Interview with Felice Cohen, author of “90 Lessons for Living Large in 90 Square Feet”

What makes this particular genre you are involved in so special?

Living in small spaces seems to be the new big thing (pun intended). There are TV shows and YouTube videos about people living in really tiny spaces. After decades of people “super-sizing” their homes, cars and meals, I think many are tired of the game and working to have a lot. Turns out, it’s not only exhausting, but also a waste. We have closets and homes full of stuff we barely even use and yet we still have to pay for it. People are realizing not only are they not using the stuff, but that they’d rather spend their money on experiences. Simply not having as much means you don’t have to work so hard.

What works best for you: Typewriters, fountain pen, dictate, computer or longhand?

It’s changed over the years. I now write on my MacBook Air laptop. The flat keyboard enables me to type really fast. But when I edit, I print it out and use a red pen. Seeing red means progress.

When did it dawn upon you that you wanted to be a writer?

In college. In fact, before that I wasn’t a fan of writing, math was my subject. I started college as a math major. But after Calculus 3, I said no more. I was at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and they had The Daily Collegian, a very credible school newspaper with a huge distribution. I started by covering sports. I had been recruited to play two different Division I teams, but Division I was too time consuming and there were so many new interests to explore. To stay connected to sports, I covered the teams, but soon started writing Op/Eds. I loved the creativity that enabled me.

What inspires you to write?

Experiences. I used to write everything down in a journal, it was my therapy. Putting down in writing helped me to understand what I was going through. This was mostly right after college. However, my first book, “What Papa Told Me,” was about my grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, and I wrote that because he asked me to.

Do you proofread and edit your work on your own or pay someone to do it for you?

Both. I edit and edit and edit. Then I edit some more. I will read through once for grammar, then again for spacing or margins, then out loud to make sure I haven’t missed anything. I will do this over and over. When I can read through without making any marks with a red pen, I will give it to my editor, who in turn hands it back with red marks! Then I start again. But again, red marks means progress and I would rather be thorough then find errors after it’s been published.

Have you ever designed your own book cover?

All of them. I come up with the ideas and my illustrator creates them. For my first book, about my grandfather’s survival in the Holocaust, my designer was sending me gray, gloomy covers and nothing felt right. One sunny day I was cycling on Cape Cod and I looked up and saw a barbered wire fence with the beautiful sky behind it. At that moment, I realized that even while a prisoner in the concentration camps, my grandfather could look up and see a beautiful sky, but the barbed wire reminded him that he was still not free.

Do you believe a book cover plays an important role in the selling process?

I do. With so many books to choose from, a cover needs to be eye catching and pull the reader in. While you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can make a split decision.

How would you feel if no one showed up at your book signing?

Been there. And it didn’t feel great. It was at a B&B in South Carolina. I waited about 15 minutes and finally one man walked in. We actually had a great talk and he even invited me to have dinner with he and his wife. It turned out to be a great evening. But this happens. Some book signings get a lot of people, some just a few. I focus on the quality, not the quantity. I have found that smaller turnouts often lead to deeper discussions, and in some cases, more book signings.

How much of yourself do you put into your books?

A lot. My first book was about my grandfather, but in wanting to make it different, I added snippets of dialogue between the two of us from when we worked on the book together. My second book is about my personal experience living in a tiny apartment, plus all the lessons I’ve learned on how to be organized. I have a third book I’m working on, a personal memoir. Writing about personal experiences is my thing.

Who are your books mostly dedicated to?

Family. My first was dedicated to my maternal grandfather because the book was about him. Without him, his courage to survive, I would never have been born. It was also at his request that I write the book. I hadn’t intended to be an author, so who knows if I’d ever have done it. My “90 Lessons” book I dedicated to my Uncle Mark, because he encouraged me to move to New York City to follow my dream of becoming a writer and supported me by letting me live with him until I got settled.

Who is the most supportive of your writing in your family?

It’s changed over the years. While my parents support everything I do, it was my paternal grandmother, Nana Banana, who saved everything I wrote and always wanted to know when my next article was being published. She died before my first book came out, but I still thanked her for the encouragement and her belief in me.

Do you have a day job other than being a writer? And do you like it?

Yes, and yes. I have had a number of day jobs, as writing was something I did at night and on weekends. I was the Chief of Staff to a college president, the editorial assistant at the New York Daily News, I helped start a women’s sports magazine and through all those jobs, have continued to work as a professional organizer for 20 years. Now, aside from writing, I am still organizing people’s lives and I enjoy it. Creating order utilizes a different part of my mind and I love starting and finishing a project. To me it’s like jigsaw puzzle. I see the client’s stuff as pieces and I need to figure out which ones do not belong and of the pieces that do, how best they fit in a closet or garage or home.

 

How do you see writing? As a hobby or a passion?

Writing used to be a hobby that I hoped would turn into a profession. I wrote my first book as a gift for my grandfather, not thinking it would sell. The fact that I’ve sold 30,000 copies around the world and that it continues to sell, still surprises and delights me.

Do you like traveling or do you prefer staying indoors?

I love both. However, I don’t think traveling and staying indoors are opposite things. While I love traveling and exploring and seeing new sights and meeting new people, I also love being outdoors near where I live. In New York City there’s so much to see. On the other hand, I love being in my apartment and working on projects, writing, having friends over and relaxing with a good book.

Did any of your books get rejected by publishers?

Yes, both of them. That’s why I published them myself.

Do you enjoy book signings?

Yes. I enjoy meeting new people and getting feedback on my books. So much of writing is sitting alone and sometimes it’s easy to think, “Who’s going to read this? What if no one likes it?” Book signings give the writer an opportunity to hear back from readers. It’s not just about hearing people say nice things to you, for me, it’s also motivation to keep writing when those other thoughts cloud my mind.

Which of your books took you the most time to write?

My first book, “What Papa Told Me.” From the day my grandfather asked me to write about his life until it was published was eighteen years. During that time I graduated from college, had a number of jobs and moved a few times. It wasn’t really until the year before the book came out that I got serious about finishing it. It also happened to be at the same time that self-publishing got easier to do. I consider it perfect timing.

Have you ever marketed your own books yourself?

Yes, all of them. I wear all the hats – author, publisher, and marketer. I’ve heard from authors whose books were published by publishing houses that even though the publisher promotes the book, the author needs to put in a lot of effort as well.

Now when you look back at your past, do you feel accomplished?

I do. A lot of people say they want to write a book, but to have actually done it makes me feel like I accomplished something. But I’m more proud of the fact that the book made my grandfather so happy and validated his survival. He never spoke about his experiences in the Holocaust, but after the book came out, he spoke with me at schools, telling his story and it made him feel that he survived for a reason.

What do you do in your free time?

Ride my bicycle. Read. Hike. Yoga. Spend time with my family. Stand up Paddleboard. Organize my own stuff (yes, I enjoy that!). Jigsaw puzzles. Make Shrinky Dinks.

How did it feel when your first book got published?

Terrific. I was standing on the corner of Columbus Avenue and West 68th Street in Manhattan, just outside the post office. I had ripped open the package and stared at the first copy of my first book. I called my grandfather and could barely speak, I was crying so hard. He got worried something was wrong, but I finally managed to say, eighteen years after he first asked me to write his life story, that the book was done.

Have you ever considered writing an autobiography?

Yes. I wrote a memoir. It’s not published yet. I wrote as a form of therapy. It’s about a personal relationship that happened in my early 20s. I’m still debating whether to share it with the world.

What does the word ‘retirement’ mean to you? Do writers ever retire?

Probably not. I think for many writers, it’s something you have to do. It’s in your blood to get your stories or experiences. And as long as your mind stays sharp, you can keep writing.

How are your relations with your family? Do you like to stay in touch?

I am very close with my family. My parents, two sisters, brother-in-law, niece and nephew live on Cape Cod and I get back there as often as I can. I have other family in Massachusetts, New York and elsewhere and I try to see them when I can. But texting and Facebook helps too.

How did you celebrate the publishing of your first book?

I hosted a party for 150 people. It was both to celebrate the book and my grandfather’s life.

Which book would you want adapted for the silver screen?

“What Papa Told Me.” Even with all the Holocaust movies, I think a modern day version — one connecting a granddaughter in present day with the horrors of her grandfather’s past — would be different and insightful to a whole new, younger generation.

Do you pen down revelations and ideas as you get them, right then and there?

All the time. Either on scraps of paper or I will send an email to myself. Then I type them up later and keep in an “idea” folder.

Can you tell us about your current projects?

I write an illustrated book series called The Fancy Tales. They are based on the classic fairy tales we grew up with, yet they take place in modern day New York City and include a slightly sophisticated gay twist. So far there are 3 published: She’safella (Cinderella), Peter Pan Zee (Peter Pan) and Jack and the Bad Stock (Jack and the Bean Stalk). The next one is Sleeping Booty.

Have you received any awards for your literary works?

Three honorable mention book awards for “What Papa Told Me.” I am waiting to hear about a number of awards for my latest book, “90 Lessons for Living Large in 90 Square Feet (…or more).”

How big of a part does music play in creating your “zone”?

Living in New York City, outside noises can be a bit distracting. Sometimes I can be in the zone without music, but other times, certain music helps the juices flow and clears away other distractions. I like music without lyrics. George Winston and Jim Brickman are two favorites.

Do you need to be in a specific place or room to write, or you can just sit in the middle of a café full of people and write?

For new writing, quiet spaces are better for me. But for editing, I can sit in a café as the café noise turns to white noise, plus the energy of people around me perks me up. Sometimes at home I procrastinate and refold all my sweaters!

Did you specifically plan your studies around your interest of writing?

Yes. When I became a weekly columnist for the school newspaper during my senior year of college, I planned my studies around that. At that point I was an editor and weekly columnist.

Were your parents reading enthusiasts who gave you a push to be a reader as a kid?

Yes. Both of my parents are voracious readers. My mom was constantly taking my sisters and me to the library. I have memories of sitting around the living room on chilly winter nights, all of us reading a book. Same in the summer at the beach. Today we exchange and recommend books to each other.

How do you think concepts such as Kindle, and e-books have changed the present or future of reading?

I think it may be helping. While I am the proud owner of a well-worn library card, I think Kindles and e-books enable more people access to more books and if it encourages people to read, then I think it can only help the future of reading.

Do you think the charm of public libraries has toned down much in the last decade?

No. The local library in my hometown on Cape Cod just completed a huge renovation. There’s a children’s room, a cozy room with a fireplace, a computer room and even a table with an ongoing jigsaw puzzle! It’s become a local favorite, a place where you bump into new or old friends, and at the center of it all are wonderful books and stories. I think with how fast the world seems to be going, a library is still a safe haven.

Do you enjoy discussing upcoming ideas with your partner? If yes, how much do you value their inputs?

My boyfriend gives great feedback to my writing. He has his own perspective and that sheds a lot of new insight onto my ideas. He’s very supportive as well.

Do you blog?

Yes. My blog “Living Large in Any Size” came about after the YouTube video of my 90-square-foot NYC studio went viral as people around the world emailed me, asking for advice on organizing their stuff, decluttering their homes and wanting to know how I managed to keep a positive attitude living in a small space.

How active are you on social media? And how do you think it affects the way you write?

I am not as active as many others, but I am on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram. I think it’s a challenge to balance time for social media marketing with writing time. But I do think it helps in getting the word out.

Do you enjoy theatre? Would you ever like one of your stories to be turned into a play?

I love theater, all types, musicals most of all. Living in New York City I go to a lot of shows from Broadway to off off Broadway. I love the creativity. I would love to see my series The Fancy Tales done in a campy off off Broadway show. I’ve had some interest, so keeping fingers crossed.