Author L.J. Cohen and the Making of FUTURE TENSE + Giveaway

Posted by on Feb 21, 2014 in Author Interviews, Blog | 9 comments

LJCohen-FutureTenseCoverArt_rev73I’m so pleased to welcome fellow author and writing partner L.J. Cohen to Between the Sheets today. Lisa shares her journey in writing her recently released her YA contemporary fantasy FUTURE TENSE, a wonderful book about an inner city boy who sees the futures of those he cares about–but is powerless to stop. Be sure to leave a comment for a chance to win a print copy or an e-book. Winners will be announced Friday, Feb 28th.

About the Book

In the ten years since his parents died in a fire he predicted but couldn’t prevent, seventeen year old Matt is trying to stay out of trouble, biding his time until he graduates and ages out of foster care. All he wants is for the world to leave him alone so he won’t be tortured by seeing someone’s future he’s powerless to change anyway. But his plans for keeping himself aloof fail when he interrupts a vicious attack on Amara, a girl he recognizes from school.

Despite his best attempts to push her away, he can’t ignore the connection they’ve formed. That’s when glimpses of Amara’s dangerous future start to invade the present — a future he fears is his fault. Now Matt has something to lose again . . . and something to fight for.

 

 Learning to get out of my own way: a lesson in unintended author intrusion

 

FUTURE TENSE is written from the first person point of view of a seventeen year old boy. While I am a fifty year old woman, this wasn’t as much of a stretch as it might have been: I am the mother of two boys, one of whom is seventeen, the other twenty. I have spent half a lifetime immersed in the culture of boys and young men, listening to how they speak, how they dress, how they move and interact with their peers. The more difficult part of writing this novel was that it takes place in an inner city setting with a highly diverse cast of characters, including African American foster parents and a Latina love interest.

My upbringing is primarily white and middle class. What made me think I could write a story so removed from my own personal experience? Would I be able to bring authenticity to the narrative? Would my depiction of this novel’s milieu capture the lived experiences of its characters without coming across as ‘message fiction’, relying on cliche, or including unconscious value judgements?

These are some of the questions I asked myself over the years of drafting and revising FUTURE TENSE.

The first question was the easiest to answer. Every time we write fiction, assuming a point of view of a created character, we are writing something removed from our own personal experience. I have written about shape-shifters, invented royalty, an empathic healer, a computer whiz-kid on a space station, and the Fae. My most basic and most important writing-tool is my imagination. And while I have no interest in writing ‘message of the week’ fiction, I also refuse to shy away from writing about problems and issues that affect our society and our lives.

I am also well aware of the problems of representation (and lack thereof) in fiction, especially fiction for young adults, in which the default assumption is white and middle-class. At its most basic, this kind of default means that if a character’s skin color is not described, that character is assumed to be white. It was important to me that I am able to reflect a more complex, more diverse world than that, because that is the world my children live in. And perhaps because what I write is fantasy/magical realism, I feel a heightened need to make sure there is broad societal representation. For too long, fantasy has had a narrow and non-diverse focus.

FUTURE TENSE was definitely a struggle to write, both because I wanted to honor my characters and because I frequently second-guessed myself, my writing choices, and my instincts.

I did research: Interviewed social workers in the foster care system. Talked to foster parents. Relied on my personal experiences as a physical therapist in inner city environments. Spoke with friends from different racial and social backgrounds.

Through it all, I revised, revised, and revised again.

Then I sent the manuscript to an old and dear friend. She is not a writer, but a reader. A voracious reader. And she knows how seriously I take my writing. She also currently lives in New York City and works with an inner-city population of severly handicapped children and their families. So she read the story with a very critical eye, focusing on its authenticity.

And the feedback she gave me was both difficult to hear and crucial to hear.

While she felt I had written a suspenseful and enjoyable story, I had also injected it with my own beliefs and opinions, both in the dialogue and in the main character’s internal narrative. She helped me see that the way I described race within the novel was not the way my main character, Matt Garrison, would describe it.

He is a white kid raised in the foster care system in an inner city.  Much of what I might notice was simply his baseline. I was reminded of when I had lived in Rochester, NY and stopped remarking about snow between December and March. It was the common condition, the normal. Even the meteorologists didn’t make much of a big fuss about the inevitable storms.

I realized I was using him to moralize and that’s never good for a story. Nor is it anything I wanted. So I went back to the narrative and stripped out several thousand words, a few words or lines at a time, across the entire story, ruthlessly eliminating any place where I had substituted my perspective for my character’s.

Have I done a good enough job of it? I don’t know. I only know that I had to write Matt’s story. And Matt was forged by his experiences as a foster kid. To honor his story and his journey, I had to meet him where he lived, both literally and figuratively. As much as I succeeded in this, I owe a debt of gratitude to my readers and consultants. Where I failed, I take full responsibility and vow to keep working.

lisaAbout L.J. Cohen

LJ Cohen is the writing persona of Lisa Janice Cohen, poet, novelist, blogger, local food enthusiast, Doctor Who fan, and relentless optimist. Lisa lives just outside of Boston with her family, two dogs (only one of which actually ever listens to her) and the occasional international student. She is represented by Nephele Tempest of The Knight Agency. When not doing battle with a stubborn Jack Russell Terrier mix, Lisa can be found working on the next novel, which often looks a lot like daydreaming.

 Visit her at her website HERE or Twitter HERE

 

9 Comments

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  1. Aimee

    I took a Cultural Anthropology class about two years ago and I remember being shocked by just how much I took for granted. I think it’s awesome that you had someone who could help pinpoint where author/character perspectives had been merged.

    • Heather Webb

      Aimee, it’s definitely helpful to use that form of “research” in our novels so they are authentic. By the way, cultural anthro is a love of mine. What a fascinating subject it is!

    • LJ Cohen

      Thanks, Aimee. Both my teens are very involved in social justice/social action and diversity issues, so they were extremely helpful as well.

  2. Kathryn Scannell

    It’s challenging not to inject one’s own perspective into any story. I’m currently in the wrestling with revision phase of a novel. Beyond the obvious surface issues that go with writing a character from a different ethnic background, I’m finding a surprising challenge in sticking to the character’s voice. I come from a middle class background and my family put a high premium on education. From grade school on I’ve read above my age level, and had a broad vocabulary. One of my viewpoint characters doesn’t read except things he needs to read, and he went from a not very impressive high school straight to the military. It’s a real challenge when writing him to keep his word choices appropriate. We have all kinds of unexamined assumptions that creep in if we aren’t successful at really climbing into the character’s head.

    • LJ Cohen

      Absolutely. And that was definitely a struggle for me with this novel. But if I don’t write outside of my own narrow personal experience, then my stories will be populated with clones of me. Which would be terribly boring and repetitive. 🙂

  3. Kate Austin

    LJ, it’s funny because this is the kind of conversation I often have with fellow writers – I grew up in a world much like the one where your friend in New York works, poor, multicultural, tough and sometimes vicious, and more than often hungry and violent. But I’m white, and I work in a law firm these many decades later, so people assume that’s how I grew up and that the way they see the world is the way I do. And that means that I’m often the voice of the OTHER, the one who doesn’t assume that just because someone is white that they’re middle class – I really appreciate that you worked hard to get that right in FUTURE TENSE because I know that it’s often wrong in many of the books I read and the writers I talk to. Kate

    • LJ Cohen

      Kate – your comment brings up an extremely important point and that is people can inhabit multiple communities at once. And the way they speak and interact shifts depending on which community they are with at the time. I tried to have Matt speak and interact differently with his foster parents and his social worker than his peers, for example. That ‘code switching’ is very real in life.

  4. Lisa DiDio

    It is challenging and scary to venture into unknown territory with our characters, but so important, too. I’d say you did a great job!

    • LJ Cohen

      Thanks, Lisa. It is scary and I can’t count the number of times I struggled with the most basic question of ‘am I even qualified to write this story?’ Ultimately, I decided that writing even a flawed story with a diverse cast was better than refusing to attempt the story.

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