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Interview: Phyllis Schieber, Author of The Manicurist

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Born in a Catholic hospital (a first of many great ironies), Phyllis Schieber’s parents were survivors of the Holocaust who settled in the South Bronx along with other new immigrants.  Ms. Schieber’s family moved to Washington Heights, an enclave for German Jews on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, also known as “Frankfurt-on-the-Hudson” in the mid-fifties.

After graduating high school at the age of 16, Phyllis Schieber went on to earn a B.A. in English from Herbert H. Lehman College, an M.A. in Literature from New York University, and later an M.S. as a Developmental Specialist from Yeshiva University.  

Ms. Schieber currently resides in Westchester County where she spends her days creating and weaving new stories as well as teaching writing. She is married and the mother of a grown son, an aspiring opera singer.

Phyllis Schieber’s The Manicurist was a finalist in the 2011 Inaugural Indie Publishing Contest sponsored by the San Francisco Writer’s Conference.

To learn more about Phyllis Schieber and her work, please be sure to visit her website.

Please tell us a bit about your book, The Manicurist, and what you hope readers take away from reading it.

Each of the characters in The Manicurist has to embrace a specific truth that ultimately leads her or him to see that their lives are consistently shaped by factors beyond control. Tessa, the protagonist, a manicurist with prescience, has to confront her past and the role she played in shaping how it evolved. All the characters, Ursula, Tessa’s mentally ill mother; Walter, Tessa’s straight-laced but loving husband; Regina, their rebellious and sensitive teenaged daughter, and Fran, the mysterious stranger who suddenly appears and is the catalyst for an outcome that no one, not even Tessa, could have divined. I want my readers to recognize that while the circumstances in The Manicurist may be unusual, the way the characters navigate each situation and interact is strikingly familiar. In the end, everyone wants the exact same things — to be loved and accepted.

Who are your favorite characters in the story?  

I feel close to all my characters; otherwise, I would be unable to live with them for as long as I do! I can’t really tell you about my favorite character because it would be a spoiler. With that said, I am very fond of Ursula, Tessa’s mother. Ursula’s struggles and her love for her family may evoke controversy, but she has conviction, and I admire that about her. I also feel close to Tessa. She is such a complicated young woman. She is so torn between her need for a “normal” life and her need to reconcile a most unusual gift and how that gift played a role in her past, her present, and her future.

Do you have a favorite line or excerpt from your book?

I love Tessa’s effort to explain to her husband, Walter, how her prescience works:

She had tried to explain to him many times. I own the memories of others, she told him. I experience small flashes of recognition that have no connection to my own life, yet feel as if they do. 

If your current release were to be turned into a movie, who would you love to see play what characters and why?

I’ve thought about this a lot, so I love the question!
Ursula: Diane Keaton
Fran: Meryl Streep
Tessa: Maggie Gylenhall
Walter: John Cusack
Rgeina: Amanda Seyfried
Philip: Rupert Grint

What are your favorite aspects of writing?

Well, John Updike once write an essay about writing in which he said he loves to write when “the words dance across the page.” It’s a perfect description of how I feel when my writing is going well. It’s as though I am simply a conduit for the words that literally seem to “dance across the page.” When that happens, I am in awe of myself!

Your least favorite aspects of writing?

Revision. Revision. Revision. I know it’s the most important aspect of writing, but it often feels as though I’ve pulled a thread that will just continue to unwind and leave me with nothing. Of course, that’s a highly dramatic interpretation, but it fits how I feel when I am revising and nothing looks right. Even worse is reading my work in print and wishing I had changed this or that. William Faulkner said he never read anything he wrote after it was in print because he was too tempted to take a red pen to it!

Who are some of your favorite authors/books?

Anne Tyler — Dinner at Homesick Restaurant, The Accidental Tourist, Breathing Lessons
Fay Weldon — Puffball, Praxis, The Fat Woman’s Joke
Carol Shields — Unless, The Republic of Love
Shirley Hazzard — The Transit of Venus
Dorothy Allison — Bastard Out of Carolina
Jane Smiley — Ordinary Love and Good Will
Rachel Ingalls — Mrs. Caliban

What are you reading right now?

A Visit From the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan… it’s wonderful.

If you could have a dinner party and invite five authors – dead or alive – who would they be and what would you serve them?

Anne Tyler, Fay Weldom, Dorothy Allison, Carol Shields, Jane Smiley
I would make my mother’s famous chicken soup. There’s nothing else like it in the world. Ambrosia. I would also make red lentil dal and brown rice with chickpeas—just in case anyone is a vegetarian. I make a pretty mean green salad with al balsamic vinaigrette. I’m not great at baking, but I could make a fresh fruit salad and buy a cheesecake from S and S — the best cheesecake I’ve ever eaten!

What is a book that you wish you could say that you had written and why?

Dinner at Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler is one of the most perfect books I’ve ever read. The story is brilliant for its simplicity and truth. Tyler understands and depicts human nature with such evocative compassion and beauty that you don’t even realize the import of her perceptions until you’ve turned the page and find you have to go back just one more time to absorb it. And her descriptions are so amazing. She knows exactly what to include. Her attention to just the right details make me long to emulate her.

What is the greatest piece of advice (for writing and/or just living) that you have heard?

Many years ago I read an article about longevity on the island of Okinawa, Japan. There were many factors that seemed to contribute to the islanders amazing longevity—diet, exercise, sense of community, the opportunity to work into their later years, and so on. However, an interview with one centenarian, who was asked about her secret to a long and healthy life, has stayed with me: “Welcome change.” I can’t imagine any better advice to live by.

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About April Pohren

  • Phyllis Schieber

    Good morning, April! Thanks so much for hosting me this morning. I’m looking forward spending the day with you and your readers! I hope everyone will take a minute and watch this wonderful trailer for THE MANICURIST.