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Shapiro, Rochelle: Author interview

Like her heroine, Miriam Kaminsky, Rochelle Shapiro is a suburban phone psychic. She is published in many anthologies as well as NYT (Lives) "The Medium has a Message" and NEWSWEEK, My Turn, "Psychic In Hiding." For a review of Shapiro's Miriam the Medium, click here.

Visit the author's web site at www.miriamthemedium.com or email her by hitting the "Contact Rochelle" teacup on her website.

1. There are a number of similarities between you and your narrator, Miriam. How closely do Miriam's experiences reflect your own? For example, has your family had difficulty accepting your occupation? Any problems with the neighbors?

Like myself, Miriam Kaminsky, the heroine of my novel, is a curly-haired, blue-eyed phone psychic who lives in Great Neck, Long Island, with her pharmacist husband. And like Miriam, I, too, inherited my gift from my Russian grandmother, my bubbe. But in the novel, Miriam's American-born mother, Dorothy, was hotly against her mother-in-law's powers--"Voodoo," she called them--while my mother, Beatrice, born upstate, was in awe of my grandmother's gift and loved her dearly.

My family had no problem about my gift. In fact, they were such hard-working people--both of them worked in my father's grocery store six days a week--that they barely paid attention to me at all, which was for the best. I learned how to use my solitude creatively and didn't have the pressure of their expectations.

It was when I had my own two children that difficulties began. My daughter didn't want her friends to think of me as "weird," so I pretended that I was a stay-at-home Mom. None of her friends suspected because their mothers were always on the phone, too. It bothered me. I felt that she was ashamed of me.

Then one of my son's friends found my business card in the house and brought it to school.

"Your mother is a witch," the kids taunted him, and I knew my daughter was right. I stayed in the closet about my work as much as possible.

When Miriam Kaminsky's Great Neck neighbors find out that a psychic living in their midst could cause their property values to go down. My neighbors are hoping Miriam the Medium becomes a movie so that everyone will know how beautiful their town is.

2. Can we assume that your psychic experiences are similar to those you describe in the book as happening to Miriam (for example, seeing symbols over people's heads)? And are these, if you will, "standard" psychic experiences?

There's a glut of novels written about psychics. What makes mine unique is that it's written by a psychic and shows the inner workings of a psychic's mind, how visions arise. I see symbols such as a gold ring broken in half for divorce and a broken washing machine for someone with kidney trouble, all standard images for psychics. And I have my own lexicon of symbols as well. An escalator with an arrow pointing up means the person is rising in his career. An escalator with an arrow pointing down means the client better get resumes out fast.

Sometimes, a scent gives me a cue. The other day, while I was contacting the spirit of someone's father, I smelled the strong odor of marijuana and told my client.

"My father used to be a pothead," she said. "He was the one who got me into it."

Other times, I get a feeling. A numbness in my leg tells me that my client has sciatica. A heaviness on my shoulders means that my client feels burdened.

Some psychics get mostly auditory or olfactory clues. I get mostly visual ones.

3. You describe Miriam's work habits in the book: she has a study in her house to which she retreats where she takes phone calls, books appointments for future readings and so on. Is this a reasonable description of your own working life as a psychic?

I used to live in a big old Tudor house like Miriam's with a back staircase up to an office that had once been a maid's room and bath for a family who could afford such a luxury. I had painted it white and hung crystals in the window like Miriam. Now I live in a co-op apartment and work in my married daughter's former bedroom that's still pink. Her big teddy bear sits in the corner and her Madame Alexander dolls stand on top of the bookshelf. It suits me because, in some ways, being a psychic is like getting back to the world of childhood when your senses are sharpest and you feel free to say anything that comes to mind.

4. What is your writing routine?

I book appointments with clients in the early morning and the evening because that's when most people are home from work. Starting at eleven o'clock, I write and usually don't stop until about three. Oh, if anyone were actually watching me, they'd see that I pop up and down from my seat, answer the phone, book appointments for psychic readings, write some more, get up, grab a snack, go back to work, pace the hallways, then write again. If my writing hours were filmed and screened "fast forward," you'd wonder how I get anything done at all.

5. What are the last three books you read, and what did you think of them?

Recently, I reread The Naked and The Dead by Mailer. I was awed by his mastery. WW II itself is a major character in this book and we intimately get to know a group of soldiers and are treated to separate chapters delving into the past of each one. It's surprising to find such ground-breaking originality that reads like a bestseller.

The next book I chose was because of a chance meeting. I was in an over-air-conditioned theater and next to a young woman who was shivering in a short-sleeve black t-shirt. Because my bubbe trained me well, I had an extra pair of black knee socks with me and offered them to her. The young woman put them on her hands and drew them up as if they were evening gloves, and looked quite chic. We got to talking and she told me she was a novelist. I told her I was one, too. We told each other the names of our novels.

"I know your book!" she said. "Amazon recommends it with mine."

She was Laurie Gwen Shapiro, author of The Matzo Ball Heiress. Her book was rich with wit, charm, and had more about the history of matzo than I ever dreamed there was.

The third book I read was written by my dear friend, Caroline Leavitt--Girl's In Trouble. I read the manuscript, the galley, and now her bound novel, but each time I get as caught up in the suspense as I had been on the first reading. There are no stereotypes here. The pregnant teenager who gives her baby up in an open adoption is an honor's student, the only child of upper middleclass parents who adore her. The adoptive parents aren't villains, but people who begin to feel overwhelmed by Sara's need for them as well as the baby they share.

Next, I'm rereading Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. I'm a Jane Austin and Bronte sisters' addict.

6. Are you working on a new project?

I'm working on a sequel to Miriam the Medium. I can't leave my characters.

 

Here's a book club guide for Miriam the Medium:

1. There are times that Miriam feels that her dead mother is speaking through Cara, who looks so much like Miriam's mother. Did you ever have the eerie sensation that someone who has passed over was communicating with you through someone else? Has this novel changed your ideas of the afterlife? What are your ideas? How does this book affect your belief or lack of belief in psychic phenomena?

2. Throughout "Miriam the Medium", different characters chafe against one another in either an effort to forge their own identity--or escape the one they feel saddled with. Miriam goes against her Bubbie's teachings. Cara goes against Miriam's lessons about her gift. What is the cost to each character? Have you ever had major consequences for going against your family's traditions and mores?

3. Miriam's psychic gift is the catalyst for much of the action. Why do you think Shapiro had Miriam be able to tell everyone's fortunes but her own and her own families?

4. Why do you think Shapiro set a novel about mediumship and identity in the wealthy modern-day suburb of Great Neck, New York? Does Miriam feel at home in her town? Why or why not? Does this change in the course of the novel? If so, how?

5. Shapiro weaves issues about Jewish identity--and attempts to suppress it--through the book. Rory is a child of Holocaust survivors; Miriam was the child of pogrom survivors. How do you think these events affected their attitudes towards life? What do you think Shapiro is trying to say about suppressing any kind of identity, be it religious or psychic?

6. Shapiro explores the different ways mothers--and motherly figures--relate to daughters, both with Bubbie and Miriam, Miriam and her mother, and Miriam and her own daughter Cara. By the end of the book, which mothers have connected with which daughters--and why? What do you think Shapiro is saying about this most primal human bond?

7. "Miriam The Medium" is really about trusting yourself--who you are, and who you are meant to be. How does that theme weave through Miriam's life? Cara's? How does "trusting oneself" get distorted in Rory's life?

 

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