Carolyn Cohagan’s curiosity has led her all over the world, pursuing filmmaking, stand-up, and theater from Los Angeles to Amsterdam. Those diverse experiences helped inform her writing, her biggest passion, and in 2010 she released her award-winning novel, The Lost Children.Most recently, Cohagan founded the Austin, Texas–based literary nonprofit Girls with Pens, which offers girls ages 8 to 15 tutoring and workshops in prose, screenwriting, and even graphic novels. Cohagan is also expanding Girls with Pens into the indie publishing scene, creating a press that has already released the first two installments of her YA trilogy—Time Zero and Time Next (which follow a young girl fighting religious extremism in a dystopic future)—and has hopes for continuing to inspire curiosity and a love of writing in young girls around the world.
What inspired your Time Zero trilogy?
I wanted to explore religious extremism and how it disproportionately hurts girls and women. I’ve always been a fan of dystopian fiction, going back to Fahrenheit 451, and I thought it would be interesting to write a fast-paced, appealing novel like The Hunger Games that had a serious feminist theme running through it.
Why do you think dystopian settings work well for young adult fiction?
By reading about a hero surviving and, in most stories, triumphing in these settings, young people (and adults) are subconsciously assured that they, too, will survive any hard times to come. It’s no coincidence that dystopian fiction became popular again after 9/11 and America’s entry into several wars. The publishing industry keeps insisting that “dystopian is over,” but I think our current state of affairs is too bonkers for that to be true.
What made you want to start Girls with Pens?
I had been researching and writing Time Zero for several years, which made me very focused on adolescence and the damage that can be done to girls during the seminal years from 8 to 14. I also did some work in Rwanda and met girls working with the Nike Foundation’s Girl Hub [now known as Girl Effect], an organization that teaches girls journalism and publishing. When I moved back to Austin in 2014, I knew I wanted to teach creative writing, and I knew I wanted to help girls find their voices. I love watching the girls get excited about a new prompt. Their eyes get big and they start writing before I have even finished speaking. It is also very satisfying when I tell them to stop writing and they don’t.
How have you found the process of releasing your own work?
As you can imagine, there are positives and negatives.
Positives: I really like the control I have over the art design and production; things happen much more quickly when you do it yourself….I can set the price, put the book on sale, as I see fit; my royalties are substantially higher.
Negatives: The press outlets that reviewed my last two books will not review this one; the production of the book takes time away from your writing; you will make mistakes that cost you time and money; your friends and relatives will raise an eyebrow when you say the book is self-published. Screw ’em. They know nothing about the current state of publishing.
What are your hopes for Girls with Pens as it moves into publishing more original work?
I will be publishing an anthology at the end of the summer of all my students’ work. This will include pieces from the summer camps but also from an essay competition I’m holding as I tour with my book. The question is, “Why should teenagers have a voice in social issues?” I have a long-term goal of returning to Rwanda to teach writing workshops and publish a collection of stories. For those girls to see their work in print would be empowering in a way we can’t imagine.
Rhett Morgan is a writer and translator based in Paris.