It is almost impossible to define exactly where the “inspiration” for a novel begins. I am almost always character driven rather than plot driven, so my inspiration invariably comes from a slow sort of courtship that I begin with a character I want to know better. Tessa, the protagonist in The Manicurist, evolved very slowly. I began to entertain the idea of a character with prescience because of my own fascination with intuition.
I have always believed that everyone is born with prescience; however, technology makes it unnecessary to rely on those instincts, so we lose them. We have no need to rely on our senses when everything is available to us. Why learn the times table when there are calculators? It’s the exact same with our senses.
I have had many experiences that reinforced my conviction that intuitiveness is something we should heed rather than dismiss. Tessa evolved from this attraction to prescience. I began to see her as a rather fragile young woman who was haunted not only by her gift, but also by a story. I knew the story had to be gripping in order to sustain the reader’s connection to her and to her struggle with her ability to see into people’s lives. I wanted Tessa to have a vocation that could serve as a cover for her gift, something ordinary, yet extraordinary because no one would suspect what she could do. The idea for a manicurist with prescience seemed perfect. I often wonder about how little we really know about the people we interact with on a regular basis. After all, how would we know if a manicurist could see our entire life while she files and buffs our nails? The concept became more and more intriguing. However, I needed a story to sustain this concept, and I knew it had to be a story that could hold its own against Tessa’s.
Ursula, Tessa’s mother, began to take shape as I considered a suitable foil for Tessa’s situation. In spite of Tessa’s gift, Ursula is far more compelling because she is so vulnerable, and yet so strong. As she took shape, her story unraveled for me. Ursula’s battle with mental illness was fodder for so many possibilities. Mental illness is still such a taboo subject in our society that I merely had to let Ursula tell it on her own. And it did. I wanted to deal with the taboos of mental illness in a society that is so fearful of what it does not understand—prescience, mental illness, and untraditional choices—topics that are at the core of this novel.
Ultimately, The Manicurist became a sort of convoluted tale of redemption, but in a most untraditional way, which is perhaps always the best way of all. Each of the characters in this novel changes in one or more significant ways. In fact, each of the characters ultimately embraces these changes, and that is liberating. I love that concept—the idea that change is good, that it is not something to fear.
There was no one specific inspiration for The Manicurist. There never is for me. I am attracted to the people I write about. Once they become firmly set in my consciousness, they tell me their stories. For me, the greatest challenge is to listen well.
The first great irony of Phyllis Schieber’s life was that she was born in a Catholic hospital. Her parents, survivors of the Holocaust, had settled in the South Bronx among other new immigrants. In the mid-fifties, her family moved to Washington Heights, an enclave for German Jews on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, known as “Frankfurt-on-the-Hudson.”
She graduated from high school at sixteen, earned 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.
She lives in Westchester County where she spends her days creating new stories and teaching writing. She is married and the mother of a grown son, an aspiring opera singer.
The Manicurist was a finalist in the 2011 Inaugural Indie Publishing Contest sponsored by the San Francisco Writer’s Conference.
Phyllis Schieber is the author of three other novels, The Sinner’s Guide to Confession, Willing Spirits, and Strictly Personal.
You can visit her website at www.phyllisschieberauthor.com.