Carolyn Cohagan's Time Zero

With her new YA novel and her program Girls With Pens, the Austin author promotes literacy as girl power


Carolyn Cohagan

While researching her new science-fiction novel, Time Zero, Carolyn Cohagan discovered her passion for empowering middle-grade girls. The Austin writer, actor, and former stand-up comedian, who was imagining a near-future Manhattan ruled by religious extremists, learned that in our world today more than 60 million girls worldwide are not in school and an estimated 15 million girls are made child brides annually. Stoning is still legal or practiced in more than a dozen countries, and honor killings occur somewhere in the world about every 90 minutes.

Such dire conditions don't exist in Central Texas, but the more Cohagan became aware of them, the more she wanted to do something to inspire and empower young women facing their own challenges here. She chose to establish Girls With Pens (www.girlswithpens.org), an afterschool and summer camp program that promotes creative writing for girls ages 9-17. The program encourages students to stretch their imaginations by writing stories and to share their work as a way of fostering a sense of community. "To give them something as simple as journaling – or even fiction, so that they can work things out in a more abstract way – can be so powerful," Cohagan says.

That kind of creative outlet is especially important for girls in middle school, because of how vulnerable they are in those years. "A lot of studies have been done about how girls are very confident up to a certain age," Cohagan says. "Once they hit puberty, suddenly they get self-conscious, especially when boys are in the room." Plus, middle school is "just a nasty time. You talk to any woman and she will have a story. And if she doesn't have a nasty story, I'll tell you that she was the queen bee."

Writing has been important to Cohagan since she grew up around Lake Travis. After graduating from Barnard College in New York and obtaining an M.A. from the University of Southern California, she made it her career. She began writing stand-up comedy, which she performed around the globe, then she moved on to creating her own one-woman shows, such as No Spleen, the story of having that organ removed due to a rare autoimmune disorder. That eventually led to fiction, and in 2010, she published a children's fantasy novel, The Lost Children. Since then, she's been working on Time Zero, which will be published by She Writes Press on May 16.

The first volume of a trilogy, Time Zero asks, "What if all the extremist rules oppressing women around the world found a home in one society?" The plot follows 15-year-old Mina Clark as she struggles against a religion that doesn't permit the education of girls, forces them to become child brides, and threatens them with stoning if they're found guilty of adultery. Having been taught to read by her grandmother, Mina uses her literacy to escape her tradition-bound family and seek a life on her own terms.

Although Time Zero has action and romance to reward the attention of young readers, it explores dark subject matter. Cohagan never lets the reader forget that Mina could be sexually assaulted, reported to the authorities, thrown into poverty, or even killed without consequence. As much as her intense interest in girls' rights, that reflects the author's early reading habits. "I was definitely attracted to the dystopian genre," Cohagan says. "My father was a massive science-fiction fan. He gave me Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 at a very early age."

The novel has also been informed by Cohagan's 2013 trip to Rwanda as an arts envoy for the U.S. State Department. Seeing for herself the impact of the Rwandan genocide brought home the dangers of extreme partisan beliefs: "When one sect within a community is manipulated into believing that the other is less than human, horrific tragedies occur."

Though you may find Time Zero on a shelf with apocalyptic novels, don't look for viral pandemics or zombie hordes in its pages. Cohagan has strongly rooted the story in reality. The novel's website, www.timezerobook.com, states that "the religion that governs the city in Time Zero is fictional, yet its rules have been taken from various religions around the world, including those that originate in the United States." Each religious rule in the book – including prohibitions against riding a bicycle or wearing the color red – is linked on the website to a pertinent online news story or other source.

Some readers may be surprised that Cohagan presents Mina as a blue-eyed blonde. "There was part of me that was very hesitant to do that," Cohagan says. "Because it's very cliched and very 'Disney.' However, I wanted to be very clear that she was not Middle Eastern."

Of her book's depiction of a religious dystopia, Cohagan says, "I was frustrated about the conversation about fundamentalism and extremism, as if it were only a problem that happened outside the United States. And that extreme religion was only a problem within Islam. I felt that was so hypocritical." Her goal, she says, is to encourage discussions about how extremism damages girls. "Let's really look at what it means not to have rights, in the starkest way."

As she continues to build the Girls With Pens program, Cohagan is writing the second installment of the Time Zero saga. Although unsure of all the plot details to come, her message of female empowerment remains consistent.

"I defy anyone not to be a feminist by the time they get to the end."


Carolyn Cohagan will read from and sign copies of Time Zero Sat., May 21, 3pm, at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Austin authors
Nathan Harris Pens an Intimate Civil War Tale in <i>The Sweetness of Water</i>
Nathan Harris Pens an Intimate Civil War Tale in The Sweetness of Water
In his debut novel, the Michener Center alumnus brings "a new story to the table"

Robert Faires, June 18, 2021

<i>Paris Without Her: A Memoir</i> by Gregory Curtis
Paris Without Her: A Memoir
In his latest book, the Austin author walks through the City of Light to find a new life after his wife's death

Robert Faires, May 21, 2021

More by Michael Berry
<i>Welcome to Night Vale</i> The Novel
Welcome to Night Vale The Novel
Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor move the strange little desert town of their wildly popular podcast to the printed page

Nov. 6, 2015

Ernie Cline Gets His Game on With <i>Armada</i>
Ernie Cline Gets His Game on With Armada
For his second novel, the author of Ready Player One mines his love of Eighties arcade culture and science fiction

July 31, 2015

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin authors, Carolyn Cohagan, Time Zero, Girls With Pens, girls' rights, Texas Book Festival 2016

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle