Robert Cohen is the author of three previous novels, The Organ Builder, The Here and Now, Inspired Sleep , and a collection of short stories called The Varieties of Romantic Experience. His most recent novel, Amateur Barbarians, was named one of the 100 best books of 2009 by the NY Times Book Review, who also recently touted him as the “heir to Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.” Winner of a Lila Atcheston Wallace Reader’s Digest Writers Award, the Ribalow Prize, The Pushcart Prize, and a Whiting Award, he has published short fiction in a variety of magazines and publications — including Harpers, GQ, The Paris Review and Ploughshares.
He has taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Harvard University, and a handful of other institutions (many of which he’ll talk about in this interview). He currently teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont, where the students idolize his own creative writing workshop. He is a force on the basketball court.
Did you know you wanted to be a writer as an undergrad at Dartmouth and UC Berkeley?
In my dreams, I guess. I was an English major and I took some creative writing and I fancied myself a potential writer, meaning that I liked to hang out in cafes looking moody and sensitive in case a woman came by who was susceptible to that sort of thing. I wrote a short story when I was a freshman that I didn’t show to anybody for good reason. I wrote it all in one night, you can imagine the results. Anyway a year later I thought, what if I’m a genius? So I entered it into a contest – one of the creative arts prizes they offered. And I won third prize, which was $100. Then I got accepted into Leonard Michaels’ workshop (at UC Berkeley) and it was tough to get into because he was known as this hard ass. I was completely enthralled with his work.
What was his class like?
He had this method where he would read our stories out loud, anonymously, nobody knew whose was whose, and he’d make his comments as he went. And my very first class I’d kind of arrogantly turned in my “prize-winning” story. First he read the title, and he sort of snickered, and then he read the first sentence and made what’s known as a remark, and snickered, and then the next sentence, another remark. Every fucking clause dripped with this kind of languid contempt. And then he came to the end of the first paragraph and threw the story over his shoulder and went on to the next. I was oozing – whatever ego I had was oozing out of me. No other student knew it was mine, but I felt compelled to tell everybody about it later…I guess just to revel in it. It was like a taste of the real thing. True, a humiliating taste. But real.
That was my first creative writing class and it’s a miracle I kept going, but I did. And I probably learned more in that class during the first two weeks than I learned in the rest of my classes combined.
What was it about him that inspired you so much?
The guy was brilliant. He was all lit up by syntax, the music of the line. He’d read a sentence by Babel and just roll it around in his mouth, tasting it for a while. It just so happened that he caught me when I was arrogant enough to absorb it without killing myself. And it gave me a kind of goal for the next ten years to write something that would earn anything other than contempt from him.
What were you like as a student?
I was one of those back-of-class, sitting there with his arms folded, fuck you kind of guys. The kind of people I really hate as a teacher and yet for some reason sort of attract. [laughs] I had ambitions, I had pretensions, I sort of prided myself back then as being this up-against-the-wall radical experimentalist, railing against any kind of bourgeois realism. And I considered it a point of pride that nobody understood what I was doing, and I would have been crushed if they had. Of course I was crushed anyway. I pursued [writing], I did, but I didn’t get much better. I just kept wanting it, basically.
After you got out of Berkeley what was your next step?
I got out of college and I wanted it enough that I decided I wouldn’t take a full time job. I waited tables for about a year and worked as the janitor at an orthodox synagogue in Berkeley. As a reform Jew, I was a shabbos goy in their eyes. Looking back I was a pretty bad janitor. Also a pretty bad waiter. After a year or so I got a part time job at this school in the Sunset District that used to be an anti-bussing school. It was a horrible institution. It was in a church; there were no walls, just blackboards used as room dividers. And the school’s roots were based in the fact that no parents wanted their kids bussed to schools with minorities, even though the school was 30% minorities anyway.
It was a really confused place. And I didn’t know anything, I just had this kind of gee-wiz tune running through my head. The first day I was there teaching 8th grade English. This kid comes up to me, bigger than I was, swastika tattoo on his arm, and he said, “No offense, we just really don’t want you here.”
He said, “No offense” first. That’s nice.
Yeah, I wanted to say, “I don’t want me here either.” That would be perfect, actually, if they paid me anyway. But I hung in there, made that kid my own special project. I got him to read the first book he’d ever read in his life: The Maltese Falcon. His mother came up to me at the end of the year and said he loved The Maltese Falcon so much and it was the first book he’d ever read. I should’ve given him Mein Kampf, that would’ve gotten a good reaction.
Were you working on your own work at the same time?
By then I had started the requisite terrible, autobiographical novel. And I worked on it in isolation for a year, year and a half or so. I kept waiting tables a couple nights a week, and I was teaching and working on this book. But most of the time I was just floundering and had no clue what I was doing. And in the Bay Area it’s so lovely and pleasant that I found it very difficult to stay indoors and write shitty fiction. So that was a challenge, and the truth was I couldn’t get any traction or figure out if I was any good at it or not.
What sparked the move to New York?
I knew some people in the literary scene in the Bay Area, sort of, but there wasn’t really anything to react to. There were no problems. I guess it’s around then that it occurred to me I should go to NY just to bump up against something that would show me whether this was worth my hanging in there or not. I’d been out of school 2-3 years when this happened. I applied to grad school and the only place I got in was Columbia. And it was off the wait-list, sort of a miracle I got in and even though I didn’t really respect myself for going to that school, it was more the excuse to come to New York.
You had regrets about going to get your MFA at Columbia?
If I had any guts I would’ve done it without the program cause I was really unhappy with it. Probably I would have been unhappy in any such program. I got a lot better, but it was in spite rather than because of grad school. Honestly I was so fucking miserable and the only way to get over the cognitive dissonance of being there was to write my head off. In a year I probably did four years of work fueled by misery and rage: the four horsemen of my twenties. And I got lucky; it sort of worked.
How long after school did you get your start teaching again?
When I was at Columbia I was so miserable that I ended up going over to Teachers College and taking classes there, because I wanted something of substance. So I went over there and they liked me and it was really through them that I got my first university teaching gig at Stonybrook. I was an adjunct at Stonybrook. I would commute there twice a week on the LIRR and teach comp. It was a happy time.
When did you get your first paid writing job?
It was really sideways. [While I was teaching at Stonybrook] I started to publish some work. And in my late twenties I sold a book. My editor at the time also represented a writer teaching at Rice University who needed a replacement and he suggested me, and that was really my first genuine creative writing job. That came about as a result of selling that first book.
Can you talk a bit more about the grad school/no grad school thing?
Everyone’s reasons for going are legit. What I decided to get out of [grad school] was a feeling of: “I’ve gone all in on this thing and therefore I better fucking do something while I’m here.” And if I hadn’t gone to grad school at that time, I might have just coddled myself. I would never have laid out that trajectory before I did it, or wanted to, again.
But all the heartbreaks and rages played their part in ways that couldn’t have been anticipated… One of my professors in grad school said later, “You know, I always knew you’d do something because you were the most miserable looking person in class.”
Then of course you [look back on] your life and you think, “College was easy!” It’s everything that happened after that was hard.
Any parting words of encouragement/advice?
The thing I would say to you is that all the stuff will sort out, and when it gets really sorted out you may even find yourself missing this period when everything was all up in the air, not yet knowable or known. And so I don’t think it’s a bad thing to feel this way as long as you can remain productive.
I would say even in its impossibility its worth doing. I probably would’ve had more fun and more of a sense of well being if I’d stayed in Northern California in my 20s. That agreed with me more than living in a tiny studio on 110th street. Even now I kind of dream of that studio, and it kind of haunts me, but I don’t know that I would undo it if I could.
Interview by Lucas Kavner