Interviewing the Writer LEAH HAGER COHEN

leah.hager.cohenAll my readers know I love Creative Writing as writing itself is my deepest passion. I got the chance to interview the American Writer Leah Hager Cohen. In fall 2013, Riverhead will publish “I Don’t Know”, an exploration of why we struggle to admit ignorance and of what happens when we do. In early 2014, it will publish Cohen’s fifth novel, No Book but the World. Below there’s our interview.



F.M. Reading your blog I came across the post “Practice“, and the following sentence” I think last night’s dream is not so much about sorrow or fear of impending loss as about the serious work of looking at enormity. All our lives are practice for this.”Could this be the essence of Creativity for a writer according to your opinion?
L.H.C.  Whether we’re conscious of it or not, I do think the unknowable enormity of life is something we are constantly responding to, and that our responses to this felt enormity shape us. I understand the word creativity broadly (I don’t relegate it only to those activities we associate with art), and so yes: aren’t all creative energies at some level a response to – a way of being in dialog with – the mysteries of being mortal?
F.M. The NYT states that your books are “Nuanced tragedies and unexpected tenderness of human connections”. Do you recognise in those statements your writing style? How would you define your way of writing at this point of your international carreer?
L.H.C. “Tragedy” is a word I don’t generally use, because it connotes such a degree of extremity. Too often, it is misapplied to what is merely terribly sad. My belief is that the experiences of an “ordinary life” include terrible sadness, hurt and desolation. I don’t believe human connection is possible without experiencing grave sorrow and pain, and I don’t believe such experiences necessarily qualify as “tragedy.” I do find that the tenderness of human connection is inextricably linked to the sadness our lives entail, and this almost ineffable tenderness is something that interests and moves me.
I have always, from my first book (which explored deaf culture), been drawn to write about experiences of “others” – probably out of my own greed, my appetite to taste of experiences beyond my own. I think in its way, each of my books, fiction and nonfiction alike, has been a movement toward imagining the lives of others.
F.M. What’s the first step that leads you to a new story (fiction or non fiction) and how do you proceed to develop the subject?
L.H.C. I begin small, with a sliver of an idea, or even just an image, a frozen scene, a single line of prose – and as I write, my understanding of the potential story grows up around me. Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, it grows up around me in an unruly, rampant way, so that at some point in the process I find myself needing to step back and see which are the main branches, and which I need to prune.
F.M. Being a female author influences your way of choosing your stories?
L.H.C. I suppose it must, in the same way that all of my specific traits together must construct my sensibility, but I am not terribly interested in contemplating how my gender influences my writing. When I am writing (by which I mean when I am thinking, when I am at play with words and sounds and shapes and possibilities in my head), I feel at liberty from many concerns, my gender among them.
F.M. How do you get in touch with your foreign audience? Do you attend Festivals in Europe, Africa and Asia? And if so how was the feedback?
L.H.C.  I’m afraid I have traveled so little. I dream of having opportunities to travel more in real life; at the moment I have had to be content with traveling through the act of reading other writers’ work. But my agent has managed to sell my books in international markets including South Korea, Sweden, Germany, Brazil, France, Italy and the UK. My most recent novel, The Grief of Others, was just published in Italy under the title Come un petalo bianco d’estate (Like a White Petal in Summer), which I find delightful and amusing – I don’t know what it means or what it has to do with my book, but I was assured that it’s “very Italian.”
F.M.  Any inspiring tips for perspective young writers? I know you work at Lesley University’s MFA in Creative Writing.
L.H.C.  Yes, I teach graduate students at Lesley, and undergraduates at the College of the Holy Cross. Writing is such hard work – not only the practicing-one’s-craft part of it, but the nurturing-one’s-soul part of it. It’s so solitary, and external praise is so rare, that a young writer really needs to figure out ways to take good care of her psyche. It’s brave and often lonely work. Find people who take you seriously and honor your passionate commitment. Be gentle with yourself – even as you hone your critical capacities. That’s the paradox, really: a writer must be able to be ruthless with her work and gentle with herself.
F.M. Which are your upcoming writing projects?
L.H.C. I have 2 books coming out in the next year. The first is a little nonfiction book called I Don’t Know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn’t). It grew out of a very short essay I wrote last fall, and will be published this September. The second is a novel, No Book but the World, which takes its title from Rousseau’s quote: “Let there be no book but the world.” It will be published in April 2014.

NOTES ABOUT THE WRITER:  Leah Hager Cohen has written four works of nonfiction ( including Train Go Sorry and Glass, Paper, Beans), and four novels. Most recently The Grief of Others, longlisted for the Orange Prize, a New York Times Notable Book, and a best book of the year in the San Francisco Chronicle, Kirkus Reviews, the Washington Post and the Globe and Mail. The Jenks Chair in Contemporary American Letters at the College of the Holy Cross, Cohen is also on the faculty of Lesley University’s MFA in Creative Writing. Below our wonderful conversation.



About Odile Milton

I travel through words whenever possible. Odile Milton is my signature on the web as I wanted an alter ego to indicate only my writings and works, not my personal life. Odile like the dancer in black swan, and Milton from the novel An old-fashioned girl. View all posts by Odile Milton

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