The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #134: Elisabeth Cohen

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Elisabeth Cohen’s debut novel, The Glitch, does a marvelous job of questioning what women have to gain from the effort to “lean in.”

This story is Shelley Stone’s, the CEO of Conch, a hot wearables company. Shelley has mastered the art of the standing nap, takes a men’s multivitamin because she refuses to participate in her own oppression, has studied how to give the perfect handshake (pressure 7.5 out of 10), and builds her TED Talk around her experience being struck by lightning as a teenager—to illustrate the level of power needed to trounce the competition.

She’s in for some life-changing occurrences, from a brief disappearance of her four-year-old daughter, to the arrival of her doppelgänger on the scene, to a major glitch in her company’s technology that is resulting in user casualties.

Cohen and I talked about the book over the phone in March.

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The Rumpus: Our businesspeople, our CEOs, particularly in sexy fields like Silicon Valley tech, have become our cultural heroes. Women want to be a part of that, and some get to the top, like Shelley Stone. But the top can be an empty place that ignores important ways of being. While Shelley seems to blame what she misses—a real connection to her children, for example—on her own character, it becomes obvious to the reader that she’s actively suppressing the non-work side of herself. Do you think women in the business world should talk more about how the system is flawed, instead of suppressing themselves?

Elisabeth Cohen: Yes, I think they should, and I admire those who do. That said, women leading huge companies are outliers, and they’ve already made tradeoffs that many of us might find intolerable. And if the system has rewarded you specifically, maybe you don’t think it’s such a bad system, and maybe you aren’t well positioned to understand the problems others face.

Rumpus: How many TED Talks have you watched? Shelley’s was such an excellent send-up.

Cohen: The idea of TED Talks seems to be that if you take this knowledge pill (that goes down in a slow fifteen to eighteen minutes), you’ll grasp secrets of social psychology or epidemiology or economics that otherwise take decades to learn. A couple of hours and you can master human knowledge—the juicy parts, anyway. It’s the idea of the shortcut that bothers me. Also the way video almost exists as its own fact. When you’re reading and something doesn’t make sense, you can reread a few paragraphs. Video rolls onward and is a pain to stop and rewind. If something doesn’t quite make sense, I just assume I wasn’t paying enough attention. It makes video very persuasive and well-suited to a post-fact world. (I really don’t want to live in a post-fact world).

Rumpus: To get ahead she had to ignore blatant misogyny—the blow-up doll in the broom closet that everyone knew about, the creepy VC who would fondle a stainless steel speculum when interviewing female candidates. What is meant by Shelley’s refusal to grapple with sexism?

Cohen: The #MeToo movement happened after I’d written this, and it has led me to reconsider Shelley’s take. I think she hasn’t reached the point of considering whether she has an obligation to speak up.

Women I know who have done well in male-dominated fields, they either tend to be extremely optimistic and good at exerting force field-like boundaries, or extremely hardworking, smart, and driven, or extremely okay with strip clubs. Shelley’s strategy is to be oblivious. Sometimes she notices something, but then she suppresses it. It helps, I think, that she doesn’t really think of herself as living in a woman’s body. She’s a person who’s always gotten credit for being smart and considers her mind the most vital part of her, and her body is like a very fancy burlap sack she hops around in. She even decides it makes more sense to outsource her second pregnancy. Her body is like a computer case and what matters is what’s inside. She isn’t that bothered by objectification because she, too, sees her body as an object.

Rumpus: The toxicity aside, Shelley deals with plain old stress. I could see how there might be similarities between Shelley’s pace and a successful author’s.

Cohen: I wrote parts of this book between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. I had gotten to a point where all the normal stress-coping things like yoga, meditation apps, running, and wine just weren’t cutting it anymore. What then, you know? And I had the extra stress of wanting to publish a book and worrying that I wouldn’t ever do it. As I got older, that became more intense.

But is it worth it? I guess I want to be known for something besides running the dishwasher eight times per weekend. Writing is, for me, maybe like what religious faith is for some people. It gives me space and dimension beyond the lunch-packing and emailing and living as a logistical animal. It’s something extra.

Rumpus: About the Mary Shelley reference. Between her name and the use of lightning, it seemed you were comparing the CEO woman to Frankenstein’s monster.

Cohen: I love reading accounts of busy women’s days—the ones who hop out of bed at 5 a.m., work all day, pick up the kids, make dinner, clean up, “log on” again. We’re supposed to see the best working mom as the most productive, but productivity is defined in very narrow terms. I like the old idea, which you don’t hear very much anymore, that maybe seeing a play or reading a book or taking an interesting trip could give you what you need to know to lead a company or plan a war. Like Peggy Olson in Mad Men, going out to see a movie in the middle of the day to get ideas. That’s more the life I aspire to.

Rumpus: The girl Michelle, whom Shelley temporarily thinks of as her former self materialized, is pretty unimpressed with Shelley’s life. What do you think your former self would say to you today if you stood face-to-face?

Cohen: “Excuse me, ma’am,” as she dashes by.

In my “young youth,” as Muriel Spark puts it, I really thought I would grow up to have a life that was very exciting, or very successful, or possibly very tragic. I wasn’t expecting to be so into dogs.

I think my younger self would be happy I’ve stayed with my writing and am still friends with some of my old friends. I think she’d find my children confusing, and also be surprised by how much time I spend exercising. I think she’d be less surprised than I am that I have a book coming out. She’d probably think it was a step in the right direction.

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Author photograph © James Browning.


Jennifer Bannan is the author of short story collection Inventing Victor, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2003. Her novel-in-progress was an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award quarter-finalist. Her work has appeared in ACM, Kenyon Review Online, Passages North, Chicago Quarterly Review, and the Autumn House Press fiction anthology, Keeping the Wolves at Bay. She finished her MFA at the University of Pittsburgh in 2014 and is at work on a novel, Welcome to Kindness. More from this author →