photo courtesy of Michelle Johnson photography
With Jamie Beth Cohen:
Q1: When did you start writing and first influences?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was in second grade (a long time ago!). That was the year I wrote “Strawberry Seasons: a play in four acts.” I had been given a Strawberry Shortcake board game that I loved, but no one in my family loved it as much as I did. I ended up playing alone a lot and writing down the scenarios I made up for Strawberry Shortcake and her friends (the other game pieces).
I’m not sure about writing influences when I was 7 years old. I wasn’t actually a huge reader when I was kid. I read slowly, which made it hard to keep up with assignments in school and makes it hard to keep up with my TBR pile now. But I did, and do, watch a lot of TV and my when I was a kid, my family went to the movies a lot, which is why I think my writing is often referred to as cinematic.
Q2: Who are your biggest influences today?
Jamie Beth: Although I’m known for writing fiction, I’m actually working on a memoir right now, so I’ve been reading a lot of amazing memoirs and creative non-fiction. I love the work of Lilly Dancyger, Emma Copley Eisenberg, Myriam Gurba, T Kira Madden, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, and Carmen Maria Machado.
Q3: Any pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
Jamie Beth: I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but the first time I was paid for words I wrote was a really amazing moment. I don’t think you have to be paid for your writing to be a writer, but when you’ve been writing since you were nine, being paid for the first time for a piece in your forties is a pretty big deal!
Q4: Who has helped you most with writing?
Jamie Beth: I credit my dad with my ability to write a clean narrative with a good arc, my mom for catching all my spelling and comma errors, my brother for ignoring me when we were kids (lol – see above), and my husband for handling the kids and things around the house when I need to carve out writing time. Also, the people I’ve met in the writing community (via Twitter and Facebook and in person in the Lancaster, PA community) push me, support me, hype me, and are always available to answer questions, read a draft, or provide helpful feedback. My community is invaluable.
Q5: Where did you grow up and how did that influence your writing & did any travels away from home influence your work?
I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA and it’s the setting of (and almost a character in) my first novel. I feel fortunate to have grown up in Pittsburgh in the 1980s and 1990s. It was a great city to grow up in — the perfect size to have a lot of cultural opportunities and diversity, but not so big it was overwhelming.
Although I’m a writer, I’m actually not particularly creative. I’m a literal and linear writer, reader, and thinker, so even when I write fiction, I like to set it in real places I’ve been. Luckily, I traveled extensively as a kid thanks to my father’s job, so I have a lot of places and memories to pull from. I also lived in New York City from 1997-2007 (aside from a year in College Park, MD), and I frequently write about my time in the city.
Q6: What do you consider your most meaningful work you’ve done creatively so far to you?
Jamie Beth: I tend to write about dark things, but a piece I wrote about a difficult point in my marriage that had an uncharacteristically happy and hopeful message is one of my favorites, mostly because so many people have reached out to me to tell me that it helped them.
I knew when I was writing it that it would be meaningful to people beyond my family. I had hoped to place it in a major market, and I imagined it going viral, but that didn’t happen. It found a home in Entropy, a non-paying market, but the editor was lovely, the publication process was easy, and still, a year later, I hear from people who stumble upon it exactly when they need it. That means a lot to me.
Q7: Favorite activities to relax?
Jamie Beth: Relax? What is this “relax” of which you speak? Just kidding! (Sort of.)
I work a full-time job, have two young kids, and I’m active in social justice work in my community, so I don’t have a lot of downtime, but I do listen to a lot of true crime podcasts, which I find strangely relaxing.
Q8: What is a favorite line/stanza from a poem of yours or others?
Jamie Beth: Courtney LeBlanc is an amazing poet. Her poem “To My Ex Who Asked If Every Poem Was About Him” from her new book “Exquisite, Bloody, Beating Heart,” cut me to the bone.
“…I wish you a daughter who writes poetry filled
with metaphors about a complicated family relationship. I wish
you a football team that never makes the play-offs and a son
who’s an average soccer player. I wish you this poem popping
up first the next time you Google me.”
I put a pic of the whole poem on my instafeed and a bunch of my friends were knocked out by it, so I bought them all the book. I really encourage people to do this, if they’re able. Buy poetry. Buy it from independent bookstores or directly from small presses. This is the best way to help the presses and the poets.
Q9: Any recent or forthcoming projects that you’d like to promote?
Jamie Beth: My first novel, WASTED PRETTY, came out in 2019. It follows Alice Burton, a sixteen year old in Pittsburgh, who is managing her own burgeoning sexlife in the aftermath of a sexual assault. It’s heavy — but also realistic and occasionally funny — and though it’s set in the 1990s, it’s sadly timely. Its sequel, LIMINAL SUMMER, comes out in November 2021. It takes place five years later as Alice graduates college and tries to figure out what being an adult actually means. I’ve also been doing some consultations for new writers where I bring them up to speed on everything I’ve learned about writing and publishing in the last decade (including selling book-length projects and placing essays in major markets) and help them come up with actionable next steps on their journey. I also host a podcast called “There’s a Column for That!” about spreadsheets and the people (including many writers!) who love them.
photo courtesy of Mark Pontz Photography
WASTED PRETTY on goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/45431519-wasted-pretty
Pre-Order LIMINAL SUMMER: https://www.blackrosewriting.com/womens/liminalsummer
There’s a Column for That! (podcast): https://twitter.com/column_pod