Monday, October 21, 2013

My First Time: Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Rochelle Jewel Shapiro, author of the novel Miriam the Medium, which was nominated for the Harold Ribelow Award.  Rochelle has published essays in NYT (Lives) and Newsweek.  Her second novel, Kaylee’s Ghost, was finalist in the 2013 Indie Awards.  Like the heroine of both of her novels, Rochelle is a phone psychic who also teaches writing at UCLA Extension.  Click here to visit her website.  You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook.

My First Agent

My first agent came to me though one of those cosmic quirks.

In 1985, even though I was psychic myself, I had an appointment with another psychic, a man so famous he had a seven-year waiting list.  He called the day before my appointment and told me he was giving up his practice.  I was in tears.  Then I got an image of a tombstone with his name on it.  “You’re ill,” I said, and he admitted it.  I begged him to tell me one thing about me.

“You’re going to write a novel that will be published by Simon & Schuster,” he said.

I thought he lost his powers with his illness.  Back then I wasn’t writing.  But I thanked him profusely, especially since he said he’d refer all his clients to me.  When I got off the phone, it hit me what he was going through, and I cried.

When I got back to work, my psychic readings felt like carbon dioxide going out into the atmosphere.  To keep something for myself, I started a journal of my psychic experiences.  The more I wrote, the more I began to want to write. Suddenly, those journal entries began to take shape.  Impulsively I sent an essay about the difficulty of being college-educated and being a psychic to the top place I could think of—The New York Times (Lives) column.  I was stunned when they published it.  But what was more surprising were the three interested emails from agents that followed.  “We want to see a novel,” they said.

I wish I could say I sat down and immediately wrote one, but it took seven years to write my first novel, Miriam the Medium, about a psychic and her family, and when it was done, the agents who had previously contacted me said they now had “full plates.”  I studied lists of agents online and sent my manuscript out to one.  My jaw dropped when she agreed to represent me.  A month later, she sold my novel to Simon & Schuster.  How lucky could I get? I thought.

But after the book was out, I wasn’t so lucky.  One day, I called my agent.  Her office phone was disconnected.  I went there, but the door was locked.  “She left a month ago,” the doorman told me.  Shocked, I asked, “Did she leave a forwarding address?”  “No,” he said, “but I have her cell.”  When I called and heard her voice, I was so relieved.

“I’ve been trying to reach you,” I said breathlessly.  Her voice sounded tinny, as if she were far away.  “Where are you?” I asked.

“On a bus.  I only have a minute.”

“I want to talk to you about my new novel,” I said, and then I heard her laugh.

“Oh, I’m no longer in publishing,” she said.  “I quit that rat race.”  She told me she was working for Aflac, the insurance company with the quacking duck.  And just like that, quack, quack, I had no agent.

“But I’ll still be collecting royalties on your book,” she added, and then she hung up.

When I finished my newest novel, Kaylee’s Ghost, a companion book to Miriam the Medium, I wrote queries to a slew of agents.  I was hopeful when one answered, “I adore all things psychic.  Send me the manuscript.”  But unlike my first agent who had read it in no time, she held onto it for months.  Nights I woke up in a sweat from the dream that she’d disappeared.  I began to call to check that she was still in business.  Each time her assistant got snarkier.  “She’s hard at work on her bestselling authors,” she finally snapped.

I confided my woes to a friend.  She recommended her top New York agent, Jack Scovil, a fellow so successful that he owned the agency.  He read the manuscript within ten days.

Kaylee’s Ghost is a book everyone will want to read,” he assured me.

I promised myself not to call to check up on him, but when I hadn’t heard from him for four months, I phoned and found out he had died.

At that point, I had just turned sixty-five.  I said to myself, What are you waiting for?  This was my moment, the first time I took control of my own publishing career.  Despite being unsure about self-publishing, especially after having been published by Simon & Schuster, I published the book myself on Amazon and Nook.  Some of my writer friends were supportive, others were chilly.

“Really?” one said.  “You’re actually….ahem….self-publishing?”

I tried to put her remark out of my mind, but I couldn’t help feeling I’d made a terrible mistake.

One day, on the quiet car of the Long Island Railroad where serious readers commute, I spotted four people intently reading Kaylee’s Ghost in paperback.  One laughed out loud.  Feeling my stare, she looked up at me and whispered, “This book is so good.  You should read it,” and she went right back to it.

If it wasn’t the quiet car, I would have stood up and announced, “I’m the author.”

I’m getting fan mail from everywhere, including Sweden.  Kaylee’s Ghost has gotten five-star reviews and was finalist in the Indie 2013 awards.

Agentless, I go on, grateful to all who aided and abetted me, but thrilled to be representing myself.


  1. What a wonderful essay! Funny and smart, and makes me want to reread the book!

  2. Love this essay--it's smart. funny and utterly authentic--just like the author.

  3. Your essay makes me want to read both your books all over again