Jamie Beth Cohen On Using Real Life Experiences For Fiction

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.


Today's guest for the WHAT is Jamie Beth Cohen, whose non-fiction has appeared in The Baltimore SunThe Washington Post, TeenVogue.com and many other outlets. Her poems have been published in Loyalhanna Review and Crossing Limits: African Americans and American Jews.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

The actual germ of the idea came from a conversation my husband and I were having about whether or not we would track our kids when they were old enough to go places without us. In this very theoretical conversation, we were weighing their right to freedom and privacy and the obvious need for safety, but all I could think about was what I had learned about myself when my parents had no idea where I was. I’m not sure I want to deprive my kids of those moments without a safety net. Alice, the main character in Wasted Pretty is often not where her parents think she is. Everything grew out of that.

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

Very, very badly. One of my first readers said, very gently, “It’s very ‘slice of life.’ I liked it, but I like all kind of stories. I’m not sure it’s for everyone.” So, maybe it wasn’t a lack of plot so much as it was a lack of tension and stakes. A lot of stuff happened in that first draft, but none of it really mattered.

Between the first and second draft I lopped off the entire second half, expanded what used to be “Part 1” and raised the stakes considerably. But Wasted Pretty didn’t really come together until a few years later when I figured out a subplot that has become central to the story.

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

There are elements of Wasted Pretty that come from my own time as a teen (and it’s actually set in 1992 when I was in high school). That first draft was more closely related to my real life than the published book. The longer I worked with the material – to turn it from rambling unconnected anecdotes that only I found interesting to a story with a narrative arc – the further it drifted from my lived experiences. It went places I never imagined, and I had a blast letting my imagination run wild.

The longer I worked with the material – to turn it from rambling unconnected anecdotes that only I found interesting to a story with a narrative arc – the further it drifted from my lived experiences..png

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

This is my first novel, but I’ve published dozens of essays and have dozens more in the works, so the ideas come often, but I’m selective about what ideas deserve the investment a full-length project requires.

I’m currently working on a sequel to Wasted Pretty. I was 40,000 words into the sequel when I did a major overhaul on Wasted Pretty, so I had to put the sequel aside until I sold it, and locked the text. I’m really enjoying diving back into the sequel, but I’m realizing I’ve learned so much in writing my first novel that I may have to scrap those 40,000 words and start fresh.

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

Luckily I’m able to work on essays at the same time I work on novels, so I’m always working on a few things at once. I also do live storytelling at a series in my town, so the theme of the event is forefront on my mind and often drives what I’m working on.

I have lots of cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

I’m an extrovert and like to be around other people. I also have a horrible social media addiction (that I justify by saying social media is how I get freelance work and stay in touch with readers and writers). Luckily, there’s one solution for both of these issues: I co-founded an adult study hall! Once a month, a bunch of writers in my town take over a really cool co-working space and bring food and drink and hang out for a bit and then set the timer for 60-minutes and write silently. I get invigorated being around other writers who are writing, and I’m too embarrassed to check social media when I’m supposed to be working. It’s the best possible kind of positive peer pressure. We’ve been doing it for more than three years and it’s usually the highlight of my month.