Friday, September 1, 2017

Interview With Speculative Author LJ Cohen

Photo: LJ Cohen

What influenced you to start writing and how old were you when you started?

I started keeping a journal when I was quite young. I think, even then, I understood that I needed to write in order to know what I was feeling. I probably started writing poetry and short fiction by the time I was 8 or 9. For reasons that I only sorted out decades later, I was drawn to the written word far more than to any other art form.

You write (mainly) sci-fi and fantasy novels.  What do you think speculative fiction can accomplish that literary fiction can't easily replicate?

I'm not sure literary work *can't*, but speculative fiction can shine a light on current society without triggering the reader's defensiveness more easily than more realistic fiction can. Whatever the story highlights, it's not about them, but about others. It's less threatening, less confrontative. And yet, powerful. Look at the incredible power of Handmaid's Tale. Perhaps its impact is stronger because it's not quite our reality, but could be.

Do you have a writing routine? If so, what is it? If not, why not?

I'm really great at setting up routines and not quite so good at sticking to them. However, when I'm actively drafting a novel, I set an intention of writing 1,000 words a day for an average of 5,000 words a week. For the most part, I hit those goals and end up with a solid draft of a novel in 4-5 months. I don't really have rituals associated with my writing. I don't need a special environment or particular music versus silence. I don't write at a specific time of day. When I started writing my first novel in 2004-ish, my children were still in grade school and I had a 25 hour a week physical therapy practice. I had to learn to write whenever I could squeeze a half hour out of my other responsibilities.

You have aphantasia (the inability to "see" mental images). Do you have trouble knowing how much detail to add to a character or setting for readers?  Are there any tricks/methods you use when creating new settings?

Wow. Yes. When I was first starting to write and use a critique group, I didn't know I had aphantasia. My writing peers would tell me my dialogue was solid but that I wrote "floating heads in black boxes." It took me a long time to understand that my preference is for spare description when I'm reading and when I'm writing.

I could never understand why writers - especially of fantasy - would spend so much time on lavish, flowing descriptions of setting. My reaction was to page flip until something happened. I 'got' that we were in a forest after the first paragraph, but then the writer kept on describing. It was painful for me to read. Impossible for me to write, even if I wanted to.

I had to find a compromise that included visual description in a way that felt authentic to the reader. I would spend time looking at things in the world and practice describing them. I would ask readers if they had enough grounding in visual description. My husband is hypervisual, where I am not visual at all. I often ask him to read my drafts to make sure I include enough for the reader.

My first drafts are still very light on description and heavy on dialogue and movement. For whatever reason, I find it easier to use visual description through the eyes of my characters than in exposition.

What solidified your decision to be an independent author?  What do you like most about going indie?

I had gone the traditional route and managed to sign with a literary agent in 2008. She went out on submission with 3 of my novels but wasn't able to make a sale, despite glowing rejection letters from many of the big 6 editors. Because I had managed a solo physical therapy practice for many years, I was familiar with running a business. I was also very computer/tech savvy and comfortable with html and css. So creating my own imprint and publishing my work was a good fit.

I love the creative control and I have amazing partners in my publication journey, including my cover artist and editor.

You make beautiful ceramic pieces as a hobby.  Does the inspiration/creative process for ceramics fuel your writing?  Why or why not?

Part of my drive to do ceramics is to have an artistic outlet where I can let go of my need to be perfect. If you've ever wrestled to center 5 pounds of sloppy clay on a wheel, you'll understand that! It's also something I do at a communal studio, so I can be with other artists. That's a needed balance to the long stretches I'm alone at the keyboard with only my characters for company. It's also a truism that my best ideas come to me when my hands are in the clay and I can't  possibly stop to write them down! In a lot of ways, clay is even a better fit for me than writing as it's a very kinesthetic endeavor.

However, if you think it's hard being a writer and making a living, talk to a ceramics artist!

What are the best aspects of writing a series of novels?  What are the worst?  Do you prefer writing a novel in a series or a stand-alone novel?

The best aspects of writing a series? Getting to stay with familiar characters and watch them grow. I don't struggle to find their voices as I move into a new story. The characters are just there, waiting for me. The most difficult? Making sure I don't screw up on continuity issues.  By the time a story makes it to publication, my head is crammed with multiple versions of events. I can't always remember which version is the one that ultimately made it into the book and which was cut. Which is why keeping a series 'bible' is so critical.

I don't really prefer one over the other. Writing a stand alone allows the writer to have a greater degree of closure on a story and sometimes that's the story that wants to be written.

Short stories (you say) are the hardest for you to write.  Why is that? What form of writing do you find the most rewarding?

Yes. They are! I think, just as in the running world, there are people who are natural sprinters (short story writers) and those who are more comfortable as marathoners (novel writers).  There's something about planning the long arc of a plot that is my natural writing rhythm. I envy those writers who are good at both.

My hard drive is full of abandoned snippets of short stories. Of all of the short fiction I've written, there are about a dozen I think of as successful. I still poke at it because some stories aren't novel-length projects and the short story is a beautiful format.

The irony is that my first writing love was the ultra condensed: poetry. And I still return to it often.

Who are your literary influences/favorite writers? (They need not be disabled/neurodivergent.)

My literary influences include the sci fi writers I loved as a child: Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, Ray Bradbury and Madeline L'Engle. The books they wrote became my companions and my comfort as I grew up.

My favorite contemporary writers include Patricia McKillip (her prose is magical and lyrical), Lois McMaster Bujold (I have read and re-read the Vorkosigan books so many times!), Mary Oliver (an amazing poet. Read "Wild Geese"), and Rick Wayne (his characters are iconoclastic and he does some incredible things subverting genre tropes. And we're working on a co-writing project, so you should definitely read his work!)

How do you deal with the (inevitable) negative reviews?  Any advice for the rest of us?

Yeah. Negative reviews. They happen. It's inevitable. While the best thing is not to read reviews, it's almost impossible for me not to. I don't like to admit it, but a negative review will send me sulking. But only for a little while.

Not everyone will love your books. That's okay. I find great comfort in reading the reviews of my very favorite books - ones I consider classics or must-haves on your bookshelf - and find excoriating one and two star reviews. It's subjective. There are books, shows, and movies that people rave about and I just don't like them.

Ideally, the negative reviews are because the book is garnering attention outside of its typical audience. That's good! It means it's reaching a wider readership. Chalk it up to that and keep writing!
Biography:  LJ (Lisa Janice) Cohen is a poet, novelist, blogger, ceramics artist, local food enthusiast, Doctor Who fan, and relentless optimist. She lives just outside of Boston with her family, two dogs (only one of which actually ever listens to her) and the occasional international student. When not doing battle with her stubborn Jack Russell Terrier mix (aka "other dog") or hanging out with her lab/hound mix (aka "good dog"), LJ can be found writing, which looks a lot like daydreaming. She writes SF, Fantasy, and YA novels under the name LJ Cohen.

Author Links:

Twitter: @lisajanicecohen

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the interview and your interesting questions!