Friday, March 13, 2009

Guest Post: Phyllis Scheiber (plus a chance for a giveaway!)

One of my favorite passages in Willing Spirits is about Libby and Agatha Reynolds, two sisters who owned an egg store in Cedar Creek, just outside Fayetteville, North Carolina where Gwen was born. The Egg sisters, as everyone in town calls them, are loosely based on the two sisters who owned an egg store in the neighborhood where I grew up in Washington Heights, an area at the very tip of Manhattan. I grew up in an era when there was a different store for nearly everything: an umbrella store, a button store, a pocketbook store, a stocking store, and even an egg store. I never knew the name of the two sisters who owned the egg store. In my mostly German Jewish neighborhood, the women in the egg store were always referred to as, das Ei Schwestern, or the Egg Sisters. The name suited them because they were, as I describe them in Willing Spirits, “…short and shaped exactly like the product they handled. . .” I can still see them. The neighborhood children always stopped in the store if there was a need to refill their water guns, or to have a scrape washed off and covered with a Band-Aid, and listen to a few words cautionary words from the sisters. Occasionally, we might secure a coveted empty egg box that could be used to store treasures: a piece of wampum found in Fort Tryon Park, a collection of shells, rocks, or even buttons. We were inventive children. The alleyways of our apartment buildings, the slopes and caves of Fort Tryon Park, and the streets were our backyards. And the Egg Sisters were a reliable presence.

What intrigues me most about the Egg Sisters now is how aware I was then that these women were unusual. I was intrigued by them. I found it soothing to be in their presence. I loved to be ministered to by them if I had a scraped knee. The warm soapy water they used to clean my superficial wounds was not nearly as comforting as the synchronization of their movements. I could not have been more than seven or eight, but I knew there was something I should mindful of when I was with them. I watched them, listened to their low voices, and allowed myself to be carried along. I wonder now if it was possible that I knew I would have use for these women later on. This brings me to my question: Exactly when does a writer begin to store the really important memories?

There are images I can recall so vividly that it almost takes my breath away. My hand in my father’s as I ask him about the Cuban Missile Crisis. I am licking a Carvel cone and walking with my father along Nagle Avenue. I ask my father (a man who escaped Germany just in time to avoid capture by the Nazis and fought in two different armies) if he thinks there will be another war. My hand is almost invisible in his. He smiles down at me and says, “Of course. There will always be wars.” I am devastated. I want him to lie, but I know I will always remember the moment, and I do.

I feel fairly certain that I began to hoard feelings and thoughts and sensations very early. I seemed to have some sense that it would all be useful later on. I never collected anything concrete, not comics, or Ginny dolls, or gum wrappers or even stuffed animals. I collected ideas. I used old marble notebooks and created stories, mostly silly tales to accompany pictures I cut out of Look, a magazine we proudly subscribed to and kept on the coffee table. I did not know how to write a book, but I knew I would.

This all brings to mind, the proverbial question a writer is inevitably asked: Is your work autobiographical? Well, in answer to that question, yes, of course. All the feelings are autobiographical. I know how it feels to be hurt, to be betrayed, to be loved, to be angry and to be happy. I know what great sex is like, and I know how bad sex can make you feel. I have experienced the best and the worst of marriage. I know what it is like to long for something you cannot have, to lose a beloved friend, to feel utter loneliness. I understand the intensity of a mother’s love for her child. I know how it hurts to lose a parent, two parents in fact. And I know the power of friendship between women. I love my friends. The women in my life sustain me. So, yes, of course every feeling is autobiographical, but every experience is not. The feelings give substance to the story, shape the way I want to organize and deliver my memories. The feelings, and each and every one of them is real, bring to mind the age old conundrum: What came first, the story or the das Ei Schwestern? It is a good question, indeed.

If you leave a comment you will be automatically entered to win a copy of Willing Spirits! (a giveaway coordinated by Phyllis Scheiber and not me!) If you leave a meaningful comment, Phyllis may choose your comment to win a copy of the book!


Melanie said...

I really enjoyed reading this. The Egg Sisters sound wonderful

Phyllis Schieber said...

Thanks, Melanie! I hope you will pick up a copy of WILLING SPIRITS and read more about the Egg Sisters and how my imagination reinvented them! Thanks for stopping by.

Janet said...

Interesting idea, that the feelings are autobiographical, even if the experiences aren't. But I'm not too sure how to take that, seeing I've got a sociopath in my novel, and we get right inside his head... ;o)

Wrighty said...

I love the story about the Egg Sisters! I live in a small town that I grew up in as did my parents and grandparents before them. Everyone is connected here and while we don't have much in this poor section of the state, we do have kind people. It's still a place where you can leave your keys in your car while it's parked in the driveway and you don't have to lock your doors at night. (I don't do these things, better safe than sorry) When someone is in need people will be there to help out, always. And we have our quirky characters and memorable personalities too just like the Egg Sisters. I feel very fortunate to be able to raise my children here. Our town has character and characters!

As for the memories, I think a creative mind always finds ways to remember more and use it more. Whether you're a writer, artist, actor, etc., you call on your experiences to create. I think children are more creative because they use their imagination more without the constricts we place on ourselves as adults. We often are too worried about conforming and can lose pieces of ourselves in the process. It's these pieces that we use to communicate our experiences - a writer in their story, an artist in their painting. We all are capable we just need to know how to free ourselves to do it.

Thanks for the guest post and the book sounds great!

Debs Desk said...

Please include me in your giveaway. This book sounds great.

Anonymous said...

OH The Egg Sisters sounds interesting.

Phyllis Schieber said...

Janet: lol. . . well, even sociopaths have feelings!
Weighty: I live 20 minutes from the upper West Side of Manhattan, and my community sounds exactly like the one your describe. I agree with you that we all benefit if we learn to free ourselves.
Debbie: I hope you will read WILLING SPIRITS no matter what!
Tracey: The Egg Sisters are interesting!

Literate Housewife said...

This is a really interesting guest post. Thanks for sharing it Phyllis and Amy! The Egg Sisters sound wonderful and I know that Phyllis really writes about engaging relationships.

I think it would be difficult not to find a little bit of yourself in what you write. Even in school papers, etc... you can't completely remove your own opinions. I like knowing that when I read fiction that some aspects of what a characters does or says has it's original spark in the author's reality.

Nicole said...

I would think that for just the reasons that you mention that it is difficult not to put some of yourself in your writing. I think that all of us are always re-writing our own stories in our head and can empathize with other people based on what we have experienced. The feeling are real even if the experiences aren't our, or if we make them up for a book.

Phyllis Schieber said...

Literatehousewife: I agree with you about the "author's reality," but we have to be mindful that everyone's reality is different! I translate all my feelings, memories and experiences into my fiction in one form or another.

Nicole: I always put myself into my writing. The feelings have to be real for the work to be relevant. Right?

Gwendolyn B. said...

I'm really wanting to read this book; thank you for the chance to win a copy!
geebee.reads AT gmail DOT com

Phyllis Schieber said...

Hi Gwendolyn! You have to read the book no matter what--you share a name with one of the protagonists! Good luck!

Anita Yancey said...

I loved the post, and reading about the Egg Sisters. The fact that this book is based on something from her real life experiences, makes me want to read the book even more. They always seem to make the best books.


Phyllis Schieber said...

Hi Anita,
I think everything I write is drawn in one way or another from real life, even if it is only the feelings that spark the story. I sort of tweak the reality as I did with the memorable Egg Sisters. I look forward to hearing your thoughts after you read the book. Thanks for stopping by.

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