Most lead characters in mysteries aren’t like Tootsie Goldberg.
They might be funny, like Tootsie. They might be gutsy, like Tootsie. They might even, perhaps, be the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. There are such niche mysteries.
But Tootsie is all those things. She’s also a 50-something woman, she’s Jewish, she lives in New Jersey — and she is the brainchild of Miriam Allenson of Clifton, the daughter that the mother of three (much-adored!) sons doesn’t have.
Or maybe she’s her alter ego.
“To my mind, Tootsie is who I always wanted to be,” Ms. Allenson said. “She’s 5 foot 2” — that’s short, granted, but Ms. Allenson strains to make 5 feet — “and she’s thin, a size 6. A lot of transference. And people I know tell me that when they read Tootsie’s books, they can hear me talking.”
Ms. Allenson will talk about Tootsie for the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Women’s Philanthropy Group on Wednesday. (See box.)
Ms. Allenson came to Tootsie circuitously, and she sees the books she’s written about Tootsie — two are in print so far, with a third just about ready — as the culmination of her experiences.
What she’s learned is you should write as yourself. If you’re true to yourself — assuming, of course, that you can write, and that you can tell a story — it will flow. If you try to write as someone else, or as you think someone else will want you to write, it will come out in forced blotches.
And if you’re deeply Jewish, you might as well incorporate it openly, because it will underpin everything anyway.
Miriam Schulman was born on Staten Island and grew up in Teaneck, well before the township became the Jewish Mecca it since has become; her parents were active in the Jewish community there. She married Andy Allenson and the two moved to North Carolina, where she began her career in radio by managing the local NPR station. “It flipped to hard rock, and I stayed on,” she said. “It was weird, but it was fun.” Next, she worked for the media company Westwood One. Then she moved from audio to communications in general, at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, where she managed communications and media relations.
After many years there, she went to the Jewish Federation of Rockland County; most recently, she did freelance media consulting. But now, finally, doing what she most loves, she’s writing full time.
“This book” — “When She Gets Hot,” the first in the series — “was not the first book I ever wrote,” Ms. Allenson said. “I wrote a whole bunch of books. It was like I was reacting to what people told me I should write.” She knew that she wanted to be an author, she said, and market research showed her that the thing to write if you want to support yourself as a writer is romance fiction.
She’s not talking about literary fiction — writing a novel in that category is wonderful, but unless you’re really good and also really lucky, it doesn’t pay, and unless you’re independently wealthy, being paid matters — but she is talking about mass market books. Those are small paperbacks that you can find all over, in supermarkets and drug stores as well as in bookstores. They tend to be addictive; once you as a reader are hooked on them, you need more and more.
Ms. Allenson was convinced that romance writing was the way to go.
“I was very alone in my writing,” she said. “Between being in places where there were no other writers around — we lived in North Carolina for 12 1/2 years — and when we came back here, I didn’t really get around that much. And I spent a long time telling myself that I wasn’t good enough.
“I had the art part of writing but not the craft part. And I wouldn’t take a writing class in case I found out that I really couldn’t write.
“But I found a writers’ group, the New Jersey Romance Writers.”
She learned about the craft of writing there — such basics as goal, motivation, and conflict. Basic storytelling.
“So fast-forward a bunch of years,” she said. “I wrote three romances. It took me forever. There was a lot of self-criticism. And I also joined a critique group. The way that was set up, we would read someone else’s work out loud, and everyone would offer a critique.
“So this woman was reading my work, and she was laughing. I was insulted. I said, ‘Why are you laughing? Are you laughing at me?’ And she said ‘Don’t you understand? I’m laughing because this is hysterical!’
“That’s how I found out that I write funny. I had no earthly idea. Because I was sure that I wasn’t any good, so why did it matter how I wrote?”
She wrote three romances, and self-published them. “None of them did very well,” she said. She was still a consultant; she kept that day job.
“But then along comes covid. That was a paradigm shift for a lot of people. For a lot of writers. For me.
“In 2012, I started to write a book about Tootsie Goldberg, who was 50 years old. I wrote probably half the book. I had an absolutely fabulous time writing it. That had never happened to me before. It had been painful to write the others. But I shouted out to a woman who will remain nameless, but she is multi-published, and incredibly successful, and she said to me, ‘You can’t write a romance about a woman who is 50 years old.’
“Back in 2012, I was letting other people tell me what I should think and what I should do.
“But then when covid happened, I said to myself that I was not going to let that happen anymore.
“So I finished the book. And I showed it to my critique group, and they all said, ‘Ohmygod write this book now.’ And I did. And they laughed their heads off and encouraged me to publish it.”
The critique group members all are published writers, and they had practical advice for Ms. Allenson. “They said you have to have three books ready to be published at once, if you are going to be able to monetize your career. So I wrote two more books.
“It took me a relatively small time. It took me seven years to write my first romance, four years to write the second one, and two years to write the third. The first Tootsie took me probably a year in total, the second took eight months, and the third took six weeks.”
She loves writing about Tootsie. “She makes me laugh myself. Tootsie is me without the guardrails. Tootsie will say and do things that Miriam never would say or do, but she would if she could get away with them.”
Mass-market fiction now often is written for specific groups — say women from the Indian subcontinent, or Black women — by members of that group. So why not for over-50 Jewish women?
“I wanted to write a Jewish character in such a way that somebody in Nebraska could read this and say, ‘Ohmygod, this woman has hot flashes? So do I! Ohmygod, this woman gets parking tickets? I get parking tickets too!’” (Ms. Allenson isn’t exactly sure if people in Nebraska get parking tickets, but the point is clear.) “‘This woman lost her job through no fault of her own? That happened to me too! I can relate.’
“But underneath that, I want the books to be about Jewish principles,” Ms. Allenson said. “I’m not observant, but I think of myself as a Jewish person every single day of my life. And I share that in my books. So even though I write madcap, underneath every story that I write there is a serious problem that has to be resolved, from a Jewish point of view.”
The books are mysteries — they’re not murder mysteries. “Nobody dies in these books,” Ms. Allenson said. “Tootsie always is threatened, and the book is about how she deals with those threats.”
Ms. Allenson’s books are available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and her website, miriamallenson.com.
Who: Miriam Allenson
What: Will talk about her Tootsie Goldberg series for the Women’s Philanthropy Group, part of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey
When: On Wednesday, June 28, at 7 p.m.
Where: At the federation’s Paramus offices
How much: $10
For more information and reservations:
Go to JFNNJ.org/BookandAuthor