Meet Jamie Beth Cohen.
Hi Jamie! Thanks for joining us today. Tell us a little about yourself.
Hi! Thanks for having me. I love what you’re doing on your blog. I’m Jamie Beth Cohen and my debut novel, Wasted Pretty, is about a girl who faces wanted and unwanted attention after inadvertently going from blending in to standing out. Set in Pittsburgh in 1992, it’s about what it meant to come of age before the #metoo movement. Horrible things were happening, but we didn’t necessarily have the language and support to talk about them. Wonderful things were happening, too, and strangely, sometimes those things were hard to talk about as well.
My writing has appeared in TeenVogue.com, The Washington Post/On Parenting, and many other outlets. I also work in higher education, have a background in arts administration, and my favorite job was scooping ice cream when I was sixteen. I am proudly from Pittsburgh, PA, but I now live with my family in Central Pennsylvania where I co-founded the writing group, Write Now Lancaster. I write about difficult things, but my friends think I’m funny.
Let’s start off with something simple. What was the first book character that made you cry?
That’s not simple! I can’t say which character did it, but Tuck Everlasting and Bridge to Terabithia are books that seared in my brain as transformative and really, really sad.
How has the writing community strengthened or weakened you as a writer?
I LOVE my writing communities! And I’m lucky to have a few. There’s my virtual community that’s made up mostly of women and non-binary writers who I’ve met through closed groups on Facebook. I’ve learned SO MUCH from them. There are also the people I’ve met through Twitter pitch parties, contests, and hashtag games like #pitchwars, #pitmad, and #1linewed. But in addition to that, I have my IRL squad – writers in my town and friends all over the world who write. I’ve been writing since I was in second grade, so lots of people I’ve gravitated to over the years have been writers and artists. I’m lucky to still be in touch with lots of them. My husband is also a great writer and often my first reader.
But that doesn’t really tell you what those communities do for me, so to answer your question, my writing communities nurtured me and supported me as I went through the writing and publishing process. They offered advice, constructive criticism, and, sometimes, hard truths. I give back now by doing consults for people who want to break into personal essay writing, as that’s a space in which I’ve already had some success.
Also, I have to give a shout out to my non-writing friends who have always been very patient and supportive of me.
Real vs. fiction – how do you, if you do, incorporate your non-fiction experience into your fiction?
This is a great question. I write both fiction and non-fiction, so if I really want to write about something that has actually happened, and if doing so won’t hurt anyone else, I often write an essay about it. But, my debut is about a sixteen year old in Pittsburgh in 1992, and I was a sixteen year old in Pittsburgh in 1992, so a lot of people have been asking if it’s autobiographical. It’s not. Not in a traditional way. I tried to write authentically about the feelings I had then without constraining myself to the events as they happened. Nothing in the book happened in real life the way it happened in the book, except for the scene where the main character accidentally locks herself in a bathroom in the apartment of a guy she has a crush on. I did that once. I’m very talented!
Were there any books that really spoke to you this year?
I’m a very slow reader, so I have a hard time keeping up with what’s out there. I am obsessed with Tana French, though I haven’t read her latest, and I will not shut up about The Hate U Give and Carnival at Bray and Celeste Ng. As for recent books I’ve read (aside from reading pre-pub manuscripts from other writers, which is a total perk of the writing community!), I have to mention Undead Girl Gang by Lily Anderson; Finding Yvonne by Brandy Colbert; and You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone, by Rachel Lynn Solomon.
What was the hardest thing you had to learn as a writer? What are you still learning?
Honestly, I love every part of the writing process; the publishing process is a different story… I don’t like the gatekeeping; I don’t like pitching (short essays to magazines/newspapers) or querying (full-length pieces to agents or editors); I don’t like the stratification in the publishing industry and how white and elitist it still is (though shout-out to #ownvoices, #divpit and We Need Diverse Books for making headway in that space!).
As far as learning goes…I still have a ton to learn about everything (not just writing!), but nothing I’ve ever learned about writing has felt hard. Eye opening, maybe, frustrating (at times), but I’m always grateful to be pushed to do better.
For Wasted Pretty, what is one thing you want readers to really take away from the story?
I worked for a choreographer once who wouldn’t write program notes for his dances because he wanted each viewer to take away what they wanted to take away from his work. I think there’s wisdom there. If I told you what I wanted you to take away, you might miss something else that spoke to you. What I will say is, this is the book I needed to read when I was sixteen. That’s why I wrote it.
What, to you, makes the best coming of age story?
I’m not sure if I’ve ever read a coming of age story I didn’t like! Personally, I think everything about sixteen was wonderful and amazing, except all the things that were horrible. So I guess, to me, what makes any story a good story is not sugar coating — or exploiting — the bad stuff. I think it’s important to acknowledge that bad things happen, because ignoring them doesn’t make them go away. Ignoring them only thwarts the ability to learn from them.
I also look for an authenticity of emotion and action. Would a real teenager really say or react in the way the characters do?
How did your MC, Alice, inspire/challenge you while writing Wasted Pretty?
Early on I got some feedback that Alice didn’t have enough agency in the book, which I think is one of those things that came directly from my life but didn’t work well on the page. As a teen I was very decisive about small, day-to-day things, but in an overarching way, I was like a pinball that got pushed from one thing to the next pretty easily. As I revised, I think I was able to give Alice more agency, but there’s still an element of her trying to please other people that I hope is working better now.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with the readers today?
I have a mailing list where I share fun stuff like playlists and personal essays. Also, I do live storytelling and occasionally share those videos with my subscribers. Here’s a fun one I can share with your readers. People who want to keep up with me can sign up here: http://www.jamiebethcohen.com/contact
And lastly, there is depiction of sexual violence in Wasted Pretty. It’s not graphic, but it happens, and it’s crucial to the plot. I always like to mention the work RAINN does for anyone who may find themselves in a situation where they need support.