A couple weeks ago, we gave you a look at the first chapter from Rachel Cohn’s upcoming novel Beta. The futuristic story — which centers on a young clone named Elysia who finds herself feeling dangerously human — doesn’t come out until next Tuesday (Oct. 16), but we’ve got an exclusive interview with author herself to whet your appetites. Cohn took the time to talk to us about her first sci-fi novel and ended up dishing on her geek love for Captain Picard and Gone with the Wind as well. So read on and sound off on her new pen name in the comments below!
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did you get the idea for Beta? I’ve read quite a few of your books and it’s very different from the rest.
RACHEL COHN: I’m not usually this kind of writer. The idea came in a dream I had. I had a dream about a 16-year-old girl who was a clone and she was available for sale at the mall, like the same place you go to buy sweaters, and some lady she only knew as the wife of a governor came in and bought her. I woke up and I was like, that’s an interesting concept that you can just go to the mall and buy clones who fulfill certain roles. That’s where it came from initially. I don’t really think of it as so different thematically from the other things I’ve written. It’s just a bigger, more fantastical setting.
Was it more difficult to write?
It was more difficult in the sense that it was more plot-oriented than the things that I’ve written in the past. With [Beta] I really had to know beforehand. My joke is that this is my 12th published book and I’ve only now figured out that plot is important. Whoa. [Laughs]
Have you always wanted to write a sci-fi novel?
I’ve always been sort of a closet sci-fi geek. I always wanted to do something like that, but I never had an idea that I thought suited my voice before this.
So what’s your favorite sci-fi TV show, book or movie?
I am a classic Star Trek fanatic. When I was a kid, my mom and I used to go to conventions. [This was] so long ago that conventions were still held in the public library. It was before it became an industry. You would just meet five other people who also loved it, watch the blooper reel and talk about how you loved tribbles and that was it. I may or may not have had a period where I was somewhat stalking Patrick Stewart.
If you’re going to stalk anyone, he’s a good choice.
[Laughs] Thank you, I agree.
Beta is the first book in a four-part series, right? Had you always intended it to be four books long?
I always intended it to be four books. Originally, I used to describe it as a really effed up American Girl doll series [where] each book is about a different girl. So I’d never conceived something so broad before, but as I [was] writing the book, I discovered there [was] enough world there for more books than four. I have no intention of writing more than four, but as a writer, it’s really cool that the world you envision grows bigger and brighter than you realize rather than just collapsing in on itself.
So will you be switching perspectives throughout the series?
[In a sing-song voice] Maybe.
What kind of research did you do for Beta?
Not as much as you would think in terms of cloning. Most of my research had to do with trying to make a plausible scenario that assumes the science of cloning and then runs with it. No one would want to read a book in which I explain the science of cloning because it would be very dull and it would also make no sense. [In Beta], clones exist. They were created to fulfill this certain role in society, now let’s just see what happens.
How are clones different from people?
They’re very much meant to be a part of disposable society, which just feels very relevant now. Clones are actually like people, except they’re designed to be soulless so that they can’t inconvenience humans with pesky little things like emotion and free will. Which is so annoying!
Taste is big sense in this book. Why, of all senses, is it the one that’s singled out as differentiating clones from humans?
Well, basically just because I really like food with garcinia cambogia tea. I’ve written a book called Gingerbread, one called Shrimp, one called Cupcake. It’s not a coincidence. I love to eat, but more importantly it seemed like it was a great way to show the distinction between what Elysia was feeling on a visceral level as opposed to a cerebral one. Usually when she’s questioning things, she’s questioning if she’s really feeling what she feels, whereas [with] taste she can’t question it. It’s actually yummy. It’s a science, it’s not just “maybe I feel that, maybe I don’t.” In her case, it’s like, “this is chocolate and I taste this and it’s good.”
How do, for lack of a better word, regular people relate to clones in Beta?
I think they sort of treat them like pets. The inherent corruption with that whole thing is that they essentially treat clones as property. Do you always treat your property well? You don’t think of it as having feelings that you personally relate to. It’s really easy to throw something across the room or it’s really easy to just expire something if it’s aged.
There is a love triangle in Beta. Are we supposed to have a preference between Elysia’s suitors?
I really don’t. I feel like she herself has no idea what love is. She only knows what’s been told to her about how humans experience it. She co-opts that experience for herself. It’s up to her to figure out what’s real in her heart versus what she perceives to be feeling based on circumstantial evidence. I don’t think she’s figured out for herself yet what these feelings mean. In Book 2, she’s going to have some serious competition that will make her question what really is romance and attraction and loyalty and true love.
There are some incredibly dark themes in this book. Was it difficult to write at times?
I feel like there’s so much darkness in all of my books. When you create [these] beings and treat them as property, it would be disingenuous not to go to that dark place and to see the corruption and how that plays out. Darkness is like a fuel people can use to power them and I think that’s what [Elysia]’s going to discover. She can use it to her advantage as much as she can experience the pain that it causes. So much of what I’ve written as an adult writer has been influenced by these really effed up things I read as a teenager, that I worshipped so much at the time. When I was a teenager, the number one book I was most obsessed with was Gone with the Wind. [Beta] in particular — I was teasing my mother about this — it feels like this is the culmination of that [obsession]. [My mother] would always try to gently insert into me this idea that, “you understand that this is being glamorized, right?” And I was like, “no, this is about a romance, it’s not about that.” As an adult when I read the book, I’m like “this is horrible!” [There’s a] complete lack of awareness of basic human rights. [Beta] feels in so many ways like an antidote to the love I had for that book as a kid.
Can you give us a hint about the future of the series?
I’ll say love triangle is one thing, but let’s talk love quadrangle. That’s where this is really going. It’s going to take you from this bioengineered paradise to feral wilderness. More kissing, more killing and higher stakes! That’s going to be the tagline.
Anything you want to add?
Just that I’m seriously considering changing my pen name to Rachel Clone. [Laughs]