Jamie Beth Cohen and her two children visited a Pittsburgh bookstore during a recent visit to her hometown.
They weren’t there to browse; Cohen had stopped in to drop off some signed copies of her debut novel, “Wasted Pretty,” which was published April 17.
In a serendipitous turn of events, a customer inside the store made their day by picking up the book and buying it.
“The look on my kids’ faces was probably the same as the look on my face,” says Cohen, who lives in Mountville with her husband, 9-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son.
The publication of her book, a coming-of-age novel about a 16-year-old girl growing up in Pittsburgh that is aimed at the young-adult audience, is the culmination of a long process.
Cohen, the administrative assistant to faculty at Lancaster Theological Seminary, says her book started as a short story she wrote in 2009. It then morphed into a novel, but she put it aside when she had her first child that same year.
She returned to it in late 2010 and finished it in 2015. She then tried to sell it to a publisher but was unsuccessful. Rather than give up on the novel, she dug in, made major revisions and tried again.
This time, Black Rose Writing, an independent publishing house based in Texas, bought it.
“I am thrilled, and the response has been really wonderful, which has been really gratifying,” says Cohen, the founder of Write Now Lancaster, a local writers group, and a frequent participant in Lancaster Story Slam.
Pittsburgh in 1992
The novel is set in Pittsburgh in 1992 and tells the story of Alice Burton, a teenager whose body is changing from that of a girl to that of a woman, and the effect it has on men in her life. These include a college student she has a crush on and a friend of her father’s who is a professional athlete. The book also explores the topics of first love and addiction.
“Wasted Pretty,” which Cohen believes is appropriate for anyone 14 and older, does include a scene of sexual assault, though it is not graphically told.
“I wrote a book that is not really meant to be groundbreaking or startling,” she says. “It comes from very real experiences of people I know and my own upbringing. To me, a lot of what’s there is self-evident. To people who have had a different experience growing up, it may be alarming or groundbreaking in some ways because of how realistically things are portrayed.”
Though Cohen, whose married name is Schindler, did spend her teenage years in Pittsburgh, she says readers should not draw parallels between the experiences of her novel’s protagonist and her own.
“The book is completely fiction,” she says. “There is one scene where she locks herself in the bathroom of a boy she has a crush on and can’t get out. That actually happened to me.”
The book is a first-person account told in the present tense, and Cohen says she frequently consulted with young adults to try and make sure she got things right. She also had a team of teenage beta readers who read the entire manuscript and gave her feedback.
“I wonder about people who write for teens who don’t actually interact with teens,” she says. “We certainly all have our memories of what that was like but we’re obviously living in quite a different world these days.”
Cohen, also an essayist whose work has been published in The Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and TeenVogue.com, says she has been writing since she was in the second grade. As proof, she points to the fourth-grade diary she recently recovered and the notebooks filled with stories that she wrote while she was growing up
Though creative writing always was her passion, Cohen says she never set out to be a professional writer.
“I have always been writing, but I had no intention of making my living as a writer because I wanted it to continue to be fun,” she says. “I wanted to continue to enjoy the writing process and not be worried about making money from it.”
She graduated from George Mason University with a degree in English and a minor in art history. She earned her master’s degree in higher education administration from Baruch College, City University of New York.
Though writing is a part-time venture, Cohen is currently juggling a lot of projects. She hopes to have a first draft of a sequel to “Wasted Pretty” finished by the end of the year. She also is working on two other young-adult novels and has a novel for adults in the works.
Given all that, what would she do if she now had the opportunity to make her living as a writer?
“If it presented itself, I would not turn it away,” she says.