Kerry Cohen, author of the Shebooks novelette Constellation of Boys, knows her subject intimately; Cohen carved out her current specialty as a relationship therapist through her own personal struggles with sex and self-worth.
What prompted you to write Constellation of Boys?
I was in college, I think, when I read Susan Minot’s short story “Lust.” It was the first time I read something that captured the theme that I’d wind up grappling with as a writer for decades. Boys. Their power over me when I was growing up. I tried to write a novel based on that theme for many years, and one day I realized that Minot’s approach, the lineup of boys, one after another, would get at the material in a better way.
Are there any themes, characters or imagery that you find recurring in your writing? What are they and what is their origin?
The theme of complicated relationships to boys and men, to sex and romance, has long occupied my work. It is actually also my specialty as a therapist. It began, as most themes do I believe, with my own struggle. My first memoir examines this struggle directly, and since then, even if I’m writing about something else, the theme has crept into everything I write. This novella is the first book since Loose Girl that takes on the theme entirely in fiction.
When did you first decide you were a writer?
So often we hear about writers growing up as voracious readers. But I wasn’t much of a reader throughout my childhood. Instead, I was busy with drugs and boys and friendships. When I was a senior in high school, however, I took an elective called Minority Voices with my favorite teacher. Mrs. Falk. I still remember her name, of course. It was the first time I ever read books and stories in which I saw myself on the page. The first book was The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Then Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. My body broke open over those pages. I hadn’t even known before reading those women’s work how much I’d been holding myself tight, turned off like a bursting faucet. It was then that I knew I wanted to write.
Do you have an imaginary reader you write for? Who is it?
I write for myself. Does that sound selfish? I don’t mean it to. When I say “myself” I actually mean the collective me—the many, many humans I feel similar to, whom I share experiences with, who feel like I do but might not have the words to say it. Every single book I write is the book I most want to read. And all my ideas for future books are books I already wish were out there for me to pick up and get lost in.
Have you ever written anything personal that upset people who were close to you? Have you ever shied away from writing something because someone you know might read it?
This is an ongoing challenge in my life. All of my writing seems to be upsetting for people, and sometimes those people are in my life. I wrote a novella for Shebooks, but much of what I write is memoir and personal essays. For whatever reason, I tend to hit on things that are triggering for people. For people close to me, however, it’s different. I try to take them into account when I write, but I also know that this is my life’s work. And I believe that my work is freeing, not just for me but for others as well. Sometimes the people I love wind up at risk inside that. It’s a constant dilemma and struggle for me that I have mostly come to terms with. I won’t let it stop me from writing what feels important for me to write—not so much for me, but for my readers. I have part of a Joy Harjo poem tattooed on my body, and I’m about to get another line from that poem tattooed as well. It says: “I am not afraid to be hated. I am not afraid to be loved.”
Need lit therapy? Read Kerry Cohen’s novelette Constellation of Boys, only at Shebooks!