Ellis graduate and novelist to return home
Author InterviewPittsburgh holds special place

Ellis graduate and novelist to return home

"Wasted Pretty" author, Jamie Beth Cohen, will speak at the Peters Township Public Library on June 22.

Jamie Beth Cohen. Photo by Mark Pontz Photography
Jamie Beth Cohen. Photo by Mark Pontz Photography

Jamie Beth Cohen no longer lives in Pittsburgh but her plot does. “Wasted Pretty,” released in April 2019 by independent publisher Black Rose Writing, follows protagonist Alice Burton, a 16-year-old Jewish high school student-athlete whose physical maturation and familial relationships spur an awakening.

Cohen grew up in Stanton Heights and graduated from the Ellis School in Shadyside, and while her book is set in Pittsburgh in 1992 and incorporates elements of its author’s adolescence, the work is hardly autobiographical.

“Wasted Pretty”

“There is nothing that happens in the book the way it happened in my real life, except for the main character accidentally locks herself in the bathroom of a boy she has a crush on. And that is something that I was talented enough to do once,” said Cohen. “Everything else is fiction, however, it draws heavily from my teenage experience and my friends’ teenage experience and the experience of the teens that I was working with when I was writing the book.”

Basing the book in Pittsburgh and drafting portions of its story here were critical, she said. “I think for me, Pittsburgh is still the place that I feel the most vulnerable and the most safe.”

Pittsburgh was where her parents, Neil I. Cohen and Susan Heller, met as students at Peabody High School. It was the city where her parents married and purchased a home, almost equidistant from their own parents’ residences. Pittsburgh was where Cohen’s maternal grandmother, Eleanor Persky, served as secretary to both Rabbi Solomon Kaplan and Rabbi Emeritus Alvin K. Berkun of Tree of Life synagogue. Pittsburgh was where her family did not belong to a congregation, but received The Jewish Chronicle weekly. It was the city where, at the age of 10, Cohen decided to become an author and drafted her first work, “Strawberry Seasons: A Play to Act Out,” based on a childhood board game revolving around the Strawberry Shortcake character.

Jamie Beth Cohen’s early efforts at writing. Photo by Jamie Beth Cohen

Now, Pittsburgh is mostly memories for the author. Cohen’s grandparents are dead and her father died in 2005. The house where she grew up is owned by another family. Her mother, now remarried, spends part of the year in Florida. But “Wasted Pretty” brings Cohen’s old Pittsburgh back.

“As an adult who writes young adult fiction, a piece of advice we often get is, ‘Write the book you needed when you were a teen’ … and that is what I have done,” she said. “The book is about what it feels like to be a 16-year-old girl who is all of a sudden being looked at for her appearance and her body in a way she hadn’t been the year before, and all of the things that are exciting about that but also annoying and, in her case, dangerous.”

While the novel is Cohen’s first foray into fiction, she is hardly a writing novice. As a freelancer, she has published in The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun and Teen Vogue. Cohen would love to write full-time, but is subject to certain barriers, including the absence of universal health care, she said. Even without winning the lottery or securing a patron, Cohen plans to continue writing, shifting between fiction and nonfiction.

“Nonfiction allows me to deal with current events and things that are important to me in a very immediate way, and one that is very quick to gratification. I can write an essay on Monday and it can be published by Friday,” she said.

Fiction, meanwhile, permits access to a character’s “headspace,” which she finds rewarding — as do readers, apparently. She said the response to “Wasted Pretty” has been positive.

Jamie Beth Cohen. Photo courtesy of Jamie Beth Cohen

“I think teens are getting exactly what I had hoped they would get out of it. They’re seeing themselves. They’re seeing both the excitement and the annoyance, and understanding that it is all a balance,” she said. “What has surprised me the most are the dads who are reading the book and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I understand my daughter better,’ or, ‘Oh my gosh, I wish I had read this when I was a teenager.’”

On June 22, Cohen will be one of 25 authors at the Peters Township Public Library for its second annual Read Local/Eat Local event from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. She encourages people to come and meet her. As for takeaways from “Wasted Pretty,” she’s reluctant to suggest people pay attention to any one thing.

“I put a lot of myself into that book, and I put a lot of my concerns and my beliefs into that book, but those beliefs will resonate differently with each reader,” she said. “There are issues of body image. There are issues of addiction. There are issues of sexual assault. There are issues of gender politics. There’s a story arc surrounding the family dynamic. Each person comes to that book with their own host of issues and concerns, and I think that will inform what it is they then take from the book.

“The experiences you have from birth to 18 are so transformative.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

read more: