Blog posts about the Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mysteries and their author Rabbi Ilene Schneider

Archive for September, 2016


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Hello, Literary Gladiators. My name is Ilene Schneider, and I thank Josh Caporale for inviting me to post the inaugural entry in the Guest Contributor Series. My claim to fame among Literary Gladiators is as Ari Schneider-Gans’s mother, but I am also a published author, with two mystery novels and a nonfiction book to my credit, along with various contributions to academic anthologies and newspaper opinion columns.

Whenever I do presentations and book readings, I am asked questions about my writing process and publishing experiences. I’ve collected the most frequently asked questions to answer for you today.

I’m often asked when I began writing. I have always been a writer, beginning with my parodies of nursery rhymes when I was about 8. At camp, I hated sports, so I volunteered to run the camp newspaper during the free period. I fell in love with journalism. I was 12. My first nationally published work was a eulogy of John F. Kennedy accepted by Ingénue Magazine when I was 15. I was a communication major in college, concentrating on journalism. I was an editor of my college paper, and a founding editor of a Jewish student paper in Boston. My goal was to be the first woman editor of the New York Times. Even though I got sidetracked, and instead became one of the first women to be ordained as a rabbi in the US, I still continued to write. I was the editor of a Jewish student paper in Philadelphia while I was in rabbinical school. After that, my writings were academic or curriculum design or reports or other forms of nonfiction.

About 10 years ago, I found myself temporarily underemployed. In case you’re wondering, that’s a euphemism for between jobs, also a euphemism. I’ve been a voracious reader since first grade – it would have been earlier if my mother hadn’t been afraid the teachers would be angry with her if she taught me to read before I started school. For quite some time, I had wondered how certain books had gotten published, let alone made the best seller lists. But I also believed it was dishonest of me to criticize books if I hadn’t written one. So I did. It took a while, and it took even longer before I stopped trying to find an agent and concentrated instead on looking for a small publisher who did not require an agent and was willing to take a chance on an unpublished author. Eventually I did.

Which segues into the next question: how I got published. In all three cases, it was a matter more of whom I knew rather than what I wrote. For my first book in the Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mystery Series, Chanukah Guilt, I queried a woman I had been chatting with online after she mentioned she had recently started a small independent press. So many months had passed between when I had submitted  my manuscript and when she emailed that she wanted to publish the book that I had forgotten I had written to her.

The second book, the nonfiction Talk Dirty Yiddish followed a similar path, but with one difference: the publisher queried me. Again, I had met someone online who was the acquisition editor for a large nonfiction publisher. She emailed me that they were starting a new line of books called “Talk Dirty …” and wanted to know if I would be interested in writing the Yiddish version. She didn’t consider my lack of fluency in Yiddish to be an obstacle, as I am experienced in doing research. I realized that if I didn’t write the book, they’d hire someone else. I would read the book and think, “I could have done that,” so I accepted.

By the time I had finished the second book in the mystery series, Unleavened Dead, my first publisher had closed down. For the third time, I contacted an online acquaintance who was acquisitions editor for a small press. Her response was, “I was hoping you’d ask. I love accepting books from people I know.” I’ve been with that publisher, Oak Tree Press, ever since. I am currently editing and proof reading the manuscript of my third mystery, Yom Killer – you can credit Ari for the title – and am about to send it off to Oak Tree.

And that leads to the next question: what is my typical writing day.  I don’t have a typical day. For almost eight years after the publication of Chanukah Guilt, I still had a day job, as a chaplain for a hospice, which can be emotionally draining. I often found myself reading, my favorite way to unwind, when I should have been writing. Now that I have retired, I find other ways to procrastinate – volunteer work, gardening, birding, traveling, knee replacement surgeries, surfing the ‘net under the guise of research, and, of course, reading so I can keep up with the so-called competition.

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.

And I need to keep track of those thoughts, as I am not a plotter – a writer who outlines and plans every plot twist and scene and nuance of character – but a pantser – one who writes by the seat of her pants. As such, my characters are in control. They tell me what is going to happen. I have a general idea of the story, but the characters often take me in different and unexpected directions. I am then forced to figure out how to get the characters out of whatever corner they’ve made me write them into.

Because my characters tend to take on a life of their own, I sometimes discover that my readers see things in them that I had never intended. For example, I had written the character of Aviva’s first ex-husband – she’s been twice married and divorced – so she would have a close contact in 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 second book and expanded it even further in the third.

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.

Which brings up the issue of whether my characters are based on people I know. No, they’re not. My main characters are never based on real people. At the most, they are composites. But I do observe people, so some of my secondary 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 overhear conversations, particularly one-sided cell phone ones, that I include in my books.

I am often asked what advice I would give to aspiring writers. I have four bits of advice for aspiring writers. They’re not original with me, but have stood me in good stead.

  1. Don’t give up. If you can’t find an agent – and remember, it takes only one who believes in you and your book – or if the agent can’t find a publisher, try querying small and midsized publishers that do not require agent submissions and are willing to take a chance on an unknown. And if you still are not successful and are sure your book is publishing-worthy – and has been ruthlessly edited, preferably by strangers, and formatted by a professional, and read by people who recognize and appreciate good writing – then self-publish.
  2. Grow a thick skin; but don’t get overly confident. There will be critics who will hate your book for the same reasons others love it. Accept all of it – the good and the bad – with equanimity.
  3. Don’t expect to get rich. The reason there are news articles about writers whose blogs are optioned for Hollywood or writers who sign seven-figure multi-book contracts is because those occurrences are so rare.
  4. Get out there and push yourself. The days of the reclusive writer slaving away in an attic garret – or, more likely these days, parents’ basement –are over. As are the days of publisher-financed book tours and advertising blitzes, unless you’re a bestselling author who doesn’t need the extra hype. If you don’t have an internet presence, if you don’t spend part of your writing time on social media, if you don’t participate in Listservs, if you don’t attend writer and fan conferences at which you participate on panels, your book, no matter how good, will remain unknown and unread.

And finally, why do I write? It’s so I can answer the question “What do you do?” by answering, “I kill people.”

But, of course, there is a much more important and serious answer: the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when people tell me how much they enjoy reading what I write, the chance to entertain others. 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.

I know there are a lot of questions I haven’t answered. You can always reach me by email at And please follow my blog at or friend me on FaceBook at

Thank you for joining me on Literary Gladiators. And keep reading.



I’ve been lax about updating my blog entries because whenever I decide to share an insight or event, whether personal or political (aren’t they the same?) or book-related, I post it on Facebook. I’m aware that not everyone who reads my blog is a Facebook friend or follower, so I decided I’d collect the comments and pictures I had posed during an incredible three-week trip Gary and I took in August to Seattle, Vancouver, southwest Alaska (on a cruise through the Inner Passage with stops in Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, and Glacier Bay), Denali, and Fairbanks.

But I discovered a problem when I began to write my travelogue: a written description of a trip, even complete with pictures, is boring. Remember those old film strips teachers would show in class? Boring. Remember going to dinner at some elderly (to you) relatives’ house and later having to sit through an interminably long slide show of their vacation? Boring. Remember bringing home a new boyfriend or girlfriend and having your parents pull out all your baby pictures? Boring. Not to mention embarrassing.

I was on the trip, and I can assure you the reality was terrific. We were never bored. We did things we didn’t think we’d ever do, saw things we’d never seen, had experiences we’d never imagined, reconnected with friends we hadn’t seen for forty or more years. But when I read what I had written, I was bored. I was bored while writing it. Even the pictures were boring – after a while, all mountains volcanoes, rivers, waterfalls look the same.

Doling out the information, complete with my wryly humorous (to my mind anyway) observations, in short bits once a day (more or less) may have been entertaining. Putting it into a running narrative is … have I said this yet? … boring.

So instead of a travelogue, here are some life lessons I culled along the way. In no particular order. And without relevant pictures.

  1. It’s very hard to take decent pictures with an iPhone. But it’s even harder to take pictures without it, as I learned one day when I didn’t get a picture of a Bald Eagle posing close by. I had left my tote bag with my wallet and phone in the trunk of the car of a lovely Seattle couple who took me birding one day. I was wearing yoga pants (hey, they’re comfy – I’ve never even tried yoga) and a tee-shirt, without pockets. Fortunately, the couple had a very good camera and emailed me the picture.
  2. It’s harder to take pictures from a moving train. Particularly when it’s raining. And I have the blurry pictures to prove it.
  3. It’s hardest to take pictures of wildlife, especially when they’re far off and moving. And the train is also moving. Wildlife photographers must have infinite patience – and very high quality cameras. And very fast (or is it slow?) exposure to get pictures of Orcas and Humpbacked Whales when they are breaching.
  4. It’s fun to get out of one’s comfort zone, as I discovered on a solo trip to Mount Baker, in a rented car, without cell phone reception. Fortunately, it was a direct route from Bellingham, where I visited some friends. (Notice, I didn’t say it was a straight route.) But it’s also a good idea not to be too reckless, which is why the following day I took a bus tour to Mount Rainier.
  5. And it can be rewarding to try – and succeed – at something you didn’t think you could do. On the way to Mt. Baker, I took a side trip to Nooksack Falls. For the first time in years, I was able to go down (and back up) a fortunately short but extremely steep rock and tree root strewn trail to the waterfall. I got to the vantage point to discover I was too short to see over the chain link safety fence so I could take pix, but I managed to climb up some rocks to see over the fence. I was so proud of myself, I texted Gary, who was a presenter and participant of the International Association of Jewish Genealogy Societies in Seattle, and said, “Look what I did, all by myself!”
  6. Sometimes, it’s nice to be taken care of. After we went through customs at Vancouver and boarded our cruise ship, we didn’t schlep our luggage again until we left Fairbanks to fly to Seattle and then home. The luggage was already in our cabin on the ship and in our rooms in Denali and Fairbanks.
  7. You can find a minyan anywhere. There’s an episode of “Northern Exposure” in which the Jewish doctor who has been assigned to the interior of Alaska is looking for a quorum to say Kaddish, the Mourners’ Prayer, for his uncle. He has a dream in which he rounds up everyone named Cohen (even the writers/directors the Coen brothers). We did the same thing, but in our case it was done through eavesdropping and then corralling anyone we heard speaking Hebrew so I could say Kaddish on the first anniversary of my mother’s death. We even found an American who, after the three of us kept staring at each other, turned out to be an acquaintance from our graduate school years in Philadelphia. A couple of days later, we all got together again and held Shabbat services (interrupted by a sighting of a pod of sea otters) and had dinner together.
  8. And you never know who lives in far-flung places. We had dinner in Skagway with a rabbinic colleague who lives in Israel but visits his kids in Skagway every summer. And we had dinner in Fairbanks with a classmate from my undergraduate days in Boston who has lived in Fairbanks for several years.
  9. Global warming is real. Just ask any Alaskan, at least the ones we met. If you’re not convinced by their apologizes that the waterfalls aren’t as spectacular as usual because of the lack of snow the past few winters, then read about how the glaciers are receding at an accelerated rate.
  10. You think you’ll remember where you were and what you saw. You won’t. It’s a good thing I filed all the pix as soon as I could into folders on my iPhone or the only reason I would have been able to tell the difference between Mount Baker and Mount Rainer is I saw the former, but the latter was hidden by clouds. (We did get a distant view of it from the Seattle Space Needle.) As I mentioned above, after a while, all mountains, volcanoes, rivers, waterfalls look the same.
  11. It doesn’t matter if everything blurs together; there’s always Professor Google to remind you of the difference between the taiga and the tundra.
  12. I can survive quite well without Wi-Fi, but only if I have cell phone reception and can check emails, texts, news notifications, and Facebook several times a day. Otherwise, I suffer withdrawal symptoms, as evidenced by my checking every few minutes to see if we had reception yet.
  13. Even if you can’t remember all the details, the pictures – even the blurry ones – still show the splendor of the planet.
  14. Finally, if you bump into me and don’t think you’ll be bored, I’ll be happy to show you all 399 of my pictures.