Read my interview with Rochelle Jewel Shapiro. Her latest book is Kaylee’s Ghost:
Kaylee’s Ghost stands alone as a novel, but features the characters from Miriam the Medium. What’s it like to revisit characters? How are they different in this book?
Writing is like color field painting. When you paint a red square in the middle of a green canvas, it has a completely different effect than if you put a blue square on it. When my characters go head to head with new ones, different parts of their personalities come out. It’s a deepening both for me and for the reader. In Kaylee’s Ghost, Miriam Kaminsky, my phone psychic heroine, is a grandmother who is thrilled that her granddaughter, Violet, seems to be psychic, and wants nothing more than the chance to mentor her the way her own Russian grandmother, Bubbie, had done with her. But Cara, Miriam’s daughter, a teenager in Miriam the Medium, is now a modern businesswoman who remembers all too well the downside of living with her psychic mother, and digs her heels in. The mother/daughter battle continues between those on earth as well as in the hereafter with the spirits having their own strong and contrary opinions.
What is your writing space like? Does it have crystals hung on fishing line, like Miriam’s workspace?
How I miss my shimmering crystals hanging from fishing line! But I had to take them down. You see, we all have a wish to touch the stars, but children act on it. Grandnieces and grandchildren were wheeling my swivel desk chair to climb up and touch the crystals. We had quite a few falls from grace, luckily none serious. Now the crystals are on the top of my white desk near the Tibetan bells and the Buddha statue. I also have a stack of notebooks with marbleized covers, the kind I used in grade school. Writing by hand in those notebooks helps me connect to childhood when our senses are most alive, our feelings slingshot ready to fly up and out of us. When I feel as if I’m on a writing roll or when I can no longer read my own handwriting, I go to my computer, which I keep in my living room. The only technology I keep in my writing space is my white phone in case a client calls, because I, like Miriam, am a phone psychic. In my writing space, my bare feet rest on a rose-colored carpet, kind of like rose-colored lenses, optimism from the bottom up.
How do your characters/story come to you? Which comes first?
Miriam, the phone psychic, is so close to me that people have begun calling me Miriam and I’ve begun answer to it. Yet everything that happens in the book is fiction. I promise! And the Russian grandmother, my bubbie, from whom I inherited my psychic gift, looks just like my own paternal grandmother, Sarah, who I feel around me every day. I get whiffs of the lavender talc she puffed on her creased neck. She’s so alive for me that she’s part of my writing, probably the inspiration for it. For ten years she was separated from her husband who had come to America with the intention of saving up passage to send for his wife and ten children. But during his absence, the Cossacks galloped into her village, and five of her oldest sons were murdered. With her one remaining son, my father, about four-years-old at the time, and her four daughters, she left her burning village and hid in the forest, subsisting on roots and berries with the Cossacks’ dogs tracking their scent. Through a series of miracles, she managed to get to safety. Her husband, my grandfather, blew a lot of money on agents who promised to find them. Finally, someone here in the Bronx knew someone in Russia who had seen them, and they were reunited.
My grandmother was so grateful to be in America, to be with her children who had survived and watch the family grow. She’s my muse, both in life and in my work.
So I have some major characters down and new ones developing in me, but what I have to do to get the story is ask the “What if” question that writers need to ask. Mine, for Kaylee’s Ghost, was “What if a psychic who wants her granddaughter to follow in her footsteps, no matter how much her daughter is against it, finds that her gift backfires, bringing terrible danger to her granddaughter? It’s the story of what we’ll do to save the ones we love.
Is there a place you go when you need to let the subconscious perform its work?
Actually, I go to sleep. I keep a dream journal by my bed because once I am involved with a novel, it takes me over. It’s in my head all the time and dreams are a great way to access scenes, plot developments. I also do lucid dreaming while I’m awake. It’s like open-eyed meditation. You relax your whole body, concentrate on your breath, and ask yourself a question, such as, What happens next? Sometimes I turn out the lights, light a candle, and play soft music to get into that zone. It takes the pressure off and I get answers. When I need a further nudge, I take my notebook to Starbucks and write there. The surrounding noise only makes me more determined to go inside me where the book is germinating.
How are the subjects you write about different from when you began writing?
I learn more about the characters as I go. Some writers do an outline first or write out each characters arc, that is, show how they go from one state of mind and through a revelation that involves actions they take that move the plot, and come to see their world differently. It’s a good thing to do, but I’ve never stuck to one. As the characters begin to interact, they start having saying and doing things I never thought they would.
Will there be a third book with these characters (please say yes)?
I’m already on it. Miriam, and her pharmacist husband, Rory, are still in it, and I’ve met a whole new family in my mind that they get involved with, all of whom are, in some way, are dealing with changes that have been thrust on them, that lead to disaster (and hopefully to some equilibrium). Although I’ve written one hundred and seventy-five pages already, I still haven’t narrowed down the essential What if? But I’m getting closer. I’ve had to eliminate two characters from the book and already I’m mourning them. I tell myself they can always live again in another novel.
Who do you read and what is the last book you read that you loved?
I alternate between the classics and contemporary fiction. Anna Karenina, then Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. I read Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huck Finn to remind myself how a character from one novel can be the star of another and then Jo-Ann Mapson’s Bad Girl Creek series, to see how a writer keeps characters vital. Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray to Caroline Leavitt’s Pictures of You. I love to get out CD’S of Shakespearian plays and listen to them as I read the play. I also love Greek tragedies, Medea, my favorite, which probably doesn’t reflect will on me. (She murdered her children.) The last book I read is Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina because I found it abandoned in my incinerator room and took it in like a foundling. Also, reading so many ebooks, I starve for paperbacks.
What are you obsessed with?
In high school, history was a dry textbook or an Amsco Review book to me. But in college, when I began reading original sources instead of just memorizing dates and large troop movements, I was swept into the drama of how history affects individuals. I began to read The Great Gatsby, for example, as a product of the roaring twenties instead of merely a love-story gone wrong. I am obsessed with the effect of history on individuals, on one family, and its continued ripples through the generations. I’m obsessed with knowing that at any moment or lives can tragically change–I’m a big knock-on-wood advocate-—and also a believer in resilience, which my Bubbie embodied.
What didn’t I ask that I should have?
How I began writing? In the late 80’s, I was on a plane next to a New Jersey businessman. He asked me what I did for a living. I know if I said I was a phone psychic, I would be in trouble. If he wasn’t a believer, he’d roll his eyes and I’d see my IQ go down fifty points in his estimation. And if he was a believer, he’d want to have a reading and others on the plane would notice. Next thing, the pilot would want one and more than anything, I wanted the pilot to keep his mind on his job. “I’m a novelist,” I told the guy. To add veracity, I said, “I write a mix of family drama and fantasy.” When I came home—was it guilt?—I began to write—first poetry, then essays and short stories, and finally, a novel. When Kirkus called Kaylee’s Ghost “an intriguing mix of family drama and contemporary fantasy,” I LOL-ed. It was as if, with that fib, I had done my own psychic prediction.