I call her Monday afternoon, August 21, 2006.
Luke: "Is M.J. your real name?"
M.J.: "My real name (Melisse [pronounced Muh-LEESE] Shapiro) is hard for people to believe is my real name and they all misspell it and they don't know how to say it. I got tired of explaining my name and got tired of people sending me emails, 'Isn't that cute? You misspelled your own name.' Since nobody could get it right, I thought I'd take a name that was easier to remember.'"
Luke: "I read one of your [essays] where you were concerned about the repercussions to your family for your writing about sex."
M.J.: "Two different things happened at the same time. I was publishing the novel Lip Service and putting a big excerpt on the internet. I was wanting to change my name and this was the thing that decided it. My phone number at the time was listed. I didn't want to unlist my number but I didn't want my phone number to be available when I was writing a novel about phone sex.
"The crazy thing is that all publishers put my real name in the copyright [notice up front] and the whole thing didn't matter anyway.
"M. is for Melisse. J. is for my mom Jacqueline Rose. She always believed I would get published.
"I had a good friend who was a therapist who said that if I did change my name, I should pick something that I could really believe was my name.
"My stuff is slightly erotic but not in a way that freaks people out and not in a way that's disturbing to people. It's more abouts sensuality than about sex.
"I have a book coming out in 2007 that has nothing to do with sex.
"I'm told I write about sex and sensuality better than other people and it tends to be the thing people talk about with my writing."
Luke: "I notice you writing more about food (Sheet Music, In Fidelity) than about sex."
M.J.: "There's a psychological angle to food, that feeding someone is like sex. It's nourishment."
Luke: "When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"
M.J.: "A writer and a painter. I went to art school from age eight on. I never took a writing class. [She got a B.A. from Syracuse in Fine Arts.] Then I went into advertising and then I took some writing classes. I wasn't very good at painting.
"In the mid eighties, I tried seriously to write screenplays."
Luke: "What crowd did you hang out with in highschool?"
M.J.: "I went to Lenox School in Manhattan [Rose went there for 12 years]. There were 19 kids in my class. I was in the popular crowd.
"My father is in the toy business."
M.J. estimates that her readers are about 70/30 female.
Luke: "Literary vs. genre. Does that distinction mean anything to you?"
M.J.: "Yeah, it's torture. I didn't get published in the beginning because of it. I was too literary to be considered commercial and too commercial to be considered literary. They didn't know what to call me. They decided I was a marketing nightmare. I was too erotic for commercial but not erotic enough to be erotic. I was too mysterious to be literary but not mysterious enough to be mystery.
"I hate labels. I just like good books.
"I come from a marketing background. Before the eighties, this didn't exist. There were good books, trashy books and mysteries. People didn't make this distinction, back when they were publishing 4,000 novels a year. Now they're publishing over 10,000 novels a year. It becomes necessary to have classifications.
"There were always graduate programs in creative writing, but few of them. Then there was this explosion of over 100. When this happened, you got overwhelmed with the snob vs. non-snob factor of literature. If you got an M.F.A., you were literary. If you didn't get an M.F.A., You were commercial.
"The graduate school issue has exacerbated the situation as have the marketing departments of the publishing houses.
"The majority of readers say they have no idea what I'm talking about when I ask them if they're reading literary fiction or commercial fiction.
"Now that I'm writing more thrillers, the thriller world says that I'm one of two literary thriller writers (along with Barry Eisler) while the literary world says I'm still a commercial writer. I say I'm a writer. I won't play the game. It's awful.
"Literary fiction is supposed to be character driven and commercial fiction is plot-driven. Every book I've loved in my life has had a strong plot and strong characters. That's what I taught myself to write. Character is action.
"I like to explore themes. In Flesh Tones, the theme is the power of love. Would you be willing to help someone die? Sheet Music is about the incessant necessity of our culture to take our heroes and strip them down and find every salacious detail about them."
Luke: "Why do you start most of your novels with a highbrow quotation?"
M.J.: "I think of them as landmarks for the readers, to give them a sense of the world they are about to enter."
Luke: "What's the story of you and God?"
M.J.: "I don't have much of a story. God makes more sense to me as a concept if you make it goodness. It's inside of everybody. I was raised Jewish but we weren't a religious family. I haven't gotten involved in religion. I do care about spirituality."
Luke: "Religion [rarely] demarcates your characters."
M.J.: "No. Occasionally. In Flesh Tones, her obsession with Catholicism..."
Luke: "How did you get drawn to psychological thrillers?"
M.J.: "When I was in advertising, I became interested in psychology and I thought about leaving advertising to become a therapist. I started training with a woman in New York after I had started writing novels. After eight months she said to me, 'You're the best diagnostician I've met. But you have such a need to control people and to tell them what to do, you should stay as a novelist because you'll drive any patient crazy.
"Flesh Tones was my first book. Then I wrote Lip Service about a therapist and I fell in love with writing about therapists. I've written five books about therapists. William Faulkner said that the only story worth telling is that of the human heart in conflict."
Luke: "Are most of your friends Jewish?"
M.J.: "I have no idea. No. Not at all. My husband's not Jewish."
"My job has changed [to writing full-time] but I haven't changed. I've become slightly less social. I haven't had a period of my life when I was unhappy except for when someone I loved died or was sick...or the last two years of my marriage (1994-95)."
"I am full-time novelist but I also run a marketing company for authors (authorbuzz.com)."
Luke: "Are most of your friends writers?"
Luke: "When was the last time you felt jealousy of another writer's writing?"
M.J.: "Right now. I'm reading Jane Eyre. In the past couple of months, a bunch of books have come out that publishers are comparing to Jane Eyre. After reading two of them, I decided to reread Jane Eyre."