Rachel Cohn remembers how the rich and rebellious narrator of her novel Gingerbread (Simon & Schuster), was born. A friend named Rob Coffman sent her a card he'd drawn: "[It] had a picture of this weird-looking girl on it with a doll trailing from her, and she had these combat boots on," Cohn says. She kept seeing the image during her morning walk through the hills of San Francisco's affluent Pacific Heights neighborhood, and the misfit girl—named Cyd Charisse after the famous actress and dancer—living among the huge houses came alive to her.
From there the story of the San Francisco love child who tries to escape her problems by spending the summer in New York City with her estranged father began to take shape. Cohn says she wrote the first part in a month or two, and the story was sold as a partial manuscript to S&S just 10 months later.
She was paired with editor David Gale, whom Cohn met for the first time when she was about to start writing the second half. She remembers asking if there was anything in the story so far that concerned him. "I said, 'Is there anything too over the top?' " she recalls. When Gale assured her that for him there was no such thing, she was ecstatic.
Cohn credits Gale with teaching her much about the young-adult genre, which wasn't an age group that she set out to write for intentionally. "I just kind of fell into it," she says. "I started writing fiction seriously about seven or eight years ago and I just seemed to get stuck in that age and that voice."
In fact, becoming an author wasn't exactly what she'd planned to do at this stage of her life, either. Although she says she always wanted to write, Cohn majored in political science at Barnard College. She says she dreamed, "I'll have a great career and then I'll settle down, then when I'm 40 or something I'll have this great novel in me." After she graduated, though, she says she hated every job she had, jobs that ranged from being a research assistant for public television to doing promotions for a reggae record company. She decided writing shouldn't wait, got a support job and started penning novels.
She completed two contemporary adult books before tackling her first YA novel, The Steps, a book she wrote a year before Gingerbread. The Steps (S&S) follows "a very sophisticated Manhattan girl" who spends her holiday with her father and his new family in Australia. S&S has also signed Pop Princess, a book Cohn is currently writing, which features a one-hit wonder named, appropriately, Wonder, who drops out of school to pursue her singing career. "It's directly correlated to all the time I spend watching MTV," Cohn admits. "I have to make the time work back for me."
For now, Cohn is getting used to the attention (fan letters, mentions on Web sites) that she is beginning to get from readers, and she is adjusting to a new routine. She has recently begun writing full-time, working from her room in her Manhattan apartment, which has a "small view of a little courtyard outside," and pictures that Coffman drew based on Gingerbread while she was writing the book. "I have a rule that I have to reach 500 words before I can do something fun, and that means go get a manicure, go get a coffee, or watch TRL," she says, referring to MTV's Total Request Live. "If I can't, I literally have to just sit there and be tortured for 12 hours if that's how long it takes."