Today the Dames are pleased to welcome cozy mystery author Rabbi Ilene Schneider. Tell us about your latest book, UNLEAVENED DEAD.
UNLEAVENED DEAD is the 2nd book in the Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mysteries. It is, like the 1st book CHANUKAH GUILT, a cozy, humorous mystery featuring a rabbi in a small town in So. Jersey, not far from Philadelphia, who finds herself taking on the role of an amateur sleuth. She is looking into what appears to be an accidental death by carbon monoxide poisoning of a couple who belong to her synagogue. At the same time, her niece’s partner becomes the prime suspect in the hit-and-run death of a new dean who had demoted her. It doesn’t help that an SUV similar to hers was seen hitting the dean, and that her car has a body-sized dent on the front bumper.
Sounds intriguing and fun—I always like a little humor mixed in with my mysteries. Can you share a little bit about what you’re working on now or what’s coming next?
I have just finished the editing and proofing of the galleys for the 2nd edition of my first book, CHANUKAH GUILT. I rewrote sections that seemed to point to only one suspect as “the bad guy” so they are more ambiguous. In the same way that DVDs often include bonus specials, I also appended an “alternate solution” after the end of the book. I am also working on the 3rd book in the series, YOM KILLER.
I don’t have a typical day, as I still have a day job (as a chaplain for a hospice) which can be emotionally draining. I often find myself reading (my favorite way to unwind) when I should be writing. I cannot write at home, so I take myself off to a Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks or some other location that doesn’t mind people using them as an office and has wall plugs to recharge laptop batteries. I find I can concentrate when there is ambient noise I can ignore because it has nothing to do with me. At home, my unwashed laundry and unwatered plants, not to mention telemarketers who ignore the Do-Not-Call list, are always interrupting my train of thought.
I’m your opposite as I have to have quiet when I’m writing. I can’t imagine writing even on sentence in a crowded venue, I’m always too busy people watching. When you’re writing, who’s in control, you or the characters?
My characters, absolutely. They tell me what is going to happen. I sometimes have only a vague idea, and then they take me in a different direction. As you can tell from my answer, I am a pantser, not a plotter.
Okay, not opposite on this one. I’m a pantser too and love giving the control over to my characters. Promotion is a big—and usually the most hated—part of being a writer. Can you share a little bit about how you promote?
For one thing, I participate in online interviews and guest blogs! I am also on Facebook and have an email list for readers who are not on Facebook. I participate on several listserves and email groups. I attend quite a few mystery writers conferences, and volunteer to be on panels at them. And I accept almost any invitation I receive to speak to an organization, book club, library. But there are times when I feel as though I’m “preaching to the choir,” and promoting to the same people all the time. I’m always looking for new ways to expand my fan base and to network with new people.
How long have you been writing?
Since I was about 8 or 9 and began writing parodies of nursery rhymes. In a way, I have been a professional writer for 50 years, ever since Ingénue Magazine paid me $5 to print a eulogy I sent them about JFK. But I began writing my 1st fiction book in 2002, so it’s been 11 years now.
Parodies of nursery rhymes—I love that idea! What do you consider the single most satisfying aspect of being a writer?
When people tell me how much they enjoyed reading what I wrote. When UNLEAVENED DEAD was published, a woman who serves with me on the board of our local library bought the book. (She was a big fan of CHANUKAH GUILT, and had been waiting patiently for book #2.) Her husband of many years had died just a few months before, and she was still mourning the loss. When she came to my book launch party a few weeks after she had bought the book, I asked her if she had read it and enjoyed it. She said, “Enjoyed it? I got home and began reading it in bed. I went to sleep with a smile on my face for the next three nights.” That to me is not just satisfying, but a symbol of success. It was the best praise I could have received.
What a lovely thing to hear from a reader. Tell us a little bit about where you live.
I live in southern New Jersey, not far from Philadelphia. When people make jokes about New Jersey, it’s because of No. Jersey. So. Jersey is a different state. It is more rural. It is the site of the Pine Barrens, 1.1 million acres of preserved land that is protected by State, Federal, and even U.N. statutes. It’s a wonderful place to live. If I drive a mile in one direction, I’m in the middle of suburbia (unfortunately, including the traffic caused by suburban sprawl); a mile the other direction, I’m in the middle of the Pine Barrens. And if I feel the need for some urban atmosphere, Philadelphia is only about 12 miles away.
I had heard that New Jersey differed quite a bit depending on where you were in the state. Do your readers ever surprise you by seeing something else in your stories than you think you wrote?
Yes! I had written the character of Aviva’s 1st ex-husband (she’s been twice married and divorced) so she would have an entrée into the police department after he was appointed the temporary Director of Public Safety for her town. I had expected him to be an important albeit fairly minor character. But readers kept asking me about Aviva’s relationship with him and how it was going to develop. I hadn’t planned anything further, but did explore their interactions in the 2nd book and will continue to do so.
Another example is when readers tell me they were on the edge of their seats during certain scenes, which I had not considered to be all that suspenseful. But, of course, I knew what the outcome would be.
Ha, knowing the outcome does tend to take the suspense out of it! What are your thoughts on the standard writing advice, “write what you know”?
I agree to a certain extent. I write in the 1st person, and Aviva’s personality reflects a lot of mine, although her personal life is different. Physically, she and I look alike – it’s hard for me to put myself into the mindset of someone young, svelt, fit, tall, and flat-chested. And even though I have worked in a pulpit only part-time, and it was many years ago, I do understand the day-to-day life of a congregational rabbi. But there are aspects of the books I do not know from 1st hand experience. Fortunately, I enjoy doing research.
How do you classify yourself as a writer? Fiction or non-fiction? Specific genre such as mystery, short story, paranormal or more general such as women’s fiction, Appalachian, etc.
I call myself a cozy mystery writer, as opposed to a suspense or thriller writer, although I also have a nonfiction book in print, TALK DIRTY YIDDISH, and plans for some other nonfiction works as well.
How do your characters “come” to you? Are they based loosely or closely on people you know?
I observe people. Some of my characters are based on strangers, people I see at bookstore cafés or restaurants or stores, and my idle speculations about them. I am also an unabashed eavesdropper, and sometimes work overheard conversations, particularly one-sided cell phone ones, into my books. But my main characters are never based on people I know. At the most, they are composites.
Thank you for joining us today and sharing a part of your writing world. Readers, to find out more about Rabbi Ilene Schneider and her books, visit these sites: