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This article was prepared by Jamie Saxon for the April 27, 2005

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

My Life – on the Silver Screen

To have your novel published is a feat in itself. To have it made into

a movie is to have your cup runneth over. Rachel Simon’s cup now

rivals Niagara Falls. Simon, who was in charge of community relations

at Barnes & Noble at Marketfair from 1995 to 1998, wrote "Riding the

Bus with My Sister," an autobiographical novel about her

developmentally challenged sister, Beth, which was published by Plume

in September, 2002. The plot revolves around Beth’s move to a group

home, where she decides she wants to learn to be more independent and

rides the bus in her mid-sized northeastern city nine hours a day, six

days a week.

Even before the book came out, friends were bugging Simon about who

she would cast as Beth if the book were made into a movie. In an

interview posted on her website, wwwrachelsimon.com, Simon says: "I

had no answer for them at all, until one day, six months before the

book came out, I was driving to work and an idea zinged into my head:

‘If there is a movie, Rosie O’Donnell should play Beth.’ Immediately I

knew Rosie would be perfect. Of course I had no connection to Rosie

O’Donnell, so the idea was amusing, and that was about it. Five days

later, I got a message on my phone at home: `Hi, Rachel Simon. This is

Rosie O’Donnell. I read your book, I love your book. I want to make a

movie of your book and play your sister. Call me.’ You can imagine

that I burst into tears, and felt overwhelmed by astonishment and

thoughts of something far greater than a book. I was later to learn

that a few months earlier, my agent, Anne Edelstein, sent the editors

of Rosie’s magazine, Rosie, my book in manuscript form, to consider

for excerpt purposes. Unbeknownst to me, (the editors) passed the book

along to her, and that’s how she saw it. I met Rosie the day after

that call, made sure Beth was okay with everything, and things started

to move forward." She later found out that O’Donnell had devoured the

book in one sitting.

"Riding the Bus with My Sister" airs as a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie

on CBS on Sunday, May 1.

As if having your novel published and then made into a movie starring

Rosie O’Donnell weren’t enough, here’s the icing on the cake: Andie

MacDowell plays Rachel and the film is directed by Angelica Huston.

Simon, who teaches creative writing at Bryn Mawr College and has lived

in Wilmington, Delaware, since 2000 (she lived in East Windsor from

1995 to 1999), says that her visit to the movie set, in Hamilton,

Ontario, was unforgettable. "It was so emotionally overwhelming to

watch other people reenacting my memories that I actually kept

breaking down and crying during the filming of the scenes.

Fortunately, the crew was so busy with their own tasks that no one

noticed. I suppose there’s some irony in this: I was crying away all

on my own, in the midst of a crowd of 100 that was filming my life for

millions." Simon appears in a crowd scene at an art gallery at the end

of the film. "I’m wearing an orange-red blazer and am seen only for a

split second, in profile. So be alert!"

She says she was impressed with how Rosie portrayed her sister, Beth.

"I just kept thinking, ‘Gosh, Rosie is unbelievable. She’s this

complete force of nature who really gets it, who has become my

sister.’ I was filled with awe and respect." In a press statement,

O’Donnell says she was drawn to the book because of the relationship

of the sisters. "I was very moved. I liked the way the sisters

balanced each other, and ultimately helped each other. I thought it

was a very touching and beautiful story. Angelica said she wanted the

film to be really gritty, very realistic. I remember her saying, ‘I

want you to be able to feel and touch and smell the people on the bus

when you’re watching this movie.’ She wasn’t interested in a sanitized

version, and I was thrilled with that. Then she said, ‘I’m thinking no

makeup for you.’"

O’Donnell, who never met the real Beth but watched a videotape of her,

also used a friendship she has with a mentally challenged woman in New

York as inspiration for the character. She says it wasn’t difficult to

grasp the notion that Beth really does spend all her time on a bus. "I

understand that some people hearing about Beth for the first time

might say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ But you have to understand that

compared to where she was – isolated in a bit of a closet – she was

able to enter the world thanks to the bus and the bus drivers. That

was enough for her. Don’t forget, for some people a crumb is a whole

meal."

Simon rode buses with her sister for a year before writing the book.

"During that year I got to know the drivers as individuals. And

they’re really the reason I decided to write the book, even more than

my sister. These are salt of the earth people. They are school of hard

knocks graduates. One of the drivers in the book, Estella, says of her

passengers, ‘I know when their wives have thrown them out of the

house, and they’re standing on the corner with nothing. I know when

they’re on their way to bail their son out of jail. I know when they

just got the pink slip, and they’re suddenly leaving the factory for

the last time.’ I’ve had drivers say to me, ‘What we really are is

nurses on wheels.’ Riding a bus and driving a bus isn’t about getting

people to destinations. It’s about the journey on the bus."

Simon says the experience of riding the bus with her sister had a

great impact on her outlook on life. "(I learned) that I needed to

learn how to love my sister without trying to control her. After all,

truly accepting someone, as self-determination helped me learn to do,

means stepping back and not trying to control. When the movie entered

development, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to control the

outcome – so I just applied the very same lesson. After all, if I

can’t control Beth, why should I think I could control Hollywood? The

process was easy and painless once I made that connection."

In a phone interview from the air – Simon was on a flight to Los

Angeles for the April 26 screening of the movie – she says that being

the subject of a nationally-released film hasn’t changed her sister a

bit. "She’s very happy, she’s still who she is – and she still rides

the bus. I worked hard (throughout the production of the movie) to

maintain her life pretty much the same." Simon adds that because her

sister doesn’t think abstractly, she was not wholly aware of the scope

of the project. "She doesn’t see things that are not real to her."

She remembers her years at Barnes & Noble in Princeton with great

affection, where she worked tirelessly to promote writers and hold

writers’ events. "I was committed to demystifying the writer’s world.

I wanted the events to involve the whole community. I had a sense of

bringing the world together. Every night I would go home and say to

myself, my life is so filled with purpose and meaning. I was making

hundreds of people happy every day. Maybe my next book should be, "How

I Discovered the Secret to Life Through Barnes & Noble." She says the

energy she felt from those events definitely spurred her to write

"Riding the Bus," which is her fourth book.

Simon says her sister will attend the Washington, D.C., screening on

Thursday, April 28. "She will have me and her boyfriend and her case

manager there, so she will know people."

In the movie Rachel is a fashion photographer while the real life

Rachel is a writer and a professor. She is also a motivational speaker

for the disability community and the public transit industry. "Most of

(the movie Rachel’s) reactions mirror mine, but I tend to be a lot

more outgoing and lively than the Rachel in the movie. Andie MacDowell

also looks a lot better than I do in the morning – not to mention

throughout the day!"

– Jamie Saxon

"Riding the Bus with My Sister," a Hallmark Hall of Fame

movie, airs on CBS on Sunday, May 1, at 9 p.m. For more information

visit www.rachelsimon.com.


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