“Is there kosher food in jail? These two heroines have gotten themselves in quite a pickle! Well, it’s a matzoh ball mess, really. Too deliciously funny!”
—Rita Mae Brown, bestselling author of Nine Lives to Die
Yom Kippur is a day of reflection and soul searching. But at the Julius and Rebecca Cohen Home for Jewish Seniors, Vera Gold misses this opportunity to atone for her many sins when she up and dies. Indeed, Vera was such a pain in the tuchis to all those around her that when her sister claims Vera was deliberately poisoned, the tough question isn’t who would want to kill her—but who wouldn’t?
Having already solved one murder with her dear friend Ida, Rose Kaplan has a sleuthing reputation that precedes her. It’s only natural that Vera’s sister turns to Mrs. K for help. So do the police, but when her conclusions conflict with theirs, they tell her to butt out! This case has more twists than a loaf of challah. And with a homicidal scoundrel on the loose, Mrs. K has to act fast—or she might be the guest of honor at the Home’s next memorial service.
Mark stopped by to chat about A Pain in the Tuchis, his second Rose Kaplan mystery.
Q: Mark, please tell us a little bit more about Rose Kaplan. Is she modeled on a real person? And how do you write a convincing female character?
A: Mrs. K is really a composite of many older Jewish women I’ve known, including my own and my wife’s grandmothers. In my mind I can actually hear them speaking as I’m writing their dialogue, so maybe it’s Mrs. K who slips into my head. But I do try to put myself in her shoes, if not her head, and ask myself how she would react in a given situation. As for female characters, now that you mention it, I do seem to have more female than male characters—especially protagonists—in my novels, and not just the Mrs. Kaplan stories. Made in China, for example, has a very strong female protagonist. Perhaps it’s because I tend to observe women more than I observe men. But I have to admit I’ve had to ask my wife and some of my female friends how a woman would likely react to certain situations into which I’ve written my female characters.
Q: A Pain in the Tuchis has been compared to M.C. Beaton’s delightful Agatha Raisin series. Is the title “Matzoh Ball of Death” an homage to Beaton’s Quiche of Death?
A: Not really. To be honest, I’d only read one Agatha Raisin story before writing “Matzoh Ball,” although I’ve read several more since then. The title actually began as a subtitle; the original title was “Mrs. Kaplan in the Soup, or the Matzoh Ball of Death.” I shortened it to make it more catchy before submitting it to Random House.
Q: Do you expect to continue the series? If so, do you plan to keep Rose and the other characters unchanged, or will they grow and change as time passes?
A: I haven’t decided yet whether to continue the series and may wait to see how this second book is received. I do, however, have several ideas for story lines if I continue. I most likely would keep Rose and Ida largely unchanged. If they became much older or their circumstances changed significantly, the nature of the stories would have to change as well. That’s not to say we won’t learn more about them with each story, and therefore they’ll become more well-rounded characters. So even if they don’t change much, a reader’s perception of them probably will.
Q: As a law professor and a nonfiction author, you’ve written a lot of serious stuff. Does any of what you’ve learned–the discipline of writing, plotting things out, doing research– transfer to your humorous fiction writing?
A: Absolutely. Writing legal articles and treatises, even writing examinations, requires one to write clearly and efficiently and to structure a book, a chapter, a paragraph, or a sentence so as to make it easy for the reader to understand. Writing novels requires the same discipline. To a large extent writing is writing, and issues of grammar, syntax, usage, and all the other elements that go into a clear, readable paragraph are basically the same no matter what the subject. Research is also very much the same whether I am looking for the origin of the Rule Against Perpetuities (don’t ask) or the meaning of a Yiddish curse. It just requires a different set of source materials. But in some respects writing fiction and nonfiction are quite different. A law treatise must be unfailingly accurate—with footnotes for every proposition—and it leaves little room for creativity. Writing fiction, I can exercise my imagination and create whatever worlds I wish, according to my own rules. It’s quite a liberating feeling. As for the humor, there isn’t much opportunity for it in legal writing, although I always included it wherever I could, even in my exams (although my students may not have noticed). When I’m writing fiction, of course, I can inject humor whenever and wherever I wish, even in an otherwise serious story.
Q: Is there a real life model for the Julius and Rebecca Cohen Home for Jewish Seniors?
A: Like the characters in my stories, the Home is a composite of several with which I’ve had experience. My parents and my wife’s parents spent many years in retirement homes, some excellent and some far from it, some Jewish and some not. I’ve met many residents and employees of such facilities, and I’ve heard numerous stories (from funny to tragic) about the residents. So both the Home and its residents, and many of the story lines, have origins in real life.
Q: If your series were adapted for television or movies, whom do you see in the different roles?
A: That’s a difficult question. The two best candidates for Mrs. Kaplan’s role are no longer with us: Gertrude Berg, who played Molly Goldberg on radio and television in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s, and Molly Picon. Ditto Bea Arthur.
Current possibilities would include Meryl Streep, Judi Dench, and Helen Mirren.
Q: What’s next for you and Mrs. Kaplan?
A: I’m presently updating a treatise on the law of wills. When that’s done, I want to switch back to fiction and finish a thriller manuscript I’ve been working on and find a home for it. As for Mrs. K, should I continue the series, I’m playing with several ideas for future stories. For example, I think I’d like Mrs. K and Ida to spend a little more time outside the Home, adding more variety to the settings and characters. But I’m sure most of the characters I’ve already developed, like Mr. Pupik and Mrs. Bissela, would be back.
ENTER TO WIN!
Mark Reutlinger is the author of the novels Mrs. Kaplan and the Matzoh Ball of Death and Made in China. A professor of law emeritus at Seattle University, Reutlinger was born in San Francisco, graduated from UC Berkeley, and now lives with his wife, Analee, in University Place, Washington.