Fiction Points: Jamie Beth Cohen

jamiebethcohenJamie Beth Cohen is the author of Wasted Pretty (Black Rose Writing 2019), a YA coming-of-age novel that explores growing up as a girl in a pre-#metoo era. Cohen earned a BFA in English from George Mason University and a master’s degree in higher education administration from City University of New York. Her work has appeared in the Baltimore Sun and Washington Post, at Teen Vogue, in the anthology Crossing Limits: African Americans and American Jews, and elsewhere. She lives in Lancaster County, PA.  

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

I’d probably quote my own bio and say, “I write about difficult things, but my friends think I’m funny!” Seems like a punchline to a joke, right? Hopefully they’d laugh, and if they let me expand, I’d explain that because I’m both a fiction writer and a non-fiction writer, I get to write about a wide range of topics I find interesting. My published non-fiction includes essays on parenting, feminism, Judaism, politics, end of life issues, and more. My published fiction generally centers on teens and twenty-somethings going through growing pains. My debut novel, Wasted Pretty, published by Black Rose Writing in April 2019, is the story of a sixteen-year-old girl who is noticed for her appearance for the first time and all the things that are exciting, annoying and, in her case, dangerous about that moment.

Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?

Alice, the main character in Wasted Pretty, is not a big drinker, but her best friend Meredith is. Meredith experiments with diet pills and recreational drugs as well. But Chris Thompson, the college guy Alice has a crush on is sober. He crashed and burned during his freshman year, largely due to excessive drinking, so he’s working hard to put himself back together. The more time Alice spends with Chris the more her friend’s substance use bothers her.

Also, Alice’s dad is a gambling addict in the throes of his addiction. There are interesting parallels and counterpoints between what Chris went through as a teenage alcoholic and how he’s handling it and what Alice’s dad is going through as an adult who does not have a handle on his addiction.

Additionally, in one scene, Alice wants to make a “bad” choice. She knows it’s wrong, but she’s determined to do it anyway, so she gets drunk, as if to have some plausible deniability after the fact. However, she’s not prepared for the reality that her bad decision has unintended and far-reaching consequences.

What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?

I wanted to explore the idea that things can look one way from the outside and another way from the inside. Alice’s parents want her nowhere near (former) bad boy Chris Thompson, but as it turns out, because she’s hanging out with him she avoids most of the drunken/drug fueled escapades of the girls she knows from her high school. Conversely, her parents give way too much access to an adult friend of theirs who is secretly harassing Alice because he seems like a good guy to them.

How would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a narrative? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?

wastedprettyWhen I was a teen, alcohol was a really big deal in my house. Which is to say: there was no alcohol in my house. No wine with dinner. No six pack in the fridge. There was a “liquor cabinet” but the bottles were old and dusty and I never saw anyone touch them. The absence of alcohol spoke volumes. When I would babysit in neighbors’ homes, if I saw a beer in the fridge, I would assume they had an alcohol problem. I didn’t know anything about responsible drinking.

We now know that my dad was a “dry drunk.” I had heard the stories of my dad’s alcohol abuse in college, but by the time I was born, he was abstaining (from alcohol). He hadn’t done any work to address his underlying issues though, or his gambling addiction.

I stayed away from alcohol and drugs in high school. I was the president of my school’s Students Against Drunk Driving chapter; I was in a touring high school assembly that was a PSA funded by Mothers Against Drunk Driving; I was a poster child for good choices. And it hurt my social standing.

Whether or not someone will consume drugs and/or alcohol is high school kids is common dilemma. I write Young Adult fiction, and I don’t think I could authentically write about high school without writing about choices students make around these issues.

What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?

I’m working on a sequel to Wasted Pretty right now. It takes place five years later. Chris, the love interest is still sober, but Alice, now twenty-one, is what I would call a binge drinker. It puts a strain on their interactions.

Recently, someone close to me stopped drinking, though it’s unclear if his past use of alcohol rose to the level of addiction. I wanted to explore that area between, “I’ve hit rock bottom,” and “Maybe I have a problem.” We see a lot of “rock bottoms” depicted in popular culture, but many of us live in that grey area of “What’s too much for me?” or “Why am I drinking?” When I write about things, I’m less interested in the high peaks and low valleys that lend themselves to sensationalism. I’m more interested in the everyday ups and downs. That may sound boring, but I actually think the quiet moments of indecision and confusion are where the real drama is.

BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that Wasted Pretty gets made into a major motion picture. What song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?

Wasted Pretty is set in Pittsburgh in 1992 as New Wave music morphs into grunge. Alice’s love interest, Chris Thompson, is described as a clean-cut Kurt Cobain and is in a band (called…Wasted Pretty!). So you might think I would say, “Come As You Are,” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but there’s a moment towards the end of the book that hinges on a photograph, so I’d have to say, The Cure’s “Pictures of You.”