Monday, August 4, 2014

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.  Her e-collection of short stories, What I Wish You'd Told Me is now out from Shebooks.  Rochelle's first novel, Miriam The Medium, was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award.  Her second novel, Kaylee’s Ghost, was an Indie Finalist.  She’s published essays in the New York Times (Lives), Newsweek, and in many anthologies.  Her poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in The Coe Review, Compass Rose, The Griffin, Inkwell Magazine, The Iowa Review, Los Angeles Review, The MacGuffin, Memoir And, Moment, Negative Capability, Pennsylvania English, The Carolina Review, and more.  She won the Brandon Memorial Literary Award from Negative Capability.  Shapiro is a professional psychic who currently teaches writing at UCLA Extension.  Click here to visit her website.

For the First Time in My Writing Life

A client who called me for a psychic reading said, “The last psychic I went to told me that in another lifetime, I was Madame Curie.”  A few days later, another client phoned to report that she had been to that very same psychic who told her that she, too, had been Madame Curie.  I was tempted to introduce them to battle it out with each other for the title.

In truth, we all live other lives within the one we are currently in, not in the sense of alternate realities or any other metaphysical explanations, but parts of our history feel so different to us that they may as well be other lives.

My life as a writer began after doing psychic readings over the phone for thirty years.  Psychic readings are thrilling, but when you’re finished, you don’t have a tangible product like you would if you were throwing pots on a wheel.  I began writing a journal simply to have something to hold in my hands.  But as in psychic readings where you must keep clients’ secrets, journals are kept to yourself as well.  I wanted to do something I could share with others.  I took a local adult education class in poetry and became smitten.  I would drag my husband to the library with me so that I could double the amount of poetry books I could take out at one time.  After writing for a couple of years and starting to get published, I did poetry readings, one at La Mama, the experimental theater in Greenwich Village.  I was hooked on writing, on performing.  When a client called for a reading, if my son picked up the phone, he’d say, “Do you want a psychic or a poetry reading?”

Making the leap to fiction felt as if I had landed in yet another life.  It started with a desire to pay homage to my Russian grandmother, my bubbie, from whom I inherited my psychic gift.  And I also wanted to show people what it’s really like to be a psychic, an insider’s view, how psychic visions arise in the mind, and how it can affect a psychic’s family.  It took me seven years to finish the novel and bang, bang, as if it was destiny, I got an agent who sold my book, Miriam the Medium, to Simon & Schuster in 2004.  Now I really felt like a writer.  But when I went out to do readings, all the audiences cared about was getting psychic readings.  Even as I read from my novel, people would shout, “Will my son-in-law pass his fourth bar exam?”  “Will my daughter‘s boyfriend ever marry her?”  “When will my husband’s partner get what he deserves and drop dead already?”

I was stung.  Didn’t anyone see how hard I had worked on character development?  On plot?  On metaphor?

Once, when I was giving a book talk at a library, the audience suddenly rose in a swell and swept toward me, knocking over the table my books were piled on, grabbing at my sleeves.

“Is Grandma Elsie around me?”  “Did Uncle Lennie’s gambling debts get forgiven when he passed over?”  “What are the winning numbers of the next Powerball?”

Even when I answered questions, it only made them clamor for more.  Marilyn Monroe had gotten her dress plucked off by overly eager fans.  I was glad I made it out with just a torn sleeve.

Never again, I told myself.  But fans wrote, begging for another book about Miriam Kaminsky, my alter ego psychic heroine and clients and her folks.  It was a few years later and I figured that I wouldn’t have to go out in person to let people know about Kaylee’s Ghost, the sequel.  So I began a fan page.  All my fans wanted to know was how they could become psychic or whether I would join their goddess group or whether I thought the runes were better than tarot decks.

Two books later, it hit me.  If I want people to respond to my writing, I have to step out of my psychic life.  I submitted a collection of three short stories to Shebooks and they accepted it for publication.  What I Wish You’d Told Me is a collection of stories about women of all ages grappling with the wacky and the tragic in their lives, and none of them are psychic.  I have finally stepped into my writer’s life, while behind the scenes, I’m still psychic, too.

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