Writer's Bloc

The Long, Twisting Road to a 'Killer' First Novel
By David Bradley C'72

Jeffrey A. Cohen L'88 I met Jeffrey A. Cohen L'88, in 1983, when he took my undergraduate fiction workshop at Temple University. He attended George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., although he fit Temple's born-and-raised in-Philadelphia profile, and he was doing his junior year in Philadelphia.

I liked the story he submitted; it displayed a wicked wit.

Three years later, when he told me he was taking a sabbatical from Penn Law to "do some writing," I invited him to audit my graduate workshop.

Cohen submitted a partial novel called, Manager of the Year. A department store floor manager dreams of being an acclaimed writer. He gives his meager manuscript to a junior editor at a literary magazine. She gives him an honest critique. He kills her. Enter the legal system. What follows is Theater of the Absurd.

Some of my students didn't know what to make of Cohen. He had literary models – Dostoevsky, Heller, Kesey. He seemed to know what he was trying to do. But was he a serious writer, or, like his character, a wannabe?

I told them writers have to wannabe; as for serious, only time would tell.

Cohen finished law school and became an associate in litigation at Blank Rome. He wrote satirical pieces which appeared in the Penn Law Forum, The Shingle (later, The Philadelphia Lawyer) and the New Virginia Review. He took no more workshops, but we'd sometimes talk shop over drinks.

By then "legal thriller" had become a sub-genre. Lawyer-novelists – John Grisham, Scott Turow, Lisa Scottoline C'77, L'81 – were best-selling authors. Cohen's novel wasn't a legal thriller, but during his sabbatical he'd learned about Jack Henry Abbott, the killer who'd written to author Norman Mailer from his prison cell. Mailer decided Abbott was "an important American writer," and convinced the parole board to release him and a publisher to turn the letters into a book. Abbott celebrated by killing a waiter. The resulting notoriety made Abbott a best-selling author. Cohen found this so "perverse" he'd taken his novel in a different direction.

Cohen too was going in a different direction. In 1990, he'd partnered with his brother to launch Voice FX, which provided voice information services to university registrars. By 1996 he'd left the law behind. He finished a draft of the novel, but had no time for revisions; he was growing a company.

In 1999, Voice FX merged with Student Advantage, listed on NASDAQ. Cohen made a pot of money. He still had management responsibilities but was living the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous: top shelf, first class, exotic locales, nubile companions, including a Brazilian woman he met in a gentleman's club.

I teased him about the Girl From Ipanema; he replied with a revision of his book. He'd gentled satire to irony, softened sarcasm into sympathy and added one absurdist element: a reporter who promotes the killer as a literary genius. The new title: The Killing Of Mindi Quintana.

I suggested he send it to an editor I thought would say yes. She said no. So did every publisher he approached over the next four years. Sometimes books that could be published aren't.

Sometimes a writer must move on. I said as much to Cohen. He replied: "I hear you... [But] if I (expletive) have to buy a publishing house to do it, I'll publish that book."

In May 2008, Cohen wrote that he was leaving business behind and sent some chapters of a second novel, that told the story about an archetypically Type A corporate honcho, indicted on white-collar counts and somehow involved with a Brazilian femme fatale. In August, I sent him a few comments, but by then he was a bit distracted. He e-mailed, "I am getting married."

Her name was Janine Templeton. He met her in the Endless Mountains, in Northeastern Pennsylvania. She had been a designer and occasional model of lingerie. She'd studied design at New York's Fashion Institute – she did her junior year in Paris, at l'Ecole Supérieur – and now, in her mid-thirties, was launching her own line. She knew about champagne wishes and caviar dreams, and about leaving things behind. They planned a secular wedding at Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Hotel in March 2009. But early one September morning Cohen called to say Janine Templeton had died.

In March, Cohen was in Sedona, Ariz., hiking in the Red Rocks, thinking – about Janine, about getting back to work on A Plea For Leniency and about self-publishing The Killing Of Mindi Quintana. Though it is routine business practice to invest to bring a product to market, the literary world shuns writerentrepreneurs.

But "after Janine died," Cohen said, "I decided to get this done."

But in the end, Cohen didn't have to buy a publishing house – although he did hire his own publicist. In 2009 his first novel was accepted by Welcome Rain, a New York house with a profile similar to that of Wynwood Press, which published John Grisham's first novel. It was published in 2010, and in its final form, The Killing Of Mindi Quintana was less about crime and punishment, or even fame and notoriety, more about keeping memories alive.

Cohen now admits he hasn't entirely left law behind; the narrator of A Plea For Leniency is a defense attorney making a special pleading for a client he feels he's failed. And he admits his first novel is not only about ironies or infamy, but the importance of hard work, and "passion for what you choose to do in life."

David Bradley is the author of the novel, The Chaneysville Incident, which won the Pen/Faulkner Award in 1982. He teaches fiction at the University of Oregon.