Welcome back. I’m Terry Gross and you are listening to Fresh Air. If you’re just joining us, we have been talking with the remarkable Chava Shapiro. She was recently featured in a series of short stories published on an online journal website. She is here to talk with us about those stories, writing, and being a lesser-known female author working on the edges of the publishing industry.
For those of you unfamiliar with her most recent story, it is called The Good Life of Avrum and Chava.
Ms. Shapiro, let me ask you, in the story, the central character, Chava, is seen as sort of a ‘Good Wife.’ Why did you pick that kind of a character to write about and how close is it to your own life? And why do you call it the ‘good life?’
I don’t see the character of Chava quite the way you describe her. She seems dutiful, yes. But the way you say ‘good wife’ implies that she is not living her own life the way she wants to. Could it not be that it is she, and not her husband, who decides, and I hope I am not giving too much of the story away by saying this, what foods they should eat, how much exercise to get, what music they listen to, or how to live a cautious, ecologically responsible, abstemious life?
Why must we make the assumption that in a marriage between a man and a woman it is the man who makes those decisions? Why can’t they both make them?
And why is that that kind of life not a good life? I agree it seems eccentric but, at the same time, is a good life a life of eating Dorritos and ‘smores by the handful and drinking Net Zero, watching America’s Funniest Videos on TV while the kids are seeing if the cats can swim or their iPhones can float in the bathtub?
Chava, if I may ask, have you always wanted to write? How did you get your start?
Sure. So, I started writing sort of by accident. It was all because I got fired from my job at Baggolini’s.
Is Baggolini’s a publishing house?
No. This was when I was at Brooklyn College and I was pretty poor like most students were at the time, and they probably still are. So I was looking for anything that I could do that was legal and could bring in an income and not take up a whole lot of time, and so anyway, I got this job working part-time for Baggolini’s Vending Machine Supply Company, making calls trying to get people to pay their bills. It was called ‘dunning’ back then. Maybe it still is. So, I would call people from a list and say, “Hello, this is Mrs. Dunn, and I would like to speak with so-and-so…” and when they got on the phone I would read from the script about how we would break their legs or something if they didn’t pay, and so on.” I didn’t really say that exactly but the money was not bad but I had to make the calls from a pay phone since I shared a phone with my roommates and didn’t want them to know what I was doing and so I had to keep putting dimes in the phone and the people on the other end would say “what is that noise?” and freak out because they thought I was taping the calls. This was before they came up with saying, “This call is being recorded for quality assurance and training purposes” to keep people from hanging up, and then you had to write down that they were delinquent and then they’d get a call from a Mr. Endit who would threaten them with whatever they did. Anyway, so I…
That’s interesting. So you were writing while you were working at Baggolini’s?
Not really. I worked there six years. It was after that. After I got fired from Baggolini’s. I was writing term papers and short stories for undergrads to hand in to their professors in their English classes and I was selling them to students on campus who would give me the topic for the papers or the gist of the story they needed and I’d write it really quickly and get it back and then get paid by the page with a guarantee on the grade they wanted to get. I was making $8.99 a page for standard delivery and a guaranteed B, and $12.99 for rush or for a guaranteed A. I charged a separate fee if they needed an actual list of references or a bibliography for the research papers but mostly I just tacked on references I copied from papers in journals. They were totally impressed. So I saved a bunch of those stories, figuring, who knows?
You were a ghostwriter, and you saved what you were writing for other people? Is that what you’re saying? And The Good Life of Avrum and Chava is one of those stories? Were you surprised when it got published?
Absolutely, you could say that. Here I am a girl from Flatbush Avenue going to classes all day, grad school, working on chapter after chapter of my own research on the Uniformitarian interpretation of Proterozoic aerobic Pre-Cambrian plant fossils in Grand Canyon Hakatai shale strata samples. Not a lot of time for, you know, being super creative.
And I was having an affair with my thesis advisor at the time and you know he was putting the pressure on me to finish up because he was up for tenure and it would look bad if I didn’t graduate in time for his committee to vote on him even though all along he kept having me revise one chapter after another so he could keep sleeping with me when my roommates were in class or whatever. And so that was a lot of pressure on my mind. And so every once in a while I sent one of the stories out to see what would happen.
Chava, this is a striking example of what young women, well-educated resourceful young women, I should say, are faced with in what we know are the thoroughly male-dominated worlds of academia and publishing. But let me turn back to the story for a moment. In this story you deal with a kind of unexpected, spiritual twist, and without revealing the dénouement of the story, how did you come up with that ending?
Well, I’m glad you asked me about that. I was brought up in a kind of mixed family, what I think they call a blended family now. My mother was a devout Irish Catholic and my father was a North African Sephardi Jew. So you can imagine the religious stew I was in. I would ask, “Mama, is there a heaven?” “Of course!” she would say and then my father would say, like, “Well, not necessarily, the Old Testament has no explicit mention of it per se.” “But Marvin,” my mother would say, “what does that mean? You’re just confusing her, she is asking you a simple yes or no question…is there or isn’t there… can’t you ever get to the point?”
I certainly understand.
And so when my two characters get into that accident and they are both crushed, and seemingly at the instant of their death, sort of, I had to deal with, or they had to deal with, what you might call a first-order cognitive-existentialist conflict. And so, you know, in the end, each person gets to decide for themselves, “is it going to be the kale or the café con leche,” if you know what I mean.
This is Fresh Air with Terry Gross and we have been speaking with Chava Shapiro, author of The Good Life of Avrum and Chava, and we will be right back after these messages.