Jeffrey Cohen interview

by Julia Spencer-Fleming

So, Jeff, as a bona fide small press author, how did it feel when you got your cool New York Times bestselling author Lee Child blurb?

Well, that was quite an afternoon, I'll say. When someone whose work you respect says they think your work is good, it means a lot. When my writing idol Larry Gelbart said my first book was "witty," I lived for a month off of that alone. When Linda Ellerbee, whom I think is one of the great broadcast journalists since ever, said she liked AS DOG IS MY WITNESS well enough to go out and buy the other two Aaron books, I was a celebrity in my own home for an entire weekend. It's especially nice, because you know people aren't just doing it because they're your friends—I have never met any of those people. You like to hear from people you respect, so I was touched when you said nice things about my book, Julia. It means a lot to me.

What exactly DO Jack Reacher and Aaron Tucker have in common?

Well, they're both... wait, it'll come to me. They're both... um, males. That's true. And they both investigate crimes. Well, Aaron SORT OF investigates crimes. When he has to. There are times Aaron wishes he were more like Reacher, I suppose. But he's really not.

What are some of the pros and cons of being a small press author?

There are a good number of advantages, really. You know that the publishing house is working with you because they responded to your work, and not just because you fit a particular retail slot they saw coming down the line. You can get on the phone and call the publisher to talk about any aspect of the book whenever you want. You know you're getting the attention of the marketing staff, the publicity department and the editorial people, because they're all one guy. The disadvantages, to be honest, are mostly financial, and that's not just about the advance I get paid--it's about the funds available to promote the book and get it seen. It's not the publisher's fault--they're just not as well funded as the big houses.

So, how do you introduce someone to the Aaron Tucker mysteries in one paragraph or less?

Well, I generally stick my hand out and say, "meet the Aaron Tucker mysteries," after which I get a very odd look from most people. I think the important thing for people to know is that the books are designed, first and foremost, to deliver as many laughs as possible, and hopefully the mystery is pretty entertaining, too. And by the way, it's impossible to answer a question in less than one paragraph. Even "yes" is a paragraph.

How do you add humor to a mystery?

You don't. I believe you have to start with a character who has a sense of humor, write a COMEDY, and add the mystery to that, as a structure. The mystery drives the plot along, and the comedy happens on its own. If you try to add humor to a mystery, you end up with "wacky" characters in "wacky" situations, and the whole thing feels forced and unnatural, to me. I like comedy that comes from character, not from contrivances. 

Your son, like Ethan Tucker, has Asperger’s Syndrome. How does your family cope with that condition?

Well, our son, who's now a 16-year-old high school sophomore, is at the very high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, so we're pretty lucky. How do we cope? We live our lives, and we treat him the way you treat any 16-year-old. Emotionally, he's probably a little younger than he is chronologically, but we expect the same things out of him that most people expect from their teenage sons. Look, our son isn't in any physical danger; he hasn't got some "disease" that's going to threaten his health. He has to deal with some things a little differently, and we have to teach him a few extra things. We're not smiling through the tears here--we're just smiling.

Do you consider your mystery novels to fit into the "cozy" category?

When I wrote the first book in the series, FOR WHOM THE MINIVAN ROLLS, I had no idea there WAS such a thing as a "cozy." I'd never heard of it. I just wrote the book the way I'd want to read it. It's not a strict cozy, anyway, so far as I can tell: it has some profanity, and there is at least the discussion of sex. MINIVAN probably has the most graphic description of violence, although it's hardly pushing the envelope; it's pretty tame, by comparison to most. I don't think readers of cozies, so long as they're not expecting lace doilies and teapots, will be offended. I hope they'll laugh, as much as any other reader.

Where do you get your ideas?

The Lillian Vernon catalog. If you buy three ideas, the shipping is free.

Seriously? I start with the characters: what's going to bother them, bring out new facets of their personalities, or show them in a different light than before. In AS DOG IS MY WITNESS, I bring a little friction in Aaron and Abby's marriage, just to see how they'd react to that. I also show Mahoney in a more vulnerable position, with something happening to him that he doesn't understand--and a solution to his problem that will keep him scratching his head for quite some time. I don't think it's interesting to always have the characters react to everything in the same way--you might as well just read the previous books and not bother with the new one.

What subgenre do you think your work best fits?

I like a nice turkey sub, myself, although that's probably not the genre you're asking about. I think of the books as comedies with a mystery attached. If there are others like that, then Aaron Tucker fits in that subgenre. If not, then I've invented my own.

Are the characters in the Aaron Tucker novels based on people in your life?

You have to really concentrate on the words "based on" in that question. Some people have suggested that Rachel Barlow in "Minivan" was based on a local political figure. She wasn't. I made her up from scratch. The family members have a certain basis in my family, but even saying that is an overstatement. My wife and children don't do the things Abby, Ethan and Leah do. I'm not Aaron Tucker—he's a full inch shorter than me.

Well, but in "As Dog Is My Witness," there is a character whom you say isa real person, Lori Shery.

That's right. So I have to amend my previous statement. In the new book, there is one real person. Lori Shery is the co-founder and president of ASPEN, Inc., a support group for parents whose children have Asperger Syndrome, as Ethan does in the Aaron Tucker books. Aaron, who usually has to be dragged kicking and screaming into an investigation, is asked by Lori to look into the shooting of a local man, because the young man accused of the crime has AS. It made the writing easier for me to have the character be Lori, and I didn't want to change the name after I'd finished. So I asked Lori if I could use her name, and because she is Lori and always does all she can, she agreed.

What is Asperger Syndrome?

AS is a neurological disorder on the autism spectrum. In the Aaron Tucker books, Ethan Tucker has Asperger Syndrome, which manifests itself mostly in social skills deficiencies. In As Dog Is My Witness, a young man with AS is accused of a murder, and Aaron asks his son to help with the investigation.

How can parents tell if their children has AS, and what should they do?

Quite often, people with AS have difficulty making eye contact, understanding idioms ("I'm just pulling your leg") and body language, and reading tone of voice, among other difficulties. But the best way, if you suspect your child might have an autism-spectrum disorder, to get the truth is to go to a pediatric neurologist, who will know the (completely uninvasive) tests to do. I don't like to sound like a commercial for myself, but you can find out more in my non-fiction book, The Asperger Parent: How to Raise a Child With Asperger Syndrome and Maintain Your Sense of Humor.

A second book, tenatively titled Guns A' Blazing: How Parents of Children on the Autism Spectrum and Schools Can Work Together—Without a Shot Being Fired is going to be published this fall by AAPC, the same publisher as The Asperger Parent. It's about dealing with school systems when you have a child with "special needs" on the autism spectrum.

Or, check out these web sites for more information:

Are you planning to write any other books outside the series?

Funny you should ask. A novel that would begin a new series with a New Jersey prosecutor-turned-Los Angeles-divorce lawyer named Sandy Moss, is written. It's called Inherit the Shoes. I'll keep you posted.

I'm also working on a new novel that would be related to the Aaron Tucker series, but in which Aaron would not be the main character. I'll let you know as it progresses. Today, I'm about 1/2 of the way through it.

Are you concerned that people in the autism community will be offended by the approach to Asperger's in As Dog Is My Witness? Do you think you treat the disorder lightly?

I am concerned, only because I think it's very important that the autism community understand I don't take Asperger's lightly at all. I've lived through the rough spots with my son, and will continue to do so for the rest of my life. I know it's hard, and I think it's harder to raise a child on the autism spectrum than one who is not. But I refuse to cry into my pillow about it at night (or any other time of day, for that matter). I think you have to face ANYTHING with humor, because there is always something funny about a situation, if you look hard enough, and if you can find it, you have a much better chance of surviving with your sanity intact. I think that's important. So I hope the response from the autism community to AS DOG IS MY WITNESS will be the same as it's been to the first two books: I've gotten some of my favorite letters from people whose children have spectrum disorders, and read my books, and had a chuckle over it. That's been the most gratifying part of the whole process for me.

Jeffrey Cohen is the author of As Dog is my Witness, the latest Aaron Tucker mystery, from Bancroft Press, as well as the author of numerous nonfiction pieces relating to autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. He lives in New Jersey with his family and can be reached at www.aarontucker.com or www.BreakthroughPromotions.com.

Julia Spencer-Fleming is the national bestselling author of the Millers Kill mysteries. Her books have won, or have been shortlisted for, the Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, Barry, Dilys, Nero, Macavity, and Romantic Times RC awards. She lives in Maine with her family, where her husband teaches special education. She can be reached at www.juliaspencerfleming.com.

Julia Spencer-Fleming

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