Rich Cohen is the author of Tough Jews, The Avengers, and Machers and Rockers, and the memoir Lake Effect. His work has appeared in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, among many other publications, and he is a contributing editor to Rolling Stone. He lives in New York City.
Author biography courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Good to Know
Back to Top
Some fun and fascinating outtakes from our interview with Cohen:
"I once had a job cleaning dead animals off the road after storms."
"I invented a whiffle-ball pitch still known in the Chicagoland areas as, ‘Cohen's rising sinker.'"
"I can't swim."
"I like the idea of scale-modeling, but have never actually done it. When I was a kid, I had a stamp collection, and a collection of hotel keys."
"I like to watch baseball and hockey, and don't know how anyone can watch golf. Though I like to play."
"I have two small children, and that uses up every bit of free time that might otherwise be used for hobby-ing. And that's fine with me."
Back to Top
In the spring of 2006, Rich Cohen took some time out to talk to us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
It's about impossible to pick just one. If I were making a longer list, I would include The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby, On The Road, probably many more -- each of these books got into me and had me talking and walking and carrying myself in a completely new way.
But forced to choose one, I guess it would be Lancelot by Walker Percy. It's not even considered one of Percy's better books, and it's not my favorite, but it's the book I picked up at the exact right place and exact right time -- out of a row of paperbacks at the campus bookstore at Tulane, because I liked the cover. It's set in New Orleans, where I was a homesick freshman, so it seemed to give me permission to accept this city as a real place, a place that mattered. But what affected me most was the way Percy described the interior life of his heroes. He seemed to say things in that book, and in all his books (as soon as I finished Lancelot I went to the others) that I thought until then could be thought, but never said. I especially like his description of characters that are paralyzed because they have to know everything before they can do anything – I thought that was me, so the description was kind of like a cure.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway -- It's Hemingway. He's the greatest. He makes you feel like walking in the woods and chucking an apple at a tree. Maybe these stories meant a lot to me because I grew up in the Midwest, and felt like he was fixing landscapes I knew onto the page, but everyone loves Hemingway, or used, or will later on.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy -- Tolstoy is the best writer who ever lived. A lot of people get intimidated by big books like this, but the truth is, most of them have lasted because they are great fun to read. Anna Karenina might be a better book, I don't know, but I love the descriptions in this book of war, the Czar, and Napoleon, and the way the big figures of history are seen on the same page as the characters in the book. And it's like time flows through these pages, and all the characters and events are just so true. It's magic, in that you don't know how he does it, and don't know how it works, and, if you read it a few times, will realize you never will know, and don't care.
Miguel Street by V. S. Naipul -- A great short book about street life in Port Au Prince. It's something like Steinbeck's Cannery Row, wherein you see the whole town, top to bottom, and meet all the characters, and all the cranks, and wish you were sitting with them and drinking as the sun goes down and the lights come on in the newsstands and rum bars. It's also about growing up and having to leave and it has one of the great bittersweet, melancholy endings in literature, a rival to the ending of Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, another one of my favorites.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by MarkTwain -- The greatest American book, the first road novel, and different every time you read it. I like the tone, the description of the river, and the idea that, to be a good person, you sometimes have to be an outlaw. I love the stuff when Huck goes to the circus, and is fooled by everything.
Henderson The Rain King by Saul Bellow -- Everything by Bellow is great, but this is one of my favorites, because it's super funny and strange, because it's about a difficult, full-of-himself guy who is fighting from the beginning to the end. I also like the fantasy of Africa Bellow conjures, and explores, like he's going deeper and deeper into himself. And it's got my favorite image -- Henderson as a young man, working at a carnival, where is job is to, once a day, as the yokels watch, ride the roller coaster with a bear, a stun gun in his lap just in case, these two -- bear and man -- clinging to each other as the car goes up and down track, and every time the bear pees all over Henderson.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens -- I just read this book again, after having it, and much of Dickens, ruined for me in junior high. What can you say? It's a great book, really exciting, and I guess I love the ending best of all. It's my favorite kind of ending, which is sort of downbeat, or, as Peggy Lee said, "Is that all there is to a fire?" It reminds me of the long epic stories early in the bible, like the story of Noah, that, after the flood and the sin and the nakedness, ends, "Then he died."
At the Bottom of the River by Joseph Mitchell -- These were magazine pieces published in The New Yorker, all of them about life around, in, on top of, and under the waters of New York. Mitchell was a great writer and it's a great book, and there is not that much more to say -- I mean, I am still filled with all the things I took away from this book. The eels coming out of their holes and slithering across the harbor bottom, the boulevard like streets of Brooklyn, the rats of the city. These stories read like a map of the subconscious of New York, but mostly they just make you happy to be alive to read them.
Dispatches by Michael Herr -- Herr's stories from Vietnam; they ran in Esquire. Some of the best writing and war reporting produced in America -- at once hallucinatory and specific. The only problem is, every American reporter who writes about war tries to write like Michael Herr, but you have to be Michael Herr to do that. He was part of the shift from fiction to fact, I think, in that this book is more powerful than any novel written about the Vietnam War.
Operation Shylock by Phillip Roth -- I love Roth, and this is one of his great books. It's too wild to encapsulate, it's just so funny and true, and its descriptions of Israel and the predicament of the Jews is genius.
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe -- The American ideal seen in day-glo colors. The solo warrior. The astronaut. The crappy little desert town where the boys drink away their fear the night before an insane test flight.
You Can Negotiate Anything by Herb Cohen -- Because this book will change your life for the better, because it's been read by Presidents and Chancellors, because it's the secret text of our age, and because Herb Cohen is my father. The book opens with a scene of me, age six or so, standing on a table at the super-swank Henrici's restaurant in Northbrook, Illinois, yelling, "This is a crummy restaurant!"
Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann
On The Road by Jack Kerouac
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace
Great Plains by Ian Frazier
The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy
Where I Came From by Joan Didion
Absolutely American by David Lipsky
Negotiate This by Herb Cohen
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?The Sweet Smell of Success -- Great movie about New York, newspapers, gossip columns, power. The writing is so sharp, the lines stay with you forever, including, "You're dead, son, have yourself buried," and "the cat is in the bag, and the bag is in the river."
The Searchers -- Maybe the greatest movie ever made, directed by John Ford, about the west, war criminals, Indians, cowboys, blood lust, and murder -- and one of the great film performances by John Wayne. See it, and then check out the painting by R. B. Kitaj called John Ford on His Deathbed. The beginning of Star Wars is a copy of the first twenty minutes of The Searchers.
The Wild Bunch -- The Sam Peckinpah movie that takes apart and reassembles the western and includes a line of dialogue that could serve as a guide. It's William Holden saying: "When you're on a man's side, you stay on that man's side, or you're no better than an animal."
Big Wednesday -- A surfing flick by John Milius. Tanked when it came out but has since become a cult classic. It's the surf movie as a western, where the frontier has closed and the cowboys have run out of land so find themselves in the water off the Pacific Coat Highway. All the other kid movies are romantic comedies. This is an epic -- a kids' movie as Lawrence of Arabia.
Stripes -- I'm a giant Bill Murray fan, and I went to see this with my brother and his friends, on a school night, at the Deerbrook Mall, and I still think it ranks as one of the greatest nights ever, with just about every line worth remembering. To me, it was the moment Bill Murray reaches his peak state of Bill Murray-ness. To this day, faced with a problem that seems like a problem but not a huge problem, I say, This isn't Moscow we're talking about it. It's Czechleslovakia. It's like Wisconsin. You're in there, we're out of there.
Blue Velvet -- It's beautiful and strange, and it explores the perversity that lurks just beneath the everyday. It's like the eels coming out of the holes in the Joseph Mitchell story. It's like the kid riding the roller coaster with the bear. Maybe the plot of the movie is a metaphor about growing up, or coming of age, or something, but it always strikes me as something that could happen if you got off at one of those middle of nowhere highway exits and went to the tavern and ordered a beer and hung around too long.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I like everything, and go through everything, listening to a new favorite so much that I chew out the flavor like it's gum, then can't listen to it again for a decade. I do listen to music when I write, and some of my favorites include anything by Bob Dylan, The Ventures, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Fatboy Slim, The Clash, Okkervill River, Sonny Boy Williamson and others.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas by Elaine Pagels. Because I am searching, because it's great, and great to talk about, and because it shows that all of history, even the most sacred parts are, as Herb Cohen would say, the product of a negotiation.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I like to give books that the person I am giving to might have never read or thought to read -- for example, I like to give great nonfiction to people like my mom, who read only mysteries, or novels to people who read only business books. I like to receive very expensive picture books that are printed on high-quality paper and cost a hundred dollars or more.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
My ritual is to load up on caffeine and, depending on the season, Tylenol Sinus (daytime), sit down, and hope for the best. Here's my advice to young writers: never take night-time Tylenol Sinus before you work.
What are you working on now?
I am writing a story for Harper's about summer camp, my own experience at camp Menominee in Eagle River, Wisconsin, as well as the history of summer camp in the U.S.A.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
Well, when I was first sending stories to magazines I kept a shoebox full of rejection slips. And it filled up pretty fast. Maybe there were a hundred rejections in there. I still have that box. It's hard to look at, but I can't throw it away. My favorite was a form rejection from a literary magazine that began, "Yes, we will not be using your story." Or else the form that had two (check one) boxes -- one said the story was rejected and returned, the other said it was accepted. The editor had checked neither box and instead written in, "Your story has been rejected and is being recycled."
Back to Top