Monday, March 16, 2009

Interview with Phyllis Schieber, Author of "Willing Spirits"

It's my pleasure today and for the next several days to talk with Phyllis Schieber. I'll be leaving this posting up for the next week or so. Please direct friends and colleagues to read this great interview with Phyllis Schieber, author of "Willing Spirits" (Penguin, 2009).

Without further adieu, welcome Phyllis Schieber...

SMW: What did you do before all of this, for a living?

Phyllis Schieber: I became a high school English teacher at twenty-one. I l already had completed my first graduate degree. I had a M.A. in Literature from New York University when I began to teach in the South Bronx at William Howard Taft High School. The English department had over sixty teachers. It was trial by fire, but I loved it. I was “excessed” a year later when New City cut thousands of teachers. I was devastated. I spent a year looking for another teaching job, but I couldn’t find anything. I sent out countless resumes. After a very frustrating year, I decided to return to school and get another graduate degree. There was a demand for teachers who could work with students with special needs.
I received a scholarship from Yeshiva University, Ferkauf Graduate School, and I became a full-time student again. I was only twenty-three, and I was married and unemployed. I spent a year and a summer in graduate school, and then I got a job at what was then The New York Institute for the Blind. It was in the era of deinstitutionalization, and I worked with children who had spent most of their lives in institutions. My charges were primarily rubella syndrome babies. They were deaf, blind and severely developmentally delayed. It was a challenge. The children lived at the Institute during the week and went home for the weekends. The days were very long, and I found that while I became attached to the students, I missed teaching English. A friend who was teaching at Norwalk High School in Norwalk, Connecticut told me they were looking for an English teacher. I sent in my resume, went through an intensive interview process and was hired. I gave my notice, and the following September I began to teach English again. I was in my element. I remained there until I became pregnant. Although I thought I would return six months after my son was born, I never went back to the high school classroom. I did a lot of freelance jobs while my son was a baby. I wrote pamphlets and edited and wrote curriculum. By the time he was in nursery school, I returned to work as a learning disabilities specialist, first at Seton Hall in Yonkers, NY, then at Iona College in New Rochelle, NY and finally at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, NY. I also taught Freshman Composition. Of course, through all of this, I was writing.

SMW: Wow, Phyllis. What an amazing background. When did you realize you wanted to write?

Phyllis Schieber: Always, always, always. My ninth grade English teacher wrote in my autograph book, “Keep writing.” I listened.

SMW: Did something in your life prompt your desire to write?

Phyllis Schieber: I don’t think any one thing prompted my desire to write. I was always a reader, so I admired writers. I loved the idea that it was possible to create a story and put it on paper for someone else to read. I wanted to be able to that, to share my visions. I talked a lot about being a writer. I talked about it for years. One day, a friend said, “When are you going to stop talking about writing and actually begin to write?” It sort of catapulted me into action. My father had recently died very unexpectedly. I was only twenty-six, and I was overwhelmed. I decided to take a class in fiction writing at The New School in Manhattan. I studied with Hayes Jacobs, a marvelous teacher who would become my mentor over the next twelve years. Studying with him was the beginning of my journey.

SMW: Give us the scoop - tell us what you did... before you were published.

Phyllis Schieber: I was a teacher and a mother. . . just like I am now! The difference is my son is grown, and I work privately with students.

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