Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Leah Hager Cohen talks about the brilliant No Book But the World, how do we love difficult people, and she asks me why I started the blog

I loved Leah Hager Cohen's The Grief of Others, and I couldn't wait to read her new book, No Book But the World. It's dazzling. About secrets, family and imagination,  it's also about how memory can transform us. Leah is the author of ten books, including Train Go Sorry and The Grief of Others. She's a distinguished Writer in Residence at the College of the Holy Cross and on the faculty of Lesley University's MFA in Creative Writing . I'm so thrilled to have her here. Thank you so much, Leah.

I 'm always interested in what sparks a novel. What was the moment when you entered this particular story?

Each of my previous novels began with an image – some detailed-yet-highly-circumscribed snapshot, tantalizing me with just a glimpse of character, setting, situation. Like finding a smattering of clues. As I moved to piece them together, I’d begin to understand the larger ideas they hinted at.

This novel worked just the opposite. It was born of an abstract question: what do we do about the problem of people who are difficult to love – people whose differences place them on the margins of society, and who tend to elicit our fear or animosity?

This question tugged at me for quite some time before I began to see how a narrative might spring up around it.

What's so haunting about No Book But The World are the questions the book raises, about what we owe the ones we love, and what that might cost us. Could you talk about that, please? 

Well, “owe” is such a funny word, isn’t it? It raises all sorts of questions in itself: are we born with an obligation to be generous and good, or does a sense of what we owe grow in accordance with what we have received? And how do we balance our responsibility to others with our responsibility to ourselves?

Ava and Fred, the sister and brother at the heart of the novel, were raised with an unusual degree of personal freedom, encouraged to develop (or not) their own sense of both autonomy and responsibility. That upbringing, it turns out, has been a mixed blessing. And because they are such different individuals, the liberties they have been granted spell very different results for each.

Of course, the most haunting part is that it’s possible to love someone – with every good intention – and still fail to do right by him.

So much of your brilliant novel is about the power of imagination, and how it guides our life. Ava keeps trying to give shape to her past in order to make sense of her present.  Could you talk about that please?

The first draft started, “I have never been fond of stories.” I wrote some twenty pages before I realized – oh! No, no, the first sentence must actually be, “I have been too fond of stories.”

For Ava this tension is everything: On the one hand, she gravitates toward narrative as a tool for making sense of life. On the other hand, she abjures it as something that might foreclose on the fullness of comprehension. Her struggle with these competing urges – her alternating resistance and succumbing to the storytelling urge – this is what gives the novel its shape, its rhythm: at once pushing forward in time and being drawn back into memory.

I had no idea how the book would end, and was quite literally amazed when the final pages came to me. In them, Ava finds a solution to her dilemma – she figures out how to use storytelling to grow, while staying free of storytelling’s tendency to finalize and therefore limit understanding.

What's your writing life like? Do you have rituals, do you map out the story first, or do you let the story evolve? 

Rituals, no. Maps, ha. I am pretty much a wandering pilgrim.

What's obsessing you now and why?

My skin. How self-involved is that? But it’s true. Figuratively thin-skinned since I was a child, I’ve lately noticed my body seems to be, well – embodying – or punning on the idea. My skin splits and breaks damnably easily, no matter how much I minister to it with lotions or creams. And although I’m drawn as a writer to porousness, to exploring frontiers and crossing borders, I wouldn’t mind my own somatic boundary maintaining a bit more integrity.

What question didn't I ask that I should have. 

But no! – I want to ask you a question; may I? It seems to me such an outpouring of goodwill, of generosity, of, as Forster might have said, the impulse to connect, that you offer when you engage other writers with these questions. I’d be curious to know what led you to this undertaking in the first place; if you see it as an act of service; how much energy it takes to reach out in this way, and what sorts of energy it might deliver back into your own life.

Oh!  Well, I started blogging because I thought I should, but I soon grew bored with my own musings. What really interested me was how other writers did it. Did they feel sick at heart the way I did sometimes when facing a draft?  Do they outline? Do they watch bad TV? Besides wanting to interview other writers, I also had the whole issue of reviews. Ethically, I can't review people I know, which leaves out a whole lot of wonderful books! But I can interview those people--with full disclosure how I know them. It's just been a joy for me to do the blog because not only do I get to connect with the writers I admire, I get to listen in to their thoughts. What could be more magical than that?

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