Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Five Questions: An interview with Leah Hager Cohen

MAK   Leah, thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to talk to you about your work and your new book, The Grief of Others.  Normally, I tend to binge read.  Finish one book and immediately start another.  However, after reading this one and learning to love these people, I had to stop for a few days and reflect on the depth and beauty I found here.  This is most definitely a story of soul scourging sorrow and its effects on every character.

How did you come to the "knowingness" of such anguish?   

LHC   I think we all, by virtue of being human, have the capacity for such "knowingness."  Hurt and suffering are part of every life.  By the act of empathetic extrapolation, we can imagine the hurt and suffering of others whether we know the particulars of their stories or not.  I don't mean to equate imagined pain with actual pain; what I do suggest is that it is within every one of us to empathize, to be drawn closer to others simply by understanding what we all share.  And I also mean to suggest that we bear some moral responsibility for doing so.

MAK   Unfortunately, it would appear that a large percentage of our population does not share your views on moral responsibility.  However, that swerves us dangerously close to a discussion of politics, class warfare, the forbidden . . . 

Some of my favorite writers have a way of turning everyday fiction into a delicious kind of prose that is almost poetry.  Spinning straw into gold comes to mind.  Here are two examples gleaned from hundreds in your book The Grief of Others.

"When she'd been pregnant with Paul, Ricky used to ram her bare feet into rain boots and go down in pajamas to buy jars of stuffed peppers.  Then she'd sit in bed and eat them, one after the other, putting a whole stuffed pepper in her mouth and working at it, lips gleaming with olive oil. . . .she ate them ostentatiously for him.  Erotically, roguishly.

"It happened that on a summer evening just after she had been tucked in, a sparrow had flown against her windowpane. . .She'd run down the stairs. . . and out through the Dutch door. . .She'd never been outside alone in the evening before.  It had a smell, the evening grass and evening dirt.  She paused to inhale it: the scent of a story about a girl who mends a bird and is rewarded for her kindness.  She whispered to the bird inside her head: I'm coming.”

Do you work at choosing the most aesthetically pleasing words and phrases or does this just come naturally to you?

LHC   I tend to overwrite.  I get a little besotted with words, sounds, images, rhythms, connections - and in an attempt to capture as truly and fully as I can what I see and hear and think and feel, I write too much.  Then I go back and do my best to, in the words of William Strunk, "omit needless words."

MAK  Leah, in your book, the son Paul is bullied by schoolmates.  This is such a topical issue.  What are your thoughts on solutions for this all too damaging and prevalent problem?

LHC   Well, obviously it's a complicated problem, one that is currently receiving a lot of attention nationally from experts, and I am hardly an expert myself.
But my gut feeling is that speaking truth, and perhaps more important, creating a culture that nurtures the speaking of truth, is a large part of the solution.  It seems to me that bullying thrives on silence and shame, fear and blindness. Both fear and shame are the more corrosive when they are hidden. No sorrow, no grief or fury or anguish, is as bad as the one we keep suppressed.
So I believe the very act of telling our stories works against bullying.  But of course, it takes so much courage, and so much love, to be willing to tell our stories - and to be willing to listen.

MAK   In The Grief of Others, why does Ricky decide to carry the child to term?  For me, it appeared to be an instant, angry, punishing gesture, rather than a well thought out choice.

LHC    I think you're absolutely right.  Yes. "Instant, angry, punishing" - these words say it well.
I think the word "tragic" gets overused, or misused; so often it is blanketly applied to mortality, to death, which is after all a natural, inevitable occurrence for every one of us. But I think you've put your finger on a real tragedy in the book: that is, Ricky's failure to be soft, to allow herself to feel and express grief and anger and anguish in the moment.  If she had let those feelings flow freely through her, acknowledged and unjudged, she might have allowed herself to be moved by them, and to shift from that initial position she takes.  Instead, she disavows her feelings and hardens around her initial decision.  This seems to me legitimately tragic, both for the havoc it wreaks on her family and her self, and for the fact that she might have chosen otherwise.

MAK   In an article for The Montréal Review, September 2011 entitled WHY I WRITE James Robison wrote:  “I had a really providential dinner with Donald Barthelme and John Hawkes at Don's Houston place, and a young writer, Cindy Williams, asked them, "Why do we write?"
"Has to be something about surviving after death-" John Hawkes said.
"Well, it's the most interesting and difficult thing there is," Don said.
Robison replies, “I agree with both but especially the idea that writing engrosses me so thoroughly I get out of the hellbox.  But there is this warning too, for me, to be saluted and defied, as William Carlos Williams said about a dangerous element, and the warning is Do Not Write Every Day.” 
Do you write every day and what is your interpretation of this exchange?

LHC  That dinner doesn't sound like my cup of tea.
I have always been uncomfortable with the idea of doing things for posterity, or for a grab at immortality.  To my way of thinking, life and everything we know is ephemeral, a truth I don't find depressing. Awe-inducing, yes, but nothing to bemoan or rail against.  When I'm dead, I'll be dead, and shan't be around to hope with my poor, hand wringing human ego that my writing survives, and that's well and good.
Neither do I write to escape the "hellbox," whatever that means. Being present in the world is often a difficult task, but writing, for me, is not a way of sidestepping discomfort.  It's another mode of being present.  The kind of writing that interests me most involves committing to the exploration of a full range of thoughts and feelings.
I like what Barthelme says a little better: I think there's often value in the difficult, and writing is interesting (although that's a rather general, vague term), in part because it's a means of living extra, of doubling experience, of having one's cake and eating it too.  But whether writing qualifies as the "most" interesting and difficult thing is relative and subjective.
I have no credo, no blanket precepts or prescriptions. I write because it's the best way I know to inhabit my life fully, and to grow.
As for writing every day, that is a luxury I can't always afford, but when I do I find I am happy.

MAK   Leah, you are such an intelligent, interesting, writer, woman, person.  I wish this could go on and on.  However, I did promise only five questions.  I appreciate your time, honesty and generosity more than I can say. 

Leah Hager Cohen is the author of four non-fiction books, including Train Go Sorry and Glass, Paper, Beans, and four novels, most recently The Grief of Others.  Among the honors her books have received are New York Times Notable Book (four times); American Library Association Ten Best Books of the Year; Toronto Globe and Mail Ten Best Books of the Year; and Booksense 76 Pick.
She holds the Jenks Chair in Contemporary American Letters at the College of the Holy Cross, and teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University.  She is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.


  1. Glad to be the first to comment. Great interview with a fine writer. Well done, MaryAnne.

  2. This is such a profound topic and such wisdom shared with eloquence both on the part of MaryAnne's and also Leah's. Makes me want to get her book and read more, for sure! Thanks for the link at FN.

  3. what a clever interview & a great discovery. "empathetic extrapolation" grabbed me as did your questions & leah's thoughtful answers. pleased to have found this, thank you. will tweet.