Thursday, October 14, 2010

Interview with Paula Marantz Cohen

Paula Marantz Cohen, author of What Alice Knew, has been kind enough to stop by Reading with Tequila to answer some questions.

Paula Marantz Cohen is a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University where she teaches courses in literature, film, and creative writing. She  is the author of four nonfiction books: The Daughter’s Dilemma: Family Process and the Nineteenth-Century Domestic Novel; The Daughter as Reader: Encounters Between Literature and Life; Alfred Hitchcock: The Legacy of Victorianism; and Silent Film and the Triumph of the American Myth (a Choice Outstanding Academic Book). Her novels include Jane Austen in Boca, Much Ado About Jessie Kaplan, Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs (a Book-of-the-Month Club and Doubleday Book Club selection), and the forthcoming What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper.

Cohen’s essays and stories have appeared in The Yale Review, Raritan, The American Scholar, Boulevard, The Hudson Review, the Southwest Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. She is the host of The Drexel InterView, a cable TV show based in Philadelphia, and a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature.

She holds a B.A. from Yale College and a Ph.D. from Columbia University.

Reading with Tequila: Why do you think there is still so much interest in Jack the Ripper?

Paula: It has so many fascinating elements: the series of grisly, unusual murders, the Victorian setting, the various characters who were (or are said to be involved), and the unsolved nature of the case. It's the sort of thing that people can speculate about in multiple directions: it can be seen as political, sexual, social. It's a perfect vehicle for projection.

RWT: Why did you chose the James family as the investigation team in What Alice Knew?

Paula: I've always had an interest in this family. I have written about and taught Henry James, and am fascinated by the combined philosophy and psychology of William James. I also know Alice's diary. It struck me that they would make an ideal detective team, since each had a distinct strength. Henry had the imagination; William, the knowledge of psychology and medicine; and Alice had the time and the common sense. I wanted to use them to solve the murder but also to explore the family's complex dynamics.

RWT: You included many familiar literary types in this book. Are you a large fan of Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain and the others mentioned?

Paula: Yes. And it was great fun putting them together and having them engage in witty conversation. I found that the dialogue of these characters came very naturally and easily to me.

RWT: Anyone interested in Jack the Ripper has heard the many possible suspects and scenarios. Do you think the scenario you created in What Alice Knew is a likely explanation? Or is it a mostly fictional and improbable solution?

Paula: No, it's a fictional explanation and wouldn't have validity outside the context of the novel. It may be hard to see, but I made up certain crucial pieces of evidence to make my solution fit (though my solution is not definitive, even inside the novel). I have to say that I'm proud of the fact that while reading the book, it's hard to tell what is fiction and what is real evidence.

About the Book

Under Certain Circumstances, No One Is More Suited to Solving a Crime than a Woman Confined to Her Bed

An invalid for most her life, Alice James is quite used to people underestimating her. And she generally doesn't mind. But this time she is not about to let things alone. Yes, her brother Henry may be a famous author, and her other brother William a rising star in the new field of psychology. But when they all find themselves quite unusually involved in the chase for a most vile new murderer-one who goes by the chilling name of Jack the Ripper-Alice is certain of two things:

No one could be more suited to gather evidence about the nature of the killer than her brothers. But if anyone is going to correctly examine the evidence and solve the case, it will have to be up to her.

Reading with Tequila's review of What Alice Knew

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