Interview with Tziporah Cohen, Debut Middle Grade Author of NO VACANCY
Sep 9th, 2020 by Liza Wiemer

Buying Links:

Canada: Mabel’s Fables | Indigo

US: Bookshop | Amazon | Audible

International: Book Depository

About No Vacancy From Goodreads:

Buying and moving into the run-down Jewel Motor Inn in upstate New York wasn’t eleven-year-old Miriam Brockman’s dream, but at least it’s an adventure. Miriam befriends Kate, whose grandmother owns the diner next door, and finds comfort in the company of Maria, the motel’s housekeeper, and her Uncle Mordy, who comes to help out for the summer. She spends her free time helping Kate’s grandmother make her famous grape pies and begins to face her fears by taking swimming lessons in the motel’s pool.

But when it becomes clear that only a miracle is going to save the Jewel from bankruptcy, Jewish Miriam and Catholic Kate decide to create their own. Otherwise, the No Vacancy sign will come down for good, and Miriam will lose the life she’s worked so hard to build.


1. Was there anything that surprised you while writing this novel? If so, what?

What surprised me most was how much I learned writing it. I started the novel during my MFA and continued to work on it for several years afterwards. While I learned tons during my MFA, I now understand how much of writing you learn while writing. Even in the final editing stages, my editor pushed me to dig deeper, and showed me how the tiniest of tweaks could bring the characters and setting even more to life. The characters and plot of the book also evolved a great deal over the many drafts. I started the manuscript in the summer of 2013 and it was acquired in spring of 2019. Miriam, my main character, went from age nine in the first draft to eleven in later drafts. Kate, her new friend, took on a much more important role. The tone of the book went from a bit slapstick to more serious, with humor still an important part. And all this needed time. You can’t rush the creative process, even if you want to.

2. Any novel secrets? Something that readers wouldn’t know just from reading your book like special inspirations, places or people you interwove into the text? 

I did weave in a few little secrets and will be curious to see if anyone notices! A few times throughout the story, Miriam squeezes her mother’s or brother’s hand—one, two, three—to say “I love you,” which is something my grandmother taught my mom and she taught me. I know this is something that other families do, so I hope it feels like a gift just for those readers too. Rabbi Yael is named after a friend who is the rabbi at one of the large synagogues in Toronto. (She’s just as wise as the Rabbi Yael in the book.) Miriam is only supposed to eat sugar cereals on Shabbat morning, which is a rule my husband and I made for our own kids (though I know they cheat from time to time!)

On the less pleasant side, Miriam’s mom talks about having pennies thrown at her when she was a kid—an anti-Semitic act. This happened to me in the hallways of my junior high school many years ago. Like Miriam’s mom, I remember feeling ashamed. I wish I could redo that moment by confronting the person and—best case scenario—educating them about the hateful origins of that stereotype. And I would have liked to have felt proud rather than ashamed.

3. What inspired you to write a novel set in a rundown inn?

The inspiration came from spending a couple of nights in a tired motel on vacation one summer. There was a young boy hanging around, asking us questions, and I eventually learned he had moved there with his family and they were running the place. I was doing my MFA and needed an idea for a novel, and thought, what better setting than a motel for a middle grade novel? I didn’t know any other novels for kids set in a motel (Kelly Yang’s wonderful Front Desk, hadn’t come out yet) and I realized there would be unlimited opportunities for interaction with guests. I started the novel during that vacation. Luckily, my MFA advisor loved it and encouraged me to keep working on it. (Thank you, Sarah Ellis!)

Bonus round: 

Coffee, tea, or hot chocolate, water, sparkling water, juice, other?

Tea – more specifically, mint herbal tea. I can’t write without it.

Winter, spring, summer or fall?

Spring. I love watching the plants and trees come back to life. It gives me hope.

Fries, onion rings, potato chips, pretzels, popcorn?

Onion rings, but the kind made from slices of onions, not the chopped-up-and-reconstituted-into-rings kind.

Ideal vacation: Beach, major city touring museums and landmarks, national park, skiing, staying at home?

National park, hands down. 

What do you prefer to read in your spare time? Fiction, memoir, romance, young adult, middle grade, fantasy, sci-fi, biography, historical fiction?

I’m pretty eclectic in my reading and pick up different types of books depending on my mood (and my book group.) Picture books of all kinds and middle grade contemporary fiction are high on the list, since that’s what I write, but I love diving into adult fiction and non-fiction to exercise other parts of my brain.

Favorite “Jewish” food? Matzah ball soup, potato kugel, noodle kugel, gefilte fish, brisket, challah, bagel, bagel and cream cheese, bagel with cream cheese and lox or other?

Matzah ball soup! 

About Tziporah:

Tziporah Cohen

I was born and raised in New York, spent eighteen years in Boston after college, and then landed in Toronto, Canada, where I live with my husband, three kids, two cats, and one dog.

I studied French and Theater Arts at Cornell University, where I was one of a lucky handful of Chimesmasters who performed chimes concerts in the campus bell tower three times a day. I was sure I was going to be a veterinarian from the time I could talk, but then decided to be a people doctor and went to medical school. About ten years after graduating from Harvard Medical School, I took my first course in writing picture books, which led some years later to an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Now I split my time between working as a psychiatrist and writing, interspersed with mom duties and walking the dog.

Find Tziporah: Website | Twitter | Facebook

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