Meet Michael Cohen: A Place to Read

Editorial Assistant, Sarah Trapski, had a chat with veteran essay writer, lecturer, and author, Michael Cohen, about his latest work, A Place to Read.

A Place to Read is a collection of essays reflecting Cohen’s life and inner thoughts. He poses difficult questions and shed light on subjects that are otherwise overseen. Prior to this collection, several individual essays have been published in Harvard Review, Birding, The Humanist, and The Missouri Review with rave reviews.

Michael Cohen’s essays on the reading life are a treat to read. Relaxed, personal, wide-ranging, they contain fascinating nuggets of information and lively assessments of hundreds of books, as well as a whole life’s worth of thoughtful rumination on time, love, travel, and family, as well as what it means to be, almost existentially, a reader.
– Christina Thompson, Editor, Harvard Review

Sarah Trapski: What are your favourite essays in A Place to Read?
Michael Cohen: I like the turn away from the personal and back again in “My Hypochondria.” And the sudden turn into the personal at the end of “The Place Where It Happened.”

ST: You write about some very personal topics, for example your father’s murder, and your experience with hypochondria. How do you feel about sharing such intimate experiences? And have you had feedback from readers about these subjects?
MC: “Amusing notion,” writes Montaigne, “many things that I would not want to tell anyone, I tell the public; and for my most secret knowledge and thoughts I send my most faithful friends to a bookseller’s shop.” It is a surprise what gets dredged up when you begin writing about yourself; the form, as Montaigne proved so convincingly, is a method of self-exploration. Not that I approve of essay writing as a confessional exercise.I even have mixed feelings about those I called the Agonists in a Missouri Review essay a few years ago. 

Nancy Mairs and the Joan Didion of The Year of Magical Thinking are examples of people performing their suffering. It may be a compulsion, but I don’t think it’s a consolation, and it’s difficult to make it into art. C. S. Lewis said all three of those things in A Grief Observed. My friends who know me as somewhat reserved have expressed surprise at what I have revealed about myself in these essays. Most readers, I think, have come to expect that sort of thing.

ST: Did you have an overall book or set of themes in mind as you wrote the individual essays, or did the book form organically?

MC: I did not see the book coming. That the essays I had published in little magazines formed a kind of memoir was as much of a surprise as that the theme of reading gave them a sort of unity.

ST: Collecting essays in book form is not as popular as it used to be. Do you see this as an endangered species?

MC: There are mixed signals. Robert Atwan’s yearly Best American Essays series has been going strong since 1987 and attests to continued or renewed contemporary interest in good examples of the form. I believe you have a comparable Australian series started by Black, Inc. and continued by Penguin. And creative writing programs are devoting more attention to nonfiction. But the ubiquitous journalistic and political essays that infest the web and print media often lack any sense of form and even logical sequence. 

The essay’s strength in the past has come partly from the conscious, formal awareness of its so-different kinds of writers on topics from every discipline and field of interest. Good models train readers before they train writers. And right now there are not enough readers who like essays to push many publishers into taking a chance with essay collections. Before David Reiter took a chance with mine, I hate to tell you how many publishers said, “Wow, these are good essays and they’ve appeared in really good magazines. But we can’t take them. The market’s too soft for essay collections.”

ST: A link to your blog is posted on A Place to Reads mini site. Do you feel blogging is a new form of essay writing?

MC: No. But blogs can be the raw material of essays.

ST: Some writers of fiction work organically rather than with a systematic plan in their composing? What is your preferred method, and do you see the essay as a form better suited to one strategy of composition than the other?

MC: Rarely an essay comes out of my mind and onto paper in a single sitting. Strenuous revision may not change its initial structure and flow. Other times I collect thoughts and scenes that seem to have a topical or thematic connection and then sit down to see if they can be made to cohere into an essay. Except for those rare spontaneous essays, I never work initially from a plan but try to find it in the material. When I put things together, expand, refine, I usually find the plan has to be modified and the structure changed. An essay is like a poem in that it has to convince you that its particular form is the one the subject demands, but other than that observation I can’t make comparisons because I have written very little fiction or poetry.

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