Rochelle Jewel Shapiro, author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and Kaylee’s Ghost (Amazon and Nook), and I Dare You to Write (Authorlink) is a psychic who has chronicled her psychic experiences in Newsweek (My Turn), and The New York Times (Lives) which can be read on her website at http://rochellejewelshapiro.com. Shapiro’s poetry has appeared in such publications as the Iowa Review, Moment, Harpur Palate, Inkwell Magazine, and the Los Angeles Review. Besides her psychic practice, she teaches writing at UCLA Extension.
1. You have successfully produced novels with major publishers “Miriam the Medium” (Simon & Schuster) and also independently “Kaylee’s Ghost” (Amazon and Nook.) For those authors looking for guidance and direction, could you briefly give the benefits/disadvantages you have found in each form of publishing.
Destiny placed my first novel, Miriam the Medium, with Simon & Schuster. In 1985, before I began writing, a famous psychic, Vincent Ragone, told me, “You will publish a novel about a psychic like yourself with Simon & Schuster.” It took eighteen years and a ton of “coincidences” for it to happen, but the day I signed the contract with Simon & Schuster, I had the unmistakable shiver of fate. With a big publishing house, you have to hand in at least a first draft of a new novel within a year. Although I’d been devoted to writing Miriam the Medium, it took me five years to write. I wanted my books to be “meant to be written” not “forced to be written.” It took me a few years to finish my second novel, Kaylee’s Ghost. Upon reading it, my eminent New York agent, Jack Skovil said, “This is a book everyone will want to read.” Then, before he got to send it out, he died. Another well-known agent was eager to read it, but she held onto it for nine months, which isn’t atypical. It can take as much as a year for an agent to sell a book and then the big publishers can take another year or more to get it on the shelves. I had just turned sixty-five. Girl, I asked myself, what are you waiting for? I got a top professional editor (with publishing houses closing, there’s so many available), a cover artist, a book designer, and published on Amazon and Nook. It was fun making all those choices on my own.
But I bless Simon & Schuster every day. When I published with them, I was reviewed by The Washington Post, Library Journal, and other major venues. Self-publish and you mostly get peer reviews, and even that is after a lot of outreach. Miriam the Medium was published in the Netherlands as Miriam Het Medium and in the U.K. Thanks to Simon & Schuster and destiny, I have a worldwide fan base and respect as a writer. Self-publish and you would have to pay a translator yourself. When I think of the army of folks at the large publishing houses who make deals with bookstores and Costco and online sources to sell your book and I compare that to techno-ditz me, I am awestruck that I dared do this. You really have to be a computer whiz and a marketing guru to do all that is required or have the money to hire someone who does.
My conclusion is, if you have a chance to publish with a large house, go for it. Or work your way toward it by posting chapters of your book on Wattpad and using social media to get readers to comment on it. Video yourself or some actor reading exciting scenes from your book and get it on YouTube and other video sites. Create ripples and wakes at least six months before your self-published book sets sail. Publishers are always peering in chat rooms, on twitter, and high-trafficked blogs. These days, before a major house takes you, you’ll be asked, “What is your platform?” which means how many twitter followers do you have? Facebook friends? Blog responses? What will your answer be?
2. Describe what a typical work day (writing) is for you. Do you employ any Rituals? Muses? Superstitions? Special coffee? A workout?
As soon as I open my eyes, I scrawl in my dream journal to catch wisps of night. Carl Jung knew that dreams contain precognitive material. Sometimes dreams provide insights into my life. It could be the smallest thing, such as having dreamed a friend was wearing an orange top, then emailing her later to ask, “What color top are you wearing today?” “Orange,” she says and your day is made. Or I get information about my clients or even lines for poems, or plots for stories. Then I do seven laps around my apartment, shower, get dressed, and meditate. Meditation calms the mind, helps you focus, and like dreams, can bring inspiration and answers. I begin writing in a notebook with a marbleized cover as I did in elementary school. I have a greater hand-mind connection if I write longhand and using the kind of notebook that I used to in childhood makes my senses as alive as they were back then. Once I get going that way, I switch to the computer. I write an hour or so before the phone rings with a client asking for a reading. Between doing phone readings, I check into the online course I teach at UCLA Extension, Emotions into Art, and go over my students’ work. Then I do errands, laundry, and all other life demands. Midnight, the witching hour when the world quiets and the phone doesn’t ring is when I really get going, sometimes writing until 2:00 a.m. or later.
You have to find what works for you. Pulitzer-prize winning, Robert Owen Butler, wrote his first novel on a yellow legal pad as he commuted to and from work. New York Times bestselling novelist, Caroline Leavitt, before she switched to full-time writer, wrote on her lunch hour at her job and on weekends. William Carlos Williams, a practicing physician, sometimes wrote lines of poetry on a prescription pad. If it’s meant to be, you’ll find your way.
3. Paranormal ability runs deep in the family of Miriam Kaminsky. As a real-life psychic, how much of your writing comes from your own life experience? Do you also have a history of cognitive ancestors?
Because both Miriam the Medium and Kaylee’s Ghost are written by a psychic, the reader can see how psychic visions arise in the mind. And since the grandmother mentors Miriam, besides diving into poignant and rollicking family dramas, the reader, too, learns to develop his own ESP.
I inherited my psychic gift from my Russian grandmother. When she lived in her small village in Berdichev, people came from all around for her predictions and her potions. She offered up their futures along with mustard plasters and senna tea. She could massage a baby’s head until it was well-formed instead of lopsided and repaired hernias by pushing them back in place and taping them down. By looking into a person’s eyes or the whorls on their fingertips, she could tell if they were pregnant, if their hearts were healthy, if they suffered from indigestion or even piles. She looked just like the Russian grandma in both of my books, but my own grandmother was quiet from being traumatized. In my novels, I imbued her with the feisty personality that she might have had if she hadn’t lost five children in a pogrom when Cossacks on horseback galloped into her village, swinging their sabers and if she hadn’t suffered starvation when she and her five remaining children had to hide in the woods and feed on berries while the Cossacks’ dogs barked and plumes of smoke rose from her burning village. I believe I see her right now, sitting at my kitchen table, drinking tea from a glass, a sugar cube held between her teeth, the steam from the cup rising, fogging her small silver-framed glasses.
4. What is the most personally satisfying thing you have ever written, and why?
I had a friend from El Salvador who could barely speak English and had gone through many hardships in her country. Although she is a decade younger than I am, her calmness and faith reminded me of my grandmother. We became close. I enjoyed practicing my Spanish with her. Then she had a baby boy who was so desperately ill that he wasn’t expected to survive. The ammonia was too high in his bloodstream. Because it was such a rare condition, the drug to control it cost $4,000 a month and wasn’t covered by Medicaid. He wasn’t expected to live to her first birthday. On her behalf, I wrote an impassioned letter to then President Clinton. It described my friend, the perils she went through in her country, the dream she had always had to come here. I described her son, his glossy black hair and shining dark eyes, his swollen face, the smile he managed to give people despite the pain he was in. Within a couple of months, my friend received a reply signed by President Clinton, granting Medicaid coverage for her son’s drug. Her son is nineteen now and whenever I even think of him, I remember the letter I wrote, and I understand the power of a writer, what a gift it truly can be.
5. Do you write from an outline or just jump-in typing and see what happens?
I get a scene in my mind that makes me the sizzle you get from sticking a fork into the hot coils of a plugged-in toaster, and I get that scene down as fast as I can. I am often not sure whether it’s the beginning, middle or end, and sometimes won’t know until I’ve written a few hundred pages. When I’m stuck during a scene, I turn off the lights, light a candle, and visualize my characters in a scene. I might ask one what he has to tell me. At those moments, writing feels like transcription.
I spend lots of time writing things that will never be in the book, but help me get to know the characters deeply. I might have one character write a letter to another or do scenes from a character’s childhood. This process makes my characters real to me so that they will be real to my readers. Indelible, I hope.
Once I know the characters, I spread out a long roll of freezer paper and write time lines for each of them so that I can see what one character was doing or where they were at the same time as another character. This leads me to all sorts of connections between them and plot ideas.
After I have a sense of who everyone is, what their conflicts are, which I write out, then I formulate the all-important (to me at least) what if question.
For Miriam the Medium it was What if a psychic who could help all her clients had a family who wouldn’t listen to any of her advice?
For Kaylee’s Ghost it was what if, against her daughter’s wishes, a psychic grandmother mentored her granddaughter to become psychic the way her own grandmother had done, and then the gift backfires, bringing terrible danger to those she loves?
That “what if” question will help you shape the material into the book you have always longed to write.
6. You obviously immerse yourself in the things that you love, and it shows in your work. What advice would you give to starting writers in this most competitive vocation?
I seem to need to have something real to hang my writer’s beanie on. Miriam Kaminsky lives in Great Neck, Long Island as I do. She has a pharmacist husband as I do. She has a Russian grandmother who is psychic as I did. (Or had depending on your sense of afterlife.) But then my imagination is free to leap. New characters come on the scene. Situations that never happened in my life happen. My heroine is so real that readers have begun to call me Miriam and I have stopped correcting them.
But please don’t think that this you must follow the old “write what you know.” Stephen Crane wrote the classic, The Open Boat, without ever going to sea and The Red Badge of Courage without ever having gone to war. No matter how meticulous your research, if the feelings aren’t right, the story will not be worth reading. When Author Maxine Hong asks her students what they feel about what they’ve read or written, she finds that they give analyses instead. She teaches them to work on feeling scene by scene so that the reader can have feelings inside himself. If you have felt intense sibling rivalry, you could write a book about alien brothers who go to war with each other and it will feel as if you came from another planet. If you have felt that a fling with a married man should have made him yours, you could write a credible Fatal Attraction without stalking or trying to murder the cad. Mine your feelings and you’ll come up with gold.
7. Did you know what questions I was going to ask before I did? If you say yes, I probably won’t get much sleep tonight! Thank you Rochelle.
A psychic doesn’t know everything, and psychics who believe they do or try to make others believe they do are in the “pride goeth before the fall on the rump” category. But reading Kaylee’s Ghost or Miriam the Medium, you can see what a challenge it is for a psychic to interpret correctly the images that she is given, which, in this humble psychic’s opinion, come from Universal Intelligence postulated by Carl Jung or sometimes by a person’s Aunt Nelly.