Here is a second conversation on the craft of writing from an interview series I started as a graduate student. This time my interviewee was author and memoirist Kerry Cohen, well known for her books Loose Girl and Seeing Ezra. Kerry also writes young adult books, and thanks to her, I was inspired to write my first young adult book. Or maybe I should blame her…
How long have you been writing?
I started writing seriously in college. That’s when I really knew I wanted to pursue it as a career. I got serious near the end of college, probably ’92. I was writing fiction. When I did my MFA, I studied short stories. Now that I teach in an MFA, I feel that people need to learn to write through short forms. People who are learning to write shouldn’t be thinking about publishing yet. They should be thinking about learning.
How long have you considered yourself a writer?
Probably after my MFA, which I did pretty quickly after college. I had a couple short stories published and I was writing. That’s what it takes to be a writer, write and study writing. Writers write. Being a writer is like a lifestyle. It’s just who you are. If you look at the world like a writer then you read like a writer and think about the world as a writer.
Do you believe in the adage that in order to be a writer you have to write every day?
No. It’s so dangerous. I am a binge writer. I set up times here and there when I write. Some people write regularly, but it doesn’t work for me. The more experienced you get as a writer the less you need to work your writing muscles every day. Younger writers should try it when they start out, but it’s not a requirement to be a successful writer.
Is it easier or harder to be a writer in Portland? What is the community like here?
It’s easier. There’s a lot more support. We as a community are much more accepting of people who determine themselves writers. We don’t demand as much. You can be a bigger fish here. I love the writing community here because of that support.
On the other hand, we all know too much about each other. There’s a group of social writers in Portland and a group of less social writers. So the same people will show up to the readings. The good thing is that you get to know all these people.
What are you working on now?
I have my first adult fiction book finished. Now, I’m working on my second adult novel—women’s fiction. The one I’m working on now is from the perspective of a stepmother, an unreliable narrator, whose stepson goes missing. She’s telling the story in letters to her daughter. It’s a mix of We Need to Talk About Kevin and Gone Girl.
What is the difference (in approach, editing, etc.) between writing fiction and nonfiction?
I feel that I am more of a memoirist than a fiction writer. I started studying fiction and memoir wasn’t really around. When I started studying memoir I started seeing how I connected to it. The challenge of memoir is form and how you approach it. The difficulty I see with my students is honing in one theme. It’s not autobiography. I’m good at finding themes, but form is always the challenge. I think memoirs are out right now because we’ve reached our capacity. But I think they will come back.
I don’t have as good of an imagination as other fiction writers. They want to imagine how it would be to be like somebody else. I’m not that interested in that. I’m interested in women’s issues, sexuality, and body image. I use fiction to explore these ideas intellectually and emotionally.
What led you to write YA? How has the experience and audience response been different from writing for adults?
I got stuck as a teenager emotionally. The issues I was interested in exploring were really relevant to then. I love teenagers. It was a great place to explore fiction. You still have to be a good writer and have the craft elements, but there is a bit more leeway than there is with literary fiction to play around with things like form. It’s easier to do something interesting. I imagine someday I will go back to writing another YA book.
I interact more so with my YA audience. Loose Girl appealed to both adults and teens. The beauty of Loose Girl is that it has a fan base that starts as young as thirteen. The YA crossover thing is really big right now. It’s where I shine. YA audiences are more willing to contact you. They’re adorable.
How do you balance working as a psychotherapist with working as a writer? How does one inform the other?
Right now, I’m not practicing. I am pursuing my doctorate. Because I teach so much, I don’t have time to practice therapy. My goal long term is to have my own practice, teach at the low-residency MFA, and write.
When I did [practice] it had a very obvious connection to writing. Therapy is work to some extent, but it’s really sitting in a seat all day and saying, “I see you, I see you.” For me, writing memoir and fiction help me form my basic belief around mental health, spirituality, and purpose. We need narratives in our lives that make sense to us and redeem us. It’s an understanding of that narrative that gives us purpose. That is one of my approaches to therapy: helping give people purpose.
Tell me about your experiences as a woman writer.
As a writer it doesn’t affect anything except maybe my interests. The writing that is most respected in our country is “male issues.” The writing that makes the most money is “female issues” because more women are reading. My reception as a writer is different because I am a woman. The biggest criticism I have [of my memoir] is that it’s a conservative cautionary tale telling girls not to have sex, which it’s not. A lot of people project on me. I receive a lot of anger for it.
If you write a memoir, people are going to hate you. If you’re a woman writing a memoir, people are going to hate you even more. If you’re a woman writing a memoir about sex, you may as well go underground. A woman writing about her sex life is as open to criticism as you can get.
I wrote the book I needed to write for the people I knew needed to see it.
Who are some female writers you admire/look up to?
Lidia [Yuknavitch]. The reason she is on here is because she does something that nobody else can do. It’s all hers. I find what she does brilliant and impossible to match, which is so rare these days. One of my favorite writers is Mona Simpson. She changed my life as a writer. She wrote probably my favorite book ever, Anywhere But Here. The issues she writes about are of interest to me. Also Catherine Harrison and Alice Munro.
This article first appeared in The Rearguard in February 2013.