Like me, Ilene Schneider had one career, then retired to yet another. I’m so happy she did because she writes funny cozy mysteries, some of the funniest you’ll ever read. You’ll understand why when you rad waht she has to say about writing funny.
Rabbi Ilene Schneider, Ed.D., one of the first six women rabbis ordained in the U.S., has finally decided what she wants to be when she grows up. She has recently retired from her day job to devote full time to writing. She is the author of the Rabbi Aviva Cohen mysteries: Chanukah Guilt, which was nominated for the Deadly Ink David Award for Best Mystery of 2007, was one of My Shelf’s 2007 Top Ten Reads, and was a Midwest Book Review Reviewers Choice Book; and Unleavened Dead, which won First Place from the Public Safety Writers Association, and was nominated for the Deadly Ink David Award for Best Mystery of 2012. Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine called Unleavened Dead “… a solid, funny mystery that provides an insider’s look at Jewish life.” A resident of Marlton, NJ, near Philadelphia, she is working on the third book in the series, Yom Killer, and is also the author of Talk Dirty Yiddish.
Please visit her website/blog: http://rabbiauthor.com or email her at email@example.com.
What’s so funny about murder, I asked Ilene. Here’s what she had to say:
“Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” – Alan Swain (played by Peter O’Toole) in “My Favorite Year;” original quote variously attributed.
“Writing tragedy is easy; writing comedy is hard.” – me, just now.
“What’s so funny about murder?” Lesley asked me (and others). Not much. But the events, reactions, activities surrounding murder can be funny; or they can be to the reader, if not to the fictional characters. Or, at least, the events, reactions, activities can be witty and humorous. By “witty and humorous,” I mean the humor arises through the use of language and the occasional bizarre (but still plausible) scenes. Silly characters, stereotypes, pratfalls, insults may be funny, but are not necessarily witty or humorous.
One of the many factors (amateur sleuth, lots of back story and relationships, no gory descriptions, no gratuitous or graphic violence or sex scenes on the page) that differentiates cozy mysteries from suspense, thrillers, or “mainstream” mysteries is the presence of humor. There can be humor in the other subgenres, but it is almost always present in a cozy.
Sometimes it can be in the form of gallows humor. When I worked as a spiritual support counselor for a hospice, there was a lot of laughter in our team meetings. It wasn’t mean spirited, it wasn’t rude or lewd, but it was necessary to relieve some of the “compassion fatigue” that we could all be prone to suffering.
And being humorous does not mean telling jokes. My books and I have been described as being funny, but I cannot tell a joke. Just ask my husband or kids. I mangle them (the jokes, not the family). I forget a crucial line. Worse, I mangle and/or forget the punch line.
I can, however, be spontaneous with quips and puns, usually arising out of some absurdity of the English language. Despite the opinion of the eminent Samuel Johnson, I do not consider puns to be “the lowest form of wit.” A good pun – usually described as bad and accompanied by a groan from the recipient – is a wonderfully clever way of skewering the English language. Johnson must not have been a fun companion at a party.
It’s not a coincidence that one of my favorite comedians was Gracie Allen, because she (or her character) understood everything literally, including the classic Burns and Allen signoff: George: “Say ‘goodnight,’ Gracie;” Gracie: “Goodnight Gracie.”
In order to be funny, the humor in a book must seem natural. Too many authors try too hard to be funny, and so their books are not. They are, instead, painful to read. One can fake pathos or sympathy or horror. Humor has to be organic. It either is or isn’t; it can’t be manufactured.
The biggest problem with writing humor is that it is subjective. One of the only negative reviewers of the 2nd Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mystery Unleavened Dead complained that the protagonist was too catty and snarky, and noted a particularly catty and snarky comment Aviva had made: “Maybe she once had the figure to carry off the ensemble, but now she looked like a plum. A plum that had been in the fridge too long and had begun to shrivel and wrinkle. Her varicose veins were color-coordinated to match her outfit.” After I had sent the manuscript to my parents, my mother called me to say how funny (and accurate) that description was. As they say, that’s why they make vanilla and … everything else. (Incidentally, that reviewer and one other said Aviva wasn’t “rabbinic” enough. I was tempted to send them thank you notes. They got it! I was trying to make Aviva as “human” as possible.)
When I first tried to describe the first book in the series, Chanukah Guilt, I had to explain that even though the book was about the apparent suicide of a 19-year-old college student, it wasn’t a downer. I finally added to the description that “she has a family that is rather unconventional. And her first ex-husband is moving to her town,” so readers wouldn’t expect all doom and gloom.
As another example of how subjective humor can be, I have two favorite bits in each novel. No one has ever quoted or even noted them.
From Chanukah Guilt: “I ruefully stared out the front window at my double-bagged newspaper sitting on top of the snowplow-produced mound at the end of the driveway. All I could see was an edge of the plastic bag; the rest was becoming one with the snow. How Zen of it.”
From Unleavened Dead: “…the only time my cohorts and I got anywhere near a glass ceiling is if we had a bottle of Windex and a wad of paper towels in our hands.”
As I often say when trying to tell my family a funny story, “You had to be there.”
Here’s where to go to buy Ilene’s books:
CHANUKAH GUILT 2ND EDITION: http://tinyurl.com/khszw8h
UNLEAVENED DEAD: http://tinyurl.com/kx64yxd
TALK DIRTY YIDDISH: http://tinyurl.com/mg7am2t
AS TRADE PAPERBACK ON AMAZON.COM
CHANUKAH GUILT 2ND EDITION: http://tinyurl.com/lsltbge
UNLEAVENED DEAD: http://tinyurl.com/lgljjqz
TALK DIRTY YIDDISH: http://tinyurl.com/m8jwphh
OAK TREE PRESS: http://tinyurl.com/kfrhetz
ADAMS MEDIA: http://tinyurl.com/myhxgg4