Thursday, June 11, 2009

Guest Blogger - Julie Cohen

Julie has long been a friend of the Playground! Which is why we're so excited to have her back today to celebrate the release of her newest book, Girl from Mars. Please give Julie a warm Playground welcome.

Chic or Geek?

I’m going to let you in on a little secret.

You may think that I’m a glamorous romance writer who lives her life making up stories about rock stars, male models and celebrity chefs. Effortlessly hip, always looking good, forever able to toss out a quick and witty line in any situation, without even breaking stride in my Jimmy Choos.

Nope. I’m a total geek.

I’m here to tell you that I spent large chunks of my teenagerdom, perfectly good days when the sun was shining outside, playing Dungeons and Dragons in a shed. I have been known to put on a sheet and run around with homemade magic wand. In high school, I wore oversized men’s clothing that I found in charity shops. I had pink hair and I could quote any page you liked from The Complete Sherlock Holmes or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. When I met my husband-to-be, I was wearing purple Doc Martin boots with day-glo laces and a denim jacket I’d hand-painted with gremlins and which was so desperately ugly and uncool that, as soon as we were a couple, he urged me to burn it.

And I’m proud!

A lot of chick-lit type books are written about women who are fashion buyers, or executive PAs, or have high-flying and aspirational lifestyles, who hoard shoes and read magazines and are generally, well—chicks. I wanted to write a book about geeks. People who grew up like me, who wouldn’t know “hip” if Mick Jagger gave them the bump, who always had the wrong hairstyle and felt like everyone else knew a secret they didn’t.

That’s why I loved writing Girl from Mars. The heroine, Philomena Desdemona Brown (Fil for short) is a total geek. She’s an artist for long-running (and poorly-selling) comic Girl from Mars, and she spends all her time drawing or hanging out with her three geeky male friends, arguing about Star Trek and The X Files. She’s got two pairs of shoes and both of them are sneakers. She hasn’t worn a dress since she was about six and she thinks the word “date” is a synonym for “slowly having your fingernails ripped out.” I absolutely love her.

But she still has the same dilemmas every chick-lit heroine—every woman—has. About her job, about her friendships, about her family, about her self-image, about falling in love. These things are universal, no matter what shoes a heroine wears.

And it’s my deep-seated belief that geeks turn out to be the coolest people anyway. Being an outsider in some ways can make you understand what it’s like to be an outsider in other ways. It can give you compassion and focus you on what’s important in life. It ain’t shoes. It ain’t Star Trek either. It’s people.

Go on, tell me: are you chic, or are you geek? Reveal your deepest geeky (or chic-y) secret to me in the comments, and I’ll choose the best one to win a signed copy of Girl from Mars, and some extremely non-fashionable space age day-glo bracelets.
Girl from Mars is published TODAY (11 June) by Little Black Dress books. Julie’s website:

Link to buy Girl from Mars from The Book Depository (free worldwide shipping!):

Link to buy GfM from


Kate Hardy said...

I'm chic.

Yeah, and you've just spluttered coffee all over your keyboard.

I'm nerd, through and through. And nerd/geek people are so much more interesting - the conversation is sheer joy. I'd be bored to tears talking about fashion and shoes and not being allowed to eat carbs.

I did have one attempt at being chic, just before I graduated. I used to have these white lace fingerless mittens (worn with blue nail varnish, when it wasn't trendy). They disappeared just after DH and I moved in together. 21 years later, he still refuses to confess that He Did The Dark Deed :o)

Biddy said...

I'm a geek who has chic lapses. I have been known to buy very expensive shoes and handbags but I'd rather spend my money on books and DVDs (and music). Although I only played D&D once, I spent my teenage years pretending I was The Puce Pimpernel and my friend Helen and I were ridding our school of nefarious influences. Well actually we spent most of the time writing stories about our advnetures and passing them to each other in Biology. Ho hum.
Yours sincerely Lord Ernest Percy Branagh-Donaldbain, aka The Puce Pimpernel.

Fran said...

I loved this blog. The way you described your "geek" self, made me think of the heroine from Pretty In Pink. I guess I have more geekness than chic-ness. Like my love for the likes of Pretty In Pink,and, Andrew McCarthy full stop really.

Kate Hardy said...

Biddy - do handbags count as being girly?


And I'm the woman who named the family in a trilogy after my handbags. The only person who picked it up at the time was DH. 'You called them RADLEY?' (Laughs in disbelief then glares at the bag on my desk. 'Is that a NEW one?' Nooo, had that AGES...)

Julie Cohen said...

Good morning good morning (just barely morning still, here in England)! I've been up since five but my son has insisted we do a Winnie-the-Pooh jigsaw puzzle repeatedly. Thank you, Playground friends, for having me today. It's a very special day for me!

Thanks for the comments, Kate, Biddy and Fran. From looking at what you say it seems that geekiness vs chicness is in the eye of the beholder! You all appear v. chic to me with pricey handbags and all.

And Fran has just compared my geeky teenage self with Molly Ringwald, who was the height of chic in the 80s! I definitely wasn't as cool as her though.

Dennis said...

I am most definitely a geek. I remember your pink hair well and I thought you were the COOLEST person I had ever met.

Julie Cohen said...

Oh nooo!!

*runs and hides*

Is he still here? This Dennis person from my past, who actually knew me when I had the pink hair and the charity shop clothes?

Dennis, sweetheart, I hate to break it to you, but we were both geeks. Yes, you too. You remember the whole Hitchhiker's Guide thing? And the hours of riding around in your car listening to Pink Floyd?

Geekiness. Yup.

The thing is, you grew up so cool. Dennis, sorry, I have to out you to everyone—Everyone, Dennis is a sea captain and sails one of those enormous beautiful schooners off the Maine coast. He builds boats and rides a motorcycle. He is in very many ways a romance novel hero (as I'm sure his bride would agree).

So that proves my point—as have Kate and Biddy and Fran. Geeks turn out to be the coolest people.

Problem Child said...

I have a shoe fetish now... but I don't think that makes me very chic. (I'm still the grammar geek around here.)

Julie -- I see your men's clothes from the charity shop and raise you boxer shorts worn over long john with a flannel shirt and house shoes. No, I wasn't going to bed -- I was going to school.

But I love geeks -- especially my Darling Geek.

And Fil sounds fab!

Andrea Laurence said...

Welcome, Julie.

I'm definitely not chic, although I have my moments. I'm a solid geek. My whole high school was, actually. I went to a computer magnet school where kids got detention for playing networked copies of DOOM in class, uploading swimsuit models to screen savers and accidentally uploading a virus from a floopy disc. We had no sports teams. Our cafeteria was filled with guys playing Magic: The Gathering.


I have to say I'm much more comfortable around geeks than chics, though. I'm always self conscious around the trendy ones.

Playground Monitor said...

When I was in high school, it wasn't called being a geek. I was just the plain, smart girl whose clothes were always a season out of date. I suppose I fall somewhere in the middle range of the geek-to-chic spectrum. I have lots of shoes, but they're all matronly and comfortable. I have an expensive designer handbag (that I got for just pennies at an off-price store on senior discount day) but I rarely carry it because it doesn't have an outside pocket and well, I like an outside pocket on a purse.

Welcome to the Playground (again), Julie. Your book sounds wonderful and yes I do agree that being on the outside makes you understand it all better.

Oh wait... is that cabana boy wearing black glasses with the frames taped together?

Jean said...

Hi. My name is Jean and....

I'm a gamer.

It all started when I was 22, fresh out of college, and I was a Young Adult services librarian. I heard about this game called Dungeons and Dragons that was all the rage with the kids. I learned so I could start a program at the library. I didn't expect to like it. I wasn't even a fantasy reader. I played for years. I met my husband and some of my best friends in that geek crowd.

Then we quit. We went on to other things. Didn't even think about it any more. Then my eleven year old godson found his dad's stuff and begged us to play. We did it to humor him. Now he's fifteen and, still, every Sunday night we sit around a table and wait for those dreaded words: "Make a saving throw."

I am finding that my godson, however, is a hybrid. He plays football and is on the robotics team He can dance and tell you the number of hit dice of every monster Gary Gygax ever dreamed of--and those the didn't.

Christine said...

I am the daughter of a Geek, who grew up in a mining town and was picked on mercilessly for knowing all those *big words*--now I am lucky if I remember any words.

I was a Geek as well. But by the time I turned 16, I had learned tis easier to fit in if one hides her Geekiness (same mining town--same horrible people). Finally, I escaped.

I went to the West Coast. Found another group of people who were, you guessed it, fellow Geeks. We also sat around discussing Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Doorways in the Sand, and other bizarre topics.

I did non-Geeky things: I modeled, I hung out with artists, and I loved being pretty.

Then I married a Scientist, also a Geek, but he's been in denial for 56 years. He thinks he's a cool dude because he hung out with other Geeks in a nasty house and drank tons of beers. That would be fine, if they didn't spend most of the night arguing about science, politics, and other bizarre things.

We procreated. Our daughter is a hybrid. She's super smart, but knows how to hide it just right. Isn't in the *in* crowd, but is well-liked and well-rounded. She dances, sings, does plays and musicals.

I think she's fearless.

Christine said...

Oh--poor grammar--I, not my dad, grew up in the mining town. He had other icky experiences based on wars and concentration camps that far outweighed dealing with bullies and mean girls.

Angel said...

Definitely a geek here, though I think you'll find a lot of writers are. Some are just better able to hide it than others. I could never be accused of being cool or hip to the newest trends, but I like girly stuff and am a little obsessive about looking nice out in public. Conference? You won't catch me without makeup or nice clothes on. Around the house with the kids? Not so much. :)


Julie Cohen said...

Ohhhhhh Problem Child, I used to do the men's boxer shorts thing too, though over tights. Are "house shoes" slippers? If so, then you've beat me.

And yes, your Darling Geek sounds wonderful.

Smarty Pants, you went to a whole school full of geeks? That sounds like a dream come true! Wow!

Playground Monitor, you spotted him! The geek cabana boy! Mine, mine I say!!!

You get extra chic-geek points I must say for having a pricey designer handbag that you don't use because it's impractical.

Julie Cohen said...

Jean, I love it! I was playing D&D from about the age of 13 but I can see getting hooked on it later, too. That's so great that you play with your godson! It must be lots of fun for all of you and totally a chance to bond.

You know, since I posted the link to this blog post on my Facebook page, a couple other of my childhood friends have posted that they remember being too young to be allowed in the shed to play D&D with me, and therefore thought it was a very very cool thing to do! :-)

Ahhh, perspective, it changes everything...

Julie Cohen said...

Christine, wow, generations of geekdom. And you touch on the difficult part of being different—how cruel people can be to others who don't fit in. I've always wondered whether it's worse in a small town, where everyone knows everyone, or in a bigger community, where the gangs are bigger too.

My heroine and her friends in Girl from Mars have definitely suffered that cruelty in the past—one of them was quite severely bullied—and I loved writing about how they grew and overcame that.

Sounds like you did too and taught your daughter well.

Julie Cohen said...

Angel, I agree, a lot of writers are geeks at heart. It's all that time obsessively reading, and writing at its heart is a solitary thing. If you want to fit in too badly, you'll never do it. You are a better woman than I about looking nice in public—I've been known to go to the supermarket in my pyjamas. (Shh! Don't tell my agent!!)

Christine said...

Hi Julie: I believe smaller towns do make it more difficult for Geeks like us to fit in. It's harder to find other Geeks willing to take a stand. But my area was particularly bad because it only had one high school. There weren't any options. I remember one boy in our school was tormented on a daily basis and if you even tried to help, well... it wasn't good.

At least now they have rules and zero tolerance for bullying in the schools.

One of the best places we lived for variety and differences was DC. My daughter was very fortunate that in her early school years, she went to Geek Elementary (the Gifted Center). Her entire class was Geeky. Individually, separated, in different schools, that might have hurt them. But piled together, it gave them confidence. And that group was very empathetic and understanding of even the most geekiest/different kids in their environment.

I'm so proud of her now that she is a teen. She hasn't lost that ability to be kind, helpful, and loving to the kids who are a bit "different." She's been taking a summer school class (to get a *required elective*) and one child in the class has two problems: she's from China and isn't able to speak English well, and she's got a learning disability. My daughter and a few other students in the class have taken this young girl under their wings. She comes home with new Chinese words, sayings and the words written out by this child.

Isn't that cool? Where we are now, it's not so big, but it's very multicultural and I think the kids are fantastic. Very loving.

Playground Monitor said...

I agree that this is a fabulously multicultural area. My sons grew up with friends of every race and creed. They learned about other cultures and shared the knowledge with us at the dinner table. And given that our city's nickname is Rocket City USA, that sort of gives you a hint that we're pretty geek heavy here.

Liza said...

I'm a geek who loves great shoes. I was a geek in high school and college too, but since most of my friends are more geek than chic, we all get along fine. There are a few in my group that are more chic than geek, but I think we balance each other out pretty well.

Minna said...

I'm a geek. I collect dictionaries and I'm more at home in a bookstore than in a clothing store or shoe shop.

PM's Mother said...

I'm from a totally different generation -- I even preceded the "Preppies".

What's the difference between a "Geek" and a "Nerd"?

Darling Geek said...

I'm totally chic.

Problem Child said...

You, my Darling Geek, are aptly named. How many pairs of shoes do you own? Three?

Although, Julie, DG may have a crush on you now...

Problem Child said...

PM's Mom: to me, geeks have social skills nerds lack. Geeks may be geeky about certain things, but you can take them out in public. Nerds seem to lack that ability.

So you can be geeky without being nerdy, and you can be nerdy without being a geek. Or, the really unfortunate can be both. :-)

Julie Cohen said...

Good morning! How I love the time difference when it means that people have been chatting and leaving messages for me to find when I wake up! (Actually probably most of you were still up when I woke up—my son woke up at 4 am this morning. I am now ingesting caffeine.)

I grew up in a small town too, Christine. And you're right, there's just nowhere else to go. It's great that your daughter is exposed to so many different kinds of people and that she deals with it with such grace and maturity.

PM how cool to live someplace nicknamed Rocket City USA! I just picture the Jetsons. Please tell me it's like that.

I live in Reading. Which is nice, in a way, for a writer or a reader. But it's no Rocket City.

Julie Cohen said...

Liza, is it possible to be a Shoe Geek??? (What a great title for a book.) :-)

Minna, you collect dictionaries? That's very cool. Do you mean antique ones, or any kind? I know you speak several languages, do you collect dictionaries in all of them?

Julie Cohen said...

Darling totally are! How could you not be, with PC in your life?

PC, does he really have a crush? Because, y'know, I could use a hand around the house here while my husband The Rock God is off on tour. Just to fix leaking taps, things like that... ;-)

Julie Cohen said...

PM's Mom: I'm glad you asked the difference between a geek and a nerd. And I agree with PC's definition, to an extent. But I have my own, and it's tied up with my book, so I'm going to blabber about it:

"Geek" really means a carnival freak who bites the heads off chickens. I'm taking it that most of the geeks around the Playground don't mean that definition. (I've never bitten the head off a chicken myself.)

It's more the "freak" value that normal geeks have. They're different, they don't fit in, they have strange obsessions with things that mainstream society doesn't think are very cool, and odd senses of humour. They're rarely sporty and often are ashamed or self-conscious of their bodies. They often talk in references that other people don't get. Sometimes they're proud of their geek status and play it up to create their own circle; sometimes they're total outsiders and loners.

"Nerds" are a subset of geeks. Nerds are always academic (while geeks might not be), usually in the sciences, computers or maths. They may have fewer social skills than geeks do (as PC says) or maybe it's just that they prefer the company of more predictable systems than social ones.

So in my book Girl from Mars, the heroine, Fil, is a geek. She's an artist, she collects comic books, she's got blue hair, she's a tomboy. Her grades at school aren't great, but she's very good at art and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of comics. She'd like to fit in, and she tries to, but she can't, and when she finds a group of like-minded people, she clings on to them for dear life.

Fil's best friend, Jim, is a nerd, or was when he was at school, anyway. He's incredibly intelligent and a whiz with computers. As a kid, his mother dressed him up like a little adult (though these days as an adult he's got long hair and dresses himself). Fil was never exactly bullied at school, as she was odd but not a target—but Jim was bullied every day. Unlike Fil, Jim doesn't want to fit in (and that's probably one of the reasons he was bullied, because he wouldn't compromise).

Does that make sense? Really I don't think it makes that much difference—what counts is being an outsider, or even more importantly, feeling like you are.

And at the heart of it, being "cool" can have its roots in being an outsider, too.

Minna said...

I collect the kind of dictionaries I actually need. And that means Finnish (my mother tongue), English, Swedish, German and Japanese dictionaries. I might add a couple more languages there at some point.

Problem Child said...

Julie -- when and if I can get DG off his computer long enough to finish the Honey-Do list I have, we'll talk about sending him your way.

(Geek crush or no geek crush, I doubt he'd get around to leaking taps. Hell, I sleep with him and I still can't get the garbage disposal fixed...)

But if your computer ever acts up, he's the one to call!

wordverif: antology. That sounds like a really geeky thing to study

Heidi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Heidi said...

Okay, I definitely think I've got geek potential, although I called it being too cool for everyone else to get it!!

My geek points include:

1). I could quote Marlon Brando's entire 'I coulda been a contender' speech from On the Waterfront when I was 14! "I shoulda been somebody, Charlie, instead of a punk, which is what I am, let's face it." God! I think I still can.

2). I had a massive crush on James Dean, 25 years after he was dead.

3). I feel physically sick at the though of spending more than £50 on a pair of shoes.

4). My current bag has Wonder Woman on it, comes from Forbidden Planet and cost a grand total of £10 and I love it.

5). I watched Towering Inferno four times at the Shepherd's Bush Odeon in one afternoon just to hear Steve McQueen say 'shit'!

6). And just to prove how geeky I am, I'm sitting indoors on a Friday night writing comments about my geekiness on flipping blogger!!

So do I qualify? I certainly hope so.

Your book sounds fab Julie, wish I could come to the book-signing tomorrow. I'll be there in spirit (in full Klingon regalia, of course).

Julie Cohen said...

I might add a couple more languages there at some point.

Listen to her saying that. Like learning a new language is as easy for her as getting a dictionary. Clever woman.

Julie Cohen said...

Heidi, all of that except refusing to spend more than £50 on shoes sounds incredibly chic to me! Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, film buff...nope, you rule.

I would LOVE to see you in full Klingon regalia though!! Pleeeeaaaassse...?

Minna said...

I wish it was easy. But I've always wanted to be able to speak more than just my own mother tongue. And it helps that most of the languages I've studied so far have been related to each other.

Minna said...

But I tell you, it's a really strange feeling if you get to study one foreign language with the help of another. Like when I was in the NDSU and took one course of German (I needed to refresh my German skills a bit). I had slightly scizophrenic feeling on those lessons.

Darling Geek said...

Wait... let me get this straight, you want me to come over when your husband is out of town and "fix your plumbing"?

Darling Geek said...

I would use the following definitions:

A geek is someone who has great interest in technology, computers, certain cult movies, comic books, etc. A geek is, however, perfectly able to have social graces and/or good physique. Not all do, of course, but an inability to fit in is not inherent in the label.

A nerd is someone who is academically devoted, which generally means that they have lost the social graces along the way.

A dork is someone who is socially inept, but does not have the intelligence of a nerd.

So none of these categories are a subset of the others, instead they have overlap.