STEELE INTERVIEWS: ELIZABETH COHEN [author, The Hypothetical Girl]

hypothetical girl

In this astute story collection, Elizabeth Cohen writes about dating in the digital age. Navigating various dating sites, creating a real or fabricated profile, various internet flirtations, anticipating actual meetings. In the opening story “Animal Dancing,” Cohen writes: “I am a giver. I am fun. I am interesting and I have spectacular eyes. Someone will find me. Someone will love me.” Would you take a chance on a potential long-distance relationship as described in “People Who Live Far, Far Away”: “A cool Icelandic dude who likes nature and animals might be the ticket, she thought, coming across Miko’s profiles on He would be exotic enough to impress her friends, who, after college, had all so promptly given birth.” Should you take a chance? Should you dive in and risk exposing yourself online? In “Love, Really” Cohen writes: “When he kisses you and you kiss him back it is like you are home. Home being the man himself. This is ridiculous, you think, as you hardly know this man. But there it is: home.”

Elizabeth Cohen is an assistant professor of English at Plattsburgh State University. Her articles, stories and poetry have appeared in Newsweek, New York Times Magazine, Salon, Tablet and the Yale Review. Her memoir, The Family on Beartown Road (Random House, 2003), was a New York Times Notable Book.

Amy Steele: How long did it take you to write this collection of stories?

Elizabeth Cohen: In all about three years. I started them while living in Connecticut and finished up in my current home in upstate New York. They followed the trajectory of my own thoughts about trying and then, later, actually trying online dating.

Amy Steele: What attracted you to writing about online dating/ dating in the digital age?

Elizabeth Cohen: The realization that love and courtship, millennia old, have actually changed, due to technology and an interest in how that might be. Is love forever different now? I watched a friend meet three men in succession online (this is a smart and reasonable fifty year old woman) and then believe each time she was in love, the third time actually initiating what looks to be a lifelong relationship! These were all people she never met. That is just not how love has worked before. This idea of the mediation of emotion, the technology-enhanced ways of finding and courting and growing into the idea of love– it is all new. And that fascinated me. Plus, it is often just so funny.

Amy Steele: How did you gather information to work from? Personal experience? Research?

Elizabeth Cohen: Articles I read, stories I have heard, people I canvassed for information, things I have experienced and things I just dreamed up. Pure wild imagination let loose in this realm.


Amy Steele: What do you like about writing stories?

Elizabeth Cohen: The fact that you, the author, can create a world. You can make it any way you want. You make the rules, you create the scenery. You pick the soundtrack. There is no right or wrong way to do it, aside from using basic grammar and solid writing constructs. You can create characters who do things you would never do or have opportunities you would never have. It is a way to live outside your own life.

Amy Steele: You wrote a memoir. How does writing fiction compare to writing a memoir and was it a huge leap to start writing fiction after writing a memoir?

Elizabeth Cohen: In a memoir you are married to truth. You can choose what pieces or slices of truth you want to tell, how you want to shape truth or organize it but there is always that truth requirement that underlies and in fact directs all you write. In fiction, you have no such requirements. What a relief! You can do whatever you want. And it becomes a question of the skill and artistry in which you have done it, in the end. Nobody will call you out for lying. Because you are supposed to lie – fiction is all about lying. As Albert Camus said, “fiction is the lie that tells the truth.” It is about creating really interesting, involved and imagined alternate realities. Memoir, in the other hand, is about finding beautiful and unique ways to tell a story while being faithful to life, and accuracy. Says Stephanie Klein, author of Straight Up and Dirty: A Memoir: “Tell the truth, or someone will tell it for you.”

Amy Steele: In “The Opposite of Love” you write: “Rita had always thought happiness was overrated anyway, the emotion for the masses. Something advertised daily on national television.” This is fantastic. She tries to keep her cancer a secret, even from her mother, for the longest time. And when it does come out she handles it in a truly sardonic manner. How did you come up with Rita and this story?

Elizabeth Cohen: She just popped into my head. I have no explanation for it. After they read that story, people are constantly asking me if I have breast cancer. No, I do not. And I hope I never do. I was just interested in exploring the idea of irony and this character appeared with a strategy for doing it.

Amy Steele: Allison has a sponge-filing system and develops one for her love strategy in “Boat Man.” Why do you think this didn’t work for her?

Elizabeth Cohen: Because love is more complicated than sponges. Further, people on the internet are not who you think they are; they have dimensionality and features. On the internet they are merely ideas of people, they are hypothetical. You cannot make a surefire strategy out of something that may not exist. That would be like trying to catch mist, put it in a bottle.

Amy Steele: “Life Underground” speaks to potential and societal expectations. How did you come up with this story?

Elizabeth Cohen: That story, unlike most of the others here, is actually rooted in some things that actually happened. It is, in the end, about sibling rivalry, about fear of failure and settling. These are topics I am obsessed with, the way fear and competition can just shut us down.

Plus, I love caves. I just do. I think I might have been a spelunker in a past life.

The Hypothetical Girl
by Elizabeth Cohen


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