Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Q&A with Rachel Cohen

Rachel Cohen, photo by Vidura Jang Bahadur
Rachel Cohen is the author of the new book Austen Years: A Memoir in 5 Novels. She also has written A Chance Meeting and Bernard Berenson, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and The Guardian. She teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Chicago.

Q: You begin the book by writing, "About seven years ago, not too long before our daughter was born, and a year before my father died, Jane Austen became my only author." Why was that, and had you always enjoyed reading her books?

A: That was the moment that created a deep need for Jane Austen in my life—a baby was coming and my father was ill. I had not really read Jane Austen up to that point—it was surprising to me that [this reading pattern] endured for such a long time. I had hurried through her books in high school and returned to them from time to time.

Many things converged in my finding her as the thing I was going to read all that time. It was definitely the depth of the books, and the way they turned out to reward rereading in years that were very busy and interrupted.

Q: How did you decide on the structure of this book, which ties various Austen novels to events in your own life?

A: The structure was a long time coming. I like inventive structures, and usually a book works when I find an unusual structure. I began with a long essay. It ranged all over; the books were mixed in together. It had a lot of good material but it didn’t cohere.

Gradually I started to take it apart, and to feel the rightness of doing it book by book. I’m not the only person to structure a book around Jane Austen’s novels in the order she published them.

I read her biographies and started to see what was happening in her life and what she was writing about. I saw that there was a sequence in her books that almost predicted my life experiences. Mansfield Park and Emma took me the longest to come to terms with; I had to have more life experience!

Q: What do you think accounts for the ongoing fascination with Jane Austen and her work?

A: It’s always hard to identify the qualities that pull readers in over and over.

I think her books are related to theater. Theater was really important for her. Her family was always putting on plays. She had a brother who lived in London, and she would go to the theater with him. And it was an incredible time for English theater. She loved Shakespeare, and was always reading and rereading his work.

She grasped something about the theater, something that is [also] possible in novels—making your characters an open space that a person can enter into. Writing for the theater is very different than writing a novel, but she was really doing that in her novels.

The characters are so particular, and people recognize them, but there’s a quality of space, where you feel you can go and be.

As I read more, I was interested in how many different kinds of people find a space for themselves in Jane Austen’s novels. Ta-Nehisi Coates talked about the quality of these spaces she held open for readers. Azar Nafisi’s clandestine book group in Reading Lolita in Tehran talked about how they felt they could live in Jane Austen’s books and be those characters. People in very different circumstances can have the shared experience.

Q: What do you hope people take away from your book?

A: That’s changed a little as our times have changed. I wrote the book in a period where people might think of my experiences as by the wayside. The world during those seven years was so political and the crises so intense, I wasn’t sure how a meditative book would feel.

But now, in the last few months, so many people are contemplating mortality, continuity, how to get through a difficult time—I’m sorry it’s the case, but I think the book has become more relevant to the experiences people are having.

I hope it provides a nice reflective space for people going through unprecedented anxiety and real losses. I hope it’s a quiet space to think. That’s a lot of what I found in Austen. A quiet place to think—her books can be that. But it can be hard to slow down enough to think. I’m grateful to Austen for offering me help for that.

Q: Can you say more about your research, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: The research was a slow process. By trade I write portraits of writers and artists. I usually use a lot of biographical and historical material, but I was slow to start looking at those aspects of Austen—at first, I was just focused on the novels.

Then the research was quite wide because I wasn’t sure which were relevant things. I read biographical material and interpretations. There are great critics writing about Austen. Then I got into the historical material. It was helped by moving to Chicago, and being part of the University of Chicago. It’s a great research institution, and it was very helpful to be able to talk to academics.

The most surprising thing was the historical period she was living in—the Napoleonic Wars and the Atlantic trade in enslaved persons. Those were so important in [understanding her writing]. Especially with the later books, [some things] didn’t make sense until I was holding that historical material.

Part of the reading process that’s really interesting is that she was assuming readers were in the midst of that understanding. She didn’t have to put [those events] front and center for it to reverberate. We have to restore that in order to read the books as she intended.
Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m doing a pandemic notebook called the Frederick Project. I spend a lot of time thinking about painting, and I’m doing research for a book about painting and time. I have thousands of photographs of paintings, and with the museums closed, I’m keeping an online notebook about looking slowly at different paintings. I have 85 entries now. People can look at them on my website.

I love to look at them—to sit and think about colors, shapes, and the difficulties of paintings. The project is named for Leo Lionni’s book Frederick. I’m a bit like that mouse, storing colors and putting them up. There’s a community of people who check that. It’s been a pleasure. It will lead toward the book on painting and time.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: About reading in this strange time—it’s a nice time to read and read again. I’m interested in the process of reading again, how to carry yourself forward, how to put yourself into the book. That process might be valuable to people now. The book is about Austen, but really it’s about interactions, a growing relationship between a reader and a writer. I hope a lot of people might find something in that.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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