Interview: Elizabeth Cohen

ElizabethCohenElizabeth Cohen is an Assistant Professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh, where she serves as the fiction editor for the Saranac Review. Her memoir, The Family on Beartown Road, was a New York Times Notable Book, and her articles, stories, and poetry have appeared in SELF, MORE, Newsweek, People, New York Times Magazine, Salon, Tablet, and the Yale Review. The Hypothetical Girl is her newest book. (adapted from Elizabeth Cohen’s website).

TCJWW: The Hypothetical Girl is a collection of stories centered around Internet relationships. I can’t help but wonder, how much research went into this book? Was the culture of online dating already familiar to you, or did you purposefully immerse yourself to find and create these stories?

Cohen: I worked on it for four years. It began with mild real-world curiosity about online dating which quickly morphed into a fascination with the kinds of fictional situations I imagined might arise. My research was simple: In my spare time I read profiles. They were like story seeds. NO one story is based on one actual person, but there are certainly aspects of people I read of all melded in. I would scour dating sites for stories, I asked my friends and most people I met who had dated online about their experiences. I like to say I became an anthropologist of love.

TCJWW: The concept of online dating is still relatively new to our culture. What books or authors were you reading as you worked on The Hypothetical Girl?

Cohen: I don’t read much when I am writing. Because if I do, and I like the books-  I end up sounding like their narrators. But authors I have to think are instrumental for me here, as they are instrumental for me in even trying to write stories at all, are Alice Munro, Anton Chekov, Isaac Babel, George Saunders, Ernest Hemingway, Claire  Watkins. I  have always been a sucker for a perfect gem of a short story.

TCJWW: Most of the stories in The Hypothetical Girl center around female protagonists. What gender assumptions (if any) have you encountered, and how did you approach them?

Cohen: I have a few male protagonists. But by and large these are mid-life women, lonely and hopeful, hunting for love. The gender assumptions I have encountered are that internet dating is largely women, this is just not true. It is both genders and all persuasions. A universe of seekers.

TCJWW: The story “Love Quiz” takes a huge risk with form. Parts of this story read as an online love quiz. What was the process of creating and writing in such a form? Did you face any challenges?

Cohen: So I was getting my hair cut and reading a women’s magazine and I came across this “love quiz” and I thought, what if a story were a quiz? And because I am interested in experimental forms, I fashioned the story after the quiz. So the story is a quiz that the reader actually takes. It was very difficult to write it so that it actually works out as a quiz AND as a story. It might not be the best quiz. It is a risky story in many ways. Structurally but also because of the dark and unseemly subject matter. My main challenge was that a friend of mine told me it was terrible, and not to include it in the book. It was very upsetting.

TCJWW: This collection begins by firmly grounding the reader in the real world, so to speak, and then moves into a more figurative space: the protagonist of “The Hypothetical Girl” slowly vanishes, the polar bear and deer in “Stupid Humans” fall in love, texting each other as icebergs melt and humans hunt them down. Though these two stories differ from the rest of the collection in character and situation, they absolutely share similar themes. I loved these final two stories, especially “Stupid Humans.” How do you see this story fitting into this collection? Did you face any opposition about including it in The Hypothetical Girl?

Cohen: Thank you! I am so glad you liked these stories as I really had fun writing them. There are a number of magical realist tales in the second part of The Hypothetical Girl. One is “Heart Food”, in which the protagonist can actually take her heart out of her chest through a little door and talk to it.  “The Hypothetical Girl” is about a woman who is turning invisible (or not), and yes, “Stupid Humans” is about the ambiguities in texting and emails and how easy it is to misunderstand and I thought – what if I make the characters two different species to boot? I see these stories as all connected by a similar theme: the intersection between technology and love.

TCJWW: What are you working on now? Do you have any future projects planned?

Cohen: I am writing a troublesome memoir and a novel. I have planned a YA novel about a group of nerds who decide to become superheroes.


January 18, 2013 – Reading at Book Passage in Corte Madera, CA at 7PM
January 19, 2013 – Reading at Orinda Books in Ordina, CA at 1PM

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