Rochelle Jewel Shapiro isn't just an acclaimed author--she's also one of my oldest, dearest, warmest and funniest friends. The author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and the Indie Finalist Kaylee’s Ghost (Amazon and Nook), she is now publishing with SheBooks, which puts out ebooks which can be bought through the company, through your favorite indie store, and wherever books are sold. What I Wish You’d Told Me is a collection of three stories of women of all ages grappling with the whacky and the tragic in their lives. Secrets, set in the sixties, is about a teenage girl whose illusions about her best friend’s family are blasted along with her faith in Kennedy’s Camelot. A Sympathetic Listener is about a twenty-four-year-old woman with cancer who, on her healing odyssey, finds connection and support from a most surprising source. In Great Aunt Mariah and the Gigolo, a seventy-something widow rocks the family when she brings home her young beau. All the stories are hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking, and absolutely wonderful.
Rochelle's first novel, Miriam the Medium, was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award. Her novel Kaylee’s Ghost is an Indie Finalist. She’s published essays in the New York Times (Lives) and 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, the Los Angeles Review, the MacGuffin, 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. I'm thrilled to have Rochelle here. thank you, thank you, Rochelle!
In the three stories in What I Wish You’d Told Me, the characters are so real, so alive, that I can’t resist asking if they are based on people you know?
Bitsy pieces of people I’ve known or situations I’ve lived through or read about often braid their way into my fiction. For example, my big sister had a friend who looked like the angel on top of the Xmas tree with her spun gold hair, porcelain skin, and sky blue eyes. I used the girl’s physical self for Arianna in Secrets, but everything that happened to her and her best friend, Leah, took place in my imagination. My parents sometimes make appearances as they actually were, or some variation of their issues, such as a marriage of two people from different cultures. I guess I’m still trying to work out our relationship. On good writing days, I feel as if the characters actually speak to me, presenting themselves in mind-scenes and I’m just taking dictation. But I think themes are what catapult my characters—betrayal, disillusionment, desire for connection, losing and finding oneself. Once I know the themes, my characters’ motivations and destines, they breathe on the page.
The stories have a strong sense of place. What made you choose these settings?
Two of the stories in What I Wish You’d Told Me take place in the Rockways in Queens, New York. Like the child protagonist, Denise, in Great Aunt Mariah and the Gigolo, I was born in Rockaway Beach just up the block from the ocean in a gabled and domed summer mansion that had been carved into apartments once the rich and famous moved east. The air tasted like salt and rusted the finish off cars. I always heard the cry of gulls and the waves crashing against the jetties, lulling me like modern white noise machines. When we moved to Far Rockaway where Secrets is set, we were closet to the El where the A train rumbled by, but still within walking distance from the beach. Summer nights, we went to the boardwalk, my mother’s high heels getting stuck between the wooden planks, the crescent reflections of the moon rocking on the dark water. I could have never imagined myself living more than a few blocks from the sea as I do now.
But there were short-comings to living where everyone wanted to summer. Remote relatives of my mother would surprise us from England, and stay at least a month in our two-bedroom apartment that was already brimming with three little girls. I had to give up my bed and sleep in the hallway on two pushed-together chairs fitted out with pillows for a mattress. While second cousins sang Cockney ditties in our bathtub, my sisters and I had to take a bucket out to our second story porch to do our business.
For me, setting stories in Rockaway Beach and Far Rockaway is elegiac. That summer mansion where I first lived, the one with cement lions guarding the front door, and a frieze of panthers bordering the lobby walls, was razed by the wrecking ball of urban renewal just as so many blocks of bungalows were, and remained that way for years. Looking down from the El of the A train, it seemed as if a terrible war had been fought there, one that we lost.
And we had. Through red-lining, unscrupulous real estate agents who brokered fear of “the others” moving in, and the government corralling the poor into large housing projects that became permanent pockets of poverty and crime, my beloved neighborhoods became places where everyone who could afford to moved away left, and in a hurry.
But now, like the Phoenix rising from the ashes, young artists, surfers, entrepreneurs, have rediscovered its rare beauty, restoring Victorian houses, teaching yoga and surfing on the beach, giving art classes, growing corn in abandoned lots, and opening food concessions that draw long lines. A ferry now runs from the city to Rockaway. Rockaway, my Rockaway, our Rockaway, is coming back.
History, particularly the assassination of President Kennedy, plays a major role in Secrets, your first story. Are you a history buff?
History, for me, had been an Amsco Review Book. Anyone remember them? Terse summaries of major battles and political shifts, followed by questions that you could be sure would be on your next test, and even on the Regents Exams. Even though I had huddled under my desk in elementary school, my hands over my head to protect me in case an A-bomb fell, I didn’t understand it was part of an era that would become history. The closest I came to getting the impact of history on our personal lives was knowing my father’s horror in Russia, the pogrom he survived, how he escaped his burning village with the Cossacks’ dogs in pursuit, and his journey to America in steerage. But it wasn’t until my sixteenth birthday when President Kennedy was assassinated that I understood I was living through history. And then I began to read historical fiction, first person accounts of wars, the experiences of refugees, a wide range of newspapers, and I try to soak up pop culture. History gives resonance to my life and my fiction.
Great Aunt Mariah and the Gigolo is about a seventy-something widow marrying a forty-something year-old guy. No spoilers, but do you think, in life, that a marriage like that can work, given the age gap?
I did know a married couple where the man was forty-something and the woman seventy-something. She never wore makeup, dyed her hair, or tried to look younger in any way. They were both artists, he a collagist, she a photographer who published coffee table books. There was such tenderness between them.
“I’ve been to China twice,” Nelson once told me, “but never with Doris, so I want to go back to see it with her.”
And once they told me about how they phoned the pioneering artist, Alice Neel, may she rest in peace, got famous people to come to her studio to pose for her, and managed to talk them out of their clothing. Her painting of Warhol shirtless, the scar from his gallbladder surgery snaking down his midsection, is iconic. But she never got former Mayor of New York, Ed Koch, to disrobe. In fact, he kept his jacket and tie on, and his legs tightly crossed.
“Ms. Neel,” Nelson said, with Doris egging him on, “we’d like to come to your studio to pose for you. We’ll take off all our clothes.”
“No, thank you,” Alice Neel said.
“But my husband is thirty-five years younger than me,” Doris piped in. “Imagine what a nude portrait we’d make? And we’ll pose in any position you’d like.”
Alice Neel broke into hysterical laughter, but declined their offer. I bet if she weren’t already so elderly and crippled with arthritis, she would have done it, and Nelson and Doris would be hanging at the MOMA.
The last party I went to where I was expecting to see them, Nelson was there alone. “Doris isn’t feeling well,” he said sadly, “but she insisted that I come.” He left after twenty minutes. I haven’t kept in touch. I hope that Doris is all right. But I know she and Nelson will be together until death do them part. And isn’t that the best kind of love at any age?
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I have four young grandchildren now and five great nieces and a great nephew, and I would like to publish something that they all can read. But even in my comic stories, all my characters have problems that parents wouldn’t want their little kids knowing about, and most of my characters have sex. I mean, nobody asks Mrs. Cottontail how she got all her bunnies, do they? And as for a character overcoming life’s problems, not many of us have to worry about ending up in Farmer McGregor’s stew pot. Sure, the Grimm Brothers knew how to be grim, but today, kids’ mothers only read bowdlerized versions of the fairy tales to them. What if modern kids found out that Cinderella’s wicked stepmother handed her eldest daughter a knife and told her to cut her big toe off so her foot would fit the glass slipper? Once you become queen, you won’t have to walk anymore,” her mother advised. And when that daughter’s fraud was found out, and the prince rejected her, the stepmother turned to her younger daughter, again proffering a knife, and told her to cut off her heels.
Even Mother Goose has been plucked clean. Most nursery rhyme books change the words so that the woman who lives in a shoe doesn’t slap her children soundly. In most new version of Rockabye Baby, the cradle doesn’t even fall.
Oh, well, maybe something PG-rated will come to me. Any suggestions?
What questions didn’t I ask that you wish I had?
When will the film based on your last novel, Kaylee’s Ghost, be coming out? J