Rabbi Ilene Schneider, EdD, was one of the first women to be ordained in the United States. So after a lifetime of working in Jewish education administration, then as a hospice chaplain and coordinating a Jewish hospice program, she wrote a short series of mysteries featuring Rabbi Aviva Cohen, who in between leading a congregation, offering advice and dealing with synagogue politics, stumbles into murders and solves them. You can find out more about Rabbi Scheidler on her website RabbiAuthor.com, or check out her Facebook page, Rabbi Author.
When I asked my gracious blog host Anne Louise Bannon about suggestions for my post, she mentioned, “How about the use of the murder mystery to share our values, maybe as a mitzvah? Not necessarily as a way of beating people over the head to agree with us, but as a way to present another way of thinking about something?” Her question got me thinking (as all good questions should) about how much of an author’s views are reflected in the fictional characters. And, conversely, how hard is it to incorporate opinions the opposite of the author’s into a book?
I know that an author does not have to be a murderer or a rapist or a sadist or a crook to write convincing villains. I admire authors who can write convincing thrillers, yet I wonder how some are able to squelch their own distaste or squeamishness to compose actions I have trouble reading. I find it very hard to write scenes that depict graphic violence, which is why I write cozies. Everything is off the page. I find it is easier to describe a character’s reactions to an event than to write the event.
(As an aside, I write a first person narrative, and my protagonist, Rabbi Aviva Cohen, looks a lot like me. In fact, she looks like me. I’ve commented on panels that as good an imagination as I may have, I do have difficulty writing from the first person point of view of someone who is tall and svelte and athletic, has straight, silky hair, and complains she can’t find a bathing suit that fits because the tops are too roomy.)
One advantage of writing fiction is being able to put unpopular or racist or other objectionable opinions into the mouths of characters the readers aren’t supposed to like. It’s a great form of therapy to ascribe such views to the bad guys, particularly if they’re based on real people I dislike. But it does not mean I ascribe to those views. But I also find it cathartic to explore what may consider esoteric or philosophic or theoretical ideas. The trick, as Anne alluded to, is to find a balance between lecturing and discussing, to teach without indoctrinating. And to do it without diverting from the plot or boring the reader.
In my latest book, Yom Killer, I have a scene in which Aviva and a colleague, who works as a chaplain, have a discussion about how to be a spiritual counselor when one has questions about the validity of the theology patients and their families want or need to hear. I used the scene to explore issues that have bothered me as a rabbi and rationalist, particularly when I worked as a hospice chaplain. Aviva voiced the hesitations I had, while her friend supplied the answers I also espouse.
Now it was my turn to shake my head. “Wow. I wish I could have your faith, but I feel like such a fraud sometimes.”
“Don’t. Just remember that you have to be where your patients are, even if you believe what you’re saying is no more than a banality. You’re helping them, and that’s all that matters. If they think they’ll see their parents in the afterlife, don’t lecture them about how there’s no such thing. If they start talking to their dead husband, don’t tell them it’s a hallucination caused by reduced blood flow to the brain.”
I quickly backtracked. “Oh, I never would. I always agree with whatever they believe. It’s just that I feel like such a hypocrite, betraying my own belief system.”
“I’m repeating myself here, Aviva, but it’s not a betrayal to soothe others.”
So, yes, Anne, I do add elements to my books “as a way to present another way of thinking about something.” Is it a mitzvah? Only my readers can answer whether they benefit from these ramblings. I like to think I am giving them a new insight.
As for Anne’s other possible topics for my guest blog, perhaps next time I will take her suggestion to “riff on the glory of the Krispy Kreme.”