(As Michael Perkins and I walked and wrote Walking Woodstock, we found uncanny parallels in our lives. Surely the saddest was the deaths, weeks apart, of his sister, Linda Gabriel, and my former wife, Emma Segal, both of whom we dedicated the book to. But Walking Woodstock isn’t the only book dedicated in part to Emma. Susan Shapiro shared the story behind her novel Overexposed at Emma’s memorial and shares it again here. Now, I’m convinced that everyone knows Sue Shapiro, for she’s one of the most social, most energetic, and fast-paced writers whom I met during my Hoboken/Manhattan years. (Compared to her I’m a Type D personality, the upstate hermit.) But if you don’t know Sue, she’s a teacher, magazine writer, and author with a growing list of fiction and non-fiction books. I loved Overexposed. It’s a story for all of us who finished college and fled to Manhattan to make our way in the arts—and to meet the love of our lives. After sixteen years I turned my back on all that to move into a Catskills log cabin. Not Sue. She stayed and succeeded. At the launch party for Overexposed, I ran into her husband, whom I hadn’t seen since my city days. “Oh yeah,” he said, slowly remembering whom I was. “You’re the guy who left to live up with the wolves.” I had to chuckle. And I had to chuckle all the way through Overexposed. It was a treat to be reminded of those years when I lived in the city, knew Sue, and loved Emma.)
By Susan Shapiro
I was thirty-five years old, broke and going through a bad breakup with my boyfriend, Charlie, when Emma Segal offered to take me out to lunch uptown to pitch her story ideas. Although I was friendly with Emma through her husband Will, this was a very big deal for me at the time since she was a senior editor at New Woman magazine, who paid writers two dollars a word. (I was used to getting $100 for newspaper book reviews.)
Although I rehearsed some very professional sounding feature ideas, by the time Emma and I had a few glasses of wine and fancy salad, I’d started crying and blurting out the whole dumb story of Charlie not being able to make a commitment after three years. What was making it worse was that my kid brother, Brian, had come to New York to celebrate becoming a doctor. While he was here for a week, he met my New York girlfriend Monica, fell madly in love with her in one night and had just proposed after knowing her for only three months!
So while I was trying to get over yet another embarrassing heartbreak, Monica -a WASP who’d grown up in Greenwich Village as the daughter of a famous fiction writer – was moving to Michigan, planning a fast wedding and, it felt like, taking over my crazy Jewish family of physicians. I was confused and jealous. Emma was so sweet and sympathetic that like an amateur idiot I babbled on and on, assuming she was only being nice because she felt sorry for me and I’d totally blown any chance of working for this glossy woman’s magazine.
“How did you feel about your best friend dating your brother?” Emma asked, pretending to be interested in my personal soap opera.
“It freaked me out!” I admitted. “Especially when she started telling me how hot he was. And I was the one who accidentally fixed them up.”
“How did you do that?” she asked.
After ten more questions, I realized Emma wasn’t faking interest, she was fascinated by this story and wanted to know all the angles.
“So her father was a Manhattan writer who used to live in your neighborhood?” she asked.
“Right. I always used to ask Monica what it was like to be the daughter of a famous writer from Greenwich Village. Then she’d always ask me what it was like growing up a doctor’s daughter in a normal family in Michigan. I used to wonder why the hell would anyone want to know that? Now I know! It’s like we’re switching lives!”
“Okay, I’m giving you the assignment,” Emma told me.
“I want you write that!” Emma said. “Can you get me a thousand words for two thousand dollars by next month?”
“I can get it to you in a hour,” I said, already writing the story in my head.
Emma laughed and along with paying the check, she also mentioned a really nice shrink she wanted me to meet.
“I already have a shrink,” I told her.
“No, I mean to date,” she said and gave her friend Josh my phone number.
Well, Josh was absolutely adorable, divorced, and dying to get married again. We went out for two months and had so much fun that I almost forgot about Charlie the commitment-phobe, who freaked out that I was moving on and wound up proposing. Then my New Woman article “When Monica (My Best Friend) Met Brian (My Kid Brother) – A Triangle of Sorts” came out, a film producer loved the idea of “two women who switched lives” and thought it might make a movie. I wound up getting a big agent who negotiated $2000 more to option the article. The agent said “Boy, if you could write a whole book about this, I bet you could make a million dollars.”
I stopped freelancing and wrote 300 pages of a novel. Instead of two writers who switched lives, I made the women two photographers and called it Overexposed. By the time I was finished, Monica had several kids so the story became funnier. Meanwhile for the next 6 years, every editor in the country liked the book but didn’t buy it. When I asked an older colleague why it wasn’t selling, she read it and said, “You have no imagination whatsoever, stop writing fiction. Two sister-in-laws is boring. Write about sex. And you’re ambivalent about this women. You write better about people you love.” She advised me to put it away. I ended up having more luck with books of nonfiction (about sex and people I loved.)
But I never gave up on Overexposed and finally, in 2008, my agent sold another novel I’d written and called to say “I hope you don’t mind, it’s a two book deal. Don’t you have another book of fiction you want to rewrite quickly?” I did! I quickly rewrote Overexposed, which came out (for way less than seven figures) in the summer of 2009, 13 years after Emma published the original article in New Woman magazine. It was so old that instead of a book launch, I gave it a Book Mitzvah.
She and Will came to my wedding but sadly, their marriage didn’t last. She came to speak to my journalism classes and I tried to fix her up and get her work, the way she’d helped me. Alas, by the time Overexposed finally saw print, New Woman magazine was defunct and Emma had passed away. I dedicated the book to Emma’s memory. And now that my brother and Monica have four kids just like my parents, I recently published a much-updated version of the story in Marie Claire, remembering that lovely lunch fifteen years ago when Emma generously took care of me and changed my life.