Simon, Rachel 1959-
SIMON, Rachel 1959-
PERSONAL: Born 1959, in Newark, NJ. Education: Bryn Mawr College, B.S. (anthropology), 1981.
CAREER: Barnes & Noble, Princeton, NJ, event coordinator; Bryn Mawr College, lecturer in creative writing, c. 1995—. Also teaches private creative writing classes. Has worked as a paralegal, administrative assistant, and research supervisor.
Little Nightmares, Little Dreams, Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence (Boston, MA), 1990.
The Magic Touch, Viking (New York, NY), 1994.
The Writer's Survival Guide, Story Press (Cincinnati, OH), 1997.
Riding the Bus with My Sister: A True Life Journey, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2002.
Has written commentary for Philadelphia Inquirer.
ADAPTATIONS: The short story "Little Nightmares, Little Dreams" was recorded for the National Public Radio program Selected Shorts, Volume X and adapted as an episode of the Lifetime Channel's cable television program The Hidden Room.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A companion work to The Writer's Survival Guide; a second novel.
SIDELIGHTS: Rachel Simon has been passionate about writing since her childhood, when she wrote plays, short stories, and novels. She grew up with three siblings, including her developmentally disabled sister Beth, about whom she later wrote the book Riding the Bus with My Sister: A True Life Journey. At about age sixteen Simon began attending the Solebury boarding school in New Hope, Pennsylvania, which she credits as her first real education. She went on to study anthropology at Bryn Mawr College, giving up writing in her spare time. At age twenty-six Simon entered graduate school to study creative writing; she has since published the short-story collection Little Nightmares, Little Dreams, the novel The Magic Touch, and a book about the psychological and emotional components of writing titled The Writer's Survival Guide. Her fiction has been described as inventive and outrageous, and critics have been commended her bold new voice. Simon also received strong reviews for the 2002 book about her sister, which has been optioned for film by Rosie O'Donnell. In addition to writing, Simon coordinates literary events for Barnes & Noble, writes for the Philadelphia Enquirer, and teaches creative writing at Bryn Mawr.
The short story collection Little Nightmares, Little Dreams is comprised of sixteen blackly humorous tales. Popular culture, quirky characters, surrealism, sexual situations, and a female view of relationships are key elements in the stories. The book's title is taken from a story about an elderly couple who want to dream the same dreams while preparing for the husband's imminent death. "The Greatest Discovery of Them All" is about a drug-dealing mother who is watched from heaven by her daughter, after one kills the other in a drug-related incident. "Grandma Death" is about an elderly woman's oddly frequent experiences witnessing deaths and finding bodies.
Critical response to Simon's stories was often enthusiastic. In a review for School Library Journal, Judy Sokoll was impressed by Simon's "well-crafted writing style." A Publishers Weekly critic asserted that the author has "an original and provocative style" and remarked that the stories are "as much about the startling interior life of the mind as they are about the superficiality of order and reason." Mary Banas wrote in Booklist that the stories create "a brilliant tapestry" and called Simon "an expert at weaving popular culture into short, personal narratives studded with analogy and laced with meaning."
When Simon penned The Magic Touch she continued in the same vein as her short stories, veiling serious questions with dark humor. The book's heroine is Celeste Kipplebaum Runtoon Kelly, who is born to a mother who had been dead for two days and then demonstrates incredible healing powers by bringing her mother back to life. Kelly goes on to fight illness, emotional wounds, and even evil as a sexual healer. Her influence is so great that she finally has an encounter with the Devil himself. Other figures in the book are the Gacy Guru—a reference to serial killer John Wayne Gacy—and a Dan Quayle-like character named Jefferson Stinkweed. The world in which these characters operate is similarly fanciful: Celeste drives a talking car and voices emanate from her genitals. All are described in unconventional, sometimes cute language.
Simon's bold approach was noted by reviewers. A Publishers Weekly critic warned that the book's setting was somewhat implausible, but gave Simon high marks for "unpredictability, inventiveness and a slam-bang finish." Library Journal's Lawrence Rungren was put off by "word play that is as often annoying as inventive." A writer for Kirkus Reviews described the book as "abubble with wildly imaginative, sometimes gratingly cute language" and advised that "despite its heavy themes … the novel never gets any more than ankle-deep." Valerie Sayers commented in the New York Times Book Review that parts of the book resemble the writing of Kurt Vonnegut, while others remind her of works by Richard Brautigan. Although Sayers decided that "the touchy-feely narrative undercuts it own attempts to write a new resurrection myth," she considered the novel to be "an auspicious debut."
Simon's mentally disabled sister Beth spends six days a week riding city buses. The habit has frustrated Simon and her family—who have long asserted that Beth should find a job—but it helps Beth counteract the loneliness of living by herself. The writer joined her sister one day, looking for material for her newspaper column. However, the experience would have much longer-reaching consequences than she expected. Simon began riding with Beth regularly and, over the course of a year, made a series of life-changing discoveries. Not only did Simon reestablish ties with her sister, she learned about how people with disabilities are treated, and began looking at her own life differently. Beth taught her how to slow down, which allowed Simon to cut back on an enormous workload and revive old friendships. Simon proceeded to write about her time spent with Beth in Riding the Bus with My Sister. Television talk-show host Rosie O'Donnell championed the book, and optioned it for film.
Other recommendations for Riding the Bus with My Sister include a review by Booklist's June Pulliam, who called it "absorbing and honest." A Publishers Weekly critic said that in her "perceptive, uplifting chronicle," Simon is "honest about the frustrations" she felt while riding with Beth. The writer concluded, "Rachel comes to a new appreciation of … [Beth], and it is a pleasure for readers to share in that discovery."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, September 15, 1990, Mary Banas, review of Little Nightmares, Little Dreams, p. 141; August, 2002, June Pulliam, review of Riding the Bus with My Sister.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 1994, review of The Magic Touch, p. 243.
Library Journal April 1, 1994, Lawrence Rungren, review of The Magic Touch, p. 134.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 28, 1990, Amy Hempel, review of Little Nightmares, Little Dreams, pp. 3-11.
New York Times Book Review, May 15, 1994, Valerie Sayers, "Kit Loves Caboodle," p. 28.
Publishers Weekly, July 13, 1990, review of Little Nightmares, Little Dreams, p. 41; April. 4, 1994, review of The Magic Touch, p. 58; June 17, 2002, review of Riding the Bus with My Sister, p. 54.
School Library Journal, March, 1991, Judy Sokoll, review of Little Nightmares, Little Dreams, p. 228.