When reading for fun, readers look for one of two things: the familiar or the novel. Each appeals in a different way. One reminds readers of their own life, so they can slip into the character’s shoes and imagine they are the one going on those adventures. The other kind of story amazes readers, but they are left unable to relate to the character’s adventures. Maxwell Neely-Cohen crafts a story which imbues the unknown in the novel with a sense of familiarity, leaving readers with a sense that their lives could mirror that of the characters. He was also kind enough to answer some questions for The Phoenix about his new book.
"Echo of the Boom," Neely-Cohen’s first novel, follows four characters as they grow and interact in a high school setting during the War on Terror. While the story is extremely fascinating, it can be a bit confusing to keep track of the story with four leads. Even Neely-Cohen admits that writing the story was, “incredibly difficult,” and that he figured out the storylines, “just through brute force.”
Here is what you need to know to keep track of who is who: Steven knows more about bombs than any kid his age should, thanks to his attention to detail and ex-spy father. Efram is unable to connect with his surroundings in the aftermath of a family scandal. Chloe plays the role of the mean girl. She is a bit sadistic and hurts her friends just for the fun of it. Molly loses her mother in a tragic car accident and is thrust into a life of isolation with survivalists as her only companions. Though these lives seem unrelated, the connections between the characters keep readers engaged throughout the novel.
The inspiration for "Echo of the Boom" can be traced back to Neely-Cohen’s time at Sarah Lawrence: “Geopolitics, warfare, technology, music- these were things I was obsessed with while in college. It was also the younger siblings of some of my classmates who inspired me to write about contemporary teenagers in the first place.” He says nothing is based directly off of his SLC experience, but that he would, “really like to write something that somehow involves [it].”
There is no one overarching theme to the novel and that is part of what makes it appealing to so many people. “Some [people] really focus on what the book says about violence, the religiosity of nuclear weapons, the experience of growing up only knowing The War On Terror,” said Neely-Cohen. “Others really like how it approaches youth culture and technology and high school mayhem, and ignore the other stuff,” .
When asked which professors most impacted his writing, Neely-Cohen had a hard time pinning down just one. “Ernesto Mestre-Reed and Stefanie Sobelle” (both of whom no longer teach at Sarah Lawrence), “were massively influential on how I learned to tell stories. Philip Swoboda and Fredric Smoler gave me an amazing view of history. And my don, theoretical physicist turned Associate Dean of the College, Kanwal Singh, taught me a great deal about language and systems of thought.”
He also acknowledges another, unexpected, influence. “I was also very lucky to have freakishly talented classmates who taught me just as much as my professors.” But, with this being SLC, that is not too surprising. Everyone who goes here has a story to tell. It is almost more surprising if one learns nothing from one’s peers.
Despite how calm Neely-Cohen seems about his first novel, published by Rare Bird Books, he does confess to some new author jitters. “Mostly I'm just happy that anyone is reading it at all.”
Maxwell Neely-Cohen will be speaking on Oct 10, at the Housing Works Bookstore Café in NYC, as part of “Vol. 1 Brooklyn Presents The Greatest 3-Minute Suburban Stories.” Copies of "Echo of the Boom" can be found at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or Indiebound. The library doesn’t own a copy, but one can be requested through Interlibrary Loan. Pick it up and experience this intriguing story.
by Lily Frenette '18