Ask the Author: Jamie Beth Cohen
What would you like readers to know about you?
I think the most important thing for readers to know about me, especially those who are (or who want to be) writers, is that I have a day-job and lots of other authors do, too. When I was a little kid dreaming of being an author, I didn’t think I’d have to have a day-job, but the security it provides me allows me to be creative without constantly worrying about when I might sell my next piece. I’m really lucky to have a job that pays my bills and provides health insurance for my family and also leaves me brain space and time to write. For about twenty years, I was on a great, but gruelling, career path, trying to wedge my writing into any free moment I had. Transitioning from a “career” to a “job” has made a huge difference. Two months after I left my “career” for a “job,” I got paid for a piece of writing by The Washington Post and two years later I got my first book contract.
What is your book about for those who haven’t read it?
WASTED PRETTY is a coming of age YA novel about sixteen-year-old Alice, who juggles wanted and unwanted attention when she inadvertently goes from blending in to standing out. It’s also about families, addiction, body image, and how complicated it can be for girls to define themselves within and outside of the male gaze.
What has been your inspiration for writing it?
My husband and I were watching a really bad TV show in which a politician’s kid is kidnapped, and the kidnappers pull out the kid’s tooth because he was “chipped,” the way you would chip a pet. We started talking about whether or not that was a real thing and if so, would we do that to our kids when they got older. This has literally NOTHING to do with anything in WASTED PRETTY, but the conversation got me thinking about all the things I learned when I was “off the grid” so-to-speak. I was a teen before smartphones and social media. My parents were overprotective — and I was mostly a rule-follower — but I found ways to get around some of their mandates and ended up learning a lot about myself when they didn’t know where I was, and I didn’t have a safety net. WASTED PRETTY is set in Pittsburgh (where I grew up) in 1992 and Alice, the main character, is often not where her parents think she is. This creates a situation in which she has secrets from them for the first time, and then she discovers they have secrets from her, too.
What was your favorite scene or part of your book to write?
I loved writing the character of Johnny. I love how he uses humor to diffuse tension in any situation and how he can basically see what’s going to happen before it does, but people rarely take him seriously because he’s seen as a lovable goofball. I’ve known a lot of guys like that in my life, and Johnny is my homage to all of them.
What books or authors inspired you to become a writer?
This is a tough one for me because some of my writing idols have been exposed recently as people who have made really bad choices and/or stand for harmful things. Also, as a kid, I wasn’t a voracious reader, so there are few authors whose whole body of work I have read and loved. To this day, I am a slow reader with not a lot of time to read, so my “to be read” pile is higher than my “recently read” list is long, however I have known since second grade that I wanted to be a writer. I’ve always said that being a writer wasn’t a choice for me, it was just how I processed the things around me. And when I saw published writers doing the same thing, I thought, oh, maybe someone might want to read all this stuff I’m processing, too. So, I gravitate towards writers — fiction and non — who focus on transparency and authenticity with strong narrative arcs. Some recent favorites are The Carnival At Bray by Jessie Ann Foley, What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker by Damon Young and The Fact of A Body by Alex Marzano-Lesnevich.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors who want to write a book?
You do not have to write every day. It’s great if you can and you do (I’m jealous of you!), but for years I thought my schedule meant I couldn’t achieve my goals. Now I know I’m someone who needs large blocks of time a few times a week rather than a daily practice. While it would be amazing if I could find or make the time to write every day, if I can’t, I can still get things done, and so can you.
Similarly, the advice to “read, read, read,” is sound, but often frustrated me as a slow reader with a short attention span. You should absolutely be reading, especially in your genre, but try not to get overwhelmed by all the amazing books out there.
Lastly, a thick, thick skin is necessary. And for me, that only came with time. The first time I got a request for a full manuscript from an agent, I thought I was going to pass out. When she declined to represent me a few weeks later, I thought I’d cry for days. Now, I frequently get rejections from editors to whom I’m pitching essays, and they barely even register. I just log them in my spreadsheet and move on. I don’t think I could have learned this any other way than by going through it, so don’t be afraid to just try.