Monday, December 15, 2014

Jeff Cohen (AKA E.J. Copperman) at The Poisoned Pen!

In this age of budget cuts and knotted purse strings, publishers are loathe to send authors out on tour, preferring that publicity be done through social media. Therefore, in order to spread the word about their books, many authors have to pay for their own tours, and that's exactly what Jeff Cohen (also known as E.J. Copperman) did this past week. My favorite bookstore was one of his five stops, so Denis and I hustled over to The Poisoned Pen on Wednesday, December 10, so I would be able to see this author who's made me laugh so  much.

This jet-lagged man showed up an hour early. He reminded me a bit of me during my coast-to-coast training days, showing up in unfamiliar places to look for unfamiliar faces so that I could start doing what I was there to do. To my surprise, he sat down with Denis and me to chat, and before we knew it, it was time to join the other fans who'd shown up. What a very special treat for me (and I sincerely hope I didn't bore his socks off)!

"We need a new you...."

L to R: David Hunenberg and Jeffrey Cohen

The entire event felt like an informal chat amongst friends, partly due to the smaller size of the group and partly because none of us held back with questions or comments. One of the very first questions Jeff had to field was about writing under two names. Jeff has written two series as Jeffrey Cohen-- the Aaron Tucker books about a former investigative reporter and aspiring screenwriter, and the Double Feature mysteries about the adventures of Elliot Freed, the proprietor of an old movie theater. As E.J. Copperman, Jeff writes the Haunted Guesthouse mysteries, and the first book in his Asperger's series, The Question of the Missing Head, was released in October. The sixth book in his Haunted Guesthouse series, Inspector Specter, has just been released. A New Jersey man, Jeff has set all his series in his home state.

Before his first Asperger's mystery was released, his publisher approached him about using a different name. Basically the publisher told him, "The problem with your books is you're you, and we need a new you."  Having talked with other authors who write under more than one name, I knew that some publishers prefer this, believing that if an author is writing a new series that's completely different from the series he's already known for, it's better to release those under a different name. It's always interesting to learn all the different reasoning, isn't it?

"It never comes up."

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Cohen's Haunted Guesthouse series was a departure from his previous two series in that he writes these books in a woman's voice. Cohen gets asked how he can do that all the time, and he told us about meeting Spencer Quinn at a convention. Quinn's books are written from the dog's point of view, so Jeff asked him, "Do you ever get asked about how you can write in a dog's voice?" Quinn looked at him and replied, "It never comes up."

In all the work leading up to the release of the first Haunted Guesthouse mystery, it was decided that Cohen should publish these under a different name. There are many women who won't read books written by men-- much to the puzzlement of everyone in the room. (The general consensus of us all was "Why limit yourself?") Jeff said that the search for a new name was a long and painful one. Someone didn't want initials to be used because that's supposedly a dead giveaway that someone of the opposite sex is writing the books. In the end, no one could find a name that they all agreed on, and "E.J. Copperman" was born-- a combination of the names of Cohen's son, daughter, and dog.

As originally planned, the main character in the Haunted Guesthouse series was going to be a house flipper who'd buy a house in a different town in each book. It's a good thing that idea wasn't used because three months after everything was signed, sealed, and delivered, the real estate market tanked.

"I don't remember if the ghost was my idea or my editor's," Cohen told us. "But having one of the ghosts be a detective is what they call the franchise idea, and it gives the main character Alison a reason to get involved in solving the mysteries." 

"I'd rather make you laugh."

Jeffrey Cohen
"I'm not interested in writing scary books; I'd rather make you laugh," Cohen said. "That's why the ghosts in this series are more annoying than anything else."

One person in the group said that she admired Alison for all her do-it-yourself know-how in fixing up her old house. Cohen just happens to live in an old house. "I have knowledge and can do things, but Alison is much better at fixing things than I am. And now there's a contractor who lives right across the street--"

One of our group nodded wisely and said that's where most of his money goes now. Cohen said, "I refer to it as adding to his child's scholarship fund," which made us all laugh in sympathy. Jeff and his family had lived in that house for about a year when a leak developed in the bathroom off the kitchen. The plumber went down to the basement to find out more about the leak and came back to tell Cohen that there was nothing underneath the shower to hold it up. No joists, no floor-- nothing. A shower that had been used at least once a day for a year. Everyone's imagination began to run riot, picturing how they would react to that news. "Alison's now running into things that I don't know how to do," Jeff said. 

The seventh book in the Haunted Guesthouse series is now at the publisher and needs a title. It doesn't contain a renovation project. Jeff solicited us for possible titles as well as a possible renovation project for the eighth book. (Someone suggested an outdoor shower since the guesthouse is so close to the beach, but the author didn't look very enthused at the idea.) In books one through six, Paul the ghost detective was always the enthusiastic one about pursuing the investigation while Alison didn't want any part of it. The seventh book sees a reversal in this pattern when someone Alison idolized as a teenager is involved.

"The Alex Trebek of detectives..."

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The main character in The Question of the Missing Head is Samuel Hoenig, a young man who wasn't diagnosed as having Asperger's until he was in his teens. Even if he'd been diagnosed earlier, he couldn't have been given the early intervention treatments that are available today. 

Samuel believes that his condition is a personal disorder and people should just get over it. He opens a business called Questions Answered. "Samuel is the Alex Trebek of detectives," Cohen said. "He will only help someone if the person words his request properly in the form of a question." It takes someone from a cryonics lab a while to figure this out and finally ask Samuel who stole one of their frozen heads.

Cohen's son has Asperger's, but the character of Samuel is nothing like his son. "I just wanted to get inside the head of someone who doesn't think like everyone else," Jeff told us. 

"I don't do research."

Jeffrey Cohen
Jeff certainly knows how to grab people's attention. "I don't do research," he said. "If you've come to my books for actual hard facts, you've come to the wrong place." 

Momentarily thrown off stride by his remark, one member of our group mentioned that many of Cohen's characters are parents. "Yes, I write parents a lot," Jeff admitted. "I truly enjoy being a father. Alison's dad is based on my own father, and I get to spend time with him this way."

Back on track, Cohen mentioned that most people diagnosed with Asperger's have at least one area of intense focus. In his new series, Samuel Hoenig's fixations are the Beatles and baseball "because I know enough about these subjects to avoid doing research." As he paused, he was asked about the cryonics in The Question of the Missing Head. "I did lie. I had to look up cryonics," he replied.

The second Asperger's mystery-- The Question of the Unfamiliar Husband-- is at the publisher's now and will be released next fall, with the next Haunted Guesthouse book due out next December.

When asked if he'd ever considered writing a non-humorous book Cohen said, "I can't do serious. I can get depressed on my own; I don't need help. I write comedies that have mysteries in them. My books are all about the characters and being funny while whodunnit is important because it drives the plot."

"Just get it done and fix it later."

David Hunenberg and Jeffrey Cohen

Cohen then chatted a bit about the craft of writing. He's written twenty-four screenplays but has yet to sell one. He made his living writing for newspapers and magazines, and the first hint that he could actually write a book came when he took a ghostwriting job for someone in Los Angeles.

Since Cohen writes series published by two different companies, he was asked what his relationship with his editors was like. "I love my editors. The first three books I wrote were handled by an editor working out of his basement in Baltimore. And I'm crazy about Shannon [his editor at Berkley]-- she lets me get away with nothing."

The author also teaches screenwriting at Drexel University in Philadelphia. "My best strength is writing dialogue," he confessed before going on to tell us about how he sold his first book.

"I went to and typed 'mystery novel' in the search box. The search results listed 150 publishers who accepted mystery novels. If there's one thing that freelance writers know how to do, it's how to write a great cover letter. I wrote one and sent it to every single one of those 150 publishers. I got one response. The man told me 'Make me laugh in the first ten pages.' I sent him ten pages. A few minutes later I got his response: 'I laughed on page 3. Send me the whole book.'"

Jeff is an old hand at writing. He knows that if he writes 1,000 words a day in three months he'll have a manuscript that will be turned into a book. "I usually write in the afternoon or at night, but I can write at any time as long as I have some sort of premise. My philosophy is just get it done and fix it later, which is why I don't believe in writer's block.

"When I write, I like to paint myself into a corner and then have to figure my way out." He wrote a scene in one of his Aaron Tucker mysteries in which Tucker-- in an attempt to impress the police that he knew what he was doing-- talked about obtaining DNA at the scene of the crime. "The police tell him, 'We did. We got a hair from the scene. We got a hit from that hair, a man in Texas who killed six people.' Aaron said, 'Go arrest him!' The police officer replied, 'He was executed in Texas seven years ago.' And that's an example of having to write myself out of a corner!"

It was so much fun talking with this man, but all good things must come to an end, so after one of the group won an Inspector Specter T-shirt (complete with a quote from beloved New Jersey resident Bruce Springsteen), we had our books signed, and the event was over. 

It's one that I'll remember for a long, long time.


  1. Cathy - It certainly sounds that way! The PP draws in the most interesting writers!

    1. That's just one of the many reasons why it's my favorite bookstore, Margot!

  2. It was a lot of fun, Cathy, and I'm glad you and your husband were there!

    1. The two of us are very glad that you decided to make The Poisoned Pen one of the stops on your tour!

  3. It sounded like fun. Wish I could have been there. I like your philosophy: Get it done and fix it later! That should be on a t-shirt

    1. I agree-- it should be on a t-shirt. It's a good philosophy.

  4. NOW you tell me what to put on the shirt!

    1. Yeah, we were a bit late with that, weren't we?

  5. Love this evening, and this author's sense of humor. So glad you and Denis were able to attend and enjoy this -- and undoubtedly, a lot more books were brought home. You'll both be laughing for quite awhile.

    I'd like to take on these books, but am so overwhelmed by books everywhere that I can't do it. But I'll keep reading about them here.

    1. Isn't it maddening to know that sometimes you just have to draw the line somewhere?

  6. Yes. It's maddening that I have to draw the line all of the time, and that my TBR lists just keep growing. And it's maddening that I'm reading slowly and don't have the time to read what I want to read.

    1. There are many, many, many of us who feel your pain, Kathy!


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