Rachel Cohn Is the Reigning Jewish Queen of YA Lit

The writer who brought us gems like "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" sat down with Alma virtually to talk about her illustrious career.

It would be difficult to survive the harrowing years of adolescence without reading a book by best-selling author Rachel Cohn, the reigning Queen of YA Lit. Cohn’s most celebrated works, from novels to screenplays, include Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List, and the Dash & Lily series, which she co-authored with Jewish writer David Levithan. She also served as executive producer and wrote one episode of the Dash & Lily Netflix series adapted from the books.

Born in Maryland, Cohn was raised by a Jewish bookseller and an English literature professor. She spent her summers at her grandparents’ home in New England.

“I often say I sort of adopted their values,” Cohn explains. “I have this background of Polish Catholic and Polish Jewish and people often say, ‘Well, does that mean you have more guilt?’ And I say, ‘No, it cancels each other out! I got none!’”

We sat down virtually to talk about her illustrious career.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Let’s start with Dash & Lily. Congratulations on the success of the Netflix series. It has a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Yeah, people love it. It was very gratifying. I feel like I’ve been riding a halo effect of that because it just generates so much goodwill. It’s been very sweet.

I particularly enjoyed the Hanukkah episode.

Me too. That’s my favorite of the episodes.

Why did you and David Levithan decide to plot the series around Christmas instead of the Festival of Lights?

He actually decided that. By the way, I have pitched him, like, “Let’s do a Hanukkah book.” So, maybe one day. It’s definitely something I want to do.

When we write, we don’t really have a plan in mind. We have a basic premise and then we alternate chapters. He takes one chapter and sends it to me and I pick it up where he left off. We don’t really talk about it a lot during the whole process. That’s something we fell into sort of by accident when we wrote Nick & Norah, and then we found it worked for us. When we wrote Dash & Lily, we had the premise in mind of two teenagers who sort of have a cat-and-mouse scavenger hunt across New York City. Their names would be “Dash” and “Lily.” That’s all we knew.

Why do you prefer writing YA literature as opposed to adult fiction?

It’s always important to note that “YA” is a marketing label. That being said, I didn’t really choose the label, but I do naturally gravitate towards that voice.

When I was first starting out as a writer, I wrote three books that didn’t really make it, although later, in different incarnations, they did. But this is when I was refining my voice and finding my way. And they would only make it so far through publishers and then get rejected. A few people noted that “when your characters are teenagers, that’s the strongest material.” So, that sort of opened my mind to just writing a book about a teenager, as opposed to a bigger book that also had a part in it that reflected the teenage experience.

At first, I didn’t really have much awareness of YA. The genre wasn’t as big as it is now. It wasn’t a conscious choice. It was just like, “I’m writing about a teenager,” and then later, other people said, “This is YA.”

But I will say one thing that very much influenced me was, at the time – this is when I lived in San Francisco in my 20s – I loved the Weetzie Bat books by Francesca Lia Block. Reading Weetzie Bat really blew my mind in terms of seeing what could happen in terms of YA: the expansiveness of the voice, the depth of imagination, the incredible craftsmanship of writing and the voice and all of those things.

The film adaptation of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award. Did you write it with LGBTQIA+ representation in mind?

It’s not something I really think of consciously, insomuch as that I try to reflect life and I try to reflect people the way I know them. And, certainly, I know many people in those communities and so, it comes sort of down to write what you know. Obviously, I feel that representation is important, and especially when I was first starting out in YA, there wasn’t enough of it.

There’s a reference to tikkun olam [the Jewish value of healing the world] in Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist.

That was all David [Levithan]… I sort of appropriated my grandparents’ cultural Jewish values, but I didn’t get any of the actual religion. Although I did go to temple with them sometimes on Friday nights… I feel like I’m a cultural Jew in the sense that I adopted so many of my grandparents’ values that were rooted in Judaism… [my grandmother] was very involved in Jewish Family Services and with her temple and just the idea of how important community is – and because she was sort of a senior citizen taking care of other senior citizens, how important it is to take care of each other, which I think is so fundamental to Judaism. I guess when I think about it, that’s something I try to convey in my own books and that’s something I definitely got from my grandparents.  

Pop Princess is another musical book, a fictional story about a teenage singer’s meteoric rise to fame. Has any musician ever reached out to you and said, “Hey, you hit the nail on the head?”

I love that question and my answer is I wish! That would be amazing! [laughs] No, nobody has. There have been different incarnations, young actresses who reached out who are interested in it. So, I’m sure there was a level of relatability, or maybe there was, I don’t really know….

As you can see from Nick & Norah, I love music and I’m very obsessed with that. But I also love a great pop song. Just as somebody who naturally gravitates – as a writer, at least – towards a female point-of-view, especially at that age, it’s a sort of convergence of all of those interests.

I have to ask you about your award-winning novel, Gingerbread. It tackled a lot of controversial issues, like teen abortion. Did you have to fight to include some of those plot lines?

Surprisingly no, not at all. I think they would come up more now, but it was just kind of off the radar… I don’t think of my books as being racy, but in terms of general consciousness of what you can do in YA, they certainly pushed that boundary.

Did that book ruffle any feathers at your grandparents’ temple?

No [laughs]. My grandmother was my heart… I love to tell this story about soon after Gingerbread had come out. It was my first book and there had been a lot of struggle along the way to get a book published. I wanted so much to be not just a writer and a published author, but I wanted to write for a living. So, when my first book was published, it was very soon after [my grandmother] had to start dialysis. At that point, it became difficult to take her anywhere. There was one day when we went to see a movie… and it was a big deal for her to get to go. So, anyway, we were at the movie theater and my grandmother was a big community organizer and activist and she knew everybody. And, of course, we ran into friends of hers and she says, “Oh, this is my granddaughter, the author.” The friends start talking and updating my grandmother on what their kids were doing, and in the middle of whatever it was they were saying, my grandmother leaned in to them and went, “Simon and Schuster!” Which is like the classic Jewish grandma!

Whenever any friends or family do anything to promote my books, I joke that “well, Lenore Cohn left a big PR hole when she passed.” She was my number one PR person.

What’s up next for you?

Right now, I’m working on an adaptation of my book, My Almost Flawless Tokyo Dream Life, and I’ve written a pilot of that with Twentieth TV for Disney+. We’ll see if it goes anywhere, but that’s been my main project.

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