The Rumpus Interview with Kerry and Tyler Cohen

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Kerry Cohen, author and psychotherapist, might best be known for her memoir Loose Girl (2008). She’s back with another memoir that details another intimate part of a woman’s life: female friendships. Girl Trouble: An Illustrated Memoir (October 2016, Hawthorne Books) is a collaboration with her older sister, Tyler, an accomplished illustrator (Primahood: Magenta, Stacked Deck Press). Told in a series of character sketches of friends, from childhood to the present day, the vignettes illustrate—no pun intended!—how we define and find ourselves through others, as well as the lessons they teach us. Each friend is drawn by Tyler, giving the reader a visual aid as they read.

One of the beautiful things about the stories is how true they ring. The details might be different for each person, but we all have that friend who faded away with no warning; the friend we can’t really believe is our friend and then breaks our heart; and the friend that reflects our best self back to us. And, of course, everyone in between. Cohen pieces together a mosaic of herself through these stories, which is what makes it so fun to read.

I emailed with Kerry and Tyler to find out more about their book, and what they were up to now. Here’s what they had to say.

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The Rumpus: First, I loved reading this and really loved having an illustration to go with each story. It helped me see each friend in my mind’s eye as I was reading, and, though this may sound silly, I would come up with expectations or judgments about them from just looking at the picture before reading that section. Tell me about how/why you came up with the idea for this book, and why you chose to illustrate it.

Kerry Cohen: I began developing the idea for the book pretty much right after Loose Girl came out. I realized that I had this nagging anxiety about the females in the book. Here I’d written a book about my relationship with boys and men, but it wasn’t the males I still had confusing feelings about. Whenever I come up against a question about myself like this, a book starts forming. It’s how I get through my life. I tried tackling the book back then. I must have thrown out about one thousand pages of writing. I couldn’t seem to find the form, which in so many ways is the key to writing memoir. A long time ago, I found a book titled Was She Pretty? by Leanne Shapton, which is an illustrated exploration of jealousy and relationships. I fell so hard in love with it. At some point, I realized the form for this book would be vignettes, and, at another point, I knew illustrations would bring a magic to the stories.

Tyler Cohen: Illustrations have a way of getting under the skin before a reader even takes in the words. When we first meet someone, before we even talk with them, we are reading them by how they are dressed, by their energy, and by their body language. A lot of the time, that first impression is spot on, but not always, and we have to get to know the person to know for sure. The illustrated vignettes work like that, too.

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Rumpus: How did you guys come to work together on Girl Trouble?

K. Cohen: I asked my sister because I’m a huge fan of her art and because our relationship seemed poignant for this exploration of friends. She was, after all, my first female friend. I think it also bears mentioning that I asked her shortly after we’d come back together after a number of years of silent discord. Our relationship had been strained and difficult for most of our lives, until one day we had this wonderful talk. I remember I was in my car, parked and due to meet someone, but she called, and we ended up having the most honest, connected conversation we’d ever had. It changed everything.

T. Cohen: On the phone, when talking about the potential of collaborating, Kerry brought up this idea she’d been gestating. I’ve done a lot of artwork exploring both intimacy and social violence in relationships between women, so, it seemed a natural fit.

Rumpus: How did you decide Hawthorne Books was the right place for this book?

K. Cohen: First of all, unusually formatted books are hard to sell. The book industry is so tight right now. It almost feels like every decision is coming from a place of fear. I knew Rhonda Hughes (of Hawthorne) personally and admired her integrity when it came to her selections. She and I have similar taste in books, too. Hawthorne’s books are beautiful. I knew they’d value the book as it is, and, indeed, the end result maintains the original vision for the book.

Rumpus: Kerry, several times in the book, you go back to the idea that memory is fluid—with Chris, you say “memory is a slippery eel”; with Elisabeth, who dropped who is reversed, and, with Gaby, the story you tell in the book isn’t from your perspective, but from hers. I loved the feeling of your memoir being told through your relationships with friends. How do you think—as a psychotherapist, as a writer, as a woman—friendships, and especially female friendships, shape the memories of our lives and selves? Maybe another way to put it is how do they shape the life stories we tell ourselves?

K. Cohen: As clichéd as it sounds, relationships between women do shape so much of our understandings of ourselves, starting with our mothers. I think all women can relate to the feeling of having merged with best friends. We begin to look alike, talk alike, even take on the same mannerisms. They are as close as family. We give a lot of attention to the heterosexual, nuclear family, but our friends determine as much, I bet, of who we are, how we feel, and how we behave.

But, to get closer to your question—when I interviewed memoirists for my book about writing about others, Kim Barnes said that whatever we write in memoir becomes the truth. Other people start remembering it that way, even though it’s your memories, not theirs. She said it as a warning. That stays with me now as I write memoir. Writing memoir is a huge responsibility! So, I definitely wanted to highlight that in Girl Trouble. Our feelings about female friends are often so intense that it’s easy to get lost in our own interpretations of what happened, i.e., she’s just jealous of you, etc. I wanted to use the writing to get past these assumptions and find out more about what really happened.

Rumpus: How did you decide which friends got to be in the book? Is there anyone you wanted to put in the book, but consciously kept out? Reactions of friends haven’t been 100% positive about the book—what are some of the supportive ones like?

K. Cohen: OMG WHO IS TALKING BEHIND MY BACK?

Okay, calming down… first part of the question: There really isn’t anything that interesting about the process of who I decided to write about from the early years. Certain girls, like Lisa, Ashley, and Tiffany had haunted me. Something I don’t think I’ve told anyone is that, for many years, I dreamed about the three Jennifers from high school (all three appeared in Loose Girl and one is featured in Girl Trouble). Once I delved into my adult years, including friends I still have or made in the past five to ten years, I did start to prune based on the purpose of the book. If a similar point was conveyed in a previous woman’s story, then I chose between the two—that sort of thing. I did consider my friends’ and former friends’ feelings about being in the book, but I struggle often with this question: what’s more important? The person or the art? (I was interested enough in this question to explore it in a whole book—self-promotion warning—The Truth of Memoir: How to Write About Yourself and Others with Honesty, Emotion, and Integrity.) It’s easy to say a person is more important. But for us writers we know that art changes lives. We’ve seen it happen constantly. So, the question posed above is really about the value of one person’s feelings over another’s. Someone reading the book may feel seen in a way she needs, even as the person written about is frustrated by what the writer wrote about her.

All of that said, people get just as upset about not being written about as being written about. You can’t win! Ha. The people who are still friends mostly love the vignettes about them. One was unhappy with the illustration, but only because she felt insecure and worried she really looked like that. But she values Tyler’s art and would never ask for it to be changed.

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Rumpus: Tyler, it’s really amazing how the illustration just feels right for each story; each picture feels like how the friend truly is, there’s no drawing that feels “off.” How did you draw each girl? From a picture, from Kerry’s description, or from your imagination?

T. Cohen: Thank you! I’m so glad you had that experience of the illustrations! Kerry sent me early versions of each story, and I would let my imagination grow the character—sometimes with a little Internet research on fashion appropriate for the time (when my memories weren’t enough). I had rough memory of about six of the people the stories were based on, but didn’t let this predefine the look since I was after character, not the person. I thought about what the clothing would signify and how the character would inhabit her body. Then, I sketched her. Most of the time, Kerry would respond with “perfect.” A couple of times, I came up with a second version, and Kerry chose.

Rumpus: Do you think guys and girls can be “just friends,” and if so, how does the nature of the friendship differ than that of female-only friendships?

K. Cohen: Yes, of course they can! After they have sex. I’m kidding. I have had many platonic friendships with men (admittedly, at least one was after we had a sexual relationship for a few months, and my ex-husband is one of my best friends in the world). Also, I have a bunch of gay male friends, which isn’t what you’re asking, I understand. I love my male friends in the same way and with the same intensity that I love my female friends, but it’s true that they can have a different flavor. I consult a few of them regarding male behavior, such as when a man I’m dating does something I don’t understand. Once I asked my ex-husband Michael, “Can I ask you something, as a man?” He answered, “Sure. Can I answer as a woman?”

I often say we have a lot to learn from men regarding friendships. They tend to be less crazy about their friendships. They don’t care if you don’t call them back. They don’t get hung up on who you’re dating. I love men! But I also love women. There is richness in both types of friendships.

T. Cohen: I’ve always had friends who were boys, men. People connect to each other in many more ways than physical chemistry. I find true friendship in the meeting of minds, openness to other people’s stories, and in compassionate hearts. In person, I’m a talker and engaged conversation is key. When I was a young woman and everyone’s hormones were in overdrive, it helped when there was no attraction; now, I don’t even think about it. My most intimate friendships have more often been with women, partly because we share the experience of moving through this life as a woman and don’t have to explain or argue over certain things—especially in systems of male dominance/rape culture. But I also have overlap with others around being queer or weirdo artists. And trans friends have brought their own insights into gendered experience. So… that was a long ramble to say, “yes.”

Rumpus: From where do each of you draw inspiration (in general)?

K. Cohen: I draw inspiration mostly from conversations with other people, and from reading, which is basically the same thing.

T. Cohen: I love observing people, day-dreaming, reading, looking at art that stirs, through either content or composition, and having interesting conversations.

Rumpus: What’s next on the horizon for each of you, and do you have any plans to collaborate again on a project?

K. Cohen: We don’t currently have a plan to collaborate again, but it would be fun to do so! Every now and then, we’re talking about something and say, “Hey! We should do that!” Most recently it was when I had to have a talk about pornography with my then nine-year-old son. I said I had searched the Internet for Babies First Porn, and found nothing. We laughed, but we considered that we could make a pretty cool children’s book if we did it.

Next up for me is a fourth memoir. My mother has asked, “Exactly how many memoirs are you going to write?” because she’s in all of them. My then-agent joked, “As many as it takes.” It’s under contract with Sourcebooks, and because I’ve only written half of it, I’m not sure yet when it will be out. It’s title is Lush, and it is about my middle-aged, out-of-nowhere problem with drinking.

T. Cohen: No current plans to collaborate, but who knows what the future holds?

I just debuted a book of comics and art: Primahood: Magenta, published by Stacked Deck Press. The book combines autobiographical comics and surrealism to explore femaleness, gender, race, and parenting. Full-color! Available now!

New stories are (thankfully) gestating but I believe it kind of kills them if they are talked about before they are born.

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Photos © Heather Hawksford.


Jaime Herndon is a writer and editor living in New York. She graduated with her MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia University in 2014, and her book Taking Back Birth is forthcoming in 2016 from Microcosm Publishing. More from this author →