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An Interview with Paul B. Cohen, Author of Somebody Else’s Life

Cohen 1

I have been writing for a very long time, beginning with plays, some of which were produced in the US (I lived in LA for ten years), and I also was a freelance theatre and film critic. A good number of short stories have been published in recent years. ‘A Gap in the Fence of Time’ placed second in Gemini Magazine’s Annual Short Story Competition, while ‘Tea and Biscuits’ was a winner in the Ryedale Book Festival Short Story Competition. I won Moment magazine’s Short Fiction Awards for ‘Lecha Dodi,’ judged by novelist Alice Hoffman, and was a joint first-place winner for Writer’s Atelier’s 2nd Annual Contest. Other stories have been published by Fairlight Books, Prole, and Gold Dust. My primary focus, however, is my novels, and specifically evocative and emotive literary fiction.

I read English at the University of Leeds, hold an MA in English from Vanderbilt University, and a Master of Professional Writing degree from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. I teach English at an FE college.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

When I was first in graduate school, and researching the theatre director Peter Brook, I conceived the idea of becoming a director. I’d already been involved in acting for years in community theatre and as an undergraduate. Although I did direct a little, one day I had an idea for a play and was spoiled when it received a staged reading in London, featuring, amazingly, the niece of Peter Brook.

Although I think the work is melodramatic and I never developed it further, I realised I was destined to write.

What inspired you to start writing this book?

I read an interview with an art historian, about whom I had heard before, called John Richardson. He was about to finish the second volume of his biography of Picasso. He had been a friend of the great Spanish artist.

There was something in the interview that snagged me, or, at least, gave me that familiar, if elusive feeling, that I needed to write a story about a biographer who is very close to his/her subject. Who, one might say, lives vicariously…a theme I’m always interested in.

I also wanted to write about Italy, a country I love.

The tale came together as a short story and, independently, both my mother and mother-in-law felt the narrative would be better served in a longer form.

About six years ago, I completed the novel (or at least I think I did). I queried it a few times and did not get very far.

I returned to it this year and have worked on it for many months. It’s longer, more detailed, and hopefully truly compelling.

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

I find that titles, especially for my more successful work, come to me very quickly. In this case, I can’t quite remember the exact moment the title assembled itself in my head, but I’m pretty sure it was swiftly as I was writing the short story that became the catalyst for the novel.

I do think titles are so important, and so I seek never to force them. They should come naturally but they also need to work—entice, intrigue, hook!

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

‘O mio bambino caro’ – Puccini, ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ – 10cc, and ‘Supper’s Ready’ by Genesis (which I played incessantly while writing and editing the novel).

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

My first ‘proper’ job was recruiting accountants (about which I knew nothing). I then worked as a bookseller at Waterstone’s in Manchester alongside writers Jeff Noon and Glenn Paterson. In the US, I was the editor of Street Scenes, America’s only monthly paper for homeless and incarcerated youth, and I ran this for seven years. In addition, I trained to be a pre and post-test HIV counsellor.

While in LA, I experienced the Rodney King riots and, two years later, the 1994 earthquake.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

I hope my readers are stirred by the beauty and savagery of art, and the beauty and savagery of family.

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