as I wrote, you’d see a woman with silvery curls, writing in a notebook with a marbleized cover just as she did as a schoolgirl. Once my ideas are jump started in long hand, a dialogue, a scene, even a few sentences, I then go to my computer. If I start at the computer, my writing sounds essayistic and if I stay with the notebook, my handwriting becomes so poor in the fever of creation that I can’t read it. I’m always switching off—notebook/computer/notebook. I get up every hour or so, eat something (writing is very hard on the waistline) or take a walk in the hallway of my apartment building in search of a word or a character or plot twist. I’ve been spotted out there in the middle of the night, walking the halls like a wraith. One end of the hall to the next, ten times, is a mile. The building should charge me extra maintenance for wear on the carpet.
Moe: How long does it take for you to complete a book you would allow someone to read? Do you write right through or do you revise as you go along?
Rochelle Shapiro: I am blessed with the most wonderful and brilliant writer-friend, Caroline Leavitt, whose last book, Girls In Trouble, was one of the top ten best sellers on Amazon. Whenever I start a book, I send her the first chapter and she gives me a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Without her, I don’t know if I’d ever go on. It’s too hard to know if what you’re writing is valuable to anyone else but you. If she gives me a thumbs-down, I struggle to prove to her that it was worth something, to say it better so that she can see it, too. She is so talented that her opinion matters to me more than almost anyone’s. And she sends her work to me for critique as well. I think of us as a creative duo such as Anne Sexton and Maxine Cumin, who read their poems to each other over the phone everyday. Caroline is my Bloomsbury circle, my Maxwell Perkins.
Being willing to grapple with someone else’s early drafts is one of the highest tributes a person can give. Acts of faith in each other’s good intentions and talent.
Like Wilbur the Pig said of his spider-friend, Charlotte, who wove words in her web, “It’s so nice to have a friend who is a writer, too.”
Moe: When you have your idea and sit down to write is any thought given to the genre and type of readers you’ll have?
Rochelle Shapiro: I always think of my readers, what grueling hours they work, how they have to come home to tremendous family responsibilities, or if they are single, the need to socialize and make connection. I want my writing to be worth their time, to give them respite, laughter, tears, insight. Rock their souls.
Moe: When it comes to plot, do you write freely or plan everything in advance?
Rochelle Shapiro: Plot, for me, is like the cemetery of a story. If I think about it too much, the story dies. Instead of writing progressive chapters, I begin with scenes that come to me, beg to be written, and pray that I will find the right order for them. Sometimes the middle of my book becomes the beginning or the beginning the end. But a novel is like an elaborate mathematical equation, change one of the unknowns and everything has to change. Grrr.
Moe: What kind of research do you do before and during a new book? Do you visit the places you write about?
Rochelle Shapiro: Because my first book is largely autobiographical, there wasn’t much research involved. My second novel, Ghost Money, which I just mailed to my agent, needed some amount of research. I made a writer’s visit with a friend to one of the locales of this book. For the other locale, I interviewed my friend, Cynthia Shor. Perhaps because I’m psychic, it’s easier for me to visualize somewhere I’ve never actually been.
Moe: How much of yourself and the people you know manifest into your characters? Where do your characters come from? Where do you draw the line?
Rochelle Shapiro: In Miriam the Medium, the characters of my Russian grandmother, my bubbe, from whom I inherited my gift, and my Russian father, and my American-born mother all look and sound exactly as they did in life. They were simple people with humble beginnings and this was my way of honoring them. But in my novel, my grandmother was outspoken, hilarious. The real Sarah Shapiro was a quiet woman who had been traumatized by a pogrom in which five of her children were murdered. And I made my fictional father more affectionate than my real father had been and came to believe in this new father in a way that healed any shred of resentment I’d had towards him. My fictional mother was against Bubbie’s teachings and called them “voodoo” while my own mother admired her mother-in-law’s healing gifts and spoke of her as the goddess Bubbie was. And when my husband found out I was writing a novel loosely based on myself, he told me he’d be jealous if I fell in love with anyone besides him. So Miriam Kaminsky is married to a six-foot-four pharmacist husband like mine.
Moe: Writers often go on about writer’s block. Do you ever suffer from it and what measures do you take to get past it?
Rochelle Shapiro: After about the fourth draft of a novel, all I can think of is, When will this be over? Or Oh, God, will this ever end? Can I do it? I remember having those exact thoughts as I was in labor with my children. Then, when the novel was finally finished, I got so blue that I had to start a new one right away. When I was stuck, I called up friends—Ascension, Marlene, or Cara, and groused to them about it. As I complained, an idea came to me. I once saw a button in a flea market that said, “Complain, God will let you live longer.” I wish I had bought it.
Moe: When someone reads one of your books for the first time, what do you hope they gain, feel or experience?
Rochelle Shapiro: I hope they will go inside the characters, feel as if they know them, or at least want to, and remember them long after they finish the book. I was gratified when a reviewer said, “I feel as if Miriam Kaminsky is my friend.”
Moe: Can you share three things you’ve learned about the business of writing since your first publication?
Rochelle Shapiro: You must do all you can to sell your own book. Appear everywhere you’re asked and even places you aren’t asked. Start another book right away so you aren’t stuck worrying about the book you have out. Network with other writers for support, marketing ideas, and the courage to do it again.
Moe: How do you handle fan mail? What kinds of things do fans write to you about?
Rochelle Shapiro: I answer each piece of fan mail that comes to me via my publisher, my agent, or on my website. I am amazed and delighted with fan mail I’ve gotten from such far flung places as Hong Kong, Israel, and Nigeria. What better proof that my themes are universal? I received an email from a young woman in Hungary who, auditioning for a job as a translator, was given my novel to translate into Hungarian. She told me how much she enjoyed my book and wanted to know what “bond” meant—financial bonds. Also, knowing I’m a psychic, she asked if she’d land the job.
Miriam the Medium was bought by a publishing firm in Holland and will be translated into Dutch. I will miss not being able to read the fan mail from Holland. The only Dutch words I know are Edam and Gouda.
Moe: What’s your latest book about?
Rochelle Shapiro: Miriam the Medium takes you into the mind of a psychic, shows you how visions arise. But more than that, it tells a haunting, heartbreaking family saga of the conflict between three generations of women–Miriam and her mother, Miriam’s mother and Bubbie, and Miriam’s conflict with her daughter, Cara, who is embarrassed by her psychic mother. Miriam is in the terrible position of being able to solve all the problems of her clients while her own daughter, involved with a bad news boyfriend, and Miriam’s pharmacist husband, Rory, who is going broke, won’t listen to her at all. Miriam begins to doubt herself until a family crisis when she has to throw her faith behind herself and her gift.
Moe: What kind of books do you like to read?
Rochelle Shapiro: I read widely. I just reread Crime and Punishment and Anna Karenina and also read at least two Shakespearean plays a year. I’m studying Greek mythology with my friend, Sheila, in preparation for reading the Greek tragedies. For humor, I love the writings of Bruce J. Friendman and T. Correghesian Boyle and the delightful Saralee Rosenberg. And recently, I came across The Book of Kehls, a memoir by Christen O’Hagen that made me laugh and bawl, sometimes all at once. And of course, I love Caroline Leavitt’s novels.
Moe: When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?
Rochelle Shapiro: I sing ditties to my granddaughter, Rebecca Zoe. “Who are we? Who are we? Salty sailors from the sea. Can we dance? Can we sing? We can sing like anything.” I love going to films and the theatre and hanging out with friends.
Moe: New writers are always trying to glean advice from those with more experience. What suggestions do you have for new writers?
Rochelle Shapiro: Write. Write everyday. Write in many voices. Write down your dreams. Write down funny signs you see, misspellings on menus, on signs. Write down people’s small gestures such as someone turning down the palm of his hand, turning it up, then down again, meaning “So, so.” Write down your worst nightmares and your greatest wishes. A writer doesn’t wait for inspiration. A writer is always writing.
Moe: If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
Rochelle Shapiro: A stand-up comic. A full time psychic. A salty sailor. A three-times-a-week patient of some psychologist.
Moe: What is your favorite word?
Rochelle Shapiro: Thanks.
Originally published 7/5/2005 at Literary Fiction, BellaOnline.