October 17, 2013

PSU assistant professor's book earns Oprah pick


PLATTSBURGH — One of Elizabeth Cohen’s books is now an Oprah selection.

But she hopes people will think about its message and not just the famous endorsement.

“The Hypothetical Girl,” a collection of short stories, explores romantic relationships in the digital age, using the theme as a way to ask deeper and wider questions.

“Think of how many people know each other only through screen and keyboard,” said Cohen, who is an assistant professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh. “We would call it fantasy, but for an increasing number of people, it’s their main gig, and this — reality — is the sideline.”

That led to what Cohen refers to as the “core question” of her book. 

“Is reality this?” she asked, gesturing at the room around her, and more broadly, at the physical world. “Or is it the screen and the keyboard?”

Cohen describes the book as “15 stories about people who meet, fall in love or don’t fall in love, and sometimes have scary experiences on the Internet.”

Although the stories concern couples and potential couples, only in one story do the people meet in real life. And that story, Cohen said, plays with the idea that such a meeting “might be an antiquated notion.”


The book was chosen as an Oprah Winfrey Summer Must-Read — the first on the list. It is also an Oprah Book of the Week on her Fall Reading list. 

Ironically, Cohen found out about the selection online.

One day, she saw a series of mysterious messages on Facebook.

“Everyone was congratulating me, and no one said why,” she recalled with a laugh.

She emailed a close friend, who responded by sending her the link to the review.


A versatile writer, Cohen also has a newly published book of poetry entitled “What The Trees Said.” 

Many of the poems have an Adirondack theme.

“What The Trees Said” was written over the course of two years.

“I write very slowly with poetry and very fast with prose — the opposite of what people think.”

With poetry, she said, “I revise a thousand times, and sometimes it ends up like the first draft — it comes full circle.”


The book combines Cohen’s poetry with images by Steve Bromberg, a photographer who lives and works in China.

“The pictures were prompts for me — not literal prompts, but emotional prompts.”

For example, “The University of the Trees” is a poem about what might be learned from a long-term immersion in the forest and a leisurely, meditative study of the life there. The poem is paired with a photograph of the gnarled roots of an ancient tree, surrounded by the profusion of life in the deep forest.


Cohen’s previous works include a children’s book, “Georgie the Flying Dog,” which she co-wrote with Caren Haines and features illustrations by Duane Bronson.

That book came about because her daughter, as a young child, had a best friend who was autistic. The book was written to promote kindness and friendship toward those who are different. In the book, Georgie the puppy is different and feels lonely. Then, he forms an unlikely friendship with a parrot — and learns to fly.

Cohen’s varied career reflects interests that go back to her own earliest childhood. Her mother loved poetry and read children’s classics to her. 

Cohen can still recite most of A.A. Milne’s poetry, and she was deeply touched by Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses.”

Such early experiences with the wonder that literature can offer helped spark her own love of writing — and, in turn, the course of her life.



At an event set for 1 p.m. Saturday at Saranac Lake Free Library, Elizabeth Cohen will read from the "The Hypothetical Girl" and her new poetry collection, "What the Trees Said."

She will also conduct the free writing workshop, "Writing in Multiple Genres," focused, she said, on "the fiction in poetry, the poetry in fiction and how both inform nonfiction writing."