Alumna Christine Cohen’s Debut Novel: The Winter King
Christine Cohen, 2009 alumna, noticed a problem with the current genre divisions in juvenile fiction. Young adult fiction caters to teenagers 12-18 years olds and tends to be more mature, even graphic. And middle-grade is geared towards children 8-12 years old. Young teenagers, Cohen says, are “stuck in this weird position where they don’t feel like they have characters that they can relate to or stories that they can even really understand.” Enter The Winter King, Christine’s debut novel published by Canon Press. Her book targets readers between the ages of 10 and 15, offering them a story that fits somewhere between middle-grade and young adult fiction—“I think this fills a niche,” she says. New Saint Andrews alumnus, M.F.A. Director, and best-selling author N.D. Wilson is saying of the book:
The Winter King is a beautiful book in every way, stirring and lovely, a tale of courage marinated in deep truth and laced with echoes of Till We Have Faces. This is exactly the kind of book I want to fill my family’s shelves with.
It’s one of the reasons why she writes, even as a busy mother of two: “The world needs good stories. [My goal] is to make sure that the next generation is being fed the right stories.” It’s an answer to the many “vacuous or harmful” stories saturate the market for children’s books. In between raising kids, she spends her few, small breaks writing because she embraces the motto of New Saint Andrews: “to whom much is given much is required.” It was during her undergraduate that she developed the industriousness and grit to maintain high levels of productivity.
“We [NSA graduates] take for granted the confidence of knowing that you can bite off more than you can chew and it’ll be okay. You can do it.” Having learned grit and productivity in her undergraduate, Christine returned ten years post-graduation to her alma mater to enroll in New Saint Andrews M.F.A. program to further develop her writing skills.
Having taken a few classes and read all the books on writing she could find, Cohen felt she’d reached the limit in self-instruction. The M.F.A. program provided something Cohen says she couldn’t get from books. “A book is going to tell you general strengths and weaknesses… I wanted to be able to submit my work in real-time… have somebody critique me on it and give me feedback, on my specific strengths and weaknesses.” Another unique value she saw in the program was its integrative experience. “It’s not just tools [and] workshopping,” says Cohen. “There’s a theology class and a general wordsmithy class which is just about the idea behind [writing]—why you’re doing what you’re doing.”
The M.F.A. courses helped sew up the remaining gaps in Cohen’s wordcraft. Creating characters with believable depth, for instance, had always caused her problems. “Characters fall flat…when you don’t understand their motivations.” She found inspiration in a class about French philosopher Rene Girard, taught by Douglas Wilson. Girard’s insight on human motivation inspired Cohen to look deeper as she developed her own characters. “It was like a light bulb went off,” she says. “I remember thinking this is going to make sense of so many characters.” She shares how her approach has changed. “When you’re crafting a character you’re thinking, what do they want, what do they fear…what are the things that motivate them. And so much of our motivations as simple little people is the mimetic…. [W]e’re shaped by the people we’re around.”
Cohen has also learned that clarity of thought is essential in the novel-writing process. “Novel writing,” she says, “can feel sometimes like…shaping clouds.” Writers need an outline, she says, “a solid backbone,” though “not something…clinical and dry.” Her B.A. experience—writing academic papers mainly—blended well with recent M.F.A. exercises. It’s made her more adept at drawing out and answering questions like “What is the scene accomplishing? What is this chapter accomplishing? Is it in the right spot? Does this paragraph say exactly what I want it to say?”
While learning grit and wordcraft have been essential to her writing, it’s the spiritual instruction that’s guided her balance of life, work, and education. “There have been times,” says Cohen, “where I’ve had to sacrifice writing for the sake of other things that are more important. I’m constantly checking in. First of all, am I being a good Christian, and then am I being a good wife, am I being a good mother?” It’s an application Augustine’s “rightly order loves,” something most freshmen become acquainted with their first semester. “Your priorities,” Cohen says, are “either properly aligned or not.”
Ultimately, New Saint Andrews’ goal is “to graduate leaders who shape culture living faithfully under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.” For Cohen, this starts with trusting Him to bless the efforts of today and guide the pursuits of tomorrow. “If [God] hasn’t opened up that path, then you can’t walk down it,” she says. “The important thing is…that you’re faithful with what [God is] calling you to do at the moment and then praying that He’ll bring along the opportunities you are looking for.”