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Thursday, March 3, 2005

The Casual Critic — Interview with . . . Rachel Simon, author of Riding the Bus with My Sister.

Royal Steele Books recently had the chance to conduct our first "E-mail Interview" with Rachel Simon, author of Riding the Bus with My Sister. It's a format we hope to use regularly, allowing authors the convenience of e-mail and the chance to respond by doing what they do best—write! (Hopefully, we'll find other authors as agreeable as Simon!) We hope you find it an interesting way to hear from authors.

The author of four books, Simon is best known for her most recent book, the acclaimed memoir Riding the Bus.

Royal Steele Books: You mention that the germ of the book was an article you wrote for The Philadelphia Inquirer at the suggestion of your editor. Not
having read the article, I think it's safe to assume the book was more personal. Being that Riding the Bus was so personal, was there any trepidation for
you in it?

Rachel Simon: The original article actually opens Riding the Bus, though in a revised form. It just seemed to be a clean, efficient way to introduce the reader to the material and the whole story. The version in the paper was shorter and a little less personal, and it also had an ending with more closure (a bad idea for a piece that opens a book, but a good idea for a newspaper piece).

I didn't feel any hesitation about writing something so personal, either for the paper or the book, though perhaps I should have. I think initially, before I'd written a single word, I expected to present a picture of how I was supposed to feel, rather than how I really DO feel, and thus I was reassured that readers would be able to handle whatever I wrote. After all, if you're upholding the cliche of the saintly family member, then all's well, right? Of course, as soon as I started writing, things got a lot more complicated. I pressed on, but I doubted myself and the book many times during the 3-1/2 years it took to write the whole thing. Once, after a fight with Beth, I even considered returning it to the publisher.
Fortunately, a friend intervened and said, "So you feel conflict with your sister. Don't you think that will make for a better story anyway? And one that people will relate to a lot more?" So I kept going. But it was a hard moment.

RSBooks: What sort of reactions have you received from readers, family, colleagues, etc.?

Simon: Almost universal praise from readers. It's been amazing. When I wrote the book, I thought about readers of literary memoirs. I didn't think about so many of the people who came to feel that the book spoke directly to their most important concerns. These include other siblings of people with special needs, disability advocates, professionals in the field, bus drivers and their bosses, people of a more spiritual nature, and even very young people. I never thought I was writing something that would appeal to teenagers, but I often get letters from folks who are just entering adolescence. I treasure every letter, and continue to be moved every time.

Colleagues? I've kept a very low profile about the success of Bus at Bryn Mawr College, where I teach. Still, people often bring it up, and the Admissions Department has given it as an award to academically gifted high school juniors. Incredibly, the airing of the Hallmark Hall of Fame adaptation of the book will occur on May 1, which is the date of the most delightful Bryn Mawr tradition, May Day.

As for family, each person has had a slightly different reaction. Beth, not surprisingly, was thrilled, to the point where she set up a book signing for us in the drivers' room of the bus company. Other family members have been very supportive, each in his or her own way.

RSBooks: Having my own experiences with family and disability, it was actually very emotional reading about some of your fears as Beth's sibling. Was there any sort of reaction from Beth in this regard? What about other people with disabilities who may face similar experiences?

Simon: Beth has said only positive things about the book. I think she just feels really honored to have been the subject of the book— and she's also relieved, as am I, that we've worked our relationship out. I did ask her in advance if it was okay if I included certain sections, such as the one about her emerging sexuality, so I think she was prepared in some ways. She hasn't indicated any particular reaction to the sections about my own difficult feelings, so I'm not sure how they struck her. My guess is that if anything surprised her, she discussed it with Jessie and the drivers, and worked it out on her own. Or else she skipped those parts. I don't know, and if she wants to discuss it, she'll let me know.

RSBooks: If at all, how was your writing process for this book different from writing your other works?

Simon: I was working several jobs at the same time, so it was harder to work in the hours. This is part of why I had to write short chapters. I also used a lot of tape recordings, so that was different, since before this I mostly wrote fiction. And I did some supplemental interviews, which, again, I hadn't done in fiction.

Another difference, actually, was that I'd already written another memoir, which I'd never published. It focused on the terrible stuff with my mother, and I spent eight years writing and rewriting it, only to discover that I simply couldn't make it work. So when I hit those chapters in Bus, my writing process was greatly simplified. I don't mean that I did a cut-and-paste job, because I very much did not. But I'd already worked through the emotions behind everything, and had a sense of how to present my mother sympathetically (even though in the failed book I had not figured that out). In addition, I was easily able to zero in on the exact images and moments I needed, and discard all the rest, since I knew the futility of holding onto it all. For instance, the chapter where we move out of my mother's house is now about 2 pages long. In the original memoir, it was 45 pages—and that particular image, of Max and me moving my trunk down the stairs, didn't even appear.

RSBooks: As you mention, the drivers that become a large part of Beth's social life seem almost too good to be true. How do you explain the relationships they developed with your sister?

Simon: Well, believe me, it's true. In fact, just today I went to the hospital to visit one of these drivers with whom I'm now close. He's sick, and Beth is worried, and since he's in a hospital closer to me than to her, I went to see him. Anyway, how do I explain this? For starters, I think bus drivers are as often misunderstood and underestimated as people with disabilities. The cliche is either that they're gruff guys with no interest in people at all, or that they're indistinct, robotic non-entities who do nothing but DRIVE. But in fact the majority of bus drivers, I've found, are very interesting, thoughtful, colorful character who take great pride in having people-oriented personalities. As one driver said to me, "If you don't care about people, and want to give them their dignity, you might as well drive a truck." Many of them see driving bus (as they put it) to be a very important thing to do, and they take it seriously. I realize not all drivers are like this, but I've traveled the country for a few years now, speaking to bus drivers (among others), and I've been deeply impressed by the people I've met. Many are also quite spiritual people, and that seems to be connected to their interest in giving to others. So Beth didn't find people who don't exist. She just found people already there. Many bus riders have found the same. And if they haven't, the bosses at the bus company need to rethink who they hire and how they set their rules. A good manager will hire people FOR their people skills. As one manager said to me, "I don't hire my drivers. I adopt them."

RSBooks: Do you consider yourself an advocate for people with disabilities?

Simon: I aspire to be one. As a sibling, I can't say I've had the full experience of being a person with a disability. But I certainly know a ton more than the average person who's allowed himself to remain unaware and isolated. My goal is to keep learning as much as I can about the lives and dreams of people with disabilities, and then to use everything I've got to help make society get out of the dark ages. It grieves me terribly that anyone is ever discriminated against, but people with disabilities have been treated so horribly by society throughout human history that most people would be shocked and appalled if they really knew the truth. I also believe that, with the proper education, they can change their attitudes toward people with disabilities, and we might finally get rid of the highly oppressive mindsets of paternalism, pity, and better-dead-than-disabled. In other words, that we might finally get out of the dark ages. I'm so glad we finally have the [Americans with Disabilities Act], and will do everything I can to keep it intact.

I also aspire to be an advocate for public transportation, which, after all, is crucial for creating an independent life. This is true for us all, but even more so for individuals like Beth, who can't drive.

RSBooks:The movie version of Riding the Bus starring Rosie O'Donnell is set to air on CBS May 1, 2005. If you've seen it, are you pleased with the final cut?

Simon: I have yet to see it, so I can't say. But I'm sure I'll enjoy watching it, if I can get over the weirdness of seeing famous people looking like us. Fortunately, the Rachel character is quite different from me, and in some ways the Beth character is, too, so that might help me see it without things getting too surreal.

RSBooks: I just have to ask . . . do you ever ride the buses (since your year was up) with Beth?

Simon: On occasion, actually. Usually this amounts to her urgent need to have me meet new drivers, and to do so in the optimum setting. But I'll ride only an hour or two at a time. Interestingly, some of my family members have ridden now, too.

RSBooks: Finally, what can readers look forward to from Rachel Simon in the near future?

Simon: I'm working away! Not sure what will emerge, or even if it will be fiction or nonfiction, but I'll let you know when it does.

RSBooks: THANK YOU so much for being Royal Steele's first author interview.

Simon: My pleasure.

(See the review! of Simon's book. And, check out the film . . .

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