It’s an iconic Walker Evans photo. The image, taken from behind, features a man and woman embracing at Coney Island. Its subjects had never been identified. That changed years ago when author Barbara Scheiber ’42 saw the photo and knew instantly who it was—her father and his former mistress.
This year, Scheiber published her first novel, We’ll Go to Coney Island, at the age of 92. Written over the course of 30 years, the story tells the tale of the courtship of Scheiber’s parents, followed by the dissolution of their marriage, and is inspired by the author’s childhood.
Scheiber’s book has attracted the attention of the media, in part, because of the famous photo that helped bring back memories allowing the author to finish her book.
Both the Washington Post and NPR have covered your book—not a common occurrence for a first-time author. What’s it like having national media outlets interested in your book?
I was overwhelmed by the attention; it was wonderful and unexpected. I’m not someone who’s well known and it was a first novel, but what I realized was that the picture was very exciting to people because it’s by a very famous photographer (Walker Evans) and the coincidence of that picture—which was never given a name and nobody knew who they were—being seen by me late in life, after I’d written a book about my father, was just very exciting to people. I think that’s what created so much attention.
People liked the book and it made me happy that people were reading my story.
Tell us about the day you first saw the Walker Evans photograph.
I was reading through a copy of the New York Review of Books and there was a rather small picture of the Walker Evans photograph in the middle of the page. It was just an incredible feeling. I looked at it, and looked at it again. I thought, “I can’t believe it! This is a picture of my father.” I felt as though somehow Evans had captured a sense of what I felt as a little girl. I had just finished writing most of the stories in the book, so it seemed an astonishing coincidence and also a confirmation of so many things I had written about. It was an extremely powerful moment for me.
The picture brought a great many things together. It certainly brought back my memory, my wishes of the time to keep my family together, and my fear that our father would leave us.
What were some of the good memories growing up?
It was always special being taken somewhere by my father. One of my good memories was of a little park we used to live across from. I grew up on 173rd Street in Manhattan and one of my favorite memories is just playing in that park and going sleigh riding in the winter, just endlessly down the hill. Playing in the street—hopscotch and learning how to roller skate around the block—are good memories. One of the things I always looked forward to doing was going on a sleigh ride across the Hudson River to the Jersey Shore. That was something we did sometimes with my father on a Sunday. That is a very happy, vivid memory.
You’ve had a career in writing, but didn’t write fiction until your retirement. How did the novel come about?
I had always wanted to write fiction. It was a dream of mine and I wrote a lot of stories growing up and through high school. It was something I thought I was going to do. In college, I didn’t write any stories, and instead, I worked on the college newspaper. After graduating, my career was in writing, but it was not writing fiction (Scheiber wrote nonfiction books on learning disabilities and Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder). I thought it would be wonderful to write fiction after I retired in the early 1980s.
I didn’t think then to write a novel. I was just happy writing fiction. The first few stories that came to me came out of my childhood, particularly the very first story. It was about a letter that I opened at camp and it had been misaddressed to me. When I opened it, with great shock, I saw that it was actually a love letter from my father’s mistress to him. I was very young and I kept it a secret and never told anybody. I always knew, although it was something I had suspected before, that my father was having an affair with his secretary. That had a big effect on my life, as did keeping the secret. That’s all how it came about.
What’s next? Anything else in the works?
I’m 92, so I’m not going to take on a novel. I have had a happy time working on poems. That’s been a pleasure. Also, I’ve done a number of short essays. I have to grasp times I can write and they are few and far between. Moments that I have to be creative and going inside for that kind of process and allowing yourself to just think and write is gratifying and very freeing, and so, I’m grateful for it.
—Interview by Debbie Swartz
—Photo courtesy of the Washington Post