LJ Cohen is one of my favorite writers. She is the author of the Halcyone Space YA sci-fi series (Derelict and Ithaka Rising, currently), but don’t let the YA label fool you. The plot is executed flawlessly and the characters are deep, believable, and go on their own little Hero’s Journeys over the course of the novels.
I had the good fortune to chat with her about her book, her writing process, and more. She’s an interesting character, that one, and pretty knowledgeable about writing, publishing, and marketing in the indie space.
And she makes fantastic pottery. Just sayin’.
What inspired the setting and plot of the Halcyone Space series?
I’d been kicking around the idea of an ensemble SF novel set on a space station for a while. My initial thought had been to do something exploring the ‘town/gown’ dynamic between the children of space station staff and the children of the embassy staff during a first contact negotiation. But I never developed that idea and started thinking about the concept of forming an accidental crew from a group of strangers thrown together on a derelict spaceship. Shared peril felt like a better catalyst and richer conflict for a story than cliques and social strata. Plus, I grew up reading SF stories of space exploration, so it was a natural fit to find story there.
Do you plot out your novels in detail before writing, or are you a Pantser?
Both? Neither? Nearly all my stories start out with what I call my version of ‘writer’s clue’. But instead of Miss Scarlett in the drawing room with a candlestick, I have a character in a place, with a problem. In DERELICT, the first iteration of this was Ro Maldonado, trapped on a dead end space station by her emotionally abusive father. In time, each character had his or her own one sentence description. From there, I create the ten-thousand foot view of the story – I create a version of the back cover blurb. While it will likely change and evolve in the writing, having the overall concept keeps me focused and gives me a place to write to.
I typically have a starting place, an overall ending, and a few ideas for waypoints in the middle before I start writing. Then I breadcrumb several chapters out at a time, always checking to make sure the story is staying true to the characters’ problems/goals and the overarching narrative.
What books inspired you to become an author?
A Wrinkle in Time. Written in the 1960s, it is as powerful a book today as it was when I first read it as a pre-teen. Meg was the first character I completely identified with and I went on to read everything Madeline L’Engle had written. That’s when I knew I wanted to write stories.
What superpower do you have, besides tale-weaving?
Superpower? I can sleep anywhere under any circumstances. I am a gold-medal napper.
Do you keep a notebook by the bed for sleepytime ideas that hit you?
During back to school time, I go to the local Staples and buy a dozen spiral bound single subject notebooks. They’re everywhere. I also write on receipts, napkins, and the backs of envelopes.
What’s your best marketing tip?
Be authentic. Talk about what you love.
If you could visit any place in the world, where would it be?
I want to travel the silk road from one end to the other.
As an author, what social media platform gives you the best traction with readers?
I like Google plus because some of the best conversations happen there. I don’t necessarily go anywhere looking for readers – mainly I’m following my curiosity. I’m fairly uncomfortable talking about myself and putting myself in any kind of spotlight when it comes to promoting my writing.
What’s your favorite scene type to write? Least favorite?
I don’t think I have ones that are favorites or least favorites. Some days the writing is harder than others, but that’s the nature of any kind of work. I do love scenes where I can highlight some aspect of character in the midst of events. And that’s especially fun with an ensemble cast.
You post a lot about your pottery (and you do some outstanding work!) What got you into pottery, and is it a business or a hobby at this point?
Thank you! I was never what you’d call an artsy kid growing up. I still pretty much never graduated past primitive stick figures. When my now 19 year old son was entering middle school, he wanted to take a pottery class at a local art center. The only one they offered was an evening parent/teen class. I simply went as his ‘plus one’. But the teacher wouldn’t let me be a wallflower. I quickly got hooked by it. My son gravitated to other interests and never continues. I never left. That was over 7 years ago.
Now the work is probably in that in-between spot. Not simply a hobby because I sell and show my work, but not a full-on business either. I don’t want to be a production potter, but I do love the process and the way it helps balance out my word-brain and my tendency to overthink everything.
I think you nailed Ro’s PTSD in Ithaka Rising, without ever really saying she has it. Was that intentional and did you have to do research, or was it personal knowledge?
In some way, nearly all the characters in the series (with the exception of maybe Nomi) have some trauma in their lives, including the AI they fix. Part of my knowledge of trauma and healing comes from professional experience and some from personal experience. Prior to writing full time, I had a 25 year career as a physical therapist and my specialty area was chronic pain management. I had the great fortune to work in three different interdisciplinary team settings over that time that integrated the physical, the social, and the psychological in treating the whole person. There is a large overlap between chronic pain and trauma.
From my personal life, there are some things that are not mine to share, but I can tell you that having to flee your burning home at 5 am on a cold winter’s morning and stand outside watching it get engulfed is pretty harrowing. Five years later, I still flinch when I smell smoke or hear sirens.
What’s in the works for the mighty LJ Cohen?
Well, I’m not sure I’m ‘mighty’, but I will be making my (if I may say so myself) incredible from scratch pumpkin pie later this week. . .
On the writing front? DREADNOUGHT AND SHUTTLE (Book 3 of Halcyone Space) is on track for a Summer 2016 release and I’ll be switching gears in the New Year to work on a SF/Thriller with a co-writer from Google Plus. This will be my first foray into a joint project and I’m really excited about it. We’re still in the early planning stages, but in my mind, it’s a strange mashup of the Jason Bourne books, Kill Bill, and Bladerunner. I’m looking forward to exercising my more gritty side before I return to the world of Halcyone again for the next book.
LJ Cohen can be found online at:
- Writing Website – http://www.ljcohen.net
- Newsletter – http://www.ljcohen.net/contact.html
- Blog: Once in a Blue Muse – http://ljcbluemuse.blogspot.com/
- LJ’s Pottery – http://www.dragonbellyceramics.com
- G+ – https://plus.google.com/u/0/+LisaCohen
- ljcohen facebook page – http://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/LJCohen
- lisajanicecohen on twitter – http://twitter.com/lisajanicecohen