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Wednesday 2 December 2015

Jeff Cohen


Lynne Patrick talks with Jeff Cohen

As if there weren’t enough British crime writers to discover, we voracious crime fiction fans are constantly seeking new American authors to sample as well. Between them, Jeffrey Cohen and his partner-in-crime E J Copperman are so prolific that in the USA they’re hard to miss, but many British readers may have be lacking a treat.
Jeff is the author of the Aaron Tucker and Double Feature mystery series;
E J’s Haunted Guesthouse series now runs to seven titles; together they’re working on a third Asperger’s mystery. But for some reason no one can quite fathom, he doesn’t (or they don’t) have a British publisher.
Like a surprisingly large number of American crime writers, Jeff bases his work in New Jersey. (So does E J.) And when it comes to the old adage write what you know, he’s a master. (So is E J.)
And the answer to that question you must surely be asking by now – yes, they are, but don’t spread it around...

Lynne: So where did it all begin, Jeff? Were you writing stories at kindergarten? Or did it happen later?
Jeff: I honestly don’t remember. I know I was writing stories when I was a kid, but not like I churned them out at a prodigious pace. I wrote one or two but I was always more interested (and therefore better at) the writing classes than math or science. And I started writing plays and screenplays in high school and college. None was ever produced, a continuing theme in my work.

Lynne: Most writers need a day job to pay the bills, at least in the early stages of their career. Was that how it was for you?
Jeff: Not really. I was a newspaper reporter right out of college, but I was bad at gathering news and good at writing it, which made me half a good reporter, so that only lasted about 18 months. I remember getting an employee evaluation that suggested I needed to get more news ‘off the street.’ So I went out to a street in one of the towns I was covering and looked around. Nothing special was going on. I started to realize I might need to rethink this career choice. Over the next few years I worked (very briefly) in public relations (before getting fired, and they were right) and then trade publishing until I decided to go freelance. I’ve always written for publications and done some ghostwriting even after the books were published. I do some of that  now and I teach, too.

Lynne: What is it about New Jersey? So many of my favourite American authors, including you, base their fiction there. Tell us what’s special about it.
Jeff: New Jersey has an attitude. We’re stuck between New York and Philadelphia and we have a sort of ‘middle-child’ feeling about us, always overlooked and frequently ridiculed. The state’s name has become something of a punchline (and an easy one for lazy comedians) so we’re prickly and sarcastic. I actually saw a film from Denmark where ‘New Jersey’ was a laugh line. I love the people in New Jersey because we’re not going to let anybody push us around, but we have a sense of humor about it. Sorry – humour.

Lynne: No need to adjust your spelling – we all speak American around here.
Between you, you and the elusive E J Copperman produce at least two books a year; and there’s a rumour, which I suspect was started by someone not a million miles from this interview, that two new series for two new (to you) publishers are in the pipeline. Most authors would be content with one book a year and one publisher; you manage two or three, and have four, soon to be six. That’s pretty impressive, especially since you blog, attend conventions, have a family and social life, and teach classes as well. How do you fit it all in?
Jeff: Consider that in addition to being a magical, wondrous form of entertainment, writing is also a job. And it’s my job, so I would prefer to make a living at it. That leads to a number of series at the same time (as does having a really good agent), but it’s not just an economic decision by any means. I like writing different characters. So yes, at the moment I’m writing four series: The Haunted Guesthouse series, whose latest instalment is Ghost in the Wind, just out December 1 in the US (no idea what happens in the UK—I’m lucky they tell me anything); the Asperger’s Mystery series, whose second book The Question of the Unfamiliar Husband was published in October; and coming in June 2016 the Mysterious Detective Mysteries (starting with Written Off), about a crime fiction writer whose series character appears, flesh-and-blood on her doorstep asking for help on his next case.

In 2017, there will be the Agent to the Paws Mysteries, about a theatrical agent whose clients are all animals. The furry kind. So, writing four mysteries a year at the moment. We’ll see how that goes.

Lynne: Where did E J appear from? It’s not as if your styles are hugely different. Your Double Feature series is witty, funny, quirky and set in New Jersey; E J’s Haunted Guesthouse series is witty, funny, quirky and, um, set in New Jersey. I haven’t read the Asperger’s series yet, but I’m guessing it ticks the same boxes, with added interesting stuff to extend our understanding of Asperger’s.
Jeff: I don’t feel especially different when I’m writing an E J book. The narrators tend to be women, so people assume E J is a woman, which I think is a great compliment. Spencer Quinn writes a series in which the narrator is a dog, but nobody thinks Spencer is a dog. The Asperger’s series is not the same as the others because Samuel Hoenig, the main character and narrator of that one, does have Asperger’s. He’s not going to try to make you laugh very often. It will be other characters’ reactions to Samuel that will score some laughs. One hopes.

Lynne: Some people would say that writing a series about a sleuth with Asperger’s Syndrome was a brave move. What took you down that road?
Jeff: I don’t think it was especially brave. Other books, notably The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, have had narrators with autism spectrum disorders. My son, now 26, has Asperger’s, and I’ve seen how that has infused his life with some fun and some not-so-fun things, but most of all I wrote Samuel – who is not very much like my son at all – because I thought he’d have an interesting point of view. And  for the record, I think he does.

Lynne: Do you remember the moment when you first held your book as a book, rather than as a computer file or a pile of manuscript? Did it feel familiar – or completely different from the work you initially sent out? Did you re-read it?
Jeff: I do remember that. I’d ghostwritten a couple of non-fiction books by then, but this was different. It was a single copy of For Whom the Minivan Rolls, the first Aaron Tucker mystery and my first-ever novel, sent by the publisher, and I just stood there and looked at it for a good minute. Then I went to show it to my wife, because my life is an ongoing quest to impress her. I did not re-read it cover to cover, but I did look for a few particular passages that I wanted to be sure had no typos. Mostly jokes, because that’s what I’m really proud of in my work. I’d rather make you laugh than make you gasp. Of course, doing both is good, too.

Lynne: It’s no secret that film is a great passion of yours, and you wrote for the screen before novels took over your life. What took you away from screenwriting, and brought you to fiction?
Jeff: Screenwriting, remember, is a form of fiction, even the ‘inspired by a true story’ mode. So I did that for 20 years or so, with various degrees of no success. Couldn’t sell a screenplay (and still can’t), although a few of them were actually good. I changed to writing novels because the idea for my next screenplay wouldn’t co-operate and was coming to my head as a first-person narrative. I actually wrote the book by accident (people don’t believe me when I say that, but it’s true) trying to figure out how to write the screenplay. Book sold in five days. Go figure.

Lynne: Who do you write for? Who is the reader in your mind when you write a new novel?
Jeff: This will sound terrible, but I’m not thinking of a reader when I write a novel. I’m conscious of the audience (reader) at all points because you want them to come along with you on your journey, but mostly I’m concerned about the character I’m writing, not who’s reading it.

Lynne: How do you go about it? Detailed synopsis first? Just plunge in? Do you know whodunit, or how it ends, before you start?
Jeff: I’m what they call a ‘pantser’; I write by the seat of my pants. I go in with a general premise, a midpoint (that’s a screenwriting thing I’ve never shaken) and a very general idea of an ending, and the rest is all improvised on the spot. If I had to figure out every beat of a story ahead of time, I’d be too bored to write the book because I’d know the whole story already. What fun is that?

Lynne: What sets a new book alight in your mind?
Jeff: These days, a contract. But I start with the character – what’s going to make him/her especially uncomfortable? I have a friend who’s a very successful screenwriter and teacher of screenwriting whose motto is ‘nobody wants to see your character have a nice day.’ We torture our characters for an audience’s entertainment. So figuring what’s best going to reveal new aspects of the character is what starts me up.

Lynne: Is there anything you wouldn’t write? Any line you won’t cross – and not just because a publisher wouldn’t accept it?
Jeff: I don’t know. I haven’t ever run into that problem, and while a writer surely wants to say, ‘No! Nothing is sacred! I will accept no limitations!’ I can’t really say I’m that committed to that cause. If there were something I thought would be cruel to impose on a reader, I probably wouldn’t write it. And I don’t deal in the depressing because there’s enough of that and I wouldn’t even want to read it, let alone write it. Is there a joke I won’t use because it might offend someone? Probably not, if I think it’s really funny.

Lynne: Apart from the novelist’s desire to tell a good story, what are you aiming for in a novel? Do you set out to open eyes and minds? Or just to entertain? I should say your books, and E J’s, are extremely entertaining!
Jeff: Thank you! My goal is to be funny and maybe find something true to say. The Asperger’s books have a second purpose, which is to maybe broaden a few definitions of ‘normal’ and get people to understand that autism isn’t just Rain Man or Curious Incident. It’s a spectrum and there are infinite combinations.

Lynne: Take us through a typical writing day.
Jeff: Every day is a writing day now. But writing isn’t the main part of the day in terms of time allotment, to be honest. Between teaching, doing research for the odd (and some of them are VERY odd) newspaper piece, there’s family business and work on promotion to be done before the writing happens. I write 1000 words a day, no matter what. On a good day, that takes about an hour. On a bad day, it takes the day. But they get done without question, seven days a week until the book is done. Then on my current schedule, I get about a week and a half off before I start the next one. Which is what I’ve always wanted.

Lynne: Promotion plays a big part in a writer’s life these days: you attend conventions, you blog, you set up signings, readings and talks. Do you enjoy that aspect of your work, or is it a chore to be fitted in when the writing allows?
Jeff: Honestly, it depends on the day. I go to Malice Domestic most years and I go to Bouchercon when it’s in a city that’s drivable from New Jersey. I love meeting readers and seeing my writing pals. But there are many more conventions each year I don’t attend because the budget or the time just isn’t reasonable. I do blog, but that’s just once a week. Sometimes coming up with the idea for the post can be a chore, but that’s the challenge. Signings and such are sporadic – they happen when a book comes out for a week or two, and then nothing happens until the next book comes out. Which is fine with me. I’m always a little awkward at signings – I can’t imagine why anyone would go out of their way to come see me.

Lynne: Tell us about your life outside writing. I know about the Marx brothers, and baseball... any other passions?
Jeff: Well, the Marx Brothers and baseball are pretty good, and that takes up a decent amount of time. I play acoustic guitar fairly badly (which is an improvement), and that helps when I’m stuck for an idea. The rest of the time I’m dealing with my family or my dog, who is a brat.

Lynne: Have you ever thought about setting a crime novel among a baseball team? What goes on out there is certainly a mystery to most Brits...
Jeff: Well, imagine how we feel about cricket. I wrote a short story (which actually won a Barry Award at a Bouchercon a few years back) that dealt tangentially with baseball. I’ve never been on or near a team, at least not since I was 12, so I’m not sure I could accurately depict the dynamic.

Lynne: And finally – what’s next? What are you working on at the moment?
Jeff: I’m revising Haunted Guesthouse #8, coming to you in December 2016, and then a week and a half and I’ll be into Agent to the Paws #2, which I think might be about a parrot.

Lynne: Jeff, thanks a million for bringing a smile to our day. Here’s hoping a British publisher realizes what we’re all been missing, and soon!

Here are Jeff’s and E J’s backlist(s):

The Aaron Tucker series by Jeffrey Cohen, published by Bancroft Press
For Whom the Minivan Rolls
A Farewell to Legs
As Dog is My Witness

The Double Feature (or Comedy Tonight) series by Jeffrey Cohen, published by Irvington Publishing:
Some Like It Hot Buttered
It Happened One Knife
A Night at the Operation

The Asperger’s Mysteries, by Jeffrey Cohen and E J Copperman, published by Midnight Ink
The Question of the Missing Head
The Question of the Unfamiliar Husband

The Haunted Guesthouse series by E J Copperman, published by Berkley Crime:
Night of the Living Deed
An Uninvited Ghost
Old Haunts
Chance of a Ghost
Thrill of the Haunt
Inspector Specter
Ghost in the Wind

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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