As anyone who knows me will attest, I kind of tend to adopt the people I interview, to become their champion a bit, to revel in their genius and bask in the reflected glow of their brilliance. Leah Hager Cohen’s genius is in every syllable of her new book, “The Grief of Others.” It’s not strictly theatrical, as this blog purports to be, but Cohen, a former theater major, does work in a nice reference to Antonio and Sebastian from “Twelfth Night.”
Here’s my interview/story on Leah and her book.
There’s Turiello’s Pizza, the old Skylark diner, Memorial Park, and the High View Too condos up next to the Thruway.
And Hook Mountain.
In one of the book’s first scenes — the one that Cohen wrote first, sitting in her home in Massachusetts, where she teaches writing at Holy Cross — a young girl named Biscuit rides her bike up Broadway to the Hook, to Nyack State Beach, hard against the Hudson.
“She set out along the cinder path that ran north from the parking lot, banding the Hook like a hat brim,” Cohen writes, with imagery that instantly bestows new perspective upon an everyday Rockland sight.
What Biscuit Ryrie does when she gets to the river is part of her personal, private response to a death in her family.
Each member of the Ryrie family has a personal, private response to the loss — of a boy who lived just 57 hours, and never opened his eyes.
The Ryries — John, a community-college set designer; Ricky, a high-powered financial executive; Paul, a middle-schooler in the throes of, well, middle school; and the pre-teen Biscuit, a no-nonsense character “with no preamble” — live in a wisteria-covered cottage across from Memorial Park.
They live within sight of the Hudson, and the river plays a role in their story.
That is the way it is with Nyackers, Cohen says.
“I think when you grow up next to something that is both a symbol and the real thing, the river itself, it’s hard for me to separate the actual Hudson River from its great magnetism and its metaphorical magic,” Cohen says.
“When you grow up in Nyack, there’s a way in which, literally, you’re always orienting yourself by the river. You can’t help looking at it. It’s a visual reference point. I guess it seemed like the natural thing that it would be the point of orientation for the book. It keeps flowing. And the book ends with that acknowledgement of the way things keep unfolding and keep changing. I think there’s that in the river, too.”
The writer gets back to Nyack “as often as I can.”
“My parents still live in the county and nostalgia compels me to take my kids there whenever I’m able to visit,” she says.
(Her children are 11, 14 and 15.)
While the local references are a case of the author writing what she knows, Cohen — who has been hailed by the New York Times Book Review as “”one of our foremost chroniclers of the mundane complexities, nuanced tragedies and unexpected tendernesses of human connection” — says she begins each of her novels in the dark.
“I write in a state of not knowing,” she says. “I think it all is there all along, but I don’t see it till I get there. The joy and the value in the task is discovering where the destination lies.”
With “The Grief of Others,” (Riverhead, $26.95) the destination was the depiction of a family in flux, whose members wear their secrets like armor.
“That wasn’t so in my family,” says Cohen, in a voice so soft it makes every word sound like a confidence. “We had very little secrecy — and even privacy — in my family, which felt normal quite to me. But as I became more aware that the norm for other families was perhaps to share less, that always fascinated me. What would that way of approaching relationships be like?”
She calls that aspect of the writer’s life having her cake and eating it, too — “to live one kind of life but imagine what it would be like to live another.”
Cohen, a frequent contributor to the Times Book Review, is equally at home doing the journalistic legwork that nonfiction requires. The Columbia School of Journalism graduate has written four works of nonfiction — “Train Go Sorry,” “Glass, Paper, Beans,” “The Stuff of Dreams” and “Without Apology” — in addition to three earlier novels: “House Lights,” “Heart, You Bully, You Punk” and “Heat Lightning.”
“As a little kid, I always wanted to write fiction,” she says. “But my first few books were nonfiction and I had gone through a journalism program. But I think, in my heart of hearts, I always gravitated to playing in the space of the unknown.”
While the Ryries deal with a crushing loss, they also must weather what Cohen calls the sweet sadnesses of contemporary life.
“Our lives are touched by loss and tinged by loss every day,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be a great big tragic loss. It can be the sweet loss of welcoming another child into the world and knowing you give up the quality of the relationship with the single child. I didn’t want to write about one delineated tragic loss, but more about the way loss is a daily presence and there’s a sweetness to it.”
In addition to the Ryries, we meet John’s daughter from a previous relationship, Jessica, who shows up unannounced and changes the family dynamic. There’s also Gordie, a boy dealing with a loss of his own, who encounters Biscuit at the Hook.
At the center of the story is the precarious nature of John’s and Ricky’s marriage, which has endured “tarnish,” Cohen says, imperiled by one whopper of a secret.
“Because Ricky is the main breadwinner, it casts into question all the traditional ways that the two genders in a relationship might relate to each other. It turns the assumptions on their ear,” Cohen says.
“I was also interested in the whole idea of striving to be good. There’s a way in which John feels pretty secure in his moral rightness and Ricky feels insecure in hers. But I don’t see either as being morally superior to the other. I see them as both earnest people wanting to be good. It’s fascinating how complicated that can be.”
It’s a matter of perspective, the writer says.
“I think with the whole family you can choose to tell yourself the story different ways,” Cohen says. “And even from day to day, you can choose to tell yourself the story different ways. Some days it does feel good and some days it feels like everything is falling apart. And so much of that has to do with the words we choose to to tell ourselves the story on any given day. I think marriage is like that.”
Photo by John Earle: Leah Hager Cohen.