Writer’s Block with Julie Cohen

Sophie Grenham speaks to author JULIE COHEN about her new book Louis & Louise

Photograph by Stewart Smith

American author Julie Cohen has published 19 books to date, including recent bestsellers Dear Thing (2013), Together (2017) and her hit new release, Louis & Louise. She began her writing career in 2006 by publishing romantic fiction with Mills & Boon and Little Black Dress (Headline). Cohen’s novels have since been translated into 17 languages and sold a million copies worldwide. Together and Dear Thing were chosen for the Richard and Judy Book Club.

Cohen studied English Literature at Brown University in Rhode Island and Cambridge University, and later completed an M. Phil degree with research on fairies in Victorian and Edwardian children’s literature, after which she became a secondary school English teacher.

Louis & Louise is perhaps Cohen’s most impactful work to date, due to her innovative, respectful and rather brilliant exploration of gender expectations, sexuality, identity, class and violence. The story is set in a small town in Maine that centres around a single paper mill, beginning in 1978 and moving between the 1980s, 1990s and 2010-11. Louis and Louise are one person with the same family, the same childhood best friends Allie and Benny and the same head of red hair, but the narrative is split into two alternate realities. What might your life look like if you were born a different sex? Right from the start, Louis & Louise is compulsive reading. One quickly becomes attached to the empathetic characters as they yearn, they regret and ultimately confront their painful past.

When Cohen isn’t writing her own novels, she teaches creative writing workshops with The Guardian, Literature Wales, and Writers’ Workshop. She runs her own fiction consultancy and mentoring business, with many of her clients successfully going on to publication. She is the official cartoonist for the Sherlock Holmes Journal, a Vice President of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and a founding member of the Rainbow Chapter for LGBQIA+ writers, as well as Patron of local literacy charity ABC to Read, who help children in Berkshire primary schools learn to read.

Julie Cohen lives with her family in Reading, England. She is currently writing her next book.

Louis & Louise (€16.99) is published by Orion and available from all good bookshops.

On home

I live in Reading with my husband, our son and our dog. Our house is near the centre of town but it backs onto a river. So while the front of the house is always quite busy, the back of the house has a completely different landscape: there are swans, ducks, seagulls, and at night bats swoop around. Our son can go canoeing and the dog and I love to go running along the towpath past locks and nature preserves. A pair of swans nests in the garden of a house a few doors down and every spring we watch their cygnets growing up. My favourite local coffee shop is Workhouse Coffee, which is locally owned and has the best coffee in town. I don’t usually write in it, though, because the conversations are too interesting. After years of not having a local hairdresser, I walked into a new salon called Nylon on Duke Street only to find it was owned by a friend of mine who I hadn’t seen in at least ten years. Reading is quite a big place but often when you meet new people you discover you’ve already got connections with them through friends or schools or neighbourhoods. I was in a taxi the other night and the driver said, “Hey, are you Ms Cohen? You taught me English!” It was one of my first GCSE students, now grown up with a family of his own. My love of English literature meant that I always wanted to live in England. But when I came over to study at Cambridge, and again to do a MPhil, I ended up falling in love and that’s the reason why I still live here.

On roots

I grew up in the Western mountains of Maine, in a paper mill town called Rumford. (It’s the slightly-fictionalised setting for my novel Louis & Louise.) Rumford is quite beautiful, set between pine-clad mountains on a wide rocky river, at the foot of a waterfall. Many of the houses are from the prosperous 19th century boom of the mill, including a historically listed area originally built in the Queen Anne style for mill workers. In the winter, the whole area is blanketed in snow; in autumn, the mountains turn into a panoply of colour. But it’s a paper mill town, so the predominant scent of my childhood was the rotten-egg stench of the mill. People called it “the smell of money.”

On early reading

The first book I remember is Goodnight Moon. The words were so simple, and yet I would spend ages tracing every picture, the changes from page to page, and making up stories to fit that quiet room. Both my parents read to me and because they are readers themselves, I always knew that reading was wonderful. I loved Dr Seuss as a child, too—I later wrote my undergraduate dissertation about him at Cambridge. As an older child I loved Watership Down and Anne of Green Gables but the book that really changed my life was The Complete Sherlock Holmes. I read it at about age 11 and I became a lifelong Sherlockian. It gave me my passion for Victorian literature, my passion for England, and to this day I’m an official cartoonist for the Sherlock Holmes Journal, even though I can’t draw.

On formative years

Although I didn’t come to understand this until much later, for most of my life I have been a stealth outsider. My family were the only Jews in town and we were solidly middle-class in a working-class area. This meant that growing up, while I had lots of great friends (and I was related to most of the town through my mother, who grew up Catholic), there were no families who were quite like mine. So although I haven’t always been aware of it, I’ve been performing a delicate dance of being the same and yet different—someone who belongs and yet doesn’t belong. Later, in the elite surroundings of Brown University and Cambridge, I was a rural kid from a state school, and completely different from the Jews I met, who had grown up in Jewish communities. And then I emigrated to the UK. In all these places I’ve felt that I’ve fitted in, and also not—in the same way that I’m bisexual and in a long-term relationship with a man. There are subtle, and yet constant, disconnects. I think that feeds into my writing, which is intensely empathetic and community-based and yet focuses on difference and people who do not quite fit in.

On creating

I work in the attic of our house. As in most Victorian terraces, space is at a premium and we didn’t have room for a staircase so I access the loft via a ship-style ladder which our carpenter cleverly built with handholds and wide steps so it doesn’t feel terrifying. I have a desk up here and a computer that doesn’t connect to the internet (very important). I’m surrounded by my own books—I’ve been translated into seventeen languages so that’s a lot of foreign editions, and I keep them all at eye level so I can remind myself, in my frequent bouts of self-doubt, that I actually know how to write. I’ve also got quite a library of research books up here, and novels of former clients of my literary consultancy. I’ve got a poster with the entire text of The Princess Bride, and quite a lot of queer fan art for my favourite television show, Hannibal. When I’m in the middle of a book, my desk is very cluttered, but in between, I quite ruthlessly tidy everything. At the moment, it’s extremely messy and my computer is covered in Post-its with notes about my novel. I have a whiteboard with notes for the novel on it, and the door of one of the under-eaves cupboards is also covered with multi-coloured Post-its, which is my plan for this novel. I have a skylight and when I’m at my desk my view is of the neighbour’s chimney pots, but when I stand up I can see the backside of a tiny gargoyle on my neighbour’s roof. When I need a change of scene I usually take the dog for a walk. There’s something about walking and undemanding company that frees the mind.

On favourite bookshops

We have no independent bookshops in Reading any more. So I do my book shopping in Waterstones. But when I go to London I love to visit Foyles, or Lutyens & Rubinstein, or Gay’s the Word, or (to gaze avariciously at the signed first editions) Goldsboro.

On her “To Be Read” pile

My TBR pile is tottering but here are a few that are on it. The Five by Hallie Rubenhold – a study of Jack the Ripper’s victims, who, like so many victims of men, are often overlooked or erased. Maurice by E. M. Forster – which I have somehow never read! The Girl at the Window by Rowan Coleman – a ghost story written by my best friend, set in Ponden Hall, a house which I love.

On escapes

I’ve spent every summer of my life in a lakeside cottage in Maine which was built by my great-grandfather. The simplest things are best here: sitting on the beach, swimming in the cold lake, walking down the quiet road, cooking on the grill, greeting the neighbours’ dogs. It’s a place to be quiet and to be with family and it has the best sunsets in the world.

On Louis & Louise

Louis & Louise came out of renewed conversations that we have all been having, around the globe, about gender, violence and sexuality. I started writing the book thinking it was going to be about gender inequality as applied to women, but as I wrote it I realised that it was actually about how the patriarchy harms all of us, whatever our gender. Toxic masculinity and misogyny affect everyone—male, female, non-binary, trans, cis, of every age and gender.

The most enjoyable part of writing the book was probably writing about my home town and state. It felt like coming home and it gave me the excuse to talk to family and friends about our shared history, and to read wonderful books like When We Were the Kennedys which is a memoir set in Rumford’s sister town, Mexico, and written by Monica Wood, the sister of my favourite high school teacher. The hardest part was writing about the violence at the heart of the book. Although the novel is fiction, the emotions and some of the elements of the violence are all very real. I still find it difficult to read.

On fate

I’ve often wondered how my life would be different if I’d decided to stay in the United States, or if I’d started writing earlier, or if I’d been more adventurous when I was younger. Fortunately I have written a lot of books, which is, I think, the closest anyone can get to living out alternative realities.

On what’s next

I’m working on my next novel, Paper Ghosts, which is very different to anything I’ve written before. Over the next few months I’m travelling quite a bit to teach and to meet with other writers and readers, which is absolutely one of the privileges of this job.

@SophieGrenham

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