Rachel Cohen Meets with Robert Birnbaum

21 Jan



A Chance Meeting by Rachel Cohen

A Chance Meeting by Rachel Cohen


Rachel Cohen grew up in an academic family in Ann Arbor, Mich., and went on to graduate from Harvard University. Ten years in the writing, parts of her new and first book, A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists (1854-1967), have appeared as [complete] essays in Double Take (which has ceased publication) and Omnivore (Lawrence Weschler’s forthcoming magazine project) as well as the Threepenny Review and McSweeney’s. Cohen has written for the New Yorker and other periodicals, and her essays have appeared in Best American Essays 2003 and 2003’s Pushcart Prize XXVII anthology. The manuscript for A Chance Meeting won the 2003 PEN/Jerard Award. Cohen teaches non-fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn.

The genesis of A Chance Meeting was a solo 19,000-mile automobile trip Cohen took in the early ‘90s—a voyage that did not produce a predictable intellectual travelogue. Instead, based on her reading from the library she kept in her trunk, ‘I ended up spending much more time with the people in my trunk than anyone else. That was when I started to think of these writers as people and they started to come alive. And this is what I made from that trip,’ she says. ‘Those are the things that I read and the way I figured out how to put all the material together.’

Cohen writes vignettes of 30 intertwined lives in 36 chapters, beginning with Henry James and Matthew Brady’s encounter in 1854 and running up to Norman Mailer and Robert Lowell’s in the late ‘60s. In between, we meet William Dean Howells, Annie Adams Fields, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant, W.E.B. DuBois, Gertrude Stein, Willa Cather and others. Marcus Warren wrote in the Telegraph, ‘The book is a virtuoso intellectual history of the mid-19th to mid-20th century, as chronicled by a series of meetings: Some of the encounters are casual, others the start of lifelong friendships, many the fruit of courtships from afar; a few, as Cohen writes in her introduction, were the result of her subjects both ‘standing near the drinks.’

Here’s my A conversation with author Rachel Cohen about her book of road trips and crossed paths, including many of America’s best writers.


All photos copyright © 2016 Robert Birnbaum

* * *

Robert Birnbaum: There are so many directions we can go here, in large part because your book is so original.

Rachel Cohen: Oh, thank you.

RB: I felt liberated by it.

RC: As you should.

RB: How do you feel after having completed this book—now that it’s getting some attention and reviews and you are going out into the big wide world and talking about it?

RC: Well, today is a beautiful day and I feel good, [both laugh] but it varies a lot. Which I think is probably pretty normal, particularly with a first book. It’s all such a new experience. I spent 10 years working on this project. It was incredibly solitary. I was the only one doing it for most of that time. And [pause] it was a very, very personal project, which I think, is maybe slightly different than the experience of lots of non-fiction writers. It’s a little different than writing a book about politics or dinosaurs—

RB:—There are only a couple people who you write about who are still living.

RC: Yeah and I did talk to Norman Mailer and Richard Avedon but not until after I finished the manuscript. So it was a very internal kind of process. And so I have a little bit of the pain that a fiction writer experiences when a book is out in the world—a kind of imaginary world is no longer yours [alone].

RB: Are you prepared for this part of the writer’s work—going out and talking to people like me?

RC: I am getting more used to it. I like talking to people, so that part of it is a pleasure. It’s mostly a shift in conception—of ceasing to think of it as my interior project and starting to think of it as something that’s in the world.



Cover of Omnivore, published by Ren Weschler

Cover of Omnivore, published by Ren Weschler

RB: A piece of this book appeared in DoubleTake magazine. And it appeared in Ren Weschler’s prototype issue of Omnivore. Ten years ago, when you started out writing—was it always going to be a book?

RC: I wanted to write a book of essays. There were always going to be some of these essays, in that book. But I didn’t start out to write this book. I didn’t really know what I was doing when I started— it developed over time. And it was taken apart and put back together again. And it was sent out as proposal and rejected. It was changed. [both laugh] You know, it had a long career before it came to its current state.

RB: Might you qualify something about your description of the book as a 10-year interior project because along the way you had other voices chiming in?

RC: Feedback. Absolutely.

RB: Anybody give you good advice?

RC: Many people. One person from whom I got good advice was [Lawrence] Ren Wechsler,[1] who was really supportive of this idea and me, for a long time. One of the things about him that you can see in Omnivore is the openness and capaciousness of his taste and his interest.

RB: Hence the title of the magazine.

RC: Yeah, you definitely get that feeling about him. And that was helpful to me because it’s important when you are starting out not to feel too confined or too restricted to genres that you are already familiar with. Or ways of putting material together that you have seen other people do. That was quite helpful.

RB: It’s interesting that parts of this book would have been in two publications that had very different views of how to present narratives and information. But they both recognized the value of what you were doing. Shall we say that was a kind of paradox?


RC: It is a funny thing in how many different ways there are to approach what I have been doing. I sometimes have that thought—the other two places that published early versions of these pieces were the Threepenny Review and McSweeney’s, which are also not places that one would ordinarily put together. Although I think they overlap every once in a while. So, yeah, partly because of my interest in photography, I think that those are all periodicals that are interested in visual experience in different ways.

RB: McSweeney’s [the website], other than the cutesy line drawings, never uses photography.

RC: That’s true. But they are visually conceived objects. So I think Dave [Eggers] has a pretty strong visual sensibility and is attentive to visual things. That’s that a commonality with these periodicals. But that is basically a strange thing to be in all those places.

RB: I did scan some of the reviews of A Chance Meeting. And I was irritated by the one in Slate by Meghan O’Rourke [2], even though it was positive and complimentary. I felt as if she was trying to upstage your work. One of those reviews that had to say who wasn’t in the book or what the book wasn’t about—

RC: [laughs]

RB: Or a story that should have been in it.

RC: Although, I actually love that story she referred to, it’s one of my favorites.

RB: Sure, which is why her bringing it up is infuriating. [both laugh]

RC: I had considered putting it in. I guess I wasn’t infuriated by that one. I was pleased in general by the way she handled the book and I do think that one thing about the book is that is an occasion for everybody to say what they think about American culture and how it gets passed on. I am most pleased with the reviews that take seriously that that’s what I was doing. And so I am inclined to forgive anything once [laughs] that’s on the table.

RB: What do you think of the notion that it’s only really what is on the page or in the work that the person makes that has meaning and the rest of it is irrelevant?

RC: That kind of book-versus-the-biography question. Obviously, that’s not true for me. I care much more about the lives of the people and that’s what my own work has mostly been about. But I think that’s a perfectly reasonable way to approach literature. Some of my best friends read that way. And there is a way in which a book has a life of its own—that it is meant to exist independently of its writer. But for me I am always reading books thinking about who wrote them and why they wrote them and what it means to the person who wrote it to write it. So I am interested in the intersection.

RB: There is something about these competing views that I find peculiar. The people that feel it’s only about the work of art seem to me to be more zealous and authoritarian about asserting their correctness. Whereas people for whom biography—

RC: [laughs] Are kind of loose about it…

RB: Yeah. Which makes me wonder about the legitimacy of the zealot’s position.

RC: Right, right.

RB: It don’t think either of them are wrong—it’s a matter of taste

RC: Only one seeks to banish the other. There is also a variation among writers. Different writers or artists seem to ask to be treated in different ways. There are writers who really try to hold their private lives private, burn their papers, and hope for no celebrity in one way or another. And so I can see feeling defensive on behalf of these people. Like, ‘Don’t go prying into that life, that person didn’t want anyone prying into that life.’ Then there are other writers who put their lives forward in a huge and open way.

RB: In this era, other than a few well-known holdouts like Salinger and Pynchon and perhaps David Foster Wallace, it would seem that most writers are hungry for attention and it seems like securing that attention is a subsidiary pursuit—

RC: A professional kind of quality—

RB: In 100 years if somebody is doing a retrospective, will there be anything left to discover?

RC: Yeah, just an endless amount of material as long as emails can still be downloaded. It’s true that ideas of a public figure have changed over the last 100 years. And that the things that everybody talks about—the mass media and the quickness with which people are made into celebrities and the necessity of selling lot of copies of books and all of those things that are going on—certainly put pressure on people to be active public figures.

RB: That seems to remove a couple of layers of specialty and special pleading for writers. What I am trying to say is that there is something implicit about artists having a better grasp of the world as we know it, some elevated perspective and moral acuity—but in point of fact—how different are writers and artists?

RC: A lot of one’s perspective or sense of oneself as an outsider comes from childhood and adolescent experience and so that in a way is fixed before the later—

RB: Before the writerly affectations set in?

RC: [both laugh] Maybe one’s memory and style are developing at that time, too. But you are not on book tour when you are 11. There is maybe a way in which people can still lay claim to that ability to conceive of things from the margins. Part of what gets imposed by a lot of national media is a sense of homogeneity and that we are all in agreement and that everything is sort of monolithic and, in fact, it’s complete chaos. And should be.

RB: Had you considered not going on tour?

RC: I thought about it a little bit. But I was glad to go. I thought it would be interesting to get out and see what people were saying, and it is interesting for me to make that shift. The shift to having a book in public was going to happen regardless, so it didn’t seem to me to be—

RB: I may be collapsing the motivational distinctions. Book touring doesn’t mean the same for every author and every book.

RC: It’s a strange ritual—I am mostly reading at independent bookstores, which I really appreciate, and I like knowing where my book is. In a way, there is something straightforwardly—

RB: You mean actually physically knowing its location on the shelves?

RC: Yeah, to see it on the shelves. See the people and meet the people who are running the bookstore. See the people who go to that bookstore and talk to the people who run the radio programs. You get a feeling for the larger literary world. It’s sort of special to have access to that.

RB: Many people who are coming to readings haven’t read your book?

RC: I tend to think of it as an introduction. So I try to explain a little a bit about what I was thinking about, how I was working, and then I read some of it so they can get a feeling for the atmosphere that I am trying to create.

RB: What do you read?

RC: I read different things. It’s nice to read things that have to do with the place you are in.

RB: Will you be in Ohio?

RC: Michigan and Wisconsin, but not Ohio. When I was in Washington, D.C., I read about Walt Whitman and maybe here tonight I will read about Gertrude Stein and Harvard Yard.

RB: I read somewhere you drove around the United States. And drove an amazing amount of mileage—19,000 miles.

RC: It’s mentioned in the introduction but I don’t think the mileage is mentioned.

RB: That number represents numerous crisscrossings.

RC: Yeah, not just one. It was a long trip and really an interesting one. I had a wonderful time. Mostly I drove back roads, which also puts the mileage on.

RB: How long did it take you?

RC: It was almost a year that I was gone. I spent a few months of that in South Carolina. I was working at a rural HIV clinic. Then I was a little bit more based in South Carolina and driving around.

RB: That’s a tough state.

RC: It was a strange thing, actually. I have never lived in the South. You have to really have a lot of confidence in yourself and your perceptions to go into a place briefly—just for a little while and decide that you have understood it and then get it down on the page. And somebody like de Tocqueville or Steinbeck or William Least Heat-Moon has that kind of quality which is a combination of brilliance and ego, that  can actually do that.

RB: I’m surprised more people don’t hit the road. A lot of information, I think, is lost and falls between the crevices of mainstream reporting.

RC: Yeah, it was partly out of the feeling—which was that when I was in college I had studied mostly European writers. And I had done a semester abroad and I hadn’t really traveled through the U.S. since I drove across the country with my parents in the sixth grade. So I felt like I didn’t really know what was going on or how the world was working out there. And what I found was confusing to me. I didn’t come to a clear sense of what the country was about. And the different meetings I had with different people didn’t add up to a clear story.

RB: How about the story is that the country is big and incoherent?

RC: [both laugh] Exactly. I think that’s important because part of what gets imposed by a lot of national media is a sense of homogeneity and that we are all in agreement and that everything is sort of monolithic and, in fact, it’s complete chaos. And should be. That’s what it was always meant to be. I prefer the feeling that it was multiple and chaotic, to the feeling that I also sometimes had that it was bifurcated and oppositional. There was also a feeling I sometimes had that there were two countries and that they were really at odds with each other. And that was more upsetting.

RB: The former interpretation suggests something natural.

RC: Yes. [laughs]

RB: A state of nature as opposed to the contrivance advanced by hucksters.

RC: Which feels politicized and dangerous, in a way.

RB: Richard Reeves [in American Journey] [3]did a follow-up to [Alexis] de Tocqueville’s trip and retraced that original journey and extended his travels to the West coast in 1981 [150 years later]. Why didn’t you write a book based on your own trip?

RC: I think I did. The book I wrote was based on that trip.

RB: Shall I use an overused word, it ‘informed’ this book?

RC: [laughs] Yeah, words like ‘oblique ‘ and ‘tangential’ come to mind.

RB: You were talking to the gas station attendant in South Dakota and he remarked on something about Willa Cather?

RC: Right, exactly, how Annie Adams Field had really contributed to his sense of—I mean, I did try to write a book about that. That’s what I was doing in the year that I was out there. I thought the book was there to be written but I found it very hard to do.

Rachel Cohen [photo Robert Birnbaum]

Rachel Cohen [photo Robert Birnbaum]

RB: What does it mean that  road trip books were written by all men? I can’t think of one woman who has written a road book. Is it a men’s genre?

RC: It is. It’s a very masculine genre. Which I realized when I was out there. How do people do this? And then I thought, ‘Oh, they are willing to say, ‘I am right about this based on my one hour of experience.’’

RB: Or perhaps it’s a masculine trait to accept one’s first impressions?

RC: [both laugh] I don’t know about that. And also there are practical considerations. Like it’s safer [for men]. I was traveling alone. And I had one of those huge cell phones my mother had bought me because I needed to be somewhat safe. It made it harder to be out at night. There are all sorts of experiences that you are limited from.

RB: Steinbeck took a dog with him.

RC: That’s the thing to do. I think Charley was a good thing to have for Steinbeck, and I didn’t have a dog. In answer to your earlier question, what I found was that things that I could piece together about American inheritance were in books rather than in diners. But that trip did make me conscious of the wideness of the country and its experience and the variety of personality.

RB: [One might say] it’s a grand categorical error to say that it is one country.

RC: Yeah. It is each person’s invention and that may be, more than other countries, that it prides itself on becoming invented by each of its inhabitants. I did try to keep that in mind in working on the book.

RB: One of the things I enjoyed about the essays in A Chance Meeting were the flights of fancy. Walt Whitman gets on a tram and runs in to a guy he is very enamored of—you recreate his interior response. Clearly, you couldn’t know that but it seems correct and there is no reason to doubt it. Why did you think you had the license to do that?

RC: Chutzpah. [both laugh] Obviously, it has that quality. Also, I did hold myself to a pretty rigorous standard. Part of how I did it was by making guesses and seeing if I found confirmation of them. Like I started to have sense that Marianne Moore cared a lot about whether people were really on time. And so I had Elizabeth Bishop coming to meet her and Elizabeth Bishop was often late. I decided to make that—Bishop was in a hurry because she was afraid she was going to be late. And then I found a letter from Moore to somebody else saying that she was really enjoying knowing Elizabeth Bishop, despite the fact that she was always late. Then I thought, ‘Great, I got it. That’s the right tension.’ Then I found George Plimpton’s essay on Marianne Moore, in which he said she wore two watches because she was so obsessed with being on time. By that point I felt like my position was really a good one—it was very much in character for those two people. And in the example that you brought up, there is so much information about Whitman and Peter Doyle and the fact that Doyle was an omnibus conductor and they used to ride the bus together and that Whitman always liked that kind of transportation, public transportation. He loved the Brooklyn ferry and used to ride the horse cars and help the conductors. That was a kind of being a part of large groups of people that he really loved. I knew it was a good setting for him. A setting that was responsible to his actual preferences. Had I decided to imagine Walt Whitman having tea at an expensive hotel it would have felt like I had taken an unnecessary and hopeless license.

RB: There is another scene where someone is dropped off—Joseph Cornell, and he, Carl Van Vechten is sitting in his car. No, it’s Charlie Chaplin—

RC: Charlie Chaplin drops off Hart Crane.

RB: So I got both people wrong [both laugh]

RC: But the setting, you had [right].

RB: That moment with Chaplin sitting back and ruminating, let me repeat, was a charming scene. Indisputable, but clearly a fiction. And yet nothing to find fault with.

RC: That’s nice, yeah.

RB: The charm of your book, I thought, is the wonderful interweaving also of factual information and conjecture. What do you call this, ‘imaginary non-fiction’?

RC: ‘Imaginative.’

RB: Why do so many fiction writers have such scorn for what they call creative non-fiction?

RC: Most fundamentally, it’s a kind of ethical question. And like all ethical questions, it’s almost impossible to articulate. [laughs] But really it’s sort of like the problem that comes up around an Oliver Stone movie.

RB: There are problems with Oliver Stone’s movies?

RC: [both laugh] There is an uneasiness, maybe.

RB: I thought it was his bombasticity.

RC: [more laughter] He’s not so important to this argument. [laughs] Just that here can be a feeling when you see something which is historical and you feel doesn’t quite represent what you think was the case. And you feel like everyone is going to get that version of the story…

RB: What’s the difference between Oliver Stone, who we have decided is not really important to this argument, and Thomas Mallon’s Henry and Clara? It’s based on the couple who shared Lincoln’s theater box the night of his assassination. They are real people. Is the story real as Mallon tells it? What difference does it make?

RC: That’s a novel. It’s a little bit different. That’s not saying this is a book of history in which you can trust the writer to be telling you what the research has been.

RB: The problem the fiction writer has is the claim made by non-fiction of total factual accuracy. And that it is entirely accurate, certain speculative leaps notwithstanding.

RC: It’s a question of what the reader can trust the writer to have substantiated according to whatever historical standards of research and what is being suggested or elaborated around the edges. All biographers are imagining. A lot of it is guesswork. You are trying to figure out what the character of the person—no matter how much evidence you have, you are still telling a story and you are still shifting the perspective. So, it’s usually a specious kind of distinction between what’s imaginative and what’s not. On the other hand I felt really responsible that people should know—a college student is reading this and they are using it for their paper and they should know what I knew and what I didn’t know. So that there is an ethical question about how you convey to your reader and it can be very subtle, I think, how you convey that this part, you wouldn’t necessarily quote.

RB: Were there pieces that you left out?

RC: There were other attempts that didn’t work out. There were other structures that didn’t give much in the way of a return.

RB: How about people?

RC: Oh yeah. There were things that I was fascinated by—the fact that U.S. Grant and James McNeil Whistler had the same drawing professor at West Point. I couldn’t get over that. I thought that was so great and strange. So, then I tried for a while to build something around that drawing teacher and I tried to get Whistler in but it was hard because he was in England. I read a lot of biographies of Whistler.

RB: Are there a lot?

RC: There are. I read three.

RB: That’s a lot.

RC: Yeah, [especially] for not writing about him. And then there were [additional] pieces between people who were in the book I considered. I wanted to write about W.E.B. DuBois and Zora Neal Hurston because I thought they would be really interesting together. They worked on this theater project together called the Krigwa Players. I thought maybe—there would have been a little bit of a gender issue. There would have been a little bit of an age issue. There would have been some tension. She was kind of raucous, in some ways. And sometimes he [DuBois] disapproved of that. So I felt that there was a piece in there but there wasn’t quite enough information and I couldn’t get it to emerge, so I let it go. Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore both had that quality of not breaking with people. They stayed friends with everyone they were friends with for a very long time—complicated people that other people fought with, they really kept knowing.

RB: One character/person who I knew pretty much nothing about was U.S. Grant, other than his reputation as a drunk. When I scanned the list of people you dealt with I couldn’t make out why he was there?

RC: I wanted him for many reasons. I thought he was a very fine writer, so that his memoir belonged with the memoirs of the other people who were in the book. He was a literary influence on Gertrude Stein, so that built him in.

RB: Was Grant originally someone you intended or was he a discovery?

RC: He was an early discovery. I actually went to Vicksburg on that drive around the country and bought his memoirs there and was reading them on that trip. That was how I found out that Mark Twain had published them. That really was the first piece that I started to think about writing—that friendship, which seemed so strange to me. Yeah, so he was there from the beginning, always in the project.

RB: I went to Twain’s grave in Elmira, N.Y., on Memorial Day in 2001 and I was so pissed off by what I found—there were broken beer bottles and garbage, why would anyone do that? So, 10 years in the making, now you are out in the world. Have you even thought about what’s next?

RC: I have thought about it a little bit. I am writing a piece on John Stuart Mill and Thomas Carlyle for the New Yorker which I think is amusing, to me anyway, so far.

RB: Why is it amusing?

RC: They had a tempestuous friendship and a terrible falling out.

RB: Why is the New Yorker interested in a piece on Mill and Carlyle?

RC: [laughs] I’m in the fortunate position of having a little tiny niche at the New Yorker for writer’s nightmares, that’s my—[both laugh] I did a piece for them last fall that was called ‘The Very Bad Review’ [4] which was about a terrible review that Edmund Gosse was given by John Trenton Collins in 1886, a life-destroying review, and this is the story of the time that Stuart Mills’s charlady inadvertently burnt the first draft of Thomas Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution.

RB: Whoops. [both laugh] That would cause a storm to ensue.

RC: It’s nice to have a project to be working on. I am thinking more about European writers and painters. Probably really 20th-century ones, although this [New Yorker] piece is early in the 19th century.

RB: Do you have any concerns that the things you are interested in pursuing and writing about are coincident with the tastes of book publishers and magazine editors?

RC: You mean, what I do seems fairly obscure? [laughs]

RB: I didn’t say that.

RC: It seems to be turning out all right.

RB: Has it been a concern of yours?

RC: Oh, I see. Not really, no. I don’t know why that is.

RB: Well, at this point, why would it? You have gotten a book published.

RC: Yeah, but there was a little period when the stuff wasn’t getting published, and when the proposal version of it went out a couple of years ago, [it] was rejected by eight people or something like that.

RB: Your agent, Eric Simonoff is Edward Jones’s agent.

RC: Yeah, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s. He has a very fine eye, I really think. And he has a really nice way of staying with people for a long time as they are working. So I went to his office many years ago, now, and distinctly remember him saying, ‘We take the long view. Just go and do your work.’

RB: One might say that by your credentials that you are essentially an academic popularizing or that your interests are more skewed to the scholarly than mainstream culture. So here you are trying to get your work into print and you go to an agent.

Rachel Cohen [photo Robert Birnbaum]

Rachel Cohen [photo Robert Birnbaum]

RC: I was always a creative writer. My materials are historical, but I have no graduate degree. I never considered going to graduate school. I do work that overlaps with scholarly work, but it’s always about structure and language and creating a story and artistic concerns. My conception of my work has always been as creative work even though some of the raw materials are used by academics. Going to an agent was a thing I would obviously have done as a creative writer, yeah. You just never know what’s going to happen. I am surprised at the range of people who have read the book and have been interested in it.

RB: That would be another lesson from the great publishing lottery. Is it books that you are really interested in creating, in writing?

RC: Yeah, it is. I like writing short pieces and their challenges and the formal questions but I was so astonished by the possibilities of writing a book as I was doing it. It was just extraordinary to have that much space and be working on that many levels at once.

RB: Who was your editor?

RC: Eileen Smith, who was also a blessing. She’s a wonderful editor and she was also a very big advocate of the book, which is incredibly important.

RB: Was this book contracted under the [Ann] Godoff regime at Random House?

RC: Just after. Two days after she was fired. It was a tiny risk to go to Random House at that moment when everything was sort of unsettled. But I loved the people that I met there, and I felt like they really took the book seriously.

RB: Despite a natural inclination to vilify the conglomerates and their drones, it’s hard to look at anybody in the book business as totally evil [Peter Olson excepted] and most of the time they are really good people and they are just sort of—

RC: Doing the best they can. Yeah, that’s been my sense also. I really had a wonderful experience there. I had fantastic copy editing and really great design and they were very supportive of making the book a beautiful book—which is a real pleasure. And then I would talk to young publicity assistants who read it and were telling me they were reading the novels of William Dean Howells because of my book. That was so gratifying. It was so nice.

RB: They actually did something with the end papers of A Chance Meeting.

RC: Yeah, they put my drawings there. I don’t know that it’s more important that books be special now than any other time but anything that feels—I love having my drawing there because it has my handwriting in it—it feels a little more handmade and that is a really nice feeling.

RB: Books shouldn’t be less substantial then they were. I read a piece earlier this year in the British press complaining that books weren’t being made very well. Saying they are made of acid-free paper seems to be the major thing.

RC: Right. [laughs] Instead of, ‘It’s a beautiful book.’ On the other hand, there is really good book design being done. If you walk into a bookstore and you look at new releases, it’s astonishing how much more attractive the books are than they were 10 or 15 years ago.

RB: So did we determine what you are doing next?

RC: No, we didn’t. Because I haven’t. But I am, as I hesitatingly suggested, moving toward thinking about European people. I am not sure how many languages I would have to learn in order to do that. I have some of those languages, but not all, that I would want.

RB: The kind of thing that you have done here, though not as obviously, is more like what Europeans do?

RC: I don’t know if it’s exactly close to anything although it might be a little closer to a British tradition of biographical essay. But I am not thinking to do something that is too much like what I have done here. I’d like to make something else. It is true, particularly these kinds of historical continuity, are something self-evident in Europe in a way that it isn’t always here.

RB: Americans are by and large ahistorical.

RC: In some ways—

RB: Except for holidays.

RC: Yeah, which do have a commercial element about them.

RB: My conversations over the years lead to connections within a culture that may be described as frail—do you know what I am trying to say?

RC: ‘Frail’ isn’t a bad word. There is something at least very precious about them and very sustaining, I think, for all of us and it’s been interesting to me—that’s a part of the pleasure of giving interviews. People who do interviews have a feeling, like the photographers in my book did, about what you can accomplish with somebody in a room in an hour or twenty minutes or whatever it is. It is a little like a photo shoot. You are trying to get what’s characteristic of the person in a quick amount of time and you can do that quite well and really feel that you know something pretty profound about a person in that amount of time. So what you are saying doesn’t surprise me. From looking at the [Identitytheory] website I have a sense of your having built a collection of interview subjects. And that is very sustaining and the overlap and interweavings and reoccurrences are a pleasure.

RB: You point to someone as working very hard to maintain their friendships. They didn’t give up on them. And I found that to be so admirable and unusual. My sense of people today is that they are ready to dump their so-called friends—

RC: At any minute. [laughs]” I’m out of here”, that’s it.

RB: It’s a wonder any of these people were friends with anyone.

RC: [laughs] I know, it’s so hard. It’s a challenge to know anybody else in the world. But I think I think that’s part of the reason that I chose the people I did—it is because a lot of them had a talent for friendship, and they also were people who made their families out of their friends. Kind of found families for themselves in that way. People whose own families were difficult or who didn’t marry in a traditional way, didn’t have children. So their friends were very, very central and supported them in their lives and that was important to me because then there was in each of the pieces the little studies of those situations. There was a real vibrancy and there was a lot at stake.

RB: I like that phrase, ‘a talent for friendship.’ Well, I don’t know how long it’s going to take for your next tome,[5] but I hope we are both around to talk about it.

RC: Thank you. I hope so too. That would be great.




1 One of my conversations with  Ren Weschler

2. Megan O Rourke’s Slate review of A Chance Meeting

3 My conversation with Richard Reeves

4. The Very Bad Review’ by Rachel Cohen

5  My most recent chat with Rachel Cohen.


One Response to “Rachel Cohen Meets with Robert Birnbaum”


  1. Not A Chance Meeting: Me and Rachel Cohen | ourmaninboston - January 25, 2016

    […] Some ten years ago, as happens occasionally, I chanced upon A Chance Meeting  that, to this day, remains one of my favorite books. And which was sufficient motivation to arrange to speak with its author, Rachel Cohen (you can find that conversation here […]

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