Giant Talks: Joshua Cohen interviewed by Lily Hoang
I first came across Joshua Cohen’s work a couple years ago at AWP. I walked by the Starcherone Books table and asked editor Ted Pelton which book he would recommend. He handed me a bunch, and luckily, among those was Cohen’s A Heaven of Others. What struck me then (and continues to strike me every time I read his work) is what an incredible badass he is. For one, he’s an amazing writer. His words are quite literally delicious. But beyond that, he’s the most prolific writer I know (and I know some crazy prolific writers!). Still shy of thirty, he’s got four books in print, one on the way from Dalkey Archive, and tons more sitting either on a physical or virtual shelf. Cohen is a powerhouse, but don’t take my word for it. Go buy one of his books. You won’t regret it.
— Lily Hoang
LH: Something that really strikes in about your writing is the very distinctive voice your characters have. In A Heaven of Others (from here on out known as Heaven), the narrator has an extremely urgent voice, one that compelled me to read faster & faster, until I was practically skimming. (Then of course, I had go back and read the whole thing over again to really savor the language!) Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto (known as Cadenza), however, has a much more patient narrative voice. Can you tell me more about the development of these narrators in particular? Please feel free to talk about your other works as well.
JC: The voices of both my novels are fictions within fictions, and, as that, they’re opposites: The voice of A Heaven of Others is that of 10-year-old Jonathan Schwarzstein of Tchernichovsky Street, Jerusalem. The voice of Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto is that of Laster, an octogenarian, perhaps nonagenarian, concert violinist from eastern Austro-Hungary. Again, both are fictions, meaning both are ultimately Me. I think what I’ve done in all my books so far comes, primarily, from speech rhythm. The rhythm of how I want to speak. How I speak to myself. As for echoes, A Heaven of Others derives from poetry, especially 20th century Hebrew poetry (Dan Pagis), and German-Jewish poetry (Paul Celan), while Cadenza comes from comedy, and despite its typographical trickery owes more to the history of the novel, and much, specifically, to Saul Bellow.
LH: A lot of your writing seems to deal with your—or rather your characters’—Jewishness. What role has that played on your writing?
JC: The more I’m asked this question, the more I want to say that my “Jewishness” is a result of laziness – or, of not thinking enough.
But, it’s not that I can’t think of anything else to write about, it’s just that this comes naturally. I don’t think there’s ever a reason to do anything against one’s nature.
LH: In “The Site of Memory,” Toni Morrison writes that “imagination is bound up with memory” (119). To what extent do you think memory plays a role in your fiction? Or does it?
JC: I don’t know that Toni Morrison essay – or is it a book? – but I’ll say I agree: I’m just not sure how she delimits “memory.” The things that have happened to me are as much my memory as what’s otherwise called “cultural memory.” Certainly imagination begins in a reinvention of one’s own life, but that reinvention, for me at least, immediately starts in with a rewrite of my family, of grandparents and origins, of an idea of “community,” or of “a people.”
To be specific: The terrorist explosion of A Heaven of Others begins outside a shoe store, which I based on my memories of a particular shoe store (Fischer’s Shoes, formerly of Margate, NJ; the owner used to give every child who came in a pretzel). Once I knew that my book’s Jerusalem store had to be a Shorefront shoestore, all those old cultural tropes – or “memories” – came; following, as it were, in experience’s footsteps: the Sinai take-off-your-shoes-you’re-standing-on-holy-ground, the barefoot Wandering Jew, Auschwitz’s shoe-stack, the Israeli (and hippie) sandal.
LH: It seems like today, we’re inundated with coming of age stories. They’re hot. They’ve been hot and will continue to be hot. And yet, Heaven is in many ways an anti-coming of age coming of age story. Were you purposely playing with the genre? How so? Do you imagine his growth and development (not in a physical sense, of course) after death?
JC: I don’t know how to answer this question in a short paragraph (to answer fully, I’d have to get away from genre-talk; there are just too many – ridiculous, nonliterary – differences between contemporary memoir, and something like Joyce’s Portrait, or Proust, or Goethe’s Werther), so I’ll just say this, and hope it’s enough: Maturity has often been defined as consciousness of death. But for Jonathan, being already dead, being murdered, and at such a young age, maturity has to be defined as consciousness of life: The knowledge of what he’s lost, what’s been left behind with the shoeboxes and parents.
LH: There are a ton of synonyms for the same word, whether it be experimental, conceptual, innovative, avant-garde, etc. Do you consider yourself one–or any–of those terms? Is there a term you prefer? That is, how would you describe (or even label?) your writing?
JC: I prefer the term “living.” I am a living writer. That said, the rest is not commentary, as Rabbi Hillel would have it – no; the rest – “the experimental,” “the innovative” – is marketing. And pisspoor marketing, too!
LH: Nabokov argues that in order to really bask in the glory of a book–a book of genius–a reader should not read with her head or heart but with the spine. Is there any way you would want your readers to read your books?
JC: With a bookmark. A friend of mine is freakish. She never uses a bookmark – nothing, not an envelope or paper scrap to hold her place – she just remembers what page she’s reading. When she closes a book, she closes it, kicks it off the bed, under the couch, and is never worried that she’ll “lose her page.” So, instead, maybe that’s what I want: A reader who doesn’t fold the corners of pages, but rather folds the corners of her mind.
LH: What’s next? What are you working on now?
JC: A novel’s already finished, Two Great Russian Novels. That’s still seeking a home. And there’s a collection of short things about New York, Bridge & Tunnel (& Tunnel & Bridge). That’s finished, too, also homeless. Other than that, “essays for rent.” For the past two years I’ve kept a Genizah (www.joshuacohen.org/stories) – a place where I put up scribbles needing some air, get them out of the house.
Here are two of the more recent:
One knee must always be higher than both elbows. Both feet should be kept on the ground (floor, bed).
Your mouth must be open. One finger of each hand must be bent, but only at one knuckle (each).
It should be three p.m. or later. And your hair must be long. One eye must constantly wink at the other (infected) person.
This might be the only way to contract the virus.
My Newest Site
Joshua Cohen was born in New Jersey in 1980. He is the author of four books, including two novels: Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto, and A Heaven of Others. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.
You can find out more about him at: www.joshuacohen.org