A Woman Defined

Art & Culture by Mahvash Mossaed

A Conversation with Author Leah Hager Cohen of Newly-Released Book “No Book but the World”

July 23, 2014

I had the opportunity to interview Leah Hager Cohen, the author of the popular nonfiction work Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World and books The Grief of Others and newly-released book No Book but the World. Here are some highlights.

1. Do you write for others because you have to write or for yourself only?

I write with communication in mind. That is, I write in order to make contact, to connect, and in that regard I do care about being clear and sympathetic. That said, I also care about being true to my sense of things, both in terms of content and style. And so at its deepest level, the work of writing is the work of constructing a bridge between the two, between myself and other.

2. How many days do you actually write and how rigid you are about that schedule?

I’m not rigid about anything – I’m perhaps blessed and cursed by a tendency to bend toward the wills and wants of others – but when I am able (most often during the summer, when I am not teaching) I am happiest writing 7 days a week, even if just for a few hours a day. I love the feeling of being with a project, in near-continuous touch with it, having it alive in my thoughts and growing on the page in regular spurts.

3. While writing what kind of relationship do you often form with your own writing self – a painful or a joyful one?

Writing for me is a joyful process. There’s joy in it on a day when the writing doesn’t go especially well. I think this is because the work of making things is itself productive of joy. Even when the pie comes out burnt, or the sewing project comes out lumpy, or the handmade valentine is crooked, there’s still pleasure in the actions of rolling the dough, handling the fabric, gluing the lace.

4. How do you recognize if you are on the wrong track?

Oh, I can usually feel it if I’m forcing something that isn’t ringing true. I guess the trick is listening keenly enough to my own words and rhythms and sentences. If I listen well, the writing itself tells me when I’m on the wrong track.

5. Are you affected by other people’s appraisal of your work? Have you ever been hurt by them?

Yes. The worst part is feeling ashamed of myself – whether for having disappointed a reader, or for having allowed myself to get swept up in caring too much about what another reader thinks in the first place. It’s a tricky balancing act, because as I mentioned earlier I do write for others; I write in hopes of forging a point of contact, of recognition. On the other hand, I think an important part of the work is releasing it, once it’s finished and sent forth into the world, from my own hopes and expectations around how it might be received.

6. Do you feel you and the characters in your books have always been well understood by your readers?

Surely not always in the exact same ways I have conceived of and understood my characters – but this is not necessarily a disappointment or a failure. Sometimes readers point out to me ways of experiencing my characters that are different from my own experience but not negating of them – this can deepen my own understanding of a character’s complexities in a way that is validating and even exciting: to have such perspectives and possibilities described is a way of conferring life on my characters beyond the static words on the page.

7. Do you lose yourself in your writing? The very fact that writing is a very lonely art, do you sometimes feel lonely?

To lose myself in the writing process is a wonder and a delight – that experience of looking up and discovering hours have passed, unnoticed! But yes, I do sometimes feel lonely in my work. Not during the time that I’m actually engaged in writing, but during other parts of the day, when I am carrying the work-in-progress around inside me, invisibly, inarticulately. It’s like being pregnant, like living in a state of pregnancy, with no language for it. A feeling simultaneously rich and isolating.

8. What are your favorite novels? Your favorite short stories? Poems you hold specially dear?

There’s a Rumi poem that I come back to again and again:

Trust your wound to a teacher’s surgery.
Flies collect on a wound. They cover it,
those flies of your self-protecting feelings,
your love for what you think is yours.

Let a Teacher wave away the flies
and put a plaster on your wound.

Don’t turn your head. Keep looking
at the bandaged place.

That is where the light enters you.
And don’t believe for a moment
you are healing yourself.

9. What are your literary guilty pleasure? Do you have a favorite genre?

My literary guilty pleasures are actually television shows: BBC mysteries like Foyle’s War, Poirot, Miss Marple, The Bletchley Circle, Inspector Lewis…

10. What is next for Leah, and what would be next for Leah if the sky were the limit?

I am at work on a book about a family gathering for a wedding. In it, I’m exploring pageantry, tribalism, time and identity.

If the sky were the limit I think I would shed words like a snake sheds its skin, move beyond the impulse to communicate with via the instrument of language, progress into another mode of communication altogether. I don’t know what that would look like. Perhaps something like this, another line from Rumi: break the wineglass and fall toward the glassblower’s breath.


About the Author

Leah Hager Cohen is the author of five works of nonfiction, including Train Go Sorry and I Don’t Know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn’t), and five novels, including The Grief of Others, which was longlisted for the Orange Prize and the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the forthcoming No Book but the World.

She holds the Jenks Chair in Contemporary American Letters at the College of the Holy Cross, teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review. [http://www.leahhagercohen.com]

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