Tziporah Cohen on Debut Novels, #Ownvoices, and Mirror Books

© Salima Alikhan 2020

Agent Jacqui Lipton sits down with her client, Tziporah Cohen, to discuss her upcoming debut novel, No Vacancy.

Jacqui Lipton (JL): What does it feel like to have your debut novel released into the world during such a strange time? 

Tziporah Cohen (TC): Well, I’d say that it would feel great to have my debut novel released into the world at any time! Until that first book, you are always dogged by the possibility that you’ll never get published. It’s kind of like having a first child—you become a parent, a new category. With that first published book you go from writer to author. No future book has that same power! But to be honest, I’ve been feeling gratitude mixed with guilt, knowing that I’m going through this wonderful experience while other people are struggling and suffering.

JL: In some ways the message in NO VACANCY is more timely than ever to the extent that it contemplates inclusion and respect of people within a community. Was this a conscious choice on your part, and, if so, what prompted this aspect of the book?

TC: Inclusion and tolerance and respect were themes from the beginning, though I wouldn’t say they were conscious, per se. (Honestly, I found much of the process of penning this story was subconscious, but that’s another post!) But I wrote this book over six years, from 2013 to 2019, and as the world became increasingly intolerant around me, I became more and more conscious of how important these themes were, and that I wanted to show alternatives to intolerance in the book.

No Vacancy in progress...

JL: Where did you get the original idea for this novel?

TC: The idea for this novel was born out of necessity. I started my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts with a semester focused solely on picture books, and come semester two, I needed an idea for a novel. It was summer, and, while on a mini-vacation in Hershey, Pennsylvania with my family, we stayed in a somewhat run-down motel. I noticed an outgoing kid hanging around us at the motel, asking lots of questions. He told us he had just moved to the motel with his extended family from New York City, and they were now running the place. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be a kid living in a motel—and that’s how the novel was born. I started my first draft in that motel room. The Virgin Mary piece came a bit later, when I realized that in addition to a great setting, I also needed a plot!

JL: The book features a Jewish protagonist and her family. What prompted you to share the Jewish perspective in this novel and what, if anything, do you hope your readers will take away from the religious aspects of the story? Do you have any other recommendations of books for young readers featuring Jewish protagonists?

TC: From the moment I put Miriam down on the page, I knew she and her family would be Jewish. Being Jewish is an #ownvoices perspective I am qualified to write from, so in part it was a “write what you know” decision. There is a dearth of middle grade novels featuring Jewish main characters, especially ones that aren’t focused on the Holocaust. In sharing the Jewish perspective, I hope Jewish readers will see themselves in aspects of the book, and non-Jewish readers will learn more about Judaism. (See answer to #5!) And I hope all readers will think about issues of faith and tolerance and the value of kindness after they close the cover.

There is a dearth of middle grade novels featuring Jewish main characters, especially ones that aren’t focused on the Holocaust. 

I’ve recently read two great middle grade novels with Jewish protagonists. BROKEN STRINGS by Eric Walters and Kathy Kacer and GET A GRIP, VIVY COHEN! by Sarah Kapit. These are about as different as two contemporary middle grade Jewish protagonist novels can be, but both very worthy reads.

JL: NO VACANCY is a Junior Library Guild selection book. How did it feel to find out your debut book was selected, and what would you say to librarians considering buying the book for their collections and sharing it with young readers?

TC: I was delighted and honored that the book was chosen by the JLG and hope that it helps get the book into more young people’s hands. I’d like librarians to see NO VACANCY as book for Jewish and non-Jewish readers. I want NO VACANCY to be a mirror book—one that reflects your own culture and helps you feel proud about who you are—and a window book—a book that helps you understand someone else’s experience, someone that might be different from you in a number of ways.

Tzippy's home workspace - mint tea and fluffy friends included!

JL: Can you share any details of what you’re working on now? 

TC: I’m currently finishing revisions for a picture book biography. It hasn’t been officially announced yet so I can’t share the details with your readers, but I can say that it involves chocolate! And I’m working on another middle grade novel that is about baseball and time travel and difficult moral choices.

JL: Anything else you want to share with us?

TC: For those writers out there who aren’t yet published, don’t let anyone (especially you!) put timelines on the process or tell you it’s too late to embark on the writing journey. I started writing for kids in my late 30s, got my MFA at 47, and am publishing my first book at 52. It’s never too late to pursue a dream.

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