Jeffrey Cohen has been freelancing for 26 years for publications like The New York Times, TV Guide, USA Weekend and Writer’s Digest. Through all that and much more (marriage, fatherhood, college tuition) Cohen kept writing screenplays and uproariously funny mystery novels in addition to freelance journalism.
Cohen wrote the Double Feature and Aaron Tucker Mysteries, as well as the Haunted Guesthouse Mysteries (under the name E. J. Copperman). The most recent Guesthouse novel, An Uninvited Ghost, was released today. He is also the author of two nonfiction books, The Asperger Parent: How to Raise a Child With Asperger Syndrome and Maintain Your Sense of Humor, and Guns A’ Blazing: How Parents of Children on the Autism Spectrum and Schools Can Work Together—Without a Shot Being Fired.
Straddling fiction and non-fiction doesn’t seem to be a problem for Cohen, but some of the elements of his non-fiction—in particular, a son with Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism—have crept into the novels as well. Aaron Tucker’s son Ethan has AS, and Cohen believes a few other characters in his novels might have Asperger’s tendencies, whether they know it or not.
Below, Cohen and I talk about freelancing, writing fiction and non-fiction, and the imminent return of the comic hero.
You’ve been a freelance reporter and writer since 1985, right? How has the gig changed over the last 25 years? What prompted you to go freelance and what kept you there? What do you enjoy about it?
Jeffrey Cohen: The gig has certainly changed–there are a lot fewer newspapers and magazines to pitch now, and web sites don’t always… how shall I say this… pay a living wage. Or any wage. Or want to talk to an old codger like me.
What prompted me to go freelance? I was 27 years old, had a monthly rent bill of $214 and no wife or children, and couldn’t stand the company I was working for. Figured I’d “take the summer off” and freelance for a while, via contacts I had at consumer electronics trade magazines and elsewhere at the time. Never figured I’d be doing it 26 years later, but what happened was I married well, to a woman with a real steady job as a prosecutor for the state, we had a couple of kids who needed a parent at home when they got home from school, and I liked freelancing. If I’d have had to really get a job, I would have done so, but luckily, that never became necessary.
I love everything about freelancing except the wages. You can’t beat the commute, you can wear whatever you want, you can write on virtually any subject for any publication, and you work your own hours. What’s not to like? But making a living at it is a bear.
What is a typical writing day like for you?
Jeffrey Cohen: Every writer I’ve ever interviewed–and there have been many–say they get up at five in the morning (or earlier), they write on yellow legal pads, and they work straight through until they have the allotment of pages they’ve slotted for the day. I’m convinced they’re lying, but I don’t want to get up to drive to their houses at five in the morning to find out.
Personally, I start after exercising (which has taken up a good deal of my time lately), work on what I call the “paying work” that has a tight deadline–usually newspaper stuff–by making phone calls or writing if I’ve done the interviews, write some queries, take care of business, and then around three or four in the afternoon, I attack the novel-in-progress. When I have a deadline, I make sure I get in at least 1000 words a day and hope for more. But there’s no outline, no notes, no nothing except what’s in my head and has to come out. If you can’t surprise yourself, what fun is writing?
Then I usually make dinner (unless my wife gets home early enough, because she’s the better cook) and chill out afterwards. I’m an old codger, so we go to bed early.
When I read your novels, two things jump out–they’re funny as all get out and you clearly love what you are doing. So… how do you write humor and how do you keep the love?
Jeffrey Cohen: Well, thanks for saying that! “Funny as all get out” is what I’m shooting for. And love for what I’m doing? When it’s going well, I love it. When I don’t know what comes next, the emotion would be something other than love, I’m afraid.
How To Write Humor: Start by being funny. If you’re not funny, don’t try writing humor. It’s just painful, it’s a gazillion times harder than it appears, and it won’t come out the way you want it to. If you are funny, you probably already know how to write humor and can learn nothing from me. But don’t create “wacky” situations for your characters–let the funny stuff happen naturally, and come through your characters, not plot mechanics.
How to Keep Loving Writing: If you’re a writer, you write. Whether they’re paying you or not. End of story. I wrote screenplays for 20 years and never sold one, but I kept writing them because 1. I had stories that had to come out and 2. I’m really, really bad at taking a hint. Then I wrote my first novel because it wouldn’t behave and be a screenplay like I’d intended, and I sold it in five days after I finished it. Go figure. So if you’re a movie or TV producer and are looking for properties, have I got a backlog for you!
Guns A’ Blazing: How Parents of Children on the Autism Spectrum and Schools Can Work Together Without a Shot Being Fired is a darned important book that needs to get in the hands of the right people–the families, the educators, the policy-makers. In a nutshell, what is the book? How’d it come about? And what sort of response has it received?
Jeffrey Cohen: Thanks for saying so. Guns A’ Blazing is for parents who, like me, have a child with special needs and have to navigate the public or private school system. I’m a big fan of public schools despite the bad press they’ve been getting lately, and I think most of the people there work their butts off because they want to help children. But kids with special needs require special handling, and sometimes–not always, by any stretch–school systems aren’t set up to handle any child who isn’t off-the-rack. The book suggests that both school officials and parents need to enter such situations without a chip on their shoulders, to try to see the other side’s point of view, and to reach a solution to problems by considering anything but their own egos, because the goal here is to help the child. The book came about after my first non-fiction book, The Asperger Parent, was well received, and the publisher and I decided something helping parents and teachers through the inevitable difficulties of dealing with a special needs child would be helpful. The reception for Guns has been good among those who have read it, but it hasn’t been read as widely as The Asperger Parent, and I’m not sure why (I blame the cover). I’m very pleased you brought it up, though, because I think it could be helpful to a lot of people if they were to find out it exists. Thanks for the plug.
To the uninitiated, chaos and plot would seem to be at odds with each other. But in your books… well, how do you balance the mayhem without losing the reader, without having the whole thing fall apart?
Jeffrey Cohen: Everything in my writing–everything–comes back to character. Without characters I care about (and hopefully the reader cares about), I have nothing to do. The plot mechanics don’t really interest me. I write them because stories about people looking out the window and thinking about their lives bore the living hell out of me, and I don’t care to read them, let alone write them. And I like to have more than one plotline in a book, because then I don’t have to write 80,000 words all about one story, and also because my experience has been that your life is rarely about only one thing at a time.
Aaron Tucker, Elliot Freed, Alison Kerby… What makes for a compelling protagonist? How do you develop that character over the course of a book? Over the course of a series?
Jeffrey Cohen: For me, a main character (I don’t know about “protagonists”–my characters never protagonize) has to be someone who is not the right person for the job. Since I write mystery novels, the character should at least start out as someone who absolutely should not be asked to solve a crime, and then is forced into doing so. Because I like to write about people discovering abilities or talents they didn’t know they had. James Bond is not an interesting character to me–he’s supposed to save the world; what’s the fun in watching him do it?
Aaron Tucker evolved because I’d never written a novel before. I wanted a character who shouldn’t be investigating a murder, and I couldn’t think of anyone less qualified to do so than me, so I gave Aaron my circumstances, although he is by no means me. I really liked Aaron, and came back to him last year for a short story, The Gun Also Rises, that was published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.
Elliot Freed had the job I would really want if I didn’t have to worry about, you know, paying for stuff. He ran Comedy Tonight, the all-comedy movie theatre that showed classic and (grudgingly) contemporary comedies only. I’d love to program a theatre like that, and think every town should have one. Elliot was devoted to comedy–it was truly his religion–and that let me make him a comic hero, something that has almost died off as a species. I do miss Comedy Tonight.
Alison Kerby is something kind of new for me, although I wrote a female main character in a book called Inherit the Shoes that’s the only one I’ve written (so far) that never got published. Alison isn’t a joke machine like Aaron or Elliot, but she has a sense of humor and sees the irony in the situations she falls into, which is always fun. But she has a nine (or ten) year-old daughter (depending on which book you’re reading) and has to be responsible. She’s trying to run a business on her own, has to deal with ridiculously odd situations with no rulebook in sight, and is beset upon with help from her mother, who thinks everything Alison does is just perfect–something that drives Alison crazy.
As a series progresses, I want the character to develop. If they’re the same in every book, I get bored, and I imagine the reader gets bored as well. I want new readers to be able to pick up the book and dive in without having to read previous installments (although certainly you want people to read all the books in the series, but if you’re new to the series and intrigued by one title, I’ll hope to hook you and get you to go back later), so I don’t really have cliffhangers, although some character points will develop over a series. And I want the characters to become a little bit more confident in their ability to solve the crime–not arrogant or entirely sure of themselves, but not as bumbling and inadequate as at the beginning of the first book. If a person lives through harrowing experiences like I will throw in the paths of my characters and aren’t at least a little bit changed by that, I’d worry for their sanity.
What about an antagonist?
Jeffrey Cohen: I give up, what about an antagonist? I don’t see characters as “antagonists” or “bad guys.” I start with my main character, try to figure what would drive him/her the most crazy (as my friend Ian Abrams says, “Nobody wants to see your character have a nice day”), and send that their way. Then I eventually determine who actually did the crime, and work backwards from there. It’s about not being obvious, but also not being so obscure about it that the reader couldn’t at least connect the dots at the end and say, “Yes, it makes sense that this person was the perpetrator.” Characters shouldn’t be built to serve the plot; it should be the other way around.
Any advice for writing action scenes?
Jeffrey Cohen: It’s nice to have, um, action in them. I come from a screenwriting background, where “show, don’t tell” is the absolute commandment, so I look for things characters can do that will define their personalities. Action scenes? I’m a sucker for dialogue, so I like to break them up with talk. It’s a weakness, I know, but I don’t drink or do drugs, so let’s consider it my only vice besides Diet Coke. The only thing that’s essential about action is that it be clear. If the reader doesn’t understand what’s going on, it doesn’t matter how ingenious you are about it.
How do you craft such compelling dialogue? How do you write dialogue that deepens the character and propels the plot and cracks the reader up all at the same time?
Jeffrey Cohen: I like people who actually listen during a conversation. You’ll laugh, but most people don’t. They supply the standard response. If someone asks me how I’m doing, I feel compelled to come up with an answer that, if it can’t be accurate, is at least entertaining. So I like banter, and I do it well, I’ll boast. I like writing characters who do it well, too.
Writing dialogue is about letting the conversation go where it will. Sometimes you need to drop a plot point in there, too. You don’t want it to stick out like a sore thumb, so you should cover yourself by having the conversation wind its way around to your plot point. If it’s a clue that will become important later, it’s even better to misdirect the reader by making it seem like the conversation isn’t about that plot point at all, and writing it as something that appears to be a joke at the time is a nice way to cover it up. I let my characters talk, and some of them are like me, incapable of not going for the joke. It keeps things lively when I’m writing.
Your novel, An Uninvited Ghost, written as E. J. Copperman, comes out today. How’s a Copperman novel different than a Cohen novel? What ways did it challenge you to stretch as a writer, as a craftsman? What’s the coolest darned thing about the book?
Jeffrey Cohen: The big difference between a Copperman novel and one under my own name is that it has a different name on the cover. I don’t approach the writing any differently. The main character in the series is female, which seems to astound some people–if I wrote a novel from the perspective of a talking moose, nobody would question my ability to voice the character (although they might, quite reasonably, question my sanity), but write in a gender other than your own, and some tend to think you’re either insulting the other gender or pulling off some minor miracle. I love it when readers assume E.J. is a woman–I think that means I’m doing my job right!
An Uninvited Ghost is the second in the Haunted Guesthouse Mystery series, in which Alison Kerby, a divorced single mom, decides to buy a great big Victorian on the Jersey Shore (I love New Jersey; I live there–here–and I think it has an unfairly bad reputation) and turn it into a guesthouse. But she has a problem. Two problems. Their names are Paul and Maxie, and they’re dead, and “living” in her house. In An Uninvited Ghost, Alison has gotten a private investigator’s license to appease Paul (who was a private detective in life) intending not to use it. But Paul brings in their first client, a long-deceased gentleman who thinks he might have unwittingly be used to harm an octogenarian in Alison’s completely fictional hometown of Harbor Haven. Complicating the case? The ghost in question, Scott McFarlane, isn’t sure what happened–because he’s blind–and a reality TV show crew has moved into Alison’s house just as she’s welcoming her first paying guests, to film a season of their less-than-highbrow program while she’s looking into what might or might not be a murder.
Every story is a challenge to the writer, and you want to keep raising the stakes. I liked the idea of the TV crew in Alison’s house, because it would drive her nuts (“Nobody wants to see your character…”) and because it would make it more difficult for her to investigate something and talk to her ghostly boarders while they were around. But I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to write a sightless character. It complicated a lot of scenes in an interesting way, and made me consider how to show plot points to someone who couldn’t see them. That raised the bar a bit.
The coolest damned thing about the book? It’s only $7.99 or less. Show me where you can get hours of entertainment for that price! (And keep in mind you’re probably paying for television.)
What are you working on now?
Jeffrey Cohen: The third book (yikes!) in the Haunted Guesthouse series, Old Haunts, is with my beloved editor now. And there will probably be a fourth book in that series, so I have to start work on that soon. Another new book, the start of a new series, is being waved under the noses of some editors by my terrific agent as we speak, and I have this notion of writing a standalone that might actually happen this time. Plus, I’m studying for my master’s degree, have two children in college, am teaching screenwriting at Drexel University in Philadelphia, have a few freelance assignments, and am available for speaking engagements and, for all I know, bar mitzvahs. So please, buy the book–tuition is unbelievable!
Any parting words of encouragement, caution or advice?
Jeffrey Cohen: I’m a working writer. The only thing I tell people who ask me about trying to be a writer is that if you can come up with another way to make a living that you’ll like and will pay you a living wage, do that. Because if you can be talked out of writing professionally, you’re better off doing something that you can pay the bills with and not have to be hustling 24/7. If you’d write whether they pay you or not, then maybe it’s something you should pursue. But as my father used to say, you should have something to fall back on, and I do. That’s why I’ve been doing all that exercise.
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly. He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.