Joshua Cohen, author of several highly acclaimed novels and short story collections, and named one of the Best Young American Writers by Granta Magazine in 2017, grew up in Atlantic City, off the coast of New Jersey, and now lives in New York.
‘I was living in Brooklyn for years, but then there was Hurricane Sandy and we all got flooded out. It was nice taking a boat down the street. I mean, when am I in a boat? But it ruined a lot of people’s lives … I went and I taught a semester in Berlin at the Freie, and so I gave the apartment up, and when I came back I was just like, hey, I’ll move in with my aunt.
‘The problem with New York is that it changes but you don’t necessarily register the change. It has none of these natural rhythms of a seaside town. It has no season and off-season – you really felt that growing up on the shore. Just walking up the boardwalk and down the boardwalk, there’s a sense of being a character in a cartoon, like the cartoons that I grew up with at least, where the backgrounds just repeat and repeat, and then occasionally someone drops an anvil on your head.
‘My father worked in this beautiful old building across from a place that was like a porn theatre that sold Doc Johnson’s love products, and I remember really wanting to know what those were, and even to this day I don’t know what a love product is. I mean, it could be so many things, but that store is long closed and I guess I’ll never find out.
‘I was writing what I guess I called poetry back in my very early teens. I’d gone to Jewish schools, yeshivas, for my entire childhood, everyone wearing a yarmulke and praying, it’s very much a cloistered world. The idea that one could study literature on a university level was totally foreign to me. The idea that one could write for a living … I don’t know that I had the idea that there were people who wrote these things, as opposed to they just sort of manifested, that a book would appear with a name on it and the name would have been randomly selected from the author name-generator of the heavens.
‘One of the great mysteries of my youth was that reference books may not be taken from the library. You can check out novels, you can check out biography – but dictionaries, encyclopaedias, those are the things that stay there. So this of course told me at a very young age that these are the really important books, and I actually took it that these were secrets that were being kept from me. What was so dangerous about these books? So I think that my primarily important reading experiences were really with reference books: Bullfinch’s Mythology, Britannicas … I remember reading A Concordance to the Poetry of William Wordsworth before I read any Wordsworth, so I just had essentially first lines, and I thought that all the first lines arranged on a page were a poem.
‘The synagogue had a large library and that had religious works, but also whenever anyone died and their kids didn’t want to deal with their books, they just dumped them all there. People figured, oh, I’ll donate this, you know, not knowing that they were corrupting the youth.
‘I went to regular school and music school as well, directly from Jewish day school. I was very precocious as a musician and that’s how I got a scholarship. It came easy to me, but I didn’t really care about it, or I only cared about it insofar as it brought me validation. As I got older, I sort of realised how hollow that was.
‘I was writing things then that probably people would think are a lot cooler than what I write now. I was writing the style now known as auto-fiction, like a personal, lightly fictionalised memoir. I was asked to review a few things by a person that I’d met in New York, for a newspaper called The Yiddish Daily Forward. It’s the oldest Jewish newspaper in the US. And then I won a writing prize that was sponsored by a Jewish institution. I won $4,000, which was the largest amount of money I ever had, but I thought it was like the largest amount of money that anyone had ever made. I took it and I moved to Berlin at the age of 20, because I was like, this money’s going to last forever there. And when I got there, I was hired by The Forward to be their Central and Eastern European correspondent. I worked there for five years., covering everywhere from the Baltic down to the Balkans. This is in the days before the budget airlines really, certainly before the Flixbus stuff. You take the slow train or you take the slow, slow bus. Every assignment you find yourself in a situation with another crazy person, or doing something that’s completely inexplicable. When John Kerry was running for president, they found out that his grandfather was this Moravian Jew, from a town called Horní Benešov, so I spent a week drinking with the chief of police there.
‘I was writing fiction that entire time. I think my first book came out when I was 24 or 25. For me the harder writing got, the more interesting it got. To be able to see the flaws in what you’re doing, that was a process of self-forming through text forming. That was fascinating and remains fascinating, but it’s an odd trade-off too because as I become more aware of how things are made and can be made, the passion sort of disappears or changes, and you can no longer be so enthusiastic when you realise that you are so bad. I have this friend who was married and they went and got a house and they really decorated this house and it’s a beautiful house, and then they had a cousin over, and they’re eager to show everything off. The cousin immediately walks down to the basement to go look at the floor joists, because he’s a carpenter, right? He didn’t care what colour scheme they painted the walls. He wanted to know if the house was built well and if it was going to last. I think that that approach was the approach that I lacked in music, but that I found in writing, which was coming to understand and appreciate the deeper structures of writing, which itself was like the deeper structures of thought. That became a point of real fascination for me: how things were made and how the process of making something becomes a process of self-making or self-remaking.
‘Music is so good at inculcating a mood that it distracts you from the substance of how it’s made. Also the musical structures, for the vast majority of the music that people hear, in the so-called West, are very fixed. There are, relatively speaking, consonances and dissonances, there are tensions and resolutions. Where things would resolve, how they could modulate, the ability to hear through possibilities, to anticipatorily hear what was going to happen next – all of these things could be learned. Harmony could be learned; counterpoint could be learned. The one thing that couldn’t be learned, it felt, was melody, pure melody, where a tune comes from. And because it seemed to me that melody was the essentially narrative element of music, when I came to write prose, what became structurally interesting to me is the way that most people read prose entirely as melody. Most people read a sentence as if it were a single narrative line that at a certain point just reaches the end, at which point a new line begins with the next stage of narrative “singing”, and they rarely notice the deeper structures at work. And so I think my earliest formal conception of prose was as a sort of sequence of songs that actually concealed these vastly powerful forces underneath. And part of my learning how to write was figuring out what those forces were and how to make use of them to ensure that the singing was seamless and continuous.
‘I’ve never felt that writing was a choice. Writing is a purgative thing, publishing something is getting it away, you know, getting the demon out of the body, getting the spirit out of the house. Publishing something as a way of exorcising it or killing it, and then, as an extension, killing the self that made it, and so when I publish a book it’s a sense of absolute relief that I can stop being this person, or I can stop being haunted by this insane ghost that I didn’t invite in and that has sort of no respect for its host.
‘Of course, every time I’m doing something that feels deeply self-generated, there’s another part of me that’s saying, oh, but the world is so interesting, look out there, and I want to be responding to it. And then the moment I’m responding to the world, I’m like, God, this fucking world is exhausting and pointless, I want to just think about my own thing inside. I think as long as I really truly feel this tension, I couldn’t conceive of being tired of writing.’