Exclusive: Q&A with Rachel Cohen Author of A Chance Meeting

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Rachel Cohen, who will be reading on the theme Progress and Process at tonight’s Happy Ending series at Joe’s Pub, wrote a book, A Chance Meeting , about the “intertwined lives of writers and artists.” Striking in its thoroughness and enthralling in its liveliness, A Chance Meeting is about what happens when artists and writers talk about their work; what happens when they encourage or discourage one another; and what happens when they let egos get in the way. We talked to Cohen about creative myths, professional envy, and the utter felicity of it all.

Flavorpill: What led you to writing about these behind-the-scenes relationships that, happily, have fueled so much work?

Rachel Cohen: There’s a myth of the solitary genius artist, and though of course a lot of creativity happens alone – face to face with the page or the canvas – I was really interested in bringing out the other side of it, which I think is less talked about. The mutuality, the stimulation from other people, watching other people do their work. We can all use the oven mitt to beat ourselves up with – “I’m not good enough; the lightning flashes of inspiration would be coming if I were the real thing,” – and I think that sort of very romantic idea of the artist is a little bit damaging sometimes.

I think both that sustaining friendships are very significant for a very artistic life, and that really hard daily work is also part of it. I wanted to get a sense of these long working lives. And there’s this myth that it all comes at once, that Melville wrote Moby Dick in five weeks. That’s another one of those things that’s not helpful.

FP: It’s such a thorough book. What was the genesis for this sustained investigation?

RC: There were two aspects. One was that the year after college, I spent the year driving around the United States, and I was planning to write a book — a kind of John Steinbeck Travels with Charlie kind of book, and I was really excited for it, but I really couldn’t figure out how to do it.

I was kind of in a hurry to find the thing that I thought I was supposed to find but I kept missing it. But I didn’t have the kind of authority or command to figure out how to marshal this weird information that I was getting form the world. John Steinbeck was sixty, had won a lot of prizes, knew what he was doing. I was this young woman by myself.

So I ended up really reading a lot, just to keep myself company, and I was reading a lot of writers who ended up appearing in my book, so I started tracking their lives and interactions partly because I was looking for more sustained companionship. And then I went to Vicksburg, and I took down Grant’s memoirs off of the shelf of he bookstore, and I discovered that they had originally been published by Mark Twain. I thought that was the strangest thing. I didn’t know how these two giants could have known each other. That was the first one that I really started to research, and then wrote a piece about the two of them, which took a long time to figure out. And then I thought there were other such connections.

FP: Were you surprised by how extensive and intertwined the connections were? I loved the map at the beginning of the book.

RC: That was my note to myself at a certain point. I just had to see this all laid out.

I was kind of surprised at the extent of it especially early on. But the more I went on, the more used to it I got, it started to feel like “Oh, of course so and so turns up.” I started to read biographies’ indexes first, just to sort of see who was going to be there and who to look out for… I’m still in that habit. I almost always go to the index first to see what the proper nouns are.

FP: I was most surprised by the overlaps between people like Cunningham and Cage and Rauschenberg. Do you think that it’s easier for people who work in different – but still creative – fields to support each other?

RC: As I grow up, I think I get a little bit more able to sort of feel what other people are doing but I think it’s hard; I don’t think that’s an easy thing, and part of what I loved — and that’s a good example, the Cage, and Rauschenberg, and Cunningham one – is that it seemed to come very naturally to them to be exuberantly thrilled with each others’ projects. And really not to feel that it was inconceivable; I can get into the details of how this is getting made and think about it and learn from it.

I do think that it’s a little easier to do across disciplines, when the painful parts of one’s own ego are less in evidence. I’m not a choreographer, so I just fall in love with some choreography – I don’t have to feel that that’s a measure of my own work or of what I ought to be doing. It’s less rivalrous when it’s across disciplines. Probably the easiest collaborative relationships are where one’s a composer and one’s a choreographer, while you get more of the sort of James Baldwin/Norman Mailer one-upsmanship when you’re in the same terrain.

But I also think that there are moments, and you probably have these too, where somebody does something good in your own field, and you just think this is such a blessing that I live in a time where someone can make this.

FP: A friend of mine, Brian DeLeeuw, just published a novel – In This Way I Was Saved – that made me feel exactly like that: at once in awe of his talent and just so thrilled that I get to be around for it. I loved seeing the coded references to friends and colleagues in your book – particularly in the relationship between Baldwin and Mailer, the way they wrote as much to and for each other as for the general public. How did you look at that?

RC: Baldwin said about Mailer that Mailer doesn’t just go on the road in a Jack Kerouac sort of way and throw everything behind them; he stays in a particular place, works with particular characters, they have conflict, they fight it out. He’s engaged, in a really deep way. I think Baldwin is right, and Mailer was an imperfect writer in some ways, and I’m not always loving his novels. I think there is always this feeling that he’s trying to get into relation to other people, and he thinks that’s really of central importance, and for Baldwin that was a redeeming quality of Mailer’s.

Mailer was very explosive, he wouldn’t contain his feelings. There were ways in which it was inappropriate and violent how he experienced his relationships, but I think that that’s a necessary part of growing and being creative, and so I try to think of it that way… I think Baldwin had both tendencies too, although he was one of the great expounders of love and its powers in twentieth-century American writing. He had a tendency to flee, he was always in France, he was difficult to stay engaged with. Richard Avedon found it hard to get him and get hold of him.

FP: What are you working on now?

RC: I’m working on two projects. One is a novel (which is a risk), and the other is a book about an art critic, Bernard Berenson, who could have lived very much at the time of A Chance Meeting. He was born in Lithuania in the ’60s and came to Boston with his Jewish immigrant family and managed to make get himself a scholarship at Harvard, where he studied with William James (like many of the people in my book). Then he went to Europe and invented himself as an Italian Renaissance painting expert, and was for most of his 95-year-life the central connoisseur of these paintings.

He became the advisor to people like J.P. Morgan and Isabella Stewart Gardner and Henry Frick. A lot of the paintings that we look at our ones that he had a hand in recommending, so it’s an interesting life in terms of thinking about the development of American aesthetics, and also about certain kinds of prejudices and discriminations. He was Jewish, there were careers that weren’t open to him, and he found a way to make an intellectual life for himself.