Interview: Sheyna Galyan
Sheyna Galyan is featured in the short story collection, Festival of Crime, and is the author of The Rabbi David Cohen suspense series, including: Destined to Choose and Strength to Stand,
- Why did you choose to write about rabbis? Wouldn’t it make more sense to write about cops?
Everyone writes about the cops. True, there aren’t that many books featuring an Israeli-born American cop, but generally speaking, the cop-as-protagonist is so common, it didn’t particularly interest me as a writer. But a rabbi as a protagonist, that gave me freedom that I wouldn’t have in a police procedural. While cops are interested in who, rabbis are more interested in why. Rabbis do short-term counseling, take on social advocacy roles, and are committed to making the world a better place, all of which give me as an author opportunities to delve more deeply into people’s motivation for the choices they make, whether it’s to plant a tree or take a life.
- You’re not a member of the clergy yourself, yet you write with such insight about the life of a rabbi. Where did you get your information?
I did a lot of research, especially prior to my first book. I interviewed rabbis who had been in the clergy for decades and rabbis who were just out of rabbinical school. I read essays and books and sermons by rabbis who talked about their jobs and why they stayed in the rabbinate—or why they didn’t. My observation skills worked overtime.
I not only watched how rabbis led services and interacted with congregants, I also caught conspiratorial winks with close friends, eruptions of anger at their misbehaving children, and a constant battle between fatigue and obligation that I saw in every pair of eyes. I saw overbooked schedules, never-ending paperwork, and people making constant demands. I also saw rabbis demonstrating faith and strength and certainty, but when I caught their gazes, especially when they thought no one was watching them, there was doubt and fear and sadness there too. I went looking for their humanity, not just their leadership.
- You’ve spoken about your research into the rabbinate. What other research did you conduct for Strength to Stand?
After I finished writing the first book, Arik (pronounced AHR-eek), my Israeli-born Minneapolis cop character, told me he wanted a bigger part in the next book. This meant researching both what it would mean to grow up in Israel and what it meant to be a cop, especially in the Twin Cities. The first was easy enough: the Twin Cities Jewish community regularly hosts quite a few visiting Israelis who come for school, work, or as part of an ambassador program. I asked them a ton of questions, knowing that most of my questions probably made me look like an ignorant American. I read blogs about living in Israel—as an Israeli, not as an American—and read books about Israeli history. And then I allowed my imagination to take over. My final step was to write an interview with Arik and let an Israeli friend read it for believability. My goal wasn’t to represent all Israelis (an impossibility), but to have someone read about his character and say, “He’s so Israeli!”
The second part came about by being in the right place at the right time. I’d called and talked to the public relations officer at the Minneapolis Police Department, who answered all of my questions and gave me a demonstration of the difference between harassment and terroristic threats that had me trembling by the time he was done. And then I happened upon a media release calling for applications to the Citizen’s Police Academy, which gives us non-law-enforcement folk a multi-week course in what’s involved in being a cop, taught by the same instructors who teach at the police academy. In addition to attending lectures and tours, I participated in defensive tactics and firearms training, role-played scenarios involving everything from an agitated man who wouldn’t leave a shop to an active school shooter, and got shot with Simunitions®.
- Where do you get your inspiration for your characters? Are they based on real people?
A few of the characters’ appearances are based loosely on real people, and when I started the series, there were traits for a few of the characters that fit with those appearances. For instance, Eli’s appearance and joyous enthusiasm were modeled after someone I know, but everything else about him is entirely fictional. Arik was completely fictional, though he’s become very real to me. And David is who I’ve sometimes said I’d be if I were a rabbi. And male. And tall.
- What is your intention regarding genre when you sit down to write? Do you say, “Okay, now I’m going to write a thriller.”?
Not at all. The genesis of the story comes first with the overarching theme, which, in Strength to Stand, is intolerance. I began asking myself, “How much intolerance must we tolerate? And if the answer is ‘none,’ then aren’t we also being intolerant?” On the surface, the answer seems easy. But dig deeper and it gets a lot more complex. Do we have to tolerate everyone? What about terrorists? What about those who kill out of hate? Each book takes a question about current social issues and drills down to explore all sides of the question and the implications of different answers. And in the meantime, someone’s emotional or physical well-being is hanging in the balance, because that’s true every day in real life with these issues.
- Do you write your books in order, chapter by chapter? If not, how do you write them?
I don’t write them in order, no. Usually a particular scene will be at the forefront of my mind at any given time, and that’s what I write next. Sometimes all I have is a snippet of dialog, so I’ll write a mini-scene (I call it a scenelet), and then let the action play out on the movie screen of my mind before I write it down.
The way my brain works, most scenes center around a particular piece of dialog, an experience that changes the way a character feels, or an action that relies on the current dynamics of the characters involved. I don’t care much for two-dimensional characters, which is often the price a book pays for having a lot of action. I want my readers to believe that these characters could be real people, with real, complex personalities and emotions. There can still be a lot of action, but the choices each character makes and the ultimate resolution will be based entirely on who is involved and why they choose what they do.
- You make a point of showing both cooperation and tension between Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox rabbis in Strength to Stand. What was the motivation for this?
First, I want it to reflect real life. I’m not interested in writing either an idealistic world or a dystopian society. I suppose in a way, I share some characteristics with David, my rabbi protagonist, in that I want to encourage people to think differently about the world and their place in it, and while other authors can maybe do that by writing about a world dissimilar from ours, that’s not my cup of tea.
Second, I want to debunk some myths. There’s a myth out there that Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis all hate each other, which is simply not true. Disagreements abound, yes, and while I won’t say there isn’t any animosity, there’s friendship too. There are also a lot of stereotypes about Jews in general, and rabbis of varying Jewish denominations in particular. Through the microcosm of this book, I want to present some truths—the good, the bad, and the ugly—without the baggage of stereotype and misinformation.
- What reactions do you get from non-Jewish readers?
Very positive ones, I’m happy to say! I was amazed to learn that my first book was being read in university-level comparative religion courses and in church book clubs. I found that there is a real thirst for learning about contemporary American Judaism by Christians wanting to better understand the roots of their own religion (or wanting to understand a Jewish ancestor), by those interested in religion in general, and by those who, in their quest to embrace diversity, have realized that they know very little about the culture, holidays, and beliefs of their Jewish neighbors.
- You have one scene in Strength to Stand that may be particularly disturbing to religious Jews of any denomination. How did you feel as you wrote that scene? Do you think readers will be offended?
Ah yes, that scene. It was a hard scene to write, and I honestly felt a little guilty after I wrote it. I told a friend how I was feeling and she had to remind me, “Sheyna, it’s fiction.” Still, I feel like I need to add a disclaimer that no actual rabbis or Jewish texts were harmed in the making of the book. As to reader response, I hope no one will be offended. I think they will see what Arik saw, that saving a life trumps almost everything else. What I wanted to play with was where to draw that line. How far is too far when trying to save a life?
- Describe what someone would see or hear if they observed you while you’re writing.
If you’d been observing me just the other day, you’d have seen me typing away on my laptop. I then stopped, looking puzzled, and said with big hand movements, “Wait, but that can’t— Really? Are you sure?” I paused, considering the silent answer, then replied, “Okay, but if you can’t get yourself out of this, I’m not helping you.” In other words, I’d look a lot like I’m talking on the telephone while typing on the computer.
- What are you working on next? What’s coming up?
I’m working on several short stories, including a serialized paranormal Jewish police procedural set in Saint Paul, a young adult novel about a teen discovering her Jewish soul in a very unexpected way, and book three (as yet unnamed) in the Rabbi David Cohen series, which centers around domestic violence.
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