The Grief of Others

09.12.12

Leah Hager Cohen: How I Write

The writer of four fiction (including The Grief of Others, newly out on paperback), and four nonfiction books, Cohen is also known for her frequent book reviews—and for growing up in a school for the deaf and entering NYU at the age of 16. She talks to Noah Charney about her work.

What’s your morning routine like?

I love water, immersing myself in hot running water, so I tend to shower myself into the day, and then I walk the dog, and then come back home for the little scramble of everyone getting out the door, and then, if I am lucky, I begin to write. With an apple and coffee.

Do you have any distinctive habits or affectations?

Moving my lips and whispering under my breath while I work. I never knew I did this until it was pointed out to me. The “kinesthetics” of making things out of words.

What is a place that inspires you?

The basketball court on the corner of Sixth Avenue and West Third Street [in New York]. I have childhood memories of standing up against the chain link fence beside my father, watching the men play, feeling the wild fullness of people in action and interaction, feeling my father’s undying love of the city and its multitudes—being aware of the unearned pleasures of an infinitely interesting and varied world.

Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins.

I don’t conceive of a book’s plot before the writing begins. Usually all I have at the beginning is a driving interest in a single scene—a single frame, even: an inclination and curiosity about character, place, mood, precipitating event. I write partly in order to discover (I hope, I hope) the plot.

Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space?

I work on my grandfather’s old drafting table, which is set up in the middle of the apartment I inhabit with my boyfriend, three children, and dog. There is no privacy, and in fact everyone in the family (except the dog) makes use of my computer. The drafting table is covered with a piece of woven cloth my friend brought me from Estonia. Out the window is the driveway we share with our downstairs neighbors, the basketball hoop, which sees a lot of action, and the next house, which is very close by. The MacGyvers, a friendly older couple, live in that house. I should ask them if they’d like to string a tin can telephone between our windows so we could have the occasional chat.

What is guaranteed to make you cry?

Nearly everything. I could never be a politician because I cry too easily. Really, I cry right and left, but luckily I don’t much mind.

Is there one book of yours that you’re most proud of?

Hmm: a question that presupposes a hierarchy, which I am loathe to assign. But I will say this: Glass, Paper, Beans: Revelations on the Nature and Value of Ordinary Things, represents a time in my life when I was hugely willing to fail. While I was working on that book, I kept thinking: maybe it’s not meant to be a book at all—maybe it’s meant to be a collage, or an interpretive dance, or a quilt or a little song or hand-clap game. And giving myself permission truly not to know, afforded a special kind of freedom in engaging with that work.

If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?

I would like to meet my great-grandmother, Pearl, who immigrated to America from Bukovina and threw herself from the window of a mental hospital when my grandmother was still a young girl. I would like to ask her about her sadness, and to touch her.

What’s your favorite snack?

Oh, I love snacks. The very word “snack” gives me a sense of well-being. Favorites? It’s almost immaterial. Most food is nicer if you make it into a snack, I think: the repeated motion of bringing hand to mouth, licking ones fingers in between bites.

Is there any phrase you find yourself over-using?

“There’s a way in which ... ” It’s a qualifier, and as such a kind of apology. I use it in speaking far too often.

What’s the story behind the publication of your first book?

I had an extremely generous journalism professor who asked me to stay after class one day, a few months before graduation. I had at that time resolved not to try to find a job in journalism, indeed not to try to write for money or publication at all, but to make writing the thing I would do in private, on my own time, in the evenings after work. I had a very nice dream that I would keep at it, in private, and one day, when I was 80, I’d have a collection of short stories published. I can’t tell you how content I was with this dream.

Well, this impossibly kind and generous professor, Sam Freedman, himself a writer for The New York Times with several books out, asked me if he might show some of my work to his agent.

Within months, and under the excellent guidance of Sam and his agent, Barney Karpfinger, I was at work on the proposal for what would become my first book, Train Go Sorry.

What do you look for in a good book, as a reader and reviewer?

I look for clean, scrumptious sentences first, since sentences are stories’ main delivery system. The intention, the ambition, the sensibility behind a book may all be gorgeous, but will come to naught if the sentences don’t work. Beyond that, I look for wisdom and kindness, by which I really mean an honoring of complexity and doubt, a refusal to subscribe to preordained, reductive certainties.

How many books would you guess that you read each year?

I don’t know. I am a woefully slow reader. I sometimes sit there chewing a phrase like a cow with cud a while before going on.

How do you approach writing criticism differently from your books?

It’s kind of like this: When I’m writing criticism, I’m trying to see and articulate the forest. When I’m writing narrative, I’m feeling my way among the trees.

What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

I want no tombstone, no stab at posterity of any kind.