My guest this week is Phil M. Cohen, a Jewish novelist who creates a dystopian future of uncooperative machines, a messianic Jewish cult, and the quest for control over a powerful new drug. He uses humor and scifi to discover the meaning of being Jewish in a chaotic world.
Phil's book, Nick Bones Underground, combines the Jewish wit of Michael Chabon with the sci-fi absurdity of Douglas Adams. The backdrop to this story is a dystopia, where machines stop working, or just evolve other priorities, and an economic collapse that further stratified the world.
It's the classic Holmes and Watson, but with Holmes a middle-aged Jewish professor and Watson a wise-cracking, gender-switching computer.
A few highlights from our interview:
On Rediscovering His Judaism
I would say I was a little obsessed about getting a handle on what I had just spent six weeks studying that was all totally brand new to me. It was a world that I never encountered before. Out of that came a desire, not so much to become a rabbi to be on the pulpit, but to become a rabbi because that seemed the best way to get the Jewish education I suddenly wished I'd had.
On Two Faces of Religion in His Book
So there is this contrast that, on the one hand, religion offers values and practices. And on the other hand, particularly charismatic people who work under the banner of being religious can find themselves audiences that are easily persuaded in terms of what they have to teach and they can be manipulated.
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Listen to my Interview with Phil Cohen
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About the Host
Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and has spent the last six years amplifying the voices of independent publishers and authors. He works with authors as a book editor to prepare their work to be published. Howard is also a freelance writer specializing in Jewish issues whose work appears regularly in Publishers Weekly, the Jewish Daily Forward, and Longreads. Find Howard at howardlovy.com, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Read the Transcript
Howard Lovy: I'm Howard Lovy, and you're listening to Inspirational Indie Authors. Every week I feature a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors to find out what inspires them and how they are an inspiration to other authors. My guest this week is Phil M. Cohen, whose new novel creates a dystopian future of uncooperative machines, a messianic Jewish cult and the quest for control over a powerful new drug. He uses humor and sci-fi to discover the meaning of being Jewish in a chaotic world.
Phil M. Cohen: My name is Phil M. Cohen, and I'm talking to Howard today in recognition of the fact that come the end of November I have my first novel coming out called Nick Bones Underground. It's the first in what I hope to be at least a trilogy that takes place in a near future dystopian reality in which this character who is a college professor who gets involved in detective cases.
This book allowed me to both create this world that had a great deal of fun creating characters, which turned out also to be very fun. In particular, the character Nick Friedman, who acquires for himself the nickname Nick Bones, and his computer, who also follows certain tropes, I guess, in robotics or computers, thinking and I believe the reader thinks that by the end of the book, that she's crossed over from being a machine to being a human being. And together, the two of them go through this reality, meeting a bunch of interesting characters that are not only fun, but have, I think, serious dramatic overtones.
Howard Lovy: And there's something else that Phil did not mention. He's also a rabbi.
Phil M. Cohen: Well, like, I would say, most American Jews of my generation, I had a bare bones Jewish education, had a Bar Mitzvah, went to the synagogue and somewhere along the way afterwards fell away, had very little involvement in either my Jewish identity or the ideas about religion or philosophy until my senior year. And then I became interested in philosophy, not so much in religion, though I had an interest in Israel.
So after college, I found myself with a couple of bucks and I took myself on a trip across Europe that terminated in Israel, where one morning I'm at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and this fellow in the garb of ultra-Orthodox Jews comes up to me and invites me to come have lunch at the school that he works for in a yeshiva.
So I went and had lunch and it turns out that this yeshiva specialized in educating mostly American Jews and I had lunch and it sounded intriguing, and it didn't cost anything. So I went and hung out there for about six weeks and got a basic education in Orthodox Judaism, the texts, the practices, the lifestyle and that, coupled with the fact that my professional interest had not yet formulated itself, married each other.
And when I came back to the States, I was more than really intrigued, I would say I was a little obsessed about getting a handle on what I had just spent six weeks studying that was all totally brand new to me. It was a world that I never encountered before. Out of that came a desire, not so much to become a rabbi to be on the pulpit, but to become a rabbi because that seemed the best way to get the Jewish education I suddenly wished I'd had.
Howard Lovy: Phil's career as a rabbi has been varied, to say the least. He has been an educator, college professor, Hillel director and pulpit rabbi. Along the way, he also earned a Master of Fine Arts degree, where he wrote a paper on rabbis who wrote novels. This confirmed something he always wanted to try himself.
Phil M. Cohen: I've always played around with little bits of short stories. Writing sermons is something every rabbi does so I can't say that I was especially masterful in writing sermons. But I've always been interested in writing in various ways scholarship, sermons, blog posts along the way, but sometime during my dissertation, so this book is older than you think it is. And sometime during my dissertation, as a kind of a relief from working on the academic stuff, I had this idea in my head and I potchkied away at writing something that got to about 100 pages.
And I didn't just delete it and forget about it, it laid there. And some time later I showed it to a friend of mine who liked it enough for me to say “All right, let's see what I can do with this.” And I found out that I not only enjoyed it, but had enough of a skill at it I decided I wanted to try pursuing it.
Howard Lovy: What he pursued was a story that covered many different themes. There are two very distinct sides to this book, one presents religion as life affirming and meaningful and another is a Messianic Jewish cult.
Phil M. Cohen: So there is this contrast that, on the one hand, religion offers values and practices. And on the other hand, particularly charismatic people who work under the banner of being religious can find themselves audiences that are easily persuaded in terms of what they have to teach and they can be manipulated.
Howard Lovy: The backdrop to this story is a dystopia, or machines stop working or just evolve other priorities and an economic collapse that further stratified the world.
Phil M. Cohen: What was on my mind was how people cope with difficult social situations. And this is an event that begins with an economic calamity that then puts people into very difficult situations, including a whole world that exists underneath, beneath New York City in the old subway. The subway no longer runs so all the subway stations become occupied by people who escaped what they call “The Upstairs.”
You know, I explore this a little bit in this book, and I think I'll explore it again and maybe more deeply in the sequel, that the people who flee Downstairs find themselves impoverished. They find themselves in situations where it's difficult to make a living, and yet somehow they collectively managed to believe they're building, at least, an ideal society that, again, stands in contrast with the New York City that's above them.
Howard Lovy: Now we're making it sound like Nick Bones Underground is a serious book. But no, it uses humor a great deal. It has sex, drugs and even a cameo from a famous rock and roll star. Let's call Nick Bones Underground, a combination of the Jewish wit of Michael Chabon and the sci-fi absurdity of Douglas Adams.
Phil M. Cohen: The main source of the humor is Nick Bones' computer who at the very beginning we learn had a male voice when he bought a computer and one night performs self surgery through X's and O's, changes an algorithm and becomes a woman because he came to feel that he was a female computer trapped in a male computer's algorithm. She's both the voice of wisdom, but also the voice of great sarcasm.
Howard Lovy: It's the classic Holmes and Watson. But with Holmes a somewhat depressed middle-aged Jewish professor, and Watson, a wisecracking Alexa or Siri. Phil sees Nick Bones Underground as the first in a trilogy, exploring these characters in the world he's created. His advice to other authors? Keep writing, of course, but also work on educating yourself on how to write.
Phil M. Cohen: I can't tell you how many people who told me “I have a book I want to write it” and I'll tell them, “You know what the first thing you’ve got to do is?” And the answer is you've got to write. So, my continuing advice to myself and to others is to find the discipline and these last couple months I've been kind of undisciplined about actual writing, focusing more on getting this book out and also having a pulpit, it's a part time pulpit, but I've been consumed with the High Holidays.
I guess my advice would be “Write but also don't assume that what your writing is Hemingway quality. Always get as much education about writing as you can in whatever ways, find a writers group, take a course, there's no shortage of really good books on the craft of writing.
Howard Lovy: Oh, and one more thing Phil says, “Find a good editor.” And in the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that he did find a good editor for his book. It was me.
You've been listening to Inspirational Indie Authors. I'm Howard Lovy. If you are a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors and would like to be considered for the show, please write to me at [email protected] and tell me what inspires you and how you can inspire other authors.
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