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It’s never too late

Miriam Allenson publishes her first novel

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Miriam Allenson, shown here in her JFNNJ office, has published her first novel.

Miriam Shulman Allenson of Clifton always knew that one day she’d write a book.

It’s a fantasy shared by many bookish children, the ones who wander around with books held out in front of them, tripping over chairs, walking into walls, seeing the stories in their heads more clearly than the world in front of them.

If every single one of those children wrote books, there would be no room for anything else in this world. Most forget those dreams.

But Ms. Allenson did write a book. It took her decades, but now not only is she the director of marketing services for the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, she is also the author of “For the Love of the Dame,” a hefty paperback romance available through Amazon.

How she did it – and the book, it must be said, is a real one, with developed characters, a genuine plot, written within a genre but not a slave to it, and a book that has attracted reviews from other real writers – might be instructive for aspiring authors.

Growing up on Staten Island and then in Teaneck, Ms. Allenson wrote and read constantly. “I don’t know that there wasn’t a time when I wasn’t writing, although I didn’t call myself a writer until I was a full adult,” she said. She wrote poetry and quoted Shakespeare, at length. “I memorized sonnets; I think that people got bored with my quoting them so I kept them to myself. Who wants to hear an overly dramatic recitation of a Shakespearean sonnet?”

Her father, a chemist, traveled in Europe; he brought home souvenirs. He was in England around the time that Queen Elizabeth II was coronated. “He brought back a booklet about the history of the English crown from pre-Norman times until the coronation,” Ms. Allenson said. “It had a picture of the state orb and scepter, and of Queen Victoria in a stately black gown. It was so romantic!

“I just fell in love with the whole thing. I memorized all the kings and queens of England – I was so disappointed as an adult to learn that so many of them were anti-Semitic.”

Another of her early literary influences was Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe,” with its fierce, beautiful Jewish heroine, Rebecca, who lost out to the wimpy, simpering, blonde Christian, Lady Rowena, but who gave heart and courage to generation of Jewish girls.

Ms. Allenson loved Teaneck. “I went to Teaneck High School – I graduated in 1960. Teaneck was a fabulous town; it was a place where many people who worked at the United Nations lived.

“That was where I met the first teacher who made a difference for me. It was my 11th-grade English teacher, Mr. Church. I swore he waxed his bald head, and he had rings on all his fingers, and he carried a stylized cane. We had to write a term paper to graduate, and I picked, of all things, the 1952 McCarran-Walter Immigration Act. I picked it because both sets of my grandparents were immigrants.

“I knew that my paternal grandfather couldn’t get into this country legally even though his brother was here, but he was a peddler, and he got into Canada and walked across the border. It’s hard for me to imagine how he did it – he slept in people’s barns and ate only potatoes, because he kept kosher.

“So we had to write an outline for these term papers, and I didn’t want to do that, so I said to Mr. Church, ‘You know, Ernest Hemingway never wrote an outline.’ And he said, ‘You’re not Ernest Hemingway.'”

Ms. Allenson went to Syracuse University, and spent her junior year in Italy, where she reveled in the glories that art majors like her could stare at in the country’s multitude of museums, galleries, and churches. By the time she returned home, she had her life planned. “I was going to be a simultaneous translator at the United Nations – but then I met my husband.”

She married Andrew Allenson; the couple had three sons. The family lived in North Carolina for many years. Ms. Allenson has always loved opera, in that over-the-top way common to both opera lovers and opera itself. A public radio station – WTEB in New Bern, N.C., had just opened there, “and I volunteered for them because no one there could pronounce Mozart. Within three weeks they asked me to go on air, and I was a on-air personality for five years.” She also became the station manager.

“When we moved back here, I became station manager for WNCN, a classical radio station that flipped format to hard rock. I stayed on as a marketing manager, and I found that I could like Metallica as much as I like Mozart. Or Guns n’ Roses as much as Grieg. Could – and do.”

All of this, it turned out, provided useful life experience for her writing career.

Ms. Allenson knew that she wanted to write a romance – “something with a happy ending.” She was a romance reader, so she knew the form intimately, and could write it not condescendingly but honestly. “I started three or four books; I forced my way through them,” she said. “I never finished anything.

“Now I know why, but I didn’t know then. I would tell myself that I couldn’t write, and I would stop for a while, but being any kind of artist is having an obsession. It won’t leave you alone and it won’t leave you alone and it won’t leave you alone. Now, at this point of my life, I understand that I can’t not write. It’s not possible for me.

“I was at that point an artist – a writer – but I didn’t know the craft.

“Of the books I wrote during those 10 years, only one is publishable. There are a number of reasons for that. I knew about words, and I knew that there had to be a goal, a motivation, in a story, and a conflict and a character arc, and I understood that there are prototypical types in all literature, but I had no idea what to do with that. So I just bulled my way through.

“People said that there was not enough conflict, so I put in not one but a zillion conflicts. So then there was no focus. How I think is apparently a little wacked out, and people think it’s funny.

“I didn’t even understand that I could write funny until I was in a critique group where people’s work was read out loud. The woman who was reading mine started to read, but she couldn’t, because she was laughing too hard. I was insulted at first. I thought she was laughing at me.” Eventually, she said, “I realized that she was laughing because it was funny.”

Ms. Allenson took classes, but it took many years to find the right teachers; she’s taken workshops and is now in a supportive and bracing writing group that she adores. The three other women in the group all are published writers.

“Every single month I brought another chapter to them,” she said. “We took this book and we wrestled it to the ground.”

There is nothing particularly Jewish about this book except that it comes from her thoroughly Jewish sensibility, she said – the protagonists are an opera singer and a major league baseball player – and the book that comes next will be similarly general. But her third book – which is already largely written – “has a heroine whose name is Tootsie Goldberg. She’s definitely Jewish. She’s me.

“She’s the first character that I’ve ever written that’s me – but she does things that I would never dare to do.”

But, Ms. Allenson said, one thing she can and did dare to do was write a book. It doesn’t matter how old you are, and it doesn’t matter what your life experience has been, she said. If the book is bursting inside you – let it out.

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