Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Q&A with Garnett Kilberg Cohen

Photo by Garret Buckley



Garnett Kilberg Cohen is the author of the new story collection Cravings. Her other books include Swarm to Glory. She taught creative writing at Columbia College Chicago for more than 30 years.


Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in Cravings


A: The oldest stories in the book were written over 10 years ago; two of them were published in literary journals in 2011. That isn’t to say that I was working steadily on this book all of that time.


In 2014, I published a collection of short stories called Swarm to Glory. I didn’t feel every story I had at that time was the right fit for that book so I held onto some of them until now. I’m glad that I did.


No matter how much I love a story, it has to be right for the collection at hand. Those two older stories work better in Cravings than they would have in the previous book.


Plus, during the years I’ve been writing Cravings, I have also been writing (and publishing in individual magazines) nonfiction, mostly essays, and have started a novel. Since Cravings was accepted, I’ve finished a couple of new stories that need more revision.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you? 


A: The title refers to the fact that all the characters in the book crave something—be that food, love, understanding, friendship or success. Still, it took a long time to come up with this title. During the 10+ years I worked on it, I played with various titles.


I submitted the collection to the University of Wisconsin Press under the title Slow Dance, named for the second story in the book. I love that story—it won an Honorable Mention from the 2022 Curt Johnson Awards at december magazine.


However, the director at the University of Wisconsin Press, Dennis Lloyd, thought we could find something stronger.


First, he pointed out that having the word “slow” in a title might not be the best draw as it could have a different connotation for potential readers than it did for me (I connected it to sensuality along with the consequences and complexity of the movement of time).


Also, he was not a fan of the traditional practice of naming a book after one of its stories because it implied the title story was the best one in the book. I thought he had great points.


For a while, we batted ideas back and forth in emails, not every day or even every week, but I really appreciated that he was so invested. 

He recognized that every story seemed to focus on something that was “unquenchable,” though he didn’t think that was quite the right word. To me “unquenchable” implies desires that are difficult to satisfy—just out of reach. I agreed with his assessment. I played around with the idea and came up with the word “cravings.” 


On reflection, I think a lot of what defines the strongest characters in fiction and makes us care about them is what they want, and what they are willing to do in order to get it. When I look back over my favorite novels and stories of all time, the main characters all wanted something desperately.  


Q: The writer Elizabeth Kadetsky said of the book, “Each story in Garnett Kilberg Cohen's gorgeous new collection is a tour de force in subtlety and indirection.” What do you think of that description? 


A: I think Elizabeth is an astute critic (along with being a fabulous prose writer) and captured the essence of what I’m trying to do in stories. Most of my stories are subtle—no heavy plots or car chases!—and focus on language, the inner lives of the characters and what sometimes appear to be their understated actions.


The “indirection” comes in, I think, with the fact that these actions usually result in unexpected revelations or consequences or character transformation.


Q: How did you decide on the order in which the stories would appear in the collection? 


A: Like finding the right title, establishing the order took a long time.  I feel that the best story collections need to have a thematic bond and arch of some kind, along with a paradoxical mix of consistency and variety.


Deciding the order is part of the creative process. I changed the order several times before submitting the manuscript. After the manuscript was accepted, I was given some time to revise it on my own.


One of the initial readers had said she didn’t think the first story, “Maternal Instinct,” in that draft gave the most accurate impression of what was to follow. I don’t act on all criticism but I consider it when it comes from sources I respect and her observation seemed apt.  


“Maternal Instinct” is one of my favorite stories in the book (yes, I have favorites) but I understood her reasoning. It is one of only three stories in the book with a male point of view and, more importantly, its content has a speculative element. I didn’t want the readers to be expecting more speculative writing or magical realism in the ensuing stories.


I played around with lists and charts of the stories, moving them around, and decided that beginning with “Hors d’oeuvres” and ending with “Feast” provided a familiar structure (loosely a full meal with courses in between) to hold all the stories, that was also a unique arrangement for a collection.


I tried to vary the voices so the narrators were different in age and gender, and so that the essence of their internal conflicts/desires varied.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Both fictional stories and short pieces of nonfiction. I am a long way from having another story collection but I have enough essays to assemble two nonfiction collections, one focusing on my mother, an artist, who faded away in her final years from Alzheimer’s.


The second memoir is more about my life, and plays with the idea of time and the importance of brief moments in the shaping of one’s life.


Memory and time are important themes in my work. I ascribe to what Virginia Woolf said in Moments of Being about some moments of really intense feeling standing out from most moments of one’s life that are rather dull, hiding behind a haze of “cotton wool.” 


Though I have a lot of finished essays on both these subjects, I need to configure them and fill in some holes.


I have a partially finished novel, about aging artists, which I hope to return to within the next year. However, I realize I get a lot of inspiration and energy from jumping back and forth between different projects and different subjects. A novel requires a sustained amount of time, where I will probably need to put everything else aside for a while.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Just how fortunate I feel I am to have had (and continue to have) a writing life. Yes, it can be frustrating and few writers make enough money off the actual writing, itself, to live but there are many ancillary things (teaching, readings, etc.) and opportunities. The important thing is how enriching the writing life can be—making and creating.


Finally, I want to mention that if you have a book group or class where you would like me to speak, I would be happy to visit in person if it is a close enough distance, or if it’s not, meet on Zoom.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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