|Joshua C. Cohen|
Welcome to another edition of Writer Chat Wednesday. I’m so excited to introduce my blog readers to an amazing talent, Joshua C. Cohen. Josh’s first published novel, Leverage, has been nominated for awards such as the Cybil, the YARP and others. I heard Josh speak on a panel about edgy teen books at the Tucson Book Festival. Josh was funny, smart and entertaining – so I just had to read his book, Leverage (my review coming this Friday, so please come back).
Josh graciously agreed to be interviewed for my blog. Come eavesdrop on my conversation:
Natalie Wright (NW): Please tell us a little bit about your book, Leverage.
Joshua C. Cohen (JC): Leverage is the story of two high school boys from very different backgrounds coming together after witnessing a brutal assault on a fellow classmate. The book examines how fear can paralyze one into inaction and how remaining silent can be the worst possible choice to make.
NW: What inspired you to write this book?
JC: I always wanted to write a story with an “odd couple” pairing using characters that would normally never associate with each other but get thrown together and must work with each other. Then I read about a real life attack that took place at a football camp and it started marinating in my head as I imagined what the victims and witnesses that never spoke up must have been thinking while the attackers roamed the school hallways without fear of punishment.
NW: From the author bio on the book cover, it sounds like you’ve got diverse experience. Stage actor, dance, musical theater and gymnastics. Were you writing before you began to pen Leverage? What is your writing background?
JC: I’ve been writing little stories and chapters to longer stories since high school. I have quite a few manuscripts that will most likely never be published but were essential for me to create in order to slowly learn the craft of writing. I don’t want to give the impression I’ve somehow “arrived” now that Leverage is published and I no longer need to work on my craft. It’s a never-ending process and I continually try to get better at it as I write and edit my own work. During my years of performing, my schedule was too hectic for me to have the discipline to sit down every day and write. That didn’t happen until after I retired from performing and started work at a more traditional office job that allowed me the opportunity to set up a daily routine where I’d write a little in the morning or evening before or after work.
NW: In Leverage, one of your main characters, Danny, is a gymnast. Were you a gymnast?
JC: I was a competitive gymnast in high school and then in college I realized pretty quickly I didn’t have the skills to compete at the next level but I still trained in the college gym and became good friends with many of the elite level athletes. I loved the sport. It helped me build self-confidence, a diligent work ethic and solid friendships that I still maintain to this day.
NW: Josh, one of the things I love so much about Leverage is how real it feels. I was wondering how much of Leverage is based on your own experiences?
JC: I get asked this question quite a bit, mostly by people anxiously preparing to feel horrified on my behalf because they’re afraid I experienced something as awful as what happened to the characters in the book. So let me assure anyone out there reading this that it is very much a work of fiction. The parts I pulled from my own experience is the double-edged sword of team camaraderie and how loyalty can be such wonderful bonding experience that connects you to another person or persons at a level paralleling family. But it can also allow you to get pulled into a “group think” mentality where you allow yourself to get pulled along into actions that are bad and, out of loyalty, you cannot bring yourself to stand up and say, ‘stop it’.
NW: How long did it take you to write Leverage?
JC: I won’t count the years where, as I said, I was toying around with trying to create an “odd couple” story and starting and stopping in fits. I’d say from the point I sat down, ready to make an earnest attempt at writing the story (spurred on from reading of the news account of the real life attack) from beginning to end, then revising, getting feedback, revising more and then getting the manuscript acquired and revising even more, it was probably 5 or 6 years.
NW: Were you a small guy – like Danny – or a larger guy – like Kurt – in high school?
JC: I was a small guy in high school. Of course, in the story, Danny is much smaller than I was in high school. He’s also not very “political”, which I was in school. What I mean by political is that I was very good at making friends with the big guys so I wasn’t running around in fear that I might get pummeled at any given moment. I actually enjoyed high school for the most part and didn’t feel traumatized by it.
NW: Being a girl, I never noticed size being much of a factor (size didn’t matter ;-). But in your book, size is a major factor. Kurt is obsessed with becoming big so he won’t be vulnerable. And Danny is aware at every turn that because he’s not large, he is vulnerable. Is this what you experienced yourself in high school?
JC: To a degree, yes. I think boys at that age rely on physicality to intimidate more than girls do. I realize I’m generalizing in this answer. Girls have their own pitfalls to deal with and, because they’re more mature at that age, they have the ability to use their wits more than boys do as a weapon. Boys are not quite as smart as girls in their teens (yes, I know, I know, I’m generalizing, still) so boys need to quickly size each other up and figure out where they are in the pecking order to avoid getting real bruises. Girls have to worry more about mental and emotional scarring (still generalizing, I know). At no other time in your life do you need to worry about physical punishment just for showing up somewhere. I mean, imagine if, when you showed up at your office job as an adult, you had to worry that you might actually get cuffed on the head or randomly punched. Thank god we become adults!
NW: Part of what makes Leverage such a page turner is the dialogue. I felt that you got it just right. They aren’t potty-mouthed sailors, but you use swear words judiciously and when the guys talk, it feels real. Did you do any dialogue research?
JC: I appreciate your comments. I think if I knew that I was writing a “YA” book when I first started writing Leverage, I would’ve probably been nervous about the amount of swearing and I might have pulled back more. Teens will always curse and swear because it’s such an easy act of rebellion. I was mainly worried that some of the slang had changed since I went to school. I tried to stay away from phrases that I thought would be dated in a year or two. But it seems that George Carlins famous “7 words” still hold up. I did keep my ears on alert whenever encountering groups of teens to see if they had changed up their word choices. But some curses and putdowns remain classics!
NW: What do you hope people will take away from reading Leverage?
JC: First and foremost, I want them to be entertained. I’ve always loved the description “page-turner” as a compliment for a book. I grew up in a household where my parents read all the time and they still do. While my taste in books differs from theirs, we all agree that unless the storyline is gripping, the rest doesn’t matter so much because you won’t actually finish the book. After that, if the reader gains some insight into these characters’ lives and why they do or don’t make certain decisions, well that’s gravy for me. If a writer can get the reader to see from the perspective of another character and empathize with them, understand the perspective of another soul walking on this planet, well that’s a big accomplishment. Empathy is what I’m trying to get at. If I can make the reader empathize with my characters even when they make poor choices, I’m doing pretty good in my storytelling …I think.
NW: Has the story been optioned for a movie or T.V.?
JC: Yes, it has been optioned for a film but being optioned for a film is a long way off from actually becoming a film. As I’m discovering, many books are optioned but only a few ever make it all the way to becoming films. I’m crossing my fingers that it will one day happen.
NW: Let’s hope that they see this project through. Who would you like to see playing the main characters, Kurt and Danny?
NW: Of all your characters, I think I liked Kurt the best. I spent the majority of the book being worried about him. Despite his hulking size and strength, he still is a vulnerable character and so likeable. But Kurt is a damaged person. Have you ever known a Kurt?
JC: Kurt is a composite of a number of people that have crossed my path and that I have known at various stages in my life. All of them, I deeply admired. After spending years writing his character, I fell in love with him a bit. I was sad when I was done working with him. During the writing of the story, he really lived in my head and I’d find myself placing him in completely ordinary events in my daily life and wondering how he’d react. I really did miss him when the story was completed.
NW: There aren’t many girls in Leverage. The two main characters are guys and their story revolves around their sports teams. But Tina plays a pivotal role in the plot and I love her! She’s sassy and tough. And she utters my favorite line. Can you guess what it is?
JC: Is it, “I told you girls are way craftier than boys.”
NW: Of course I just loved reading that! Have you ever had a Tina in your life?
JC: I’ve had Tina’s in my life at all stages, starting with my mom. My wife has Tina moments as well. The older I get, the more I realize the female gender seems to—appropriately– be silently shaking their heads while the male gender blowhards bounce off walls, yell and don’t get much accomplished. It’s sort of what Canadians do to Americans in general.
NW: *Smiles* I first became acquainted with Leverage when I heard you speak on a panel at the Tucson Book Festival. The panel was about “edgy” YA fiction. Do you think Leverage is “edgy”?
JC: The thing is, I didn’t write it to be edgy YA but, rather, fiction that both adults and teens would enjoy. Once it became officially YA, the adult issues, violence, and language made it “edgy”. I don’t mind the description at all, however, and take it as a real compliment. As I work on new fiction, I realize my mind continues to push and probe the borders of standard issues in order to dramatize them and make them entertaining to read about so “edgy” is probably a pretty accurate description.
NW: What makes it edgy?
JC: I gotta go with the male assault scene on this one. That scene lobs this book deep into the “edgy” sweetspot. The surrounding attacks and cursing, of course, add a nice layer of icing on the “edgy” cake.
NW: There are a couple of scenes in this book that are difficult. By difficult, I mean bad things are happening. I don’t want to give anything away, but the first such scene comes at about the 40% mark (I read Leverage on my Kindle). And up to that point, it is building and building. You just know something bad is going to happen, but you’re not sure what. That pivotal scene, I actually began sweating – I was so worried! But I felt you wrote the scene just right. It is graphic, but it doesn’t go on and on and you included just the right amount of detail but not so much as to be just sensationalistic.
So what I want to know, was it hard for you to write these difficult scenes?
JC: Yes! I really had to prepare myself on the days I was working on those scenes. I was very much aware of trying to balance the violence in such a way that the reader would feel horrified on behalf of the victim. But I didn’t want the descriptions to cross the line where they felt gratuitous. I hate movies like “Saw” and “Hostel” and violence along those lines is, in my mind, a type of pornography that I have no desire to emulate. Once I finished a scene, it almost felt like “Whew! Done” but then I’d have to go back and revise and try to make sure it wasn’t too graphic. When re-working the scenes with Julie (my editor), I think my tendency was to pull back so much that, at one point, she said she was confused as to what was actually happening. She understood what was happening, of course, but it had to be written so it made sense and didn’t cause confusion. Also, I should add that while the scene is violent and suggests awful things, if you go back and read it, there really isn’t much detail about the act but, rather, on how the character of Danny feels while witnessing it. That’s partly why it’s so horrible, because your brain is filling in the blanks. And to those that feel it’s too violent, my response is it needed to be in order for the reader to believe that the character of Danny (who witnesses the attack) would be shocked and scared into silence.
NW: Absolutely true – not a lot of detail in that pivotal and brutal scene. It’s a testament to your skill that – I’m not kidding – I was sweating and pulse racing because of the tension you created in that pitch-perfect scene. Kudos!
On a different topic, I was curious about how your book is being marketed. The cover, the blurb on the front, and the book description make it sound like a sports book. And it is, I suppose, to some extent. But I have to tell you, I’m not into sports much but I enjoyed your book so immensely. And I felt the sports was like the background – the setting – for a story about bullying gone too far and what happens when people don’t speak out. If I had just read the cover, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up because I would have thought it was about sports. I guess what I’m saying is your book, to me, belongs in the same category as Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher, and You, by Charles Benoit. Do you agree?
JC: I’d love for this book to have the appeal of Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why. I agree that Leverage is much more than a standard “sports book” and I think it has met resistance to a larger audience for the reasons you’re describing. I actually like the hardcover image because it’s striking yet vague as to what it indicates. Marketing is an art form and if we didn’t go the “sports route” then we end up going the “bullying route” so it tends to get pigeonholed no matter what is suggested. The blurb and book synopsis probably paints it too much into one category. Hopefully the word gets out and it crosses genres.
NW: I hope that for you too because it really is a book that will appeal to a wide range of people.
I found the honesty of your storytelling so refreshing. I’m looking forward to your next story! What have you got in the works?
JC: I’m working on a story about a twin brother and sister suffering from severe PTSD and forced to start life all over again at a new school where their existential angst infects the entire student body and school faculty. Hijinks ensue! In some ways it’s darker than Leverage but it’s not as violent.
NW: Do you consider yourself a young adult writer? Or will you also write adult stories?
JC: I’d love to have the freedom to write in both categories. I think I’ll always be on the “adult” side of YA and that my stories can cross-over into the regular adult genre based on the subject matter that interests me.
NW: Okay, time for some silliness. Chocolate or vanilla?
JC: Chocolate! But mixing them together is even better!
NW: Coffee or tea?
JC: Tea in the morning. Coffee in the afternoon.
NW: Do you still root for the Vikings? (BTW, my husband has rooted for them since he was a kid too – poor fella.)
JC: Unfortunately, yes, I still do. I don’t see them contending for a championship anytime soon so my football seasons will be pretty disappointing into the foreseeable future. Please pass along my condolences to your husband and tell him that rooting for losing teams builds character, or so I’m told.
NW: Beach or mountains?
JC: Beach! I love the mountains and love hiking in the forest but I really, really love swimming and the surf.
NW: What three words describe Josh Cohen?
JC: Hmmmm … three words huh? Sleeping’s my drug!