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Rachel Shukert’s Anything But a Travel Agent’s Recommended Guide to a European Grand Tour

September 5, 2011 2 comments

Here is the latest story I’ve done on author Rachel Shukert, this one about her second book, Everything Is Going to Be Great, An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour. If you don’t know her work, make a point to discover it. If you do, well, then, I’m preaching to the choir.
Rachel Shukert

 

 

Rachel Shukert’s Anything But a Travel Agent‘s Recommended Guide to a European Grand Tour

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.coom)

 

Playwright, essayist, blogger and author Rachel Shukert (Have You No Shame?) mines “the ruins” of her life again in her new Harper Perennial memoir, Everything Is Going to Be Great. Its subtitle, An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour, gets to the heart of her expatriate experience.

In her early-20s the Omaha native did what many aspiring writers do: go off on a a finding-one’s-self spree. A theater gig landed her in Amsterdam, where the meta self-indulgence of her new book takes place. The surreal life that ensued provides the arc of her sardonic, self-deprecating narrative. This borderline debauched interval abroad served as her coming-of-age and rude awakening.

While her first book consisted of short stories, this one, she said by phone from her New York City home, is “more traditionally a memoir, but I think of it like a true novel.” She said even in the midst of this “fairly action-packed” interlude, it felt like “living in a novel.” The book’s characters are emblematic of that time.

The book charts her penchant for falling into weird, risky situations. She said, “I’ve always been sort of an adventurer. I’ve always gone looking for that stuff, but I also have always been a magnet for that kind of thing. When I was younger I hadn’t quite figured out where my boundaries were just yet. I think a lot of that has fallen away as I’ve gotten older and my life has gotten more settled.”

Getting away from it all was an act of emancipation from parental purse strings. Her new found independence allowed her to get lost in a way not so easy to do today.

“The particular couple of years when this story happened was kind of the very last gasp of that ability to not be connected to everyone you know all the time. It was before Facebook and Twitter. There wasn’t WiFi everywhere yet. No one had a Blackberry really. I didn’t have a cell phone. There wasn’t Internet banking. It would have been really different if this had happened just two or three years later.”

 

 

She also found herself as a writer there.

“There’s something about being removed from the mainstream culture that makes you retreat into yourself in a way that’s really productive,” she said. “You don’t get as distracted the way you do here, you just don’t have as many options for procrastination. And you also need to keep yourself company a little bit. Even if you know some people and have friends it’s still a bit of a lonely state of being, and writing alleviates that.

“For the first time I was really enjoying writing. I’d always written, I knew I was sort of good at it, but I didn’t like it and was really resistant to it. I discovered writing could be really satisfying and joyful. I think that’s the most important thing that happened there as far as me being able to eventually write books.”

It wasn’t until back stateside, regaling friends with stories of her mishaps, she said she realized she had material for a book. “Some of the deeper, more painful stuff I never really talked about until I wrote this book,” she said. “I feel like the reason is I needed enough distance to really excavate it.”

Shukert feels she took away as much as she gave up from her grand tour.

“I think it was an even trade. I left behind a lot of illusions which are both beautiful and harmful. I left behind a lot of self-destructive tendencies. I think I proved to myself I was maybe more self-sufficient and resilient than I thought. That I could get along in relatively difficult circumstances. I mean, I didn’t survive the Holocaust or anything, I just didn’t have a credit card.

“I feel like i did a lot of growing up while I was there.”

Through it all, her high-low humor resounds.

“For me when something is spinning out of control, and I think this is a very Jewish thing, if I make a joke of it it, it doesn’t seem so big and scary, and you can ultimately not be destroyed by it. A lot of my sense of humor and the humor of my work comes from that juxtaposition of using sort of very high prose to describe a situation that is really terrible or even vulgar.”

She just sold a three-book young adult series. She has a new play opening in New York and she’s working on an adult novel.

Visit her website at www.rachelshukert.com.

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Author Rachel Shukert, A Nice Jewish Girl Gone Wild and Other Regrettable Stories

September 5, 2011 3 comments

Author Rachel Shukert is every bit as entertaining to interview as her books are to read. For being quite youbg she has a remarkably developed sense of style and a satiric voice that is hers and hers alone. What follows are two short pieces I wrote about her and her first book, Have You No Shame? And Other Regrettable Stories, one for the Jewish Press and the other for The Reader. I look forward to chatting with her again and to reading more of her work. In a separate post, you’ll find a third story I did about Shukert, this one about her seconod book, Everything is Going to be Great, An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour.

 

 

Starstruck by Rachel Shukert (Image Credit: Rachel Shukert) / Tweet (Image Credit: Maureen Johnson's Twitter) / Rachel Shukert (Image Credit: www.rachelshukert.com)

 

Author Rachel Shukert, A Nice Jewish Girl Gone Wild and Other Regrettable Stories

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

Omaha native Rachel Shukert is coming home to face the music after the publication of her first book, the nonfiction Have You No Shame? And Other Regrettable Stories (Villard). In it, the New York-based writer applies her unsparing satire to growing up a rebel and Jew here.

She’s appearing at two local events to promote her book: Thursday, June 26 at 7:30 p.m. in the Kripke Jewish Federation Library at the Jewish Community Center; and Saturday, June 28 at 1 p.m. at The Bookworm in Countryside Village.

For a long time she was hell-bent on being a sassy stage/screen actress for the X-Y-Z Generation. In New York she grew disillusioned by the business of acting. She turned inward, where she’s most comfortable anyway, and funneled her imagination into writing. The words poured out. Fast forward a few years later and the late-twentysomething is now enjoying her new status as a produced playwright, published journalist and acclaimed author.

Shukert, who enjoyed writing English themes at Central High and sporadic diary entries at home, thought like a writer before becoming one.

“I certainly always made up stories in my head. I would sit in my room for hours and talk to myself and they were very much like constructed stories with these perfect sentences…but I just never really wrote them down.”

Despite a love of words, she said, “I actually did not begin to write seriously until college.” Writing reinvigorated her artistically and healed her emotionally.

“I had a pretty bad eating disorder for a time while I was in college,” said Shukert, whose book humorously recounts such struggles. “And it was at that time when I retreated into this shell — my own world. It was really kind of writing that brought me back to life from being sick because I suddenly felt I have this thing to say. It’s not dependent on all these things in the way acting is — like how you look. Then I wrote my first play when I was about 19 or 20, which was performed, and everyone was like, ‘We had no idea you did this.’”

After graduating New York University with a theater degree her writing superseded her fledgling thespian career.

“My writing seemed to have momentum,” she said. “…people were really responding and suddenly I felt like I had this path to follow. I kept writing plays and plays turned into stories. It all sort of snowballed.”

On the heels of getting her plays staged and essays published in NerveHeebMcSweeney’s and Salon, her agent struck a deal for the book. Its irreverent stories focus her withering wit on everyone and everything, especially herself.

“I think you can’t really try to skewer other people unless you’re willing to turn the same eye to yourself, otherwise you’re just a bully. Right?”

The stories express the dissatisfaction she felt growing up a brilliant, defiant free spirit. “When I was younger I was extremely rebellious,” she said, “and really pretty unhappy. I mean, that was very much just me. I don’t think it had anything to do with my surroundings. But I certainly felt limited and under a microscope.”

She refers to Omaha as “the little shetel on the prairie.”

“I have kind of a contrary nature. It’s like whatever’s popular, whoever’s in charge, I always want to do the other things. It’s almost compulsive, like even when there’s no reason to be at odds with something I have a certain sort of combativeness.

“I think that’s mellowed a bit as I’ve gotten older but I always do kind of find myself, no matter what situation I’m in, feeling like I’m the kid in the back of the room making wisecracks about how ridiculous it all is.”

Shukert’s now outlining her next book and working on a new play. She’s also co-starring with friend, actress and comedian Julie Klausner in a serial soap parody they wrote, WASP Cove, that finds them playing Dynasty’s Linda Evans’ and Joan Collins’ characters, respectively.

 

 

 

 

 

Rachel Shukert Gets Personal with Her Satiric First Book

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

For a long time playwright/author Rachel Shukert saw herself not as a young literary lioness but as a sassy stage/screen actress for the X-Y-Z Generation. Picture a Jewish Marisa Tomei. Then reality hit. In New York the Omaha native grew disillusioned by the business of acting — making the rounds, et cetera.

Unable to find monologue material to suit her satiric bordering-on-absurdist tastes and suffering from anorexia, she turned inward, where she’s most comfortable anyway, and funneled her imagination into writing. The words poured out. Fast forward a few years later and the late-twentysomething is now enjoying her new status as a produced playwright, published journalist and acclaimed author.

Her first book, the nonfiction Have You No Shame? And Other Regrettable Stories (Villard), is lauded for its collection of unsparing satire. Shukert will schlep through town for two book events: Thursday, June 26 at 7:30 p.m. in the Kripke Jewish Federation Library at the JCC; and Saturday, June 28 at 1 p.m. at The Bookworm in Countryside Village.

Reinventing herself as a writer both liberated and tested her.

“I was having a hard time as an actor in New York,” she said by phone from the L.A. Book Fair. “I’m not particularly castable and I also really dislike the process and the dues you have to pay as an actor. All of the things actors have to do to get started I found completely anathema to my way of being. I’m a total narcissist but I’m not a narcissist in the right way.

“I have a really hard time sending photographs of myself to people and constantly being up and being really hungry for roles I have absolutely no interest in. I hate going to the gym. I hate doing hair and teeth and skin. The actual day-to-day grind of being a professional actor did not sit very well with me.”

Shukert, who enjoyed writing English themes at Central High and sporadic diary entries at home, thought like a writer before becoming one.

“I certainly always made up stories in my head. I would sit in my room for hours and talk to myself and they were very much like constructed stories with these perfect sentences that I would repeat over and over again but I just never really wrote them down.”

She’s always been an attentive reader. She counts Phillip Roth, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jonathan Franzen, David Sedaris, Truman Capote, Kingsely Amos and F. Scott Fitzgerald among her favorite authors.

“I’ve always been very turned on by very elegant writing — people who are really wonderful stylists.”

Despite a love of words, she said, “I actually did not begin to write seriously until college.” Writing reinvigorated her artistically and healed her emotionally.

“I had a pretty bad eating disorder for a time while I was in college,” said Shukert, whose book humorously recounts such struggles. “And it was at that time when I retreated into this shell — my own world. When you’re imprisoned by your anorexia there’s not a lot else you can do. You don’t want to go out and eat or drink with people. So to keep my self company almost through this I started to write a lot.

“It was really kind of writing that brought me back to life from being sick because I suddenly felt I have this thing to say. It’s not dependent on all these things in the way acting is — like how you look. Then I wrote my first play when I was about 19 or 20, which was performed, and everyone was like, ‘We had no idea you did this.’”

After graduating New York University with a theater degree her writing eventually superseded her fledgling thespian career.

“My writing seemed to have momentum,” she said. “I was moving forward at a rate I never had for the two years I was trying to be an actor. I felt like I was getting all this traction, things were moving really fast and people were really responding. And suddenly I felt like I had this path to follow.”

One thing led to another. “I kept writing plays and plays turned into stories. It all sort of snowballed,” she said. “

Her theater influences include Tennessee Williams, Tom Stoppard, Charles Ludlam, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady.

With her plays getting staged and assignments flowing in from online magazines Nerve, Heeb, McSweeney’s and, more recently, Salon and Jewcy, she said she decided, “Well, maybe this is what I should be doing instead of struggling at this thing I don’t really like and that doesn’t really do it for me creatively. But I definitely had like a mourning period for my acting, just because it had been like who I thought I was going to be for so much of my life – from the time I was 7 or 8. But now I really haven’t looked back.”

The transition’s not all roses.

“I’m not a writer that finds writing particularly easy. It can be pretty torturous, like extracting teeth or driving needles into my hand. So I have to give myself a lot of time. I’ve never been able to just knock it out.”

The book produced a breakthrough.

“This is a project where I think I really figured out a lot about my writing style and rhythms because I never had…such a protracted process before. What’s been kind of a nice surprise is that writing is a lot easier than it was at the beginning. I’m a pretty good editor of my own work. I have a pretty sharp eye. I’m pretty down with cutting things and getting rid of things that don’t work.

“I write every day. I’m pretty disciplined about that and I won’t stop until I have something. When I was writing the book I really tried to do about a thousand words a day. I’m pretty good about punishing myself. If I slacked off and didn’t write a thousand words then I wrote two thousand words the next day.

“I remember there’s one section I wrote after I woke up in the middle of the night. I wrote 15 pages in like four hours and that’s one of the sections of the books that’s the most unedited and unchanged.”

That section, about the bacchanal of a Jewish youth convention she attended, elicited negative feedback when a shorter, harsher version of it appeared online.

“That was one of the very first pieces I wrote as a freelance assignment,” she said. “I think I was still like trying to make a splash. I mean, I still think it’s a good piece and I totally stand by it but I’m glad I got to do it over again and give it a little bit more perspective and space. The chapter in its extended form is a lot gentler…”

The book’s irreverent stories focus her withering wit on everyone and everything, especially herself.

“I think you can’t really try to skewer other people unless you’re willing to turn the same eye to yourself, otherwise you’re just a bully. Right? While obviously that kind of satire is part of my work and it’s sort of the way I see the world and the way I write, it’s very important to me to not be unnecessarily cruel or hurtful…And I find turning that critical gaze on myself sort of tempers that.”

Her book’s partly an expression of the dissatisfaction she felt growing up as a brilliant, defiant free spirit.

“When I was younger I was extremely rebellious,” she said, “and really pretty unhappy. I mean, that was very much just me. I don’t think it had anything to do with my surroundings. But I certainly felt limited and under a microscope.”

She refers to Omaha as “the little shetel on the prairie.”

“I have kind of a contrary nature. It’s like whatever’s popular, whoever’s in charge, I always want to do the other things. It’s almost compulsive, like even when there’s no reason to be at odds with something I have a certain sort of combativeness.

“I think that’s mellowed a bit as I’ve gotten older but I always do kind of find myself, no matter what situation I’m in, feeling like I’m the kid in the back of the room making wisecracks about how ridiculous it all is.”

A maddening thing about the Midwest she still can’t shake is how one’s Jewishness is made an issue here by gentiles. “Like they need to point it out. It’s very weird.” It’s one reason why she prefers New York. She and her husband Ben, an advertising creative director, reside in Manhattan on the Upper East Side.

All of the pieces in the book long simmered in her.

“I think I’ve sort of been writing them in my head for most of my life. I mean, it’s funny how a lot of my close friends have been reading this book and they’re like, ‘I know about this. This is the way you always told this story.’”

Her stories invariably throw in stark relief our shared human frailties. Life’s comedy and tragedy exposed side by side.

“That’s kind of my thing. I try to combine the two,” she said. “I want them to be hilariously funny and you only realize how serious they are afterward.”

The title chapter ends the book on a warm, funny, sad, graceful note describing the final days of her beloved grandmother. Shukert’s love for family shines through.

An autobiographical work is a rite-of-passage for first-time authors. “It’s almost like you have to get it out of your system before you can do something else,” she said. “Like you have to tell your own story before you can tell other people’s.”

Today, she’s busy writing essays and cultural criticism for online mags and, increasingly, for print publications. “I really like journalism,” she said. “It’s a chance to exercise your craft without having to like think it all up yourself, which can be intimidating. It’s nice to have that jumping off point, even if it’s something editorial like a movie review or a blog post. At least you have that information to analyze. I really like analyzing everything.”

Her penchant for picking things apart may be a function of being the daughter of a psychologist mother and urban planner father. Shukert’s now outlining her next book and working on a new play. She’s also co-starring with friend, actress and comedian Julie Klausner in a serial soap parody they wrote, WASP Cove, that finds them playing Dynasty’s Linda Evans’ and Joan Collins’ characters, respectively.

 

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