Off the Grid: Talking with Jamie Beth Cohen

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I’ve never met Jamie Beth Cohen in person, but I consider her a friend. We came to know each other in a writer’s group on social media, and collaborated on an essay that she fearlessly pitched around until finding it a home. We’ve supported each other’s work in many other ways, so when I learned that Jamie was writing a work of young adult fiction set in 1990s Pittsburgh, I was thrilled to have the chance to read an early draft of her debut YA novel, Wasted Pretty.

Wasted Pretty was published in April 2019 by Black Rose Writing. In it, Jamie writes with grace and compassion about a teenager learning painful and surprising lessons about who she can trust and who she cannot. Wasted Pretty tells a story lived in the body of sixteen-year-old Alice Burton. Through Alice, Cohen brings to life the messy struggles of adolescence with compassion and grace, touching on issues of sexual assault and consent, addiction, and the pain of finding one’s own way.

I was pleased to have the chance to have a video chat with Jamie to learn more about the genesis of this story, and where she plans to take her characters next.

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The Rumpus: You write in a few different genres, and you also do live storytelling. What brought you to writing fiction in general, and to write this story in particular?

Jamie Beth Cohen: I have been writing since I was in second grade, and looking back, I can definitely say that I don’t understand what’s happening to me until I write it down. Sometimes that takes the form of nonfiction and sometimes that takes the form of fiction. What I have found is that fiction allows me to explore making alternative choices, which has the illusion or the feeling of control.

The seed of Wasted Pretty was a television show that my husband and I were watching around the time we had our first kid. In it, a politician’s child is kidnapped, and the first thing they do is rip out the kid’s teeth, because the assumption is that he’s chipped, like the way you would chip a pet. It got me thinking about growing up in the 1980s and ‘90s. Your parents couldn’t track your cell phone; you couldn’t check in every twenty minutes. I really felt like I learned a lot of things in those moments when I was off the grid. But as a parent, in a new era, is that really what I want for my kids? So I went back to explore what I had learned when nobody knew where I was.

The book is fiction—the character that is closest to someone who was actually in my life is the father character. Growing up, a lot of people I knew were afraid of my father. I really struggled with that idea of, “Was I really as safe as I thought I was, or were people just really afraid of my dad, so I got treated differently than other people got treated?” There could have been this huge safety net there that I didn’t even realize existed.

Rumpus: Where do you see that kind of safety net around your main character?

Cohen: Alice is coming to terms with the fact that the adults around her aren’t making great decisions. She’s sort of striking out on her own but isn’t really brave enough to tell everyone, so she’s having this very personal rebellion. And yet all the people she’s running around with after curfew are people who know and have reason to be afraid of her father. So he provides a potential safety net. The flip side is, there’s someone who has more power than her father, and so that safety net doesn’t then function the same way.

Rumpus: One of the things that struck me is how alone Alice is. There are people that support her and help take care of her, but what she’s internally going through is really a lonely experience.

Cohen: That aloneness comes on so many different levels. She has friends, but she’s not like her friends. Her best friend is living a life that’s completely separate from her. Alice’s family is struggling with money, and Meredith’s family will never struggle with money. Even though they’re on the same lacrosse team and they’re wearing the same clothes, they’re having very different experiences.

Rumpus: What would you say to Alice as she’s going through all of this? What do you think she needs to hear?

Cohen: I actually wrote a letter to my teenage self for a blog post, and in that Alice and I share many traits and experiences, one of the things that was really important for me to tell her was, “Your gut is telling you that the adults don’t have it figured out, and they keep telling you they do, but your gut is right.” I know how trendy this term has become, but it’s actually gaslighting. I think lots of teens experience this. They feel like something isn’t right, and the adults in their life are saying, “Oh, you just don’t understand yet,” or “It’s fine, don’t worry about it.” So I think the thing Alice needs to hear is, “Trust your gut.”

Rumpus: Alice is both an object of desire and she’s an agent of her own desire; her body is giving her some power, but there’s also some powerlessness that comes with that. Tell me about the role of power and desire in this story.

Cohen: Girls don’t get to choose when they become the object of desire, and we’re not always prepared for when we start having desire. Alice’s body changes in a way that makes her desirable, but that happens before anything changes in her brain. And so the intersection of power and desire—I think the commonality is that they are a little bit uncontrolled for.

When I was sixteen, a friend of the family—harassed me? Came onto me? There were words said to me that I really wished weren’t being said to me. It felt like, Oh, now I am attractive, and I have to deal with this. Alice’s interaction with that is similar to mine. Although, of course, harassment is not just about whether someone is attractive. When I read Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu, I thought it really nailed that same wave of, “This is fun and exciting and I am an agent of my own sexuality,” but then also, “Oh wow, people are responding to this in a way I wish they wouldn’t, and am I responsible for their response?”

Rumpus: It opens up this door, and there are all these things on the other side of that door, and you don’t get to pick what all of them are.

Cohen: You have this agency, but you don’t get to control all of it.

Rumpus: I was really struck by the physicality of this protagonist. We get to understand so much about Alice’s physical experience. What makes that a central part of the story you wanted to tell?

Cohen: I made a choice to make Alice tall. I am not tall, so I didn’t take anything about that for granted—it was something I was creating from scratch. So that might be a craft thing more than a thematic thing. For example, she’s a lacrosse player; I played organized sports for one season, in seventh grade, and it was basketball, and I never did anything athletic again until I was thirty-five. I had to talk to friends who played sports, and I had to put that on the page to make it realistic for me, and hopefully that made it realistic for you. But it was one of the parts of the book that I didn’t take for granted at all.

Rumpus: It’s such a tricky balance to consider what your reader is or is not going to bring to the story that you’re telling, and it’s unknowable, but it’s an interesting piece of how the story gets told.

Cohen: In almost every book group, there is an argument between those who are saying, “She had so much freedom; it looks nothing like my teenage years,” and women who say, “That was so me.” And you can’t control for that. Some people will be okay with it not being a mirror of their experience, and some people will just assume it’s unrealistic because it doesn’t mirror their experience.

Rumpus: You mentioned that that sense of freedom was part of what drove you to write this story, and that’s pretty far removed from where we are now, so I wonder if that remove doesn’t also make it a different experience for some people to read. It’s not a contemporary experience of teenage life.

Cohen: The teens I have talked to have no problem with the fact that it’s not an experience from today. But when I do book groups with contemporary moms, it can be very jarring for them. I think it sort of depends on who you see yourself as in the book. Do you see yourself as Alice? Or do you see your fourteen-year-old as Alice?

My favorite book groups are the ones with teens and their parents together. The teens can say, “I’m really nervous about Alice when she does this,” and they don’t have to say, “I’m really nervous about when this happens to me,” because it opens up that dialogue, which is such an amazing thing for fiction to do.

Rumpus: I know the location, not just the time period, was important to you in telling this story. Can you say a little bit about your relationship to Pittsburgh, and the role that the city plays in Wasted Pretty?

Cohen: Setting the story in Pittsburgh was in some ways a shortcut for me, because I know the city so intimately, and I wanted the setting to be grounded in reality. I knew Pittsburgh in 1992 as well as I knew my own body. Pittsburghers are a strange breed, and I feel completely shaped by that city, so Alice as a character living there could be shaped by that city, too.

We didn’t have a robust public transportation system the way New York City kids did, which is why Alice getting a car really made a difference. But also, her father is “local famous.” And again, I think that’s a Pittsburgh thing. When Pittsburgh boys make it big, whether it’s in football or rock ‘n’ roll, that is a thing that we hold onto very tightly—our heroes and our hometown boys. So the size of the city, the population, needed to be such that her “local famous” father was sort of always over her shoulder. She couldn’t go into a diner without someone knowing who she was.

Rumpus: As you were finishing Wasted Pretty, did you know you wanted to keep writing about these characters?

Cohen: I was done with the story! What then happened was the characters would not leave me alone. When I finished the book, months later, the epilogue popped up. I ended up removing the epilogue from the draft that I submitted so that I could make that a sequel.

Rumpus: What were some of the things you wanted to leave people with?

Cohen: We’ve already talked a little bit about this idea that girls don’t get to decide when they are deemed pretty or desirable. And again, it’s not necessarily about that—sometimes it’s just about power. Girls don’t get to decide when they enter into that fray. I wanted people to really think about that. The idea of the novel being a sex-positive book was also really important to me. Because Alice wanted to have sex does not mean that she deserved the things that happened to her, even though in some ways they were also related to sex.

Rumpus: Right, because there are stories where it feels like the character is being punished for being sexual, and I get the sense that that’s not the story you wanted to tell—far from it.

Cohen: Realizing that we have agency of our own, but we’re not necessarily prepared for the consequences, that’s definitely one of the things I was playing with. I also really wanted to explore what happens when the adults in the room don’t have the kids’ best interests at heart.

Rumpus: It’s part of what makes it realistic. There aren’t good guys and bad guys, just a bunch of humans who make choices.

Cohen: And that was definitely intentional, although it’s certainly fun to write the characters that have a little less nuance. Johnny was my favorite character to write. Everything’s a joke, or he just thinks everything’s going to be fine. To me, he was like a breath of fresh air in those moments where everything got too intense. On the opposite end is Meredith, who’s out to kick everything’s ass. But the characters that take up most of the book—there is no good guy or bad guy. My favorite thing that anyone has said about Chris Thompson is that he’s trying so hard to be a good guy, but he’s just not there yet.

Rumpus: What are some of the things you wanted to explore in the sequel? Are there similar themes that you’re pulling through, or does it go into a new direction?

Cohen: The sequel takes place five years later, when Alice is graduating college. There is no more tuition to pay; there are choices to make about how she earns a living and how she’s going to interact with money. It’s not, “Where am I going Friday night?” Now it’s, “Where am I going to live,” and “where am I going to start my life?” There are similar themes, but because she’s five years older, that agency is a whole different kind of issue.

Rumpus: To what extent has talking to your readers influenced the course of that?

Cohen: At a book group, someone made a really interesting comment about Alice and Chris’s relationship. She was saying that sometimes when you’re a teenager, people come into your life for brief, hot moments, and it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t an important experience, but it also doesn’t mean that it’s a lifelong experience. That actually helped me with where Alice might be five years later.

One of the things that did surprise me is that people were very frustrated with Alice. One of my friends, who’s in her mid-twenties, said, “I kept getting so mad at her, and then I realized I was really mad at myself, because that’s what I did.” Reading about a teenager very viscerally going through these things is frustrating to some adults. For me, that was surprising, because I pulled so much of Alice’s emotions from my own emotional experience. So I am not frustrated with Alice, because I understand all of her motives intimately. But again, real life and books are different. I needed to build in how Alice felt the stakes were emotionally high even in something that someone else might call small.

Rumpus: It’s only as big or small as it is to those people that are experiencing it.

Cohen: And to say this book is about, essentially, sex, rock ‘n’ roll and addiction, but that it’s also a quiet book, it’s hard for people to wrap their head around that.

Rumpus: Being a teenager doesn’t always tie up in a neat little bow at the end.

Cohen: And the lack of tying up is in itself an emotional thing we have to deal with.

Rumpus: Absolutely. It feels like an important part of her story—that there aren’t ready answers to the questions that she’s asking, and being asked.

Cohen: And it’s okay for the reader to have an answer even if Alice doesn’t have an answer.

Rumpus: Now I want to read the whole book over again.

Cohen: I haven’t read it in a really long time. Sometimes I’ll say to someone in a book group, “Do they go to a diner? Did that happen?” There were whole chunks that came out and went back in. There was a lot of the sequel written before I sold Wasted Pretty, and then I did a major edit before it went to publication, so I basically had to throw out the sequel that had been written up to that point, which was a great lesson for me to learn.

Rumpus: Maybe a painful one. Well, I’m really excited for the sequel.

Cohen: Well, you’re going to have to wait a really long time!

Rumpus: Fair enough.

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Photograph of Jamie Beth Cohen by Michelle Johnsen.


Emily F. Popek is a freelance journalist in upstate New York. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Electric Literature, The Manifest-Station, and more. Find her on Twitter at @EmilyPopek. More from this author →