Theodore Jerome Cohen is an award-winning author who has published more than ten novels—all but one of them mystery/thrillers—and two short-story anthologies. He also writes Young Adult (YA) novels under the pen name “Alyssa Devine” as well as illustrated children's storybooks in his Stories for the Early Years series. He is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators and will have an article on marketing a forthcoming issue of the society's journal, BULLETIN.
What inspired you to write your first book of fiction?
I’ve been writing my entire adult life, though the books, papers, essays, and interviews I produced—which number in the hundreds—were in a variety of scientific and engineering disciplines. It wasn’t until we moved to Langhorne, PA, and I neared retirement from my consultancy that I even considered the possibility of writing fiction. Then, it all happened by chance.
Well, a good friend and professor at Temple University, Dr. Michael Sirover, self-published a book on surviving cancer—admittedly not fiction. But, I was so impressed by the fact he had written and published a book that I said to myself: I can do that! And so, I did.
Which book was that?
It was an autobiography, of sorts. As they say: “Write what you know,” and where better to start than with your life. In my case, I wrote about my life as a violinist. My father always wanted me to be a concert violinist, but alas, it was not to be. I told the story in Full Circle: A Dream Denied, A Vision Fulfilled. As P.D. James said: “All fiction is largely autobiographical, and much autobiography is, of course, fiction.”
So, you took some liberties?
[laughs] Oh, yes, while I do play the violin and for six years played with the Bryn Athyn (PA) orchestra—one of the oldest community orchestras in the nation—I never played as well as I did in my novel. And I had a lot of fun writing that book, too, because it gave me the opportunity to relive portions of my childhood I had loved but forgotten.
But clearly, that was only the beginning. How did you get from there to The Antarctic Murders Trilogy?
Well—and as anyone who’s ever published a book can tell you—once you’ve held your first book, it’s Katy bar the door. I decided then and there the dive into another book, and what better place to start but my travels to Antarctica in 1961-62. While there, I had written a short story I had intended to submit to one literary magazine or another when I returned Stateside, but the manuscript was lost somewhere in South America. I remembered the gist of the story, however, and incorporated it in Book 1 of the Trilogy, Frozen in Time. Much of this novel Is based on my trip to, and work on, the Frozen Continent. And that post-modern novel would have stood alone except for the fact my younger daughter, Stephanie, hounded me regarding what happened to some of the characters.
And so, you just had to write Books 2 and 3.
Absolutely, though Unfinished Business (Book 2) and End Game (Book 3) are pure fiction. By the way, for those who love music, the ending of End Game hinges critically on the timing of the movements during a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. Why not have a little fun while we’re at it?!
And then came the Det. Louis Martelli, NYPD, series of mystery/thrillers, correct?
Yes, and the first—Death by Wall Street—seemed like a natural to write. I had uncovered significant corruption in the FDA’s review of a revolutionary treatment for prostate cancer in 2007 while assisting Mark Mitchell, a former Wall Street Journal editor, in investigating what happened. The agreement was he would keep my name off his piece (earlier, he had been beaten for what he had written in another exposé) while I was free to tell the story in fiction. And so I did. The novel was the first of what turned out to be a six-book series of mystery/thrillers, all ripped from the headlines or in some way tied to real life.
What books or authors have most influenced your life?
That’s a difficult question to answer, given my reading interests are all over the map. But I will tell you my early interest in fiction in general and short stories in particular derived from reading Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery in college as a freshman. That is something I never will forget. James Michener, too, had an impact on me, principally his books Hawaii and, even more so, Caravans. We’re fortunate to have the Michener Museum just 30 minutes to the west, in Doylestown, where you can walk through his reconstructed office.
But those are not mysteries, which seems to be where you have focused, at least early on.
I know. What can I say? As I said, my interests go in a thousand directions.
What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?
I’m glad you didn’t ask my wife that question! She’d probably say it’s my total impatience with the editing process. There, I’m probably not alone! Actually, and you’ll have to tell me if this qualifies: I have never used an outline. I write intuitively. What usually happens is, I wake up one morning with an idea or see something in the newspaper, as happened some years ago on vacation when, upon reading about the housing collapse of 2009, I sat down and wrote House of Cards. Then, I sit down and let the story and the characters take me where the story leads. Sometimes, I’m surprised by what ‘they’ say and where we end up. Seriously. When I get into one of those ‘spells,’ I can lay down 3000 to 5000 words a day. I’ve written some of my novels in two weeks. Then, there’s always the dreaded editing process!
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
It’s not the writing that I find so challenging as much as I am challenged by the marketing of my books. With almost a million books published in the United States each year, the real question for independent writers is: how can I make my voice heard about the ‘noise?’ Now, believe me, there are legions of people out there who would be happy to take your money and ‘help’ you with marketing your books. Early on, I used a New York City-based marketing assistant who came highly recommended. She produced nothing! The threat of a lawsuit resolved the situation quickly, but it only points up the fact that independent authors have to be careful who they trust.
Given the above, what are some of the things independent writers should definitely do to help themselves.
Well, there are some very basic things you need to do to at least get your name out there. At the very least, you need a Website! Then, on Amazon, be sure to take advantage of their Author Central and Look Inside offerings. No one should be without these. Also, secure a few professional reviews for your books. I have used houses such as Kirkus, Feathered Quill, Reader Views, Readers’ Favorite, and Pacific Book Review. There are others. You can’t post the entire review on Amazon, but you can post excerpts. As well, you can use excerpts from these reviews on the backs or jackets of your books. Get on Goodreads and populate your author page. If you’re into Facebook, post there. Twitter, too, though I have not found Twitter to be a viable means by which to advertise books. Join the gang on Navigating Indieworld, including their board on Goodreads. There are other things you can do, of course, but these represent the bare minimum.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
If I were in college today, looking to begin career in literature or journalism, I’d select a school with a premier English department, faculty members who have published in the area or genre I find interesting, and latch on to a major professor who not only can hone your skills but teach you the ‘secret handshake’ needed to enter the world of published authors. In reading the biographies of authors with agents, I am struck over and over again by the number I see who have Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) degrees. This is especially true of authors you find in such literary magazines as Big Muddy, Glitter Train, and Ninth Letter, and so forth. Being published in these magazines is almost a rite of passage for many budding authors, and the MFA is their ‘union card.' I’ve also read that many agents read these magazines in the hope of spotting new talent early without having to go through the agony of diving into their ‘slush pile.’
Have you had any success with literary magazines?
Minimal, though it’s been an interesting exercise. After four failed attempts to find an agent and enough rejection e-mails to paper the loft, I decided to see if submitting short stories to the literary magazines mentioned above and others might not garner some interest among agents or at least give me something to point to in my query letters. Alas, there was No Joy in Mudville, save for one story, “Unforgiven,” which won an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Family Matters’ September, 2015, competition. Given that Glimmer Train receives 40,000 submissions each year, I’ll take it!
Would you share an excerpt from this story?
He gently, almost reverently, brushed the dust from the frame with the fingers of his right hand. “Those were great guys, Son. See the fellow on the left—he poked a finger on the glass—that’s Stanley Cohn, a wise-cracking Jewish kid from the Bronx. Boy, no matter how bad things got, he could always make us laugh. Kept us in stiches, all right, especially when he spoke with a Yiddish accent. Next to him is your dad, who was Roman Catholic, of course. He and I always attended Sunday Mass together. To his left is Walt Sutton. He was a devout Baptist from Dallas. And that’s me on the other end, an old Irish Catholic from Boston. Rank didn’t matter. Nor did religion or background. We were like brothers. We were never out of each other’s sight.” He paused and slumped in his chair, the picture frame falling to his lap. “Stanley was killed two days after this picture was taken when we were ambushed just to the south, in Carentan. Walt died in the Battle of the Bulge. Your dad held him in his arms as he passed. A medic tried to stem the bleeding, but his wounds were massive. it was late December, 1944. At Bastogne. We were attached, then to the 101st Airborne Division.The worst fighting I ever saw.” Cassidy shook his head as if even now he still could not believe it. “And to think Walt almost made it through the war. Your father never was the same after that. It was like the light went out of his eyes . . ..” His voice trailed off and his focus drained.
What did you do next?
Well, I was so buoyed by the Glimmer Train result that I lashed together all the stories I had written in 2015, and in early December, pulled from consideration those that had not yet been rejected and created my first short-story anthology, The Road Less Taken: A Collection of Unusual Short Stories (Book 1). I did the same thing in 2016 . . . waited until December, pulled any stories for which I hadn’t heard an acceptance or a rejection, and in January, 2017, published Book 2.
And how are these books doing?
Well, I ran a bit of a twofer at the end of April on Ereader News Today (ENT), my go-to marketing site. The Kindle edition of Book 2 was their Book Of The Day on April 24, 2017. It was discounted to 99 cents. I also discounted Book 1 at the same time. Both were made available for a week at that price. Now, the nice thing about Amazon is that if you have books in a series, they will create a Webpage dedicated to your series. This was the case for the two short-story anthologies, and so, when a potential reader clicked on Book 2’s Amazon page, he could not help but see that Book 1 also was on sale. Between the two books, I sold 300 copies that week, with Book 2 rising to an overall rank of #2,349 Paid in Kindle Store while reaching #5 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Literary Fiction > Short Stories.
But you’ve also been writing children’s and YA books. Right?
Yes, my YA mystery/thriller, The Hypnotist, written under the pen name ‘Alyssa Devine,’ is in the Core Genre (Mystery) Reading Program at the local high school, where I guest lecture on mystery writing. And just this year, I’ve published my new children’s series, Stories for the Early Years. So far, the series comprises three illustrated storybooks in verse for K-3: Pepe [the penguin] Builds a Nest (about bullying); Rufus Finds a Home (about empathy); and Fuzzy Wuzzy (about listening to Mama!).
Who illustrated these books?
I did, but I’ll leave it to your readers to figure out how it was accomplished. Suffice it to say I had some help from my magical computer software.
So, where to now?
Good question. Besides the never-ending need to market my books, I’ve had calls to produce Spanish and French editions of Pepe Builds a Next. Apparently, the need for children’s books on bullying is great, regardless of the language, and several parents have approached me about the latter two editions. The Spanish edition, in paperback, should be available by the time this interview is published.
Thanks, Ted, for a most interesting look at your work.
The pleasure was mine. Thanks for inviting me.