Yesterday, I reviewed Leverage by Joshua C. Cohen, and today, the author has been kind enough to join us for an interview! Leverage was a book that really resonated with me, so I'm thankful to have gotten this opportunity. Without further ado, please help me welcome Josh to Books à la Mode. Here's a little bit about him first:
I grew up in Minnesota and was an avid athlete in many sports but I fell in love with gymnastics and devoted most of my time to training in that sport. Unfortunately, I was lanky and tall—a bad body type for a wannabe Olympic gymnast. I found out quickly, when I walked on to the men's gymnastics program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, that there was no way I was going to compete at the collegiate level. I promptly walked myself right back off the team and chose, instead, to live vicariously as an elite level gymnast by rooming with and befriending members of the squad.
After college, with limited job prospects, I began taking dance classes for fun and was lucky enough (after many additional years of ballet and modern dance training) to parlay my acrobatic skills onto the stage. Eventually I had the great fortune to tour world wide with dance companies such as MOMIX and musical theater productions such as West Side Story.
I also happen to be a huge football fan and suffer every season while continuing to support my Vikings. Having my heart ripped out watching the Vikings come so close only to lose it fits the whole Minnesota notion of not setting your expectations too high (see much more famous native Minnesotan Garrison Keillor's musings on this topic).
Leverage was released in 2011 from Dutton Juvenile (Penguin).
How did you arrive at writing the sports and young adult genres? Are there any other genres you’d like to tackle in the future?
I didn’t specifically set out to write a YA book. While the protagonists are both teens (and this is probably what earned it the YA designation) the story and subject matter definitely cross over into “adult” fiction. Having said that, I read a lot of YA that could easily cross over into the “adult” category (and by “adult” I don’t mean porn).
As far as the sports aspect of the novel, I grew up on sports and I like trying to capture, on the page, the immediacy of the physical body in competition and the physical body being tested.
I’m open to any genres and as a reader I’ll try anything if it’s well done. But to spend the serious amount of time and energy it takes to create an entire novel, I’m going to stick with a few areas. I like dystopian and slightly futuristic settings. I’d be interested in trying an odd-couple romantic novel with possibly another author where we’d each inhabit a character that should never get together with the other character and yet they do.
A well-established potential premise! I'm anxious to see what you'll come up with. How did you choose the names of your characters? How did you choose the title, Leverage?
I purposely set out to choose names that were pretty generic and common. The reason for this was that I wanted to better invoke the idea that what was occurring in the book could be happening anywhere in America, that it wasn’t some far fetched idea to think that this atrocious behavior could only occur in some fantastic or exotic realm.
The original title I had for the book was Monkey Kings which I still love but that title was overruled once the manuscript was acquired because of a fear that it sounded too young for the subject matter. Leverage became the new title because it spoke to the power that both the bullies and the bullied were trying to get over each other. Leverage also keyed in on the sports angle of both gymnasts and football players using it when controlling their own bodies in practice and competition. The design for the hardcover jacket showed Leverage with the “rage” highlighted, which was a really creative use of the title word.
Oh my gosh! I just noticed that—how creative indeed! Readers, in case you missed my review yesterday, here's a little bit about the book:
Joshua C. Cohen
Page Count: 425
Release Date: 17 February, 2011
Publisher: Dutton (First edition)
There's an extraordinary price for victory at Oregrove High.It is paid on—and off—the football field. And it claims its victims without mercy—including the most innocent bystanders.
When a violent, steroid-infused, ever-escalating prank war has devastating consequences, an unlikely friendship between a talented but emotionally damaged fullback and a promising gymnast might hold the key to a school's salvation.
Told in alternating voices and with unapologetic truth, Leverage illuminates the fierce loyalty, flawed justice, and hard-won optimism of two young athletes.
What was your inspiration for Leverage—for a book that encompasses all the heavy topics of bullying, the glorification of athletes, and sexual predators?
I really was both horrified and inspired (horrispired?) by a real-life account I followed that occurred at a summer sleep away football camp in Pennsylvania. The high school football team (Mepham High School in Long Island) slept in these cabins separate from the coaching staff cabins and at night these three seniors basically tormented several smaller underclassmen teammates in the most sadistic and twisted ways imaginable while the rest of the team looked on and were basically cowed into remaining silent. In so many ways the real-life incident is worse than my fictional account because you expect that at least your teammates to have your back and this was the exact opposite. This went on for a period of nights over the course of the two-week camp and it only came to light when one of the victims had to eventually go see a doctor for internal bleeding. When the assaults were exposed, much (not all) of the community was upset at the victims for causing the football season to be shut down as punishment. And the tormentors and victims were walking the hallways everyday for weeks before any charges were pressed. It’s that last part that actually made me want to write my book, to imagine walking the hallways with known sociopaths that everyone lauded and adored for their football prowess and, meanwhile, you knew what they were capable of but were afraid to speak up. Trying to put myself in the place of the victims and witnesses that share the secret is what got me typing out the story.
Wow, that's just... unimaginable. I'm glad you were able to capture a horror like that into fiction. It definitely needs to be exposed—not for sensationalism, but awareness. What was your journey to publication like? Tell us your call story.
This is still a career highlight for me. I’d been sending out queries to agents, using a spreadsheet I created that listed agents interested in representing the type of story I wrote. My spreadsheet was big and I’d send out queries in batches of 10. The query to Catherine Drayton at Inkwell Management actually got hung up in her administrative assistant’s inbox for about three months. In fact, I’d forgotten that I sent the query to Inkwell because I never received a reply back from them confirming receipt of the email. Then, out of the blue which, as I said was about three and half months later, I received an email from Catherine asking to see the first 50 pages of my manuscript. Then she sent another email asking to see the whole manuscript. I’d gotten this far with a number of other agents so I was guardedly optimistic. Then I received a very short email from her asking if she could call me. This all occurred over the course of a couple of weeks. I knew, from other articles I’d read, that agents don’t generally call you unless they want to potentially work with you. So that was my big call. Getting an agent took so long that I still feel as if that agent call is the bigger of the two hurdles and the more fun one. But then I’d be forgetting that I then signed with Julie Strauss-Gabel at Penguin/Dutton. That was a great call as well. I remember I got off the phone and I thought to myself: “I think this is actually going to happen. I think I’m actually going to be published!!!”
What a ride! Sounds like a dream come true. How much of your actual life gets written into your fiction?
Not much at all. I was a gymnast in high school so I did draw on the feeling of competing and tumbling through space while writing the gymnastics scenes. I also ran a little track in high school and played some football when I was a wee little lad in the pee-wee leagues (probably 4th grade) and still love to watch the game of football so I felt I could capture the physicality of playing the sport as well.
The rest is all made up and involves me trying hard to put myself in the place of these characters to try and get in their heads and make choices they might make. I get inspiration to write stories generally from something I’ve read in the news and then followed up on it with some research of my own. Leverage was partly inspired by the true story I’d followed in the New York Times recounting an assault that occurred at a summer sleepaway football camp in Pennsylvania, like I mentioned earlier. Further research revealed similar types of assaults occurring in school across the country.
Some of the secondary characters in Leverage on the gymnastics team, especially the smart-aleck characters, were combinations of friends and teammates I knew over the years. Thankfully, I never witnessed or suffered any of the bad stuff that I depict in the story. In fact, some old classmates reached out to me on Facebook asking me that very question, afraid that this was going on at our school at the time. I assured them that it wasn’t.
What do you consider your biggest strengths and weaknesses as an author?
Writing action sequences comes easiest for me and I really enjoy that aspect of the stories I create. I think whenever you feel like you’re in a “zone” and the pages are flying, chances are that’s going to be some of your strongest stuff. As far as my weaknesses, I struggle with all aspects of writing. That’s what revision is about. Most first drafts of anything are going to be pretty clunky and two-dimensional and shallow. That’s to be expected. So you go back and work and re-work until you can breathe scenes and people to life.
The exhilaration and adrenaline in your book really shine through! How do you react to a negative or harsh review to your books?
I’m actually pretty okay with negative reviews if they are thoughtfully written and they simply don’t like the book. In fact, I find some of the “negative” criticism to be both legitimate and constructive and I keep them tucked away in my head when I work on future projects. The harsh reviews are few and far between, luckily, and they generally seem as if they didn’t actually read the book or finish it. I think my favorite harsh review quote on Amazon was “This book is sick! Just Sick!” which I started to chuckle at because it certainly was eye catching and it might actually sell more books than a pleasant review that is boring. I’ll just add that I was a professional dancer for several years and that meant going to cattle call auditions with a number pinned to your chest and having someone basically yell “next” if you didn’t immediately impress them. And that always felt really personal because they’re looking at your body and judging you. Compared to a bad dance audition, a bad book review is pretty easy to blow off.
That's an interesting contrast... certainly a good way to dull the unnecessary criticism. I'm glad you don't let it get to you—some "reviewers" are just ridiculous. Give aspiring writers a piece of advice you wish you had known before getting published.
Hmmm... in some ways I’ll feel like a fraud for giving this advice since I don’t practice it as much as I should. But it’s true that the bigger web presence you can create ahead of time, the better it will be to help your book out of the gate. Even if you get signed to a major publisher, they only have limited resources so you really need to be prepared to work on behalf of your book in promoting it and trying to get the word out. Signing with a major book publisher seems like crossing the finish line to lots of aspiring writers. It may have been 15 or 20 years ago but nowadays, it’s only the first step. It’s a major step, don’t get me wrong, but it’s only the beginning. The more you can do for the book on your end as far as promoting it, the better. So if you’re not that into creating a web presence, start working on it and figuring it out. And figure out how much you want to tie your book to “you” on the web or if you want to create a persona for the book so you can have your own personal identity remain relatively untouched.
That's marvelous advice; really useful too! A fresh departure from the hackneyed "never give up" line I always hear. Now give us your best personal advice—something you wish you had known when you were younger and would offer to your own kids.
This really struck home with me in high school and it came from a teacher at the time imparting wisdom to graduating seniors. I think it's more important for younger students and is less important as you grow older: Be really exceptional at something that makes you proud and offers you a positive identity you can hang your hat on. This will help give you a solid base when you’re feeling rudderless and trying to find your own way venturing out into the world and trying new things. If this means you want to be an amazing athlete or writer or dancer or computer programmer, so be it. If it means you want to be an amazing guitarist or poet or mathematician or gardener or science geek or App programmer or language expert, so be it. Eventually, as you get older, you want to branch out and not be confined to any one label but sometimes a strong singular identity—“My name is X and I’m an amazing at doing Y” helps you when too much feels new in a world that can offer so much doubt.
Thought-provoking and true to life! What’s a question you’ve always wanted to be asked in an interview? How would you answer it?
“Should we humans just pack it in and call it a day because there’s no hope?”
No, silly. There’s hope. Now, of course there’s a butt-load of ignorance and greed and horrible acts being perpetrated all the time. But there’s also amazing acts of courage and kindness and generosity and intelligence occurring out there as well. It’s up to you to decide, on any given day, what you’ll do with this day that will never, ever exist again for all of eternity and how will you make the most of it. If you spend too much time in front of a screen surfing from one sensationalist site and article or YouTube clip to the next, you’re liable to eventually think most of us are crazed sociopaths or uncaring dolts. When you feel that way, you know it’s time to turn off the screen, pull out the earbuds and go find the nearest park or sunny spot, or dog or cat. That’s step one. Step two is immediately sign up to volunteer for something, anything, it doesn’t matter what except that it has to be something that you’re doing it because it is adding a drop in the bucket and helping. And not helping for the sake of padding your college entrance applications or résumé but just because it’s the right thing to do. Volunteering feels amazing. Even helping someone across the street feels pretty good. Don’t be afraid to do good. I’m not talking religion, here. I’m talking action. Okay, time to jump back down off my soapbox. Thanks!
Very inspirational. What are your goals as a writer?
Okay, I’m going to shoot for the moon on this one because, well, why not? I would love to gain enough publishing success that I could move my entire family to Bali/Hawaii/Brazil for six months a year where I could write in a little hut on the beach in the morning, then play in the surf and snorkel in the afternoon and practice yoga in the evening, and never have to worry about a day job to support myself. I would have an army of devoted followers that made every book I wrote an immediate New York Times bestseller no matter what topic or genre I chose to tackle. Oprah and I would be good friends. My personal physician would be Dr. Oz. My legions of fans would flood all reviewing sites such as Amazon with tens of thousands of 5-star reviews. Sunday Supplement articles would carry titles such as “Move over Bible, Torah and Koran, because Mr. Cohen’s latest release has just hit store shelves.” Eventually, I would be able to decide elections in Nepal, France, Uganda, Mexico and the U.S. by simply endorsing the candidate of my choice. Perhaps I would be able to incite the bloodless overthrow of countless brutal military regimes with a simple tweet or two... but I digress... (I’m now awakening from a semi-fevered state covered in a sheen of sweat and blinking rapidly).
My goals as a writer... hmmm... I’ll take getting another book deal and having a follow up interview with you, my "Modish Books" friend, when my next novel comes out.
As fantastic as Bali/Hawaii/Brazil sound (you'd take me too, right??) let's definitely count on having you over again! You're always welcome and of course, your new releases as well. What would you say are the most important attributes to remaining sane as a writer?
Whew! Where do I begin?! I’m not sure I have the answer, though. There've been many times I’m wondering why exactly I choose to torture myself with trying to get published. It’s such a solitary path and you can easily lose yourself to negative thoughts and doubts on any given day. I think one important attribute is tenacity in all its forms: Mental tenacity to discipline yourself to carve out some time on a regular basis to actually write—and that doesn’t mean surf, chat, twitter, comment etc. Then there is the emotional tenacity which allows you to weather a barrage of self-doubt and outside critical comments and keep going in the face of what can sometime feel like a never ending riptide of “I suck”. Physical tenacity to not sleep or play or party or drink but WRITE when you would really, REALLY like to take a nap or party or drink instead. As far as external attributes, I would say having a close group of either friends or fellow writers that you can commiserate with is very important. Actually it doesn’t have to be writers. I think it is important to be connected with people pursuing art at a serious, passionate level, whether as a musician or painter or sculptor or dancer, because they will more easily understand you when you have a down day and need to understand you’re not the only one going through this crazy process. They also get that you’re actually pursuing this as more than a hobby. When you see others actually living their existence as a writer or dancer or visual artist, it helps reinforce that you can actually do it, too. I think this is why NYC still remains a draw for artists of all stripes even though it’s a ridiculously expensive place to live. It’s not every city that you can see an adult carrying a cello on their back or wheeling a giant base violin down the street to their “day job” and know that’s how they’re making their living. It’s pretty inspiring.
Sounds amazing. What’s the most interesting comment you have ever received about your books?
I can’t pick one because I’ve had a bunch of really thoughtful comments made about my book. I think what’s most interesting is that the praise has come from readers in all walks of life. A very successful, very powerful businessman in his late sixties confessed that the book made him cry. A long haul truck driver told me he listened to the audio version of the book while driving cross country and was racing down the highway shouting “Hell yeah!” at the end of the story. A skate punk girl from Seattle confessed that she had to hide the book from her friends because they thought it was weird that she liked to read but she wanted to somehow make them all read this story. A teen gymnast (female) reached out to me, telling me how much she loved the book. None of these people would ever be found sitting together at a table and chatting and yet they all came together to enter a world I created. It’s a powerful feeling to get that as a writer. It makes up for a whole lot of years of struggling to get published.
I can only imagine how that must feel! What’s something you love to see your readers do or say?
I’m pretty content to hear someone praise my story with a variation on “I couldn’t put the book down and had to finish it to see what happened.” While I appreciate all genres and all forms of fiction, my number one priority as a writer is to build enough tension and suspense and caring for the characters and the situation, that a reader needs to move through the story to see what happens. It’s not an easy juggling act to manage so when I get that comment, I really like it.
As far as readers doing something, letting others know how much they liked the book is always greatly appreciated by me and my publisher! :)
Of course, of course—everyone loves the shameless fangirls/boys ;) What’s next for you?
I am currently working on a novel that examines bullying in the wake of a school shooting from the point of view of formerly popular jock that begins examining his own complicity in the status quo. It will soon be with my agent and time will tell whether or not this will actually be the next novel to see the light of day.
Let's have our fingers crossed! What is the message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
Without sounding like I’m trying to conk the reader over the head with a message, I’d say that I’d be happy if they finish the book and recognize the fact that we are all scared at some point in our lives (if not some point everyday) and we all need to acknowledge the fact that courageous acts are courageous precisely because the person performing them most likely understood the very real consequences of his or her actions (and was scared and freaking out on the inside) and went ahead and made the choice to do them anyways. And that courageous acts come in all shapes and sizes. It’s not all rushing into a burning building to save a child. Speaking up in a group that’s harassing/tormenting an isolated individual is courageous. Deciding to live a different lifestyle or choose a non-traditional career path than what your parents and peers expected also takes courage.
That's really encouraging! I hope readers of Leverage take that home and to heart... I know I sure did. What dreams have been realized as a result of your writing?
This is one, right now: I’m having a conversation with this really intelligent, articulate, amazing person that lives literally on the opposite side of the world from me all because of a story that I spent years writing and trying to get published finally did get published and my book led to us meeting on Goodreads. You then read this story I created and we’re having a conversation around it and about it and about other things connected to it. That whole “Butterfly effect” aspect of getting my book published is something that thrills me.
By nature I’m a very curious person and I love meeting other people and having conversations with them. I love discussing stories and if it’s my story being discussed, so much the better. When you spend years working on a story or stories and trying to get published, you dream of the day that others will read it and discuss it. That, to me, is really the biggest dream that’s come to fruition
OMG! I'm blushing. This is why you are the coolest person ever xo. I've got to agree, though: from my end of the line—as a book blogger—getting to really connect with authors in the wake of their books is spectacular. I'm so glad I had the opportunity to interview you, Josh, but unfortunately we need to begin wrapping up! Is there anything you'd like to ask our readers before we conclude?
Were you ever bullied and, if so, looking back on it, did you try to ride it out without getting an adult involved? If so, do you now regret not telling someone in a position of authority sooner, if at all? Or are you satisfied with how you handled the situation?
Terrific question! Where can you be found lurking on the web?
Website | Blog | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Purchase
Read my review of Leverage here
Read the followup interview (in which Josh spotlights me—yes, me!) here
Read my review of Leverage here
Read the followup interview (in which Josh spotlights me—yes, me!) here
It was a real treat having you over at the blog, Josh! Thank you so much for joining us and for masterfully responding to all our questions.
Josh has been generous enough to provide a paperback copy of Leverage to one lucky commenter! To enter, answer Josh's question about bullying. Me? I can't say I've experienced anything even remotely like what Danny and the other victims at Oregrove High do in Leverage, but I do recall one incident in elementary school (this so counts!!!). All of my friends suddenly stopped talking to me, and it turned out this one girl, who played queen bee, ordered them to ignore me. How did I handle it? I cried on the jungle gym during recess until a teacher found me and took me to the counselor, who called everyone's moms. Then my friends crawled back to me on hands and knees saying they were sorry and it was all that other girl's doing. Little bitch. You can tell it's scarred me terribly ever since. LOL.
If you've never been bullied before, just leave a response to something Josh said in his interview. Please make it MEANINGFUL—comments only consisting of "Great interview" or "Thanks for the giveaway!" will not be considered for entry!!!!
Rules and Disclosure:Giveaway ends 12 March 2013 at 11.59 PM (your time).
Open to US/CAN readers only. Sorry, rest of the world! Check my sidebar for international giveaways.
Winners have 48 hours to claim their prize once they are chosen, or else their prizes will be forfeited.
Although I will be selecting winners via Rafflecopter (Random.org), I am in no way responsible for prizes, nor for shipping and handling.
Although I will be selecting winners via Rafflecopter (Random.org), I am in no way responsible for prizes, nor for shipping and handling.
As a reminder, you do not have to follow my blog to enter, though it is always very much appreciated ❤ Plus you get extra entries ;)