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  • A.K. Lee

On her new novel, writing the f***ing book, and hopes for 2019: Interview with Julie Cohen

'I think I just said, "Hey, can I write about the same person as male and as female, in the same lives?"'

Louis David Alder and Louise Dawn Alder are the same person in two different realities: they have the same parents, the same birthday, the same talents, the same wishes, the same eyes and hair. Their realities are separated only by the gender announced by the doctor and a final ‘e’.

Both Louis and Louise grow up in the small paper mill town of Casablanca, Maine, with the same friends and family—but because of their gender, everything looks different.

On a sultry evening when they are eighteen years old, during a violent strike at the paper mill, two dramatic events happen—one to Louis, and another to Louise—which mean that they leave Casablanca, seemingly for good. But twelve years later, when their mother is dying of cancer, Louis and Louise return to Maine to deal with two very different towns and problems…and to discover whether their destinies are, after all, the same.

That is the premise of Julie Cohen's latest novel, Louis & Louise. Julie has written many books which have been translated into multiple languages, is a popular speaker at writing workshops and book festivals, and teaches creative writing. She's also great fun in person and her dog is the cutest "terrier of dubious origin" I've ever played with.

Oddly enough, I didn't meet Julie through her work but through a common interest in a TV show, Hannibal. I can't remember exactly when I first picked up her writing, but I remember it was a fun, fluffy romance, the sort that is comforting and relaxing like an ice-cream sundae on a hot afternoon.

Then I read Dear Thing, which completely wrecked me (in an excellent and cathartic way). The next two titles I picked up, Falling and Together, established Julie as one of my favorite writers of contemporary romance. (You can find a review of Together on this site.) Since Louis & Louise will be released on January 24, I figured I should do an interview about the book that I'm very excited about ever since I first heard the premise.


(AK - me, JC - Julie Cohen)

AK: Hi Julie! I can't wait to catch up with you in person soon. Let's start with your new book, Louis & Louise. What gave you the idea of writing about the same life lived from different perspectives?

JC: Quite often when I get the idea for a novel, I can pinpoint the exact moment that prompted the book. But with Louis & Louise, I think it just came in a lightning bolt. I wanted to write about gender and feminism, and I (like many women) had been having a lot of conversations about sexual assault and harassment. I was thinking about the entitlement of cis men, and the way cis women are taught to accommodate that, and how none of this is innate to what it is to be a human being, but how difficult it is for both men and women to break out of those narratives even when they want to.

But maybe I’m over-intellectualising it. I think I just said, “Hey, can I write about the same person as male and as female, in the same lives?"

AK: I can't wait to see the same events through different eyes. For your previous book, Together, you needed very tight plotting because the story unfolds in reverse chronological order. What has been your biggest challenge in writing Louis & Louise?

JC: The novel has two realities, both of which are equally valid and true, and both of which have almost identical characters and settings, and some of the same events. It was a real challenge to balance both stories and to write it in such a way that the reader never gets confused about which reality they’re reading about, and so that they feel that neither one of the stories is more important or valid. In my draft, I wrote each of the two realities in a different font, so I wouldn’t get confused and so I could see at a glance where I was. I also had to plot them out in quite a bit of detail so that there wasn’t too much repetition and yet they only diverged in ways that were directly connected to the protagonist’s gender.

AK: You mentioned that when you first started the book, you wanted to write about one person's life as a man and as a woman. I think that it is a huge challenge to get ourselves to view the same event through different lenses. What did you learn from the experience of writing Louis & Louise?

JC: When I started writing it, I thought it was going to be about the systemic oppression of women. But as I wrote, I found that I was writing a lot about how a patriarchal society also oppresses men. The book is about victims of toxic masculinity as much as misogyny. Of course they’re both two sides of the same coin, but embodying these ideas in fictional characters made it very clear to me.

(AK's note: I may explore the topic re: toxic masculinity in popular fiction in the future.)


AK: Back when I first learned that you are a writer, I was also in the process of writing my first novel and terrified of the uphill task. I think one of the best pieces of advice I got from you then is "Write the Fucking Book". (I literally have the phrase on a Post-It on the side of my computer.)

It sounds like really obvious advice, and yet most of us aspiring or new novelists are too preoccupied with getting it right rather than getting it down on the page.

AK: What is something new writers worry too much about?

The main thing is what you said above—new writers are too concerned with getting everything perfect. Very often they say that they have revised the first few chapters over and over again, and yet they haven’t finished writing the entire story yet. I find that I never quite know what a book is about until I’ve finished it, so there’s no point in perfecting the first few chapters. You’ll get too attached to them, and you may well find that you might need to start the book in a different way.

What's your personal writing discipline/practice? How do you keep to it?

JC: When I had a full-time job and I wrote in my spare time, I used to be much more disciplined than I am now! Now, writing is my main full-time job and I find that I spend quite a lot of time avoiding doing it. On an ideal day, my son goes to school at 8.00; I go for a run from about 9-10; then I have a shower and work till 3.30 when he comes home. I try to write 1000 words a day when I’m in the active composing stage. Right now though I’m revising a book under deadline, and I find I can only work in short bursts before my head gets overwhelmed.

AK: Revision is really challenging. Sometimes it's too hard to 'kill our darlings', as the saying goes. What may help us get over the fear or resentment of changing or even eliminating what we've spent so much time creating?

JC: I always put the parts I’ve cut into a separate file and save them. That way I know that if I change my mind, I can always go back to what I had before. A couple of times it’s saved me. My editor asked me to expand the childhood stories of Lou in Louis & Louise, and I’d written quite a bit of stuff that I’d cut for pacing before. So I was able to just slot that back in. In another application, when my previous novel Together was chosen for a prestigious book club, they asked for extra material, and conveniently, I had a whole chapter that I’d cut!

Mostly, though, those cut bits just languish in the file, because in actual fact I’ve killed my darlings to make my novel better, and I never needed them at all. Experience definitely makes this easier to realise.


AK: Recently, romantic movies adapted from books about marginalized communities have become quite popular (Love, Simon, Crazy Rich Asians, To All the Boys etc). In your opinion, will this encourage more publishers to take on romance novels from less represented communities?

JC: I hope so! But change, like everything in publishing, is still happening very slowly. Ebook publishers and independently published authors are leading the way, unsurprisingly. But I have seen some definite steps being taken in the last year or so, with more books by underrepresented authors being reviewed in large publications, and publishers leading with books written by and about diverse communities. In the UK, I’m a Vice President of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and we are actively trying to be inclusive and offer opportunities to a more diverse range of authors, including having a LGBTQIA+ chapter and offering bursaries to writers from underrepresented groups. I still think we have a long way to go, though.

(AK's note: This question stems from a fairly recent report about the decline of diversity in romance. You can read the Guardian's article here, the NY Times article here, or the actual report here.)

AK: What is one goal you'd like the LGBTQIA+ chapter of the RNA to attain in 2019?

JC: I have lots of goals! I want us to become more visible as a sub-genre within the mainstream women’s fiction community. I hope to encourage more writers of queer fiction to consider joining the RNA, and entering their books in our Romantic Novel Awards. I also have a dream that we will march in Pride in London, because romance is for everyone!

AK: Final question! Almost every author I know collects a lot of books. Which are your top five?

JC: I’m going to answer that as the next five books I’m going to read, because that is much MUCH easier than picking out my favourites of all time!

AK: I know that feeling!

JC: (In no particular order)...

1. Saga, volume 9, by Fiona Staples and Brian Vaughan. This is a serial graphic novel space opera which is wonderfully inclusive, sexy, funny and emotional. I love it so much, especially since whenever a new volume comes out, I get to reread all the previous episodes.

(AK's note: Saga is AWESOME. It is balls out funny, poignant, thought-provoking and the artwork is incredible. If you haven't read it, try it. I suggest not starting before you go to bed because you will not get any sleep until you've read every last panel available.)

2. Flowers in the Attic, by VC Andrews. Like all of my friends, I read this to tatters in the 1980s. I’m rereading it to record a podcast called “Sentimental Garbage”, which is about seminal women’s fiction novels and how they affected the people who read them. I have a Lot Of Emotions about this book so I’m excited to reread it.

3. Normal People, by Sally Rooney. I get this recommended to me at least once a day so I’ve got to read it.

4. The Wicked Cometh, by Laura Carlin. This is a historical queer mystery, and looks great.

5. Half A World Away, by Mike Gayle. A novel about class and family by an author with a wonderfully warm voice.

AK: Thank you for the book recs and the interview! Looking forward to the book and doing a review for it!

photo: AK on the left being a wuss about the cold, Julie Cohen on the right looking awesome because she is.

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