Rochelle Shapiro, author of the Shebook What I Wish You’d Told Me, shares the story of how she became a writer…and a professional psychic.
What prompted you to write the short stories in What I Wish You’d Told Me?
These are my out-of-the-closet stories, so to speak. Each novel I’ve published, Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster, 2004) and its sequel, Kaylee’s Ghost (Barnes & Noble and Amazon, 2012),featured Miriam Kaminsky, a telephone psychic who lives in Great Neck, N.Y., like me. But readers were so wowed to read about my psychic self that when I went around to do book talks, all the audience wanted to know was, “How do I become psychic? What are the winning numbers of the next Power Ball? Is my Aunt Mathilda around me?”
For readers, I was a psychic who happened to write. With my Shebook, What I Wish You’d Told Me, a collection of three stories of women of all ages grappling with the wacky and the tragic in their lives,I hope, oh, do I ever hope, that readers will see me as a writer who just happens to be psychic, too.
When did you first decide to write?
I didn’t decide to write. Writing decided it was for me. As a kid, I wrote postcards to even the most remote relatives. Most of them my parents never mailed because they were afraid the recipients would want to pay us a visit. From there, I went on to poetry. I still remember my first poem:
From my piggy bank
I sadly learn,
My spending money is all I earn.
But in college, I pursued my other love—fine arts—and went on to an MFA. Just as I began making my mark on metal plates, etching, I became allergic to the acids and, before I knew it, allergic to almost every medium I was interested in.
I had always been psychic, a gift I inherited from my Russian grandma, my Bubbie. I began doing psychic readings by phone. Although I loved it, I was used to having a finished product to show for my efforts. I began keeping a journal and then took a course in a local adult ed program in poetry. I was so hooked that I would drag my husband with me to the library so I could use his card as well as mine to get out double the poetry books I would be allowed. With each publication of one of my poems, it was as if the white dye had floated up in the blue water of a Magic 8-Ball with a yes! And I claimed being a writer as writing had claimed me.
Have you experienced sexism as a woman writer?
It was in the art world that I felt the burning slap of sexism. For my one-to-one evaluation with my professor, I set up the paintings I’d done for the semester against the wall.
“Do you have a studio in the area?” he asked without looking at my paintings.
“No, I paint in my parents’ finished basement in Far Rockway,” I said. (Far Rockaway was three city buses from campus.)
Still without looking at my work, he suggested that he get a room for us at Carl’s Airport Inn, a motel that my mother referred to as “that cathouse” any time we passed it.
The one girl who did sleep with him as well as [with] most of the other heterosexual art professors was brilliantly talented. She could carve life-size women out of columns of wood, curvaceous babes, obviously modeled after her.
In the end, none of those professors would give her a recommendation for grad school. They must have been afraid she’d become famous—and I’m sure she would have—and write a memoir that their wives and children might read.
Have you ever written anything personal that upset people close to you?
Yes, and I’ve been sworn to never again mention their names or even their relationship to me without their names. When What I Wish You’d Told Me came out, a family member said, with an edge, “Before I read this, are any of these stories based on me or on my family or anyone else I know?” And the person is right to feel this way. My Russian grandma, Bubbie, from whom I inherited my psychic gift, told me years and years ago, “People shouldn’t go from you crying.” But the dead are fair game. There’s often a bit of my own parents in my fiction, as you’ll see in the short stories Secrets and in Great Aunt Mariah and the Gigolo.
What advice do you have for an aspiring writer just starting out?
I would say to start with poetry. Poetry makes you hyperaware of each word, each line, the sound of what you’re writing. And then leap to other forms.
Also begin to read like a writer. A writer doesn’t just read for content. He wants to know how a story is constructed. Buy books and mark them up. Note where the transitions are and how the writer made them. Notice where the climax is and if the writer kept your interest during the denouement—the winding down of the story. If not, actually mark where you got bored. It’s a good practice to prevent it from happening to you.
And don’t ever say to yourself that “vampire books are selling now” and then try to write one. By the time you get it finished and find an agent, the fad will be over. Write what you’re just dying to write and you’ll find your readers.
Looking for something short and satisfying? Check out Rochelle Shapiro’s collection of stories, What I Wish You’d Told Me, only from Shebooks!