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Seeing The Whole Picture In We'll Go To 'Coney Island'


There's a new book of exquisite short stories that form a novel that's been written by promising new fiction talent. "We'll Go To Coney Island" tells the story of Mina and Aaron who meet and marry, Rachel and Daniel whom they bring into the world - all of them struggling to breathe fresh air and find their place in the tenements of New York's lower East side - where a trip to Coney Island is a kind of a pot of gold at the end of the subway line. The author is Barbara Scheiber. She's worked as a radio producer for NBC and United Press Radio. She joins us in our studios. Barbara Scheiber is 92-years-old. Thanks so much for being with us.

BARBARA SCHEIBER: Oh, thank you so much, Scott. It's wonderful to be here.

SIMON: In many ways, I gather, this book begins with a photograph of a couple with - at Coney Island with their arms around each other. It's on the cover of the book.

SCHEIBER: Yeah. Yeah.

SIMON: Where'd you see the photo, and what went off in your mind?

SCHEIBER: Well, that is really an astonishing story. The picture is taken by Walker Evans, who is a famous photographer. And when it was taken, I was just six-years-old. But by the time I saw it, I was in my late 80s. And when I saw the picture, I was just astonished, really.

SIMON: A loving couple, their arms around each other, overlooking the water.

SCHEIBER: Yes. Well, it looks like a very romantic couple, but it's much, much more than just romance.

SIMON: We may have buried the lead. It's your father in the picture.

SCHEIBER: It is. That's my father. And the woman with him was his secretary at the time and his mistress. When I grew up, I was aware. And that was one of the really haunting awareness's of my childhood because I visited my father's office so many times. And I just picked that up, but I had never seen them together, so that the picture was almost a shock because there they were as lovers.

SIMON: To see that photograph in your 80s, I guess it didn't tell you anything you didn't know. But did it make you feel like a little girl who was hurt all over again?

SCHEIBER: I think that I did feel that shock of hurt. It wasn't new. But I had actually never seen or experienced that closeness. What I did throughout my life was reject the idea of their closeness. I wanted to eradicate it and pretend that it really hadn't happened. And the other thing about the picture - it was about Coney Island. I'd never been to Coney Island, but Coney Island is an underlying theme of the book.

It has a sense of dreams and aspiration and excitement - and the other side of it - it was dangerous. You could get really hurt. I don't even think many children went there because the rides were really scary. And I think that combination of a dream of a glorious life and fun and, yet, underneath it, a kind of a shadow of danger - it just symbolized so much of my father's life.

SIMON: Your father, a little like Coney Island, was a charmer, who could be - help me finish the sentence - dangerous to those who loved him?

SCHEIBER: Well, dangerous is a word that sounds physical and of course I don't mean that. He came from a very, very impoverished background. He grew up on the lower East side of New York, had no schooling, taught himself law by himself. He was really an extraordinary man, intellectually. And in terms of his personal charm, in a sense you might say seductive, but I don't know that he went out of his way to be seductive.

He just had a very charming personality and was wonderful to talk with. And he was just very lovable. But the dangerous side, if that's the word we are looking for, was that he couldn't be loyal. I'm not sure that he went to seeking love from many women, although he was certainly susceptible to it. But actually people were so drawn to him, and he didn't resist. It became a pattern. And when I say danger is that you have the danger of being rejected.

SIMON: Rachel, the little girl, narrative center for much of the book, she goes away to summer camp, and she reads a letter that her father apparently stuffs into the wrong envelope. And she's confused. And it makes her sick.

SCHEIBER: Yeah. That was based on a true story. Not all the stories in the book are true, but most of them have a kernel of truth. That was a story that actually motivated me to start writing stories. And then the stories grew into a book. I was about 10 years old. I was away at camp. And at mail time, I got a letter, written in handwriting that I thought I might have seen, but it did not fully recognize it. And when I opened it up, that was a love letter from my father's mistress, who later became his second wife.

And it was mailed to me by mistake. It was put in the wrong envelope. I read it with an incredible shock - not that it wasn't something I didn't know, but I didn't want to know. And I didn't want to know the details. It was all covered over for me. I tore it up, and I flushed it down the toilet, and I never, never talked to anybody about it.

SIMON: Is there a section of your book you would like to read?

SCHEIBER: This is the prologue. And the prologue is called "Couple At Coney Island," which is the title of the picture on the cover. (Reading) A breeze, hot and salty, brushes against her skirt, like a hand, the silk touches the back of her legs. She leans closer to Aaron. They are here, in public. Here in the gleaming white of this picture book place, with its smells of ocean and mustard, chewing gum and damp wood. She was in Aaron's office when he said, I'll pick you up Sunday, and we'll go to Coney Island. How about it? She wasn't sure at first if he meant this Sunday or some other Sunday or that he'd show up when he said he would.

SIMON: That's wonderful.

SCHEIBER: Thank you.

SIMON: How did you begin to write these stories? In the acknowledgements you mentioned a writing class, and it wasn't clear to me if that was 60 years ago or six months ago.

SCHEIBER: Well, I was retirement age. So I guess I was maybe 70. So that's when I began. It's a nice feeling to know you can begin at an age when you're ending.

SIMON: Barbara Scheiber, she is the author of "We'll Go To Coney Island." Thanks so much for joining us.

SCHEIBER: Thank you Scott. This has been wonderful.

SIMON: I look forward to your next book.

SCHEIBER: Oh, thanks a lot, very encouraging.

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.