Rachel Cohn: YA Writer, Trekkie, Maker of Great Playlists

Beta is a bit of a departure for bestselling author Rachel Cohn. She usually writes contemporary YA novels (she’s the co-author of Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist). But her newest book is a sci-fi story of a teenage clone, who discovers she has emotions despite the fact that she was created with no soul. Rachel’s an amazing writer (we mentioned the bestselling part, right?) and it was a treat to talk with her about Beta. Read on below for more about the novel, Rachel’s sources of inspiration (complete with a playlist), and her advice for young writers!

Describe your book in five words.

Paradise. Pretty. Sexy. Creepy. Corrupt.

We read that the idea for the book came to you in a dream. How long did it take you to write the book after that initial spark? And how did the plot and characters change as you went along?

I started writing as soon as I woke up, which I never do! I am not a journaler, nor a chronicler of dreams, so it was rare indeed for me to start writing upon waking, before even caffeination. That being said, I didn’t write much. I jotted down some character notes and story ideas based on the dream I had, which was about a sixteen year old girl who was a clone who got bought at the mall by the wife of the Governor, who’d gone into the store to buy a sweater. I didn’t start seriously writing the first chapters of the book until about three months later. After a summer of the voice getting stronger and stronger in my head and demanding being heard, and also a few months talking out the idea with a couple key writer friends (Patricia McCormick and Jaclyn Moriarty) who were both super keen and helpful, I sat down to write and wrote about 50 pages over a period of just a few days, which is unusually productive for me. I’m a pretty slow writer. Clearly this story idea was ready to be turned into a book!

Beta is your first science-fiction novel. Did you find it more difficult to write than your other books?

More difficult, but more fun, and complex. In the past, I’ve typically written books about sarcastic, hip, urban-centric girls who are fairly wise to the world. Writing about a clone, and one who “wakes up” with only the information given to her on a chip and no life experience or context to back up any of that information, was super hard and challenging. But even when I struggled with writing it, I would often look up from my computer with a moment of satisfaction, thinking: My job is cool! I get to just make this stuff up!

Despite the futuristic subject matter of Beta, is there a common thread that runs through all your novels? (Besides the fact that you write them all!)

I think all my novels deal with characters who find themselves—come of age, as it were—as they explore and struggle with who they want to be. They’re also bonded, I think, by the need to connect with others, and to create their own families, whether blood or not, from the people within their worlds.

We read that you’re a big Star Trek fan. Did that fandom influence you when you were writing Beta? Was it an inspiration for the novel?

My Star Trek fandom influenced me mostly in helping me think about how, despite the future time those series’ are set in, the human issues remain the same. Also it really inspired me to try to come up with fun gadgets and games (like Z-Grav in the FantaSphere, a zero gravity game that Elysia plays in a holodeck-type room).

This book deals with some pretty serious contemporary problems: class warfare, feminism, cloning, environmental issues. Was it important for you to write a book that deals with these bigger-picture problems?

The most important thing to me in writing a novel is character. Always, character. The issues/problems they encounter along the way should feel organic to their personalities and situations. So yes, it was important to me to have these bigger-picture problems, but more important for me to have the character relate to them first, rather than theme before character.

Rachel CohnElysia, the main character in Beta, is supposed to be soulless. Was it difficult writing a character that isn’t supposed to have feelings?

It was very difficult. It was super fun at first but got harder and harder as I moved along, and needed to show information that the reader needed but that this first person narrator would have no way of knowing. Eventually, as the book got deeper in and Elysia came into her own and started owning her judgments and feelings (which she wasn’t supposed to have), it got easier. It really came down to a good editor helping me streamline the voice, and balance the information with the voice. I wish I could say I did it myself but I had lots of help. To all aspiring writers out there, I highly encourage you to join a writing group (or create your own) to get that kind of feedback to help you get your work to where you want it to be.

What books, movies, or songs that influenced you while you were writing Beta?

I wanted the tone of this first book to be a mix of wishful, sad, moody, creepy, expectant. Here’s the playlist I made for first book in the BETA series

  1. Possibility – Lykke Li
  2. Rise to Me – The Decemberists
  3. The Cave – Mumford & Sons
  4. Swim Until You Can’t See Land – Frightened Rabbit
  5. Too Many Miracles – Badly Drawn Boy
  6. The Order of Things – Badly Drawn Boy
  7. I And Love And You – The Avett Brothers
  8. Satisfied Mind – Rosanne Cash with Neko Case
  9. Is Anything Wrong – Lhasa De Sela
  10. Soldier of Love – Sade
  11. Nights in White Satin – Bettye LaVette
  12. Cosmic Lung – Florence and the Machine
  13. Dagger Through the Heart – Dolly Parton
  14. Valley of Tears – Solomon Burke

Movies that influenced/inspired me with this book: Blade Runner (duh), all the Star Trek series (more duh), Battlestar Galactica (TV show, not movie, except for comic value on the latter), Carrie (book and movie), Avatar, The Beach (book and movie).

Can you give us some hints of what’s next in this series?

More kissing. More killing.

This is your thirteenth novel. Does writing ever get any easier?

No. I WISH! I will pay top dollar to whomever could make that happen for me. 🙂

What advice would you give to young writers working on their first novels?

#1, to borrow from a great Le Tigre song, TURN OFF THE INTERNET. Shutting off distractions like the Internet (hello, Mac Freedom—totally the best $10 download you’ll ever buy) and cell phone etc. are hugely helpful for making you sit down to write and just, well, WRITE. Shut off the noise, even if for just an hour.

#2, I recommend not thinking about the huge task of writing a whole book. Rather, think of every chapter as its own book, and your only goal is to finish that chapter. Eventually, the smaller goals get achieved and create a much larger one – a full-fledged BOOK!

#3, Read. All the time, read.


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