Friday, August 2, 2013

Interview with Rochelle Jewel Shapiro, author of Miriam the Medium (Simon and Schuster) and her latest, Kaylee's Ghost

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is the author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster, 2004) and like her protagonist, is a phone psychic who lives in Great Neck, New York. Articles have been written about her psychic gift in Redbook, The Jerusalem Post, the Dutch Magazine, TV GID, and the Long Island section of The New York Times. She’s chronicled her own psychic experiences in Newsweek (My Turn), and The New York Times (Lives). Miriam the Medium was also published in Belgium, Holland, and the U.K. and was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award. Shapiro is the winner of the The Brandon Memorial Literary Award. Kaylee's Ghost was a finalist in the 2013 Indie Award for excellence in fiction. Her poetry has appeared in The Iowa Review, Moment, Harpur Palate, Inkwell Magazine, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review and the Los Angeles Review. Shapiro has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. Besides her psychic practice, Shapiro teaches writing at UCLA Extension and writes for the Huffington Post.

1) During our initial conversation, you had described how poetry was a medium that served as an anchor for you; one that helped you sort through all of the thoughts, emotions and complex intuitive feelings that came as a result of an inherited psychic ability. Describe the transition to storytelling prose and how this further affected you (by being able to spin fictional stories that had a realistic connection to your life and experiences).

It was natural for me to begin my writing life with poetry. It was all around me in childhood. The linoleum floor in my bedroom was printed with nursery rhymes. As soon as I got up in the morning, I would hop from “Mistress Mary” to “Simple Simon”, singing each rhyme as I went. Then there were the rhymes in the songs that I played on my record player. “In the land of France, a little girl named Tina loved to dance, dance, dance, and they called her ballerina.” But when I got to grade school, poetry was flayed from my heart by Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees”. I was always the one who managed to have to get up and recite the line, “A tree whose hungry mouth is prest /Against the earth’s sweet, flowing breast.” But in 1985, I was pulled like an iron filing by a magnet to the 811 stacks at the library and found poetry by Mae Swenson, Sharon Olds, Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, and I got that prickle on the back of my neck and shoulders that I get when I feel, as a psychic, a destiny moment.

Before long, I began to write and publish poetry and be part of poetry readings when anthologies came out. My son used to answer the phone when people called for readings and ask, “Psychic or poetry?” Poetry allows you to braid images, memories, and impressions and bake them like my Russian grandma, my Bubbie, made her challahs. My poetry was always narrative and both readers and editors would remark, “That could be a story.” And that’s what led me to short story. From there, I went into long, hard labor with my novel.

When I write fiction, I need some things to be true in order to ground me. For example, Miriam Kaminsky, my heroine, is a phone psychic like I am. And she lives in Great Neck, Long Island, as I do. But every incident, every character, is an invention. And thank goodness for that when you read the perilous things that happen in my novels. 

When my agent brought me to Simon & Schuster, I had those same prickles on the back of my neck and shoulders as when I was led to poetry. I knew I was going to sign a contract with them.  

2) In Miriam the Medium (Simon and Shuster, nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award), Miriam recalls an instance where six-year-old Cara asks how her mother can know things about people without them telling her. Miriam uses a Crayola box to symbolize aura colors, suggesting that since she can see the colors around people, she discern a good deal about who they are and what they’re feeling before they speak to her. Writers have always had a particularly honed sense of observation that can pick up clues from gestures, objects and behavioral patterns that other observers might not take notice of. It is in this way, looking for the hidden or unexpected in real life and making a study of people around them, that writers derive inspiration for the formation of their characters. As Miriam is supposed to reflect certain similarities to your own abilities of perception, how does having the added intuitive layer of observing individuals affect how you build your own characters/influence your creative process?

When I do psychic readings, I’m watching and hearing the information that comes to me in the form of images, scents, sounds, words, bodily sensations, and sometimes even tastes. (I get the cold throat burn of a scotch on the rocks, the thick, warm sweetness of a cup of cocoa.) And I get to know small details of my clients’ lives as well as their big secrets. I demonstrated some kind of stylized jumping that I saw one client do when she was a child. “That’s Chinese jump rope!” she exclaimed. “I used to love it.” Another client said to me, “This is the most intimate conversation I’ve ever had, but I’ve barely opened my mouth.”

It’s just like that for me with fictional characters. I get to know all sorts of things about them that aren’t even pertinent to the story, but help me build a strong character, no matter how minor he or she is. I believe in my characters because once I set my mind to them, I get everything I need to feel close to them in the same way that I get to feel about my clients. They even come to me in dreams.

Sometimes I write letters to my characters, asking them to solve a plot point. “Dear Kaylee, What would you do if..?” Then I put on music—Mozart these days because his music is rumored to make you smarter—and I write out the character’s reply. Sure, it’s my own mind writing the answer, but when you treat your character as you would anyone else whom you’re intimate with, you’ve really got something! And I think that intimacy with your characters leads to intimacy with the reader.    

3) At the conclusion of Miriam the Medium, Miriam learns to be sure of herself, trust her inclinations/instincts, have faith in her talents and pursues her passion regardless of the perceptions of others. So often in life, for a number of reasons, we are dissuaded (whether by society in general, a certain teacher/authority figure/person of influence) from following our dreams, cautioned against having our talents encouraged and told not to trust our subjective instincts. Be it a calling, a profession or a life path, talk to us about the balance between pragmaticism and taking the unconventional road where a passion is realized.  

Odd the way parents foist music lessons on disinterested kids, holler at them if they don’t practice, sit through tedious piano recitals, and then, if their children decide to become musicians, the parents are desperate to talk them out of it. Parents want their kids to become lawyers, dentists, accountants, so that someday their kids will be able to afford to foist music lessons on their progeny.

It’s no different with writing. Dare to become an English major and everyone is asking you, with a raised brow, “So, what are you intending to do with it?” Creative writing major? Forget it. Better to say you’re studying micro-economics (code for, I’ll be earning very little, which might be the truth). That means you will have to figure out another job to sustain you. And what’s wrong with that? William Carlos Williams and Fyodor Dostoyevsky were both practicing physicians. Nathaniel Hawthorne was a weigher and a gouger at the Boston Custom House   which housed offices to process the paperwork of imports and exports. Dan Brown, before he struck it rich with The Da Vinci Code, was a high school English teacher.

If there’s a passion inside you, no matter how much you resist it or forces seem to be working against you, it will grab you by the seat of your pants and the back of your collar and carry you to it, kicking and screaming if necessary. After going to college and getting a Master’s degree in fine arts, I didn’t want to become a professional psychic like my Russian grandma, my Bubbie, even though I respected and adored her. I wanted to be modern, to do something that reflected my education. But whatever else I did, I would constantly blurt out things people hadn’t told me, because I heard them in my mind as if they had already told me, which made it uncomfortable  for people to be around me. When I gave in and became a professional psychic, this inclination to tell people what was going on in their lives was channeled into my work, and I was free to go anywhere without embarrassment for the first time in my life!

4) With Kaylee’s Ghost (a finalist for the 2013 Indie Award for excellence in fiction) you were able to revisit the vivid characters of your traditionally published novel yet tell the new story using the trendy e-book format and self-publishing model. Tracing the evolution of family, gifts and boundaries inherited as well as the undeniable bonds between three generations, what were some of your favorite creative aspects of writing this book? What were some of your favorite publishing aspects of this book (utilizing the technology and self-publishing methodologies)?

It was exciting to write a novel in which the characters could grow up along with me. In Kaylee’s Ghost, Miriam Kaminsky, the phone psychic, is now a  grandmother who wants more than anything to mentor her granddaughter, Violet, to be psychic the way her Russian grandma, Bubbie, had done with her. And  Miriam’s daughter, now a modern businesswoman who remembers the downside of life with her psychic mother, digs in her heels. As tensions heat up in the family, Violet, a sensitive and brilliant child, is torn between them until Miriam’s gift backfires, bringing terrible danger to those she loves.

Not only was the plot new, but all the minor characters as well. I found it like a Color Field painting. If you put a red square against a green background, it appears totally different than putting a red square against a blue background.

But what was most exciting was that I missed the characters. They lived in my psyche long after the first book was sent to press. And they dwelt in the lives of my fans as well. I kept getting fan mail that said, “When are we going to hear from  Miriam again?” And here she is in Kaylee’s Ghost.

I published Kaylee’s Ghost on Amazon and Nook for a deeply emotional reason rather that a logical choice. My top New York agent, the wise and savvy Jack Scovil , the owner of his wildly successful agency, who had told me “Everyone will want to read Kaylee’s Ghost.” Then Jack Scovil died and the scramble began of finding a new agent. One prestigious agent was so excited to take my book, but she hung onto it for six months without reading it because she was so busy. And I know how long it can take to sell a book once and agent has accepted it. I turned sixty-five and I said to myself, 'Better get a move on, Girl.'

Truly, if it hadn’t been for my first book having the wide reach of being published with Simon & Schuster, Kaylee’s Ghost would not be on the map. I am a tech dud. You have to be an ingenious techie and marketer to make a self-published book  happen. But with the support of fans and fabulous opportunities such as this one, word is getting out. Maybe Jack Scovil’s spirit is helping me, because such an uncanny thing happened that it had to be supernatural. A famous European psychic, Birkan Tore, who has his own show in Sweden, was watching an old episode of  The Mentalist when he saw my first novel, Miriam the Medium, lying on a table. He looked up the title and read the book. He was so excited that he phoned me. I told him about Kaylee’s Ghost and he’s recommending it to his viewers and his huge number of students. Now really, even if you’re a non-believer, wouldn’t you have to admit that something uncanny was afoot?    

5) Give our writers a brief glimpse of the traditional publishing cycle in terms of your personal experience (from the query to the manuscript being accepted by an agent, the search for a publisher, the post-publishing publicity push that can include both author and publisher effort, the shelf-life of the book and so forth…). 

First step is to write a sock-o query letter. The query letter gives an agent a sense of how you write and also teases them into desperately wanting to read your book, Go to book jackets and read the copy and you’ll see how to do it. Whoever writes them certainly doesn’t give away the plot, but in a few words, gets the reader excited to read the book. Yes, there are loads of lists of agents, but one of the best way to find one is to think about which authors your work has a kinship with. For example, one of my authors is Alice Hoffman, who often writes about the supernatural. Then see go to their books. There’s always an acknowledgement of their agent. Query him or her.

When and if you get an acceptance from an agent, know that you might be required to do extensive rewrites before he will send your book out. Also, publishers may hang onto your book for quite awhile. The whole process requires that you not just sit back and wait, but start on your next project with the self-assurance that something will happen for you.

Listen up. You don’t just get a book published today unless you’re some kind of celebrity, no matter how good it is. One of the first things a publisher will ask you is, “What is your platform?” That means you have to have a blog with tons of followers, a FB page with tons of followers and LIKES, tons of twitter followers, etc. I was lucky enough to have published about my psychic experiences in The New York Times (Lives) and Newsweek and had an article published about me in Redbook.

In other words, you usually need to be “known” in some way before a publisher will take a chance on you. The upside of this is that you can do a blog that attracts attention such as E.L. James did with Fifty Shades of Gray. The publishers are looking for buzz and then they will sign you up and movie deals will happen.  I attended BEA (Book Expo of America) this year and learned that authors were posting their books on free sites to get reader feedback, all the while social-marketing the heck out of their books, reading them on YouTube, etc. That’s what got the authors lucrative book deals. Keep one foot in the waters of the literary world and the other in the widening gyre of social media.

6) What areas do you focus most on in your classes as an instructor of writing through the UCLA extension?

I teach a course called “Emotions into Art” at UCLA Extension. If your characters aren’t driven by desperate emotions, what will keep the reader reading? Think of Gatsby’s desperation to win back Daisy. Think of Hamlet’s desperation to expose the truth of his father’s death. Even comedies have desperate characters. Think of the characters in Yona Zeldis McDonough’s A Wedding in Great Neck where each member of the family is in a desperate clash for his own identity and search for love. Author Maxine Hong Kingston asks her students, “What do you feel?” about what they’ve read or written and she finds that they give analyses instead. She teaches them to work on feeling scene by scene so that the reader can have feelings inside himself.

This is the way I teach as well. I help students find their deepest themes, what eats at them in their lives:  sibling rivalry, betrayal, fear of abandonment, etc. Find your life themes and apply them to fictional characters, even if they are aliens, and you’ve got something worth working on for yourself and certainly something worthy of a reader’s attention.