Features / Fiction / Interviews

Q&A With Elizabeth Cohen

Bloom: You wrote in your essay published here at Bloom about the strange and interesting ways that life and art converge.  Do you also write fiction that is completely distinct from your real life?

Elizabeth Cohen: I have not written much fiction, in truth. I am a memoirist and a poet, and both those genres come directly from very personal realms. I have lots of ideas for fiction, and even a novel, that do not derive from my own life per se, but there are still tendrils of me in those ideas, too.

Bloom: In his review of Tao Lin’s Taipei, the New York Times’s Dwight Garner describes the Internet as an entity that’s “colonizing consciousness.” On the other hand, The Hypothetical Girl ultimately seems to celebrate the Internet’s power to connect.  Are you generally optimistic about social networking and online connections?

EC: I am torn on this topic. I see great power in the fluidity of forging connections one would never have the ability to make, and I also see the Internet as a force for the democratization of media. Anyone can blog. The power to communicate broadly is no longer in the hands of the few. But as a mother and user of social media, I see the dangers very clearly. Colonization seems a hard word to me and indicates a sort of intent . . . but addiction does seem likely.

Bloom: Stories like “The Hardness Test,” in which a woman admits that the self-proclaimed “real life” ugliness of the man she’s chatting with matters to her, and “The Hypothetical Girl,” in which the woman a man is speaking to online is told she’s not real and then begins to believe it, bring up the gulf between the real, corporeal self, and the projection of the self online. How do your characters decide or discover which is real, i.e. the physical or the projected? Is this something you yourself contend with?

EC: We all have to vet the world and people we encounter online in terms of reality and false representation. We have to use a healthy skepticism. Anyone can say he is anyone. There is enormous potential for the propagation of false identities, and as a mother I have to keep my child in touch with this all the time. My characters grapple with this very issue. They sift through the information they encounter in emails and on websites and try to discover truth, the real. “The Hypothetical Girl” is a story that walks the line in that endeavor and imagines a woman with such a tentative grasp on reality that her online presence becomes real to her. More real than her physical life. And when she is told online that she is not real, it seeps into her psyche. She ceases to exist.

Bloom: Characters in The Hypothetical Girl are all very literary—they quote poetry, plays, and classic works like Pride & Prejudice and Romeo and Juliet; and, in stories like “Death by Free Verse,” they’re writing their own. Was this something reflected in your own experience online or wishful thinking? How do you think literature is faring in the digital age?

EC: Well, I am literary. I am an English professor. I have, for most of my life, been a voracious reader. So when I create characters they sometimes reflect my interests and life. They are also, many of them, Jewish (as am I), although this is not an important part of the stories, per se. I think sometimes our identities trickle into our characters. Some of my characters are a lot like me. But actually . . . not all. Take Blanquita, aka “Vivacious,” in the story “The Man Who Made Whirligigs.” Neither she nor the protagonist is particularly literary.

As to how I think literature is faring in the digital world, I am certainly no expert on this, but it is my impression that any means by which information and documents and files can be easily shared is great for literature. I read poems and stories all the time that people forward to me or that I see on websites and Facebook. Just today I read a post on Facebook about a never-before-published novel by the late, great novelist Pearl S. Buck. And I immediately went and ordered it.

Bloom: Connection between radical opposites seems like a powerful theme in your previous work—the way logical opposites like “Either” and “Or” or “If” and “Then” unite in your poem “The Introduction of If and Then”; the accord between the economist and his daughter in “Supply and Demand”; and the balance your memoir strikes between your own story, your father’s, and your daughter’s. Did you find yourself exploring opposites in this short story collection as well, consciously or unconsciously?

EC: I am interested quite broadly in the cords that bind the world. The unseen umbilicus between things and people. I love that two people might have a chance encounter: they really have no reason to know one another, but then, somehow, they do. I love that there is a randomness in who we know and who we love and that we may be completely opposed or split apart in interests, ages, stages of life, geography, yet we can be thrown together to marvelous and interesting effect. The more different two people are, the more I seem amused and enchanted by their connections. I think it is the unexpectedness of it. The unpredictability.

Bloom: The Hypothetical Girl had a relatively circuitous journey to this week’s release from Other Press.  Tell us about it.

EC: I wrote these stories as I was dating online and found myself really intrigued in the people I was meeting—along with their stories, even if I didn’t particularly want to be involved with them. I couldn’t let go of their stories. A friend of mine said I should show them to another acquaintance who runs a small press in Ithaca. This individual loved them and said he would publish them as a book. I was genuinely surprised. I had always thought of myself as a poet, a journalist, and memoirist. This press made a book but had limited means to promote and distribute it. Then another friend of mine showed THAT book to the publisher of Other Press, who was over-the-moon for it. She purchased it from the first publisher and then asked me to write more stories. I did, and the rest is history.

Bloom: You have nonfiction, poetry, memoir, and now short fiction under your belt. Will you continue to move among genres? (And is a novel in the works?)

EC: Right now I am hard at work on a second memoir for Random House.

I pretty much always write poems. I would love to write more stories and a novel! I have always been fluid between genres and actually feel odd about that. The world so wants to pin you down and define you. I just love to write. Lately, I have been really missing the deadly adrenaline shot of journalism.

Bloom: What does a typical writing day look like for you?

EC: Get up, drink coffee, walk dog, get daughter ready for school or activities.

Then, before checking email, the phone, messages, or Facebook, WRITE.

Bloom: What was the worst piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten? The best?

EC: I actually got horrendous writing advice all my life. People told me I would never amount to anything, to give it up, to choose something more profitable and less risky. My parents were sort of appalled by the whole idea, other people have told me it is egotistical, selfish, arrogant of me, ridiculous. My cousin’s ex-wife once told me it was me “needing to feel important.” She was free from that. She “didn’t need to prove anything.” The only woman I knew in NYC who was a writer (a cousin of an ex-boyfriend) when I first arrived told me to go back home to Albuquerque, that I did not have what it takes.

At first this was all deadening. Then it became sort of motivating in that “I will show them a thing or two” way. The best thing anyone ever told me came from my friend David. He said “whatever you do, don’t ever stop writing. You are great and truly original.” And that meant something, as nobody else had ever said that.

Today, I make a point of telling my students and young writers who show any talent at all that they CAN become writers; that it is not impossible at all, it is actually do-able. That it can be a real profession. That the world is full of jobs for writers. I go out of my way to instill in them great hope and stand behind their dreams. I think I do it as a way to pay it forward and also to make sure I do NOT deflate dreams the way people tried hard to deflate mine.

Bloom: Is there a question you’ve never been asked in an interview that you’d like to answer?  (Please feel free to ask and answer it here.)

EC: I have never been asked what my favorite word is. I love words. I really do, and I ADORE discovering new cool ones. So . . . the answer is I pretty much have a new one every day. Today’s favorite word is “gobsmacked.” Doesn’t it just pop off your tongue? And its meaning! It means something in the world just floored you, more than floored you; it punted your whole consciousness into heaven.

Click here to read Elizabeth Cohen’s “The Hypothetical Girl” and here for her Bloom essay “True, Truer, Truest”.

Bloom Post End

Image credit: WritingStrides

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