Not A Chance Meeting: Me and Rachel Cohen

25 Jan



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

Rachel Cohen [photo by Robert Birnbaum]

Rachel Cohen [photo by Robert Birnbaum]

  In the fall of 2014, Rachel Cohen authored a slender biography of famed art historian Bernard Berenson and  she and met again to conversate about her book and many related and unrelated  topics. In the decade between chats w she has had two children, received a Guggenheim for the writing she is doing about painting, Time in Pieces: Painting Modern Life. And in the fall of this year her family migrates to the South Side of Chicago where she takes an appointment as a Professor of Practice in Creative Writing at the University of Chicago. Additionally she is contributing to the Virginia Quarterly Review’s instagram feed.



Robert Birnbaum:  What do you want to talk about?

Rachel Cohen: (laughter)

Robert Birnbaum: I put you on the spot, sorry. That was a serious question, though. I do want to know what you wanted to talk about.

Rachel Cohen: Probably about painting. In a way, the thing that I’m doing now is spending a lot of time going to look at paintings. That’s one of the things that is connected to this book, but then it kind of goes on.

Robert Birnbaum: You live in a good place for that. There’s a lot of museums and  galleries  here.

Rachel Cohen: It’s wonderful.

Robert Birnbaum: Are there many contemporary collections of paintings here? People still paint, right?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah, people do, although less and with less attention given to it. Yeah, there’s some, and there are a lot good galleries here and the Institute of Contemporary Art. There is contemporary stuff, but a lot of what I’m looking at is historical. This is a great place for that. It’s fantastic.

Robert Birnbaum: What period?

Rachel Cohen: I’m especially looking at impressionist painting. That makes everybody feel like, “Oh, I stopped looking at those when I was thirteen, and there was a reason.”

Robert Birnbaum: It’s passe isn’t it?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. They are. They’re too sweet.

Robert Birnbaum: But, they’re always really popular.Every couple of years a major museum will have a major Impressionist exhibition.

Rachel Cohen: Exactly. Lines going around the block. Everybody who never goes to museums goes, and everybody who does go to museums disdains those shows.

Robert Birnbaum:  You’re interested in paintings meaning that you want to write about paintings?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. That’s what I’m doing now. It’s something I’ve always done. When I first moved to New York, when I got a job, the first thing I did was buy a membership to the Metropolitan Museum, which was largely symbolic. You don’t actually have to pay for the museum. (laughter)

Robert Birnbaum: Did they give you a membership card? That’s a good thing.

Rachel Cohen: I have a card.

Robert Birnbaum: When I traveled abroad I would  go to the press office to get a press credential even though I never used them there [I more often used them locally].

Rachel Cohen: It’s that kind of thing. I  do want to feel  part of the painting world. When I lived in New York I went to the Met basically every week for almost seventeen years. It was a longstanding kind of a thing to really be looking at paintings in a very serious way.

Robert Birnbaum: Let me refresh my memory of you— you took a ten thousand mile trip around the country?

Rachel Cohen: It was actually closer to twenty thousand, but yeah that’s right.

Robert Birnbaum: You were very modest. (laughter) That  trip preceded your first book .


A Chance Meeting by Rachel Cohen

A Chance Meeting by Rachel Cohen

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. A Chance Meeting. That’s right.[ 1]

Robert Birnbaum: We met about ten years ago, twelve years ago? It was to talk about that book.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. Ten years ago, nine years ago.

Robert Birnbaum:What are your memories and impressions of that trip, ten years later now that you’re married and you have a child Do you have flashbacks of the trip? Do you think about that trip?

Rachel Cohen: All the way back. Yeah, I do. For me the trip is now actually twenty years ago because it took me ten years to write that book. It’s  been so long. Things get farther and farther back. Yes, I do think about that trip. I took some subsequent book trips too. I used to do that, go for several months and kind of get away. Those trips were very helpful and informative, just to get immersed in your own mind, another way of thinking, to get away once a year.

Robert Birnbaum: A gutsy thing for…

Rachel Cohen: A single woman…

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: I would worry about driving through certain rural areas.

Rachel Cohen: Yes. When I did that trip my mother gave me a —

Robert Birnbaum: —Your mother? (laughs)

Rachel Cohen: My mother worried.

Robert Birnbaum: She gave you her shotgun? (laughter)

Rachel Cohen: That’s a good idea. No, she gave me a cell phone. It was twenty years ago so it was one of those giant things that basically took up the passenger seat of the car for… (laughter)

Robert Birnbaum: Don’t make me laugh when I’m drinking coffee, alright?

Rachel Cohen: It never worked all that well but it was some security for me to have it and for her.

Robert Birnbaum: Did you find that you were in places where you were fearful?

Rachel Cohen: I was, at the time, nervous. I was nervous. I developed some habits as I went, that were things that I learned to do that made it more comfortable. One was that I stopped staying in Motel 6s and started staying in family run motels because those felt like safer places and there were people who felt ownership who were running them.

Robert Birnbaum: You’ve got to write a traveler’s guide.

Rachel Cohen: (laughs)  When I would check in I would ask for a room next to the night desk. The closest room  because often those places would be empty but then I would know there was somebody there within shouting distance. Those things made me feel more safe.

Robert Birnbaum: What is the most prominent memory of this? What is thing that you always think about when you think about

Rachel Cohen: That trip?

Robert Birnbaum: Is there one thing?

Rachel Cohen: I don’t know. I have different memories of…

Robert Birnbaum: Do they suddenly appear out of nowhere sometimes? All of sudden something triggers a thought about a particular

Rachel Cohen: About a place or something?

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. They do come to me at different moments. Especially landscapes because it’s very hard to write about landscape and I took these very inadequate snapshots as I was going through this huge western spaces.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah.

Rachel Cohen: I was having these incredible experiences of being immersed in the horizon.

Robert Birnbaum: That’s why [Ansel]Adams [2] used an eight by ten [large format]camera.



Ansel Adams, Jeffrey Pine, 1940

Ansel Adams, Jeffrey Pine, 1940

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. Exactly. Much bigger and kind of a plain. Or video or something, like David Hockney compilations, but recently I was talking to a friend of mine who’s writing a book that’s set in the West. It’s a book of history.

Robert Birnbaum: About what?

Rachel Cohen: It’s about a man who was part of reconstruction after the Civil War and left that job and ended up in the army fighting the Indian War in the west. So he was  part of these two terrible things that were happening right after the Civil War. As we were talking about this I suddenly remembered going to the Nez Perce reservation in Idaho, what that was like and the museum there and what I had seen and what I had learned about that place. It turned out that he had just spent several weeks on the Nez Perce reservation and was surprised to discover that there was somebody else that he knew who had been there. It seems remote.

Robert Birnbaum: A White person?

Rachel Cohen: No the place not something that people study, but it was a really interesting place and while I was there I bought a book that was in the museum gift shop there called With the Nez Perce, which I think is, fantastically, out-of-print at this point. May be get-able.

Robert Birnbaum: Right.

Rachel Cohen: It was a book about two women who had been trying to administer the land grants for the Nez Perce as they were force-ably converted from a roving people to what was supposed to be agricultural in a land that was wildly unsuited for agriculture.

Robert Birnbaum: You know what  General Philip Sheridan said about Indian reservations?

Rachel Cohen: No.

Robert Birnbaum: “Worthless pieces of land surrounded by scoundrels.”

Rachel Cohen: Yeah,exactly. You still have that feeling when you’re there.

Robert Birnbaum: Amazing. We’re still screwing those people.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. It’s a hideous … It’s terrible.  Yeah. It’s really astonishing that it goes on. Those were the kinds of things that it was very good for me to drive around the country and run into them. I grew up in  a college town, went to school out here. East coast life, and  one can easily stay in a metropolitan corridor and not really encounter things.

Robert Birnbaum: How do think this notion of the “fly over zone “originated? Where did that originate? (laughter) Had to originate on the east coast from people who never leave the east coast?

Rachel Cohen:Like a Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover.


Saul Steinberg, detail from New Yorker cover

Saul Steinberg, detail from New Yorker cover

Robert Birnbaum: Did you see paintings when you…? You said you were interested in painting from a very young age, so was that something that you also had a chance to partake in

Rachel Cohen: I didn’t do so much of that during that trip.

Robert Birnbaum: You were focused on?

Rachel Cohen: I was more looking at landscape and going to small museums, but tending to be museums of personality and museums about particular people. Billy the Kid, or else the Native American museums. I remember seeing some good paintings in Austin, and seeing some good things in Los Angeles when I went through those cities. Mostly I was in rural places.

Robert Birnbaum: I’m fascinated by these quirky museums that exist around the country. There’s a Lucille Ball Museum in Jamestown, New York. Also there’s a guy, years ago, who contacted me who had a 1968 museum up in New Hampshire. He just would accumulate all sorts of things contemporaneous to 1968,

Rachel Cohen: These  are different ways of collecting our past. Also, part of my interest is in the more regular painting museum. It’s a strange thing, a museum. It’s really an invention of the last couple hundred years. Previously there were palaces. With lots of paintings in them, but the idea of a public museum that was open…

Robert Birnbaum: What was the first museum do you think?

Rachel Cohen: Let’s see, the Louvre became public at the time of Napoleon because his idea was  to return the collections to the people a little bit. That was circa 1800.

Robert Birnbaum: Were the people in charge  of the Louvre, were they actually curators? Or were they something else?

Rachel Cohen: The people under Napoleon are hilarious, actually. They’re connoisseurs and a lot of them knew really a lot about painting, but they were also bandits… (laughter)

Robert Birnbaum: Do you ever see yourself writing another book that’s as unique and original as A  Chance Meeting?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah.That’s what I’m working on. I’m working on these two books. One is a novel and the other is a book about paintings.

Robert Birnbaum: Your dust jacket bio states you are a creative writing teacher, but I only know you to write non-fiction. But now you’re writing a novel?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah, I’ve been writing it for seven years, so I’m seriously about it. It’s a ways from being done yet. Both of these new projects are creative. This Berenson book, which I really enjoyed writing, was a commission. I was happy to have some work. It was a nice thing to do and I ended up learning a lot of things that are valuable to me. It certainly was a book with a traditional form prescribed by the series[Yale University Press Jewish Lives series. It wasn’t possible to be too flexible with this one.

 Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade by Rachel Cohen

Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade
by Rachel Cohen


Robert Birnbaum: I have to confess,  Berenson is  an interesting figure and seems like he’s a decent person but I find it hard to get interested  in a guy sitting around an Italian villa and living the good life . Tell me , do you think the book’s cover photo is posed ?

Rachel Cohen: I think it’s posed. Yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s a perfect little picture, but it’s just, uncanny.

Rachel Cohen: There’s artifice in everything that he does. That’s correct.

Robert Birnbaum: I did think it was interesting that he said late in his life, something about making himself a work of art. That’s what he was working on?

Rachel Cohen: He came of age in an aesthetic generation where that was a project. An Oscar Wilde sort of project to have an aesthetic of yourself. I found that interesting too. I think in the end what I stayed interested in thinking about him was two things. One was that all of that elaborate fancy material was, for him, a compensation for the lack of his early life. That’s actually a common story. Many people have deprivation early on and are then making up for it in their later life. I  also thought there was something about the experiences of prejudice in his story. He ended up on the far end of the elite, that’s definitely true, but it was interesting to me that his fierce ambition to have all of that stuff came from the absence of it.

Robert Birnbaum: Somebody at Harvard said he had more ambition than he had ability.

Rachel Cohen: Charles Eliot Norton,who was born in the elite and happily ensconced there.

Robert Birnbaum: It reminded me of something, that Justice Felix Frankfurter said about Roosevelt—” he was a first class personality and a second class mind.” That’s giving with one hand and then taking with the other

Rachel Cohen: Then you take hard. I think of  what H.L. Mencken  said about Baltimore— City of Southern Efficiency and Northern Charm.

Robert Birnbaum: How old’s your daughter?

Rachel Cohen: She’s eighteen months.She’s a year and a half. She’s a sweet one.

Robert Birnbaum: What’s her name?

Rachel Cohen: Sylvia.

Robert Birnbaum: Needless to say, that changes things for you.

Rachel Cohen: This changes your life pretty fundamentally.Beautifully. It’s very nice. I’ve been going to museums with her too. Which has been a very sweet thing. You can learn a lot by doing that. We had a nice experience the other day. We went to the Children’s Museum and we had actually mostly been going to the MFA. I’d been taking her there , letting her see stuff and then play outside.

Robert Birnbaum: Did she look at the walls? Did she look at the paintings on the walls? Did she actually look at them?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. She will look at them and find stuff in them. Especially statues, she likes because you can see them in the round and it’s easy to understand, but actually paintings— she likes a lot. She like the colors. She has a good eye for color and she likes to say all the colors that she can see.

Robert Birnbaum: What do you think she sees?

Rachel Cohen: She sees the things assembling into forms. She sees color assemble into forms.

Robert Birnbaum: What does she describe? Given she has an eighteen month old vocabulary, so what does she describe?

Rachel Cohen: She actually has a huge vocabulary. (laughter)

Robert Birnbaum: Put a dictionary under her pillow… In the Dominican Republic they put baseball mitts in the babies’ cribs.

Rachel Cohen: A dictionary —something like that. She says, “Boat. Cloud. Momma. Baby.” Things that she sees.

Robert Birnbaum: So from the very first you didn’t baby talk her. You pretty much talk sentences to her.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: Are you capable of baby talking? (laughter)

Rachel Cohen: Maybe not. Maybe not. Might not be. I might be one of those people without that ability.

Robert Birnbaum: You learn what your limitations are at some point. Even though it seems like a common thing. I didn’t do it either. Now I sometimes do it with my dog. He’s such a child. You’re going to view paintings, do you paint yourself?

Rachel Cohen: No, I don’t. I draw a little bit, just to understand.

Robert Birnbaum: Did you aspire to paint? Never even tried it?

Rachel Cohen: No.

Robert Birnbaum: You knew right away?

Rachel Cohen: I guess so. I never really tried it but drawing I like and I’ve taken a few drawing classes.

Robert Birnbaum: You take photographs?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. That’s been a strange thing about going, recently. I’m keeping this notebook online about looking at paintings, which I hadn’t done before. I’m making these sketches and writing online—which I love doing and I hadn’t expected to love it as much as I do. It’s really nice writing online. I see why you do it.

Robert Birnbaum:  I hate the word ‘blog’.There’s something essentially ugly about the word

Rachel Cohen: I think so too.  I think that’s right. I’ve been calling it a notebook because I never liked that word[blog]. ‘Notebook’ has a long tradition and there are reasons for keeping notebooks. Artists kept them and people going to look at paintings have always kept notes.

Robert Birnbaum: Do you have people who respond to the things you write?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. Usually by writing to me directly. Not so much by commenting on the site. I get responses, sometimes from strangers, and also sometimes I get letters from friends or students who I haven’t been in touch with in a long time. Often about something they’ve seen. That’s really wonderful. I didn’t expect that to be part of it. I’m writing these little essays, basically. They write me one back. It’s really nice. My notebook entries end up being letters from Cambridge or something, and I get letters back. It’s very nice.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s hard to figure out what one’s expectations are . Of course, you want people to read your stuff and  to interact with you about it. That’s a wish— in reality, when you write this online, you don’t know. It’s hard to say where it enters the public conversation.

Rachel Cohen: I’m curious what you think about that. You’ve been doing it for a while and you’ve shifted forms a little bit too. You’ve gotten more compact over time.

Robert Birnbaum: I found my… I don’t want to say my concentration is limited, because it’s not. I only can do the same kind of thing for ten or fifteen hours a week. I have distinct moments where I want to spend thinking and writing, I like to think. It’s an indulgence. I also use my online journal to publish interviews that I don’t want to justify to an editor…I love that we’re talking about me.

.Rachel Cohen: I noticed that you don’t do it that much but it’s a chance for me.

Robert Birnbaum: Actually, I try to excise my part of a conversation because readers might think, “I thought this was an interview?”

Rachel Cohen:  It’s nice. It s eccentric what you do and there used to be more places for it. Many of the kinds of writing that we are fans of, there were more places for them.

Robert Birnbaum: I think there still are a lot. I really do. At least more than I can keep up with. I look at places like the LA Review of Books, Lapham’s Quarterly, The Baffler,  N + 1McSweeney’s and TomDispatch.

Rachel Cohen: I also think that people make mistakes about circulation in retrospect. They miss X,Y,Z,  magazine, the old New Yorker or something like that. They think, “Oh, everybody read that.” In fact, it had a circulation of ten thousand. Not so many people read it. The current literary magazines are also reaching that kind of range of people.

Robert Birnbaum:There is also the importance of archiving the past on the Internet.  Both the Atlantic and Harper’s have archived their past,  from the nineteenth century, on line?

Rachel Cohen: It’s really wonderful. It used to be you published something in a fairly obscure place and if people didn’t buy that issue, that was that. Now it’s online, or you can put it up yourself and then it’s there forever. These small magazine can have a lot of influence and wonderful writing can be found in those places and come into the world. I’m really liking writing for the web. I’m an old fashioned person. I live mostly in the nineteenth century. I’m often out of the technological world. But I’ve found that I really love it. This is what I started to say, that when I go to look at paintings now, because I know I’m going to post about them, I take my iPhone and I take lots of little pictures. Not just of the whole painting but lots of the details of the painting.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s produces more what your eye is seeing

Rachel Cohen: Exactly.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s one thing to show the whole painting. I can look that up. Is that right?

Rachel Cohen: I can show the process of how I’m looking at it, what I’m seeing. How the details are in relation to one another. That’s a much closer communication. It’s more like actually going to a museum with my reader than what I’m able to do in print.

Robert Birnbaum: You just called yourself a nineteenth century person. I know what you’re saying, but I always wonder, and I especially wonder about people who are literate is what’s your cultural diet? Do you know who  Sarah Silverman is?

Rachel Cohen: Yes.

Robert Birnbaum: You know who Rhianna is?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. Thank you for giving me a couple that I can get.

Robert Birnbaum: Tupac?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. Definitely. Definitely.

Robert Birnbaum: To me all these things are floating around, and I do partake. Netflix. It’s a bane and it’s a benefit. Itunes, no, Spotify. Where you can almost any piece of recorded music. You have available to you, if you wanted, all this information. I wonder if generations behind them avail themselves of this stuff or if they just stay focused on certain fractured windows of genre?

Rachel Cohen: It’s true, in part, what I mean when I say I’m a nineteenth century person is that I value certain kinds of continuity. I like the long history of things. That comes up to the present. It’s not that I’m missing the present, it’s that I’m not forgetting the past or something.


Robert Stone [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Stone [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Birnbaum: I was impressed by Robert Stone’s [4] latest novel Death of the Black Haired Girl in that, here’s a guy in his late seventies. His book takes place a little bit after September eleventh. Maybe within two or three years, but there was no temporal references that were wrong. There were enough citations of contemporary life that he referenced. His cultural antennae  were acute— that may become more rare.

Rachel Cohen: I think great fiction writers are very alert to the world around them and if they’re not experiencing it directly, they’re still watching how other people are experiencing it so that they’re not- What somebody in their twenties feels is not of no interest to them now that they’re seventy. They still care about how people are taking the world in. I hope, aspire, to be that kind of person.

Robert Birnbaum: To what kind of music do you listen ?

Rachel Cohen: I mostly listen to classical music and I do listen to contemporary classical music, but

Robert Birnbaum: You listen to lots of contemporary music?

Rachel Cohen: No. I listen to a lot of Bach, but I do

Robert Birnbaum: I always wonder when I see a biography of a  world historical person —hasn’t anybody written enough?

Rachel Cohen: And everything about them?

Robert Birnbaum: One of the things I think is useful about your book and the series is that it’s obviates not having to read these six or seven hundred page tomes filled with endless details. I don’t find them helpful.

Rachel Cohen:  That was one of the interesting things about writing this book was thinking, “How do you make a biography interesting?” As a form, this thing that we accept about biography are pretty dull. (laughter)

Robert Birnbaum: What the subject ate when he was five years old…

Rachel Cohen: There’s the grandparents and jobs that the parents had, and the education. It’s so tedious. There’s the train they took to Geneva and what time the train got there. Then there’s the death scene, and then there’s the legacy.

Robert Birnbaum: There is one major biography of Berenson [editor:subsequently I discovered there are two].

Rachel Cohen: I used it religiously.

Robert Birnbaum: You had to read it.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. Over and over. With hundreds of little sticky notes and all that stuff because you’re reducing that and reinterpreting it.

Robert Birnbaum: Giving it a narrative as opposed to—

Rachel Cohen: Exactly. You want to make it the story of a life.  And the other thing is that lives don’t really make stories. When fiction writers make stories, they’re deliberately making lots of choices about what they’re including. Great narrative is not soup to nuts. It doesn’t really go from birth to death.

Robert Birnbaum: We barely can connect the things in our own lives as we’re living them.

Rachel Cohen: Exactly.You try to make a narrative. We’re desperately trying to make narratives of our lives. That’s the interesting thing in biography. You think, “How do you relate the different things?”, so that you come out with something thats  propulsive so you want to keep  finding out what happens and that the things at the beginning seem connected to the things at the end. because they may not, in a life, feel that connected.

Robert Birnbaum: I thought you did a splendid job of concising how he managed to survive Italy and the War. I was surprised that he had champions that slowed the bureaucratic process down.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: That was interesting to me. There is a rough connection in my recent interest in Stefan Zweig [6]  Two people who were exiles…

Rachel Cohen: That’s right. They were similar also in their commitment to a European culture that was, especially a Jewish internationalist position, after the first war. They were of the same milieu in that period between wars.

Robert Birnbaum: Did they ever meet, do you think? Both of them met everybody.

Rachel Cohen: Everybody.

Robert Birnbaum: They were the hubs of culture.

Rachel Cohen: I think that they did meet, although I couldn’t swear to that. I have a way of checking, but I know that Berenson read Zweig.

Robert Birnbaum: Do you find it interesting that he’s not read today?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. I do. Although I think he’s coming back a little bit.

Robert Birnbaum: Pushkin Press is publishing a lot of his writing.

Rachel Cohen: The New York Review of Books also has done several things.

Robert Birnbaum: There was a biography that came out last year called Three Lives.

Rachel Cohen: I wrote a review  [7]of the one that Joan Acocella  wrote a forward for, for The Chess Game.

Robert Birnbaum: It had a different title though didn’t it, for a long time? The Royal Game?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. That’s right. It was called The Royal Game but I think they returned it to The Chess Game and that edition, which is a spectacular book. That was a pleasurable project. I read a lot of his correspondence.

Robert Birnbaum: Where is it?

Rachel Cohen: It was in Bookforum. I think it’s online too, as we were saying. Everything is there. I really enjoyed trying to think about how his fiction works. It has a very particular kind of shape to it.

Robert Birnbaum: A French physician, who was also a novelist, wrote a splendid little novel called The Last Days. [8]Which  covers the last five or six months of his life in Brazil.


The Last Days by Laurent Sesek

The Last Days by Laurent Sesek

Rachel Cohen: Oh really?

Robert Birnbaum: It’s a novel, but it really seems like the writer  had a very good sense of his harrowing ending… he was a tortured soul… as was his wife.

Rachel Cohen: You can really see it in those last works.

Rachel Cohen: If you really understood what was happening [in the world]then you  went out of your mind.

Robert Birnbaum: You would have thought being in Petropolis, Brazil that he  would have felt safe.

Rachel Cohen: You couldn’t get away from that.

Robert Birnbaum:  There were German immigrants. There was life there.

Rachel Cohen: That’s right. I think it’s also hard now. German culture is so irrevocably marked for us by that war, but if you really grew up before that Germany was the fountain head of a lot of artistic and cultural life.

Robert Birnbaum: I think more so of Vienna. Vienna was a whole different thing.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah, for Zweig especially, that was a source for him. I guess I’m thinking of those things together. The musical and literary heritage and to feel that that was somehow being destroyed, or coming apart, or that maybe it had contributed to this horrible thing in some way. It’s very hard to get back to before. To think what it was to be somebody like Zweig.

Robert Birnbaum: Do I get the sense that you’re not in a hurry? You just write at a comfortable pace for the things that you do?

Rachel Cohen: That’s a nice way of saying it—”not in a hurry”. (laughter). I’m a very slow writer.

Robert Birnbaum: Your agents is still Eric Simonoff?

Rachel Cohen: He is, yeah.


Edward Jones, author of the Known World [photo : Robert Birnbaum

Edward Jones, author of the Known World [photo : Robert Birnbaum

Robert Birnbaum: There’s something special about this guy —I discovered he represents about some really remarkable people. Ed Jones, he represents Edward Jones. [9]When I heard that he represented you and Ed Jones and there were a couple other people. This is a tough business that he’s in. This indicates certain kind of taste and simpatico.

Rachel Cohen: He’s terrific.

Robert Birnbaum: Book agents for writers like you need to be like a member of your family.

Rachel Cohen: (laughs)He’s very patient. He never asks me anything. We go and we have coffee and if I say it’s going well, he says good. I think he’s got all different scales.

Robert Birnbaum He moved to a different, more powerful agency.

Rachel Cohen: He went to William Morris, and he’s the co-head of literary at William Morris.

Robert Birnbaum: Which means he must have money making authors, probably who are his money making writers.

Rachel Cohen: He has some very literary writers who sell, like Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Lethem, and people like that. He also does non-fiction. He does very well. He does really well. He’s really a wonderful combination of business  and insight. He really understands the business and he’s very far sighted about it. He thinks in a long way about how to make places for literature in the world.

Robert Birnbaum: The long game’s always important.

Rachel Cohen: He really is good at that. At the end, he has wonderful taste. He took, not that in taking me he showed he had wonderful taste, but when he took me, I had written a few essays. He said , I’d like to represent you. I was put in touch by somebody who was already represented. I said I really didn’t know what I  was doing.

Robert Birnbaum: You were looking for an agent.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah, I was, but I had an idea for that eventually became a book that you liked [A Chance  Meeting ]

Robert Birnbaum: Did anyone else like that book? I’m thinking about a list of tragically overlooked books.

Rachel Cohen: No, people love that book actually. It’s still in print. People still write to me about it. It got wonderful reviews. Yeah. It was loved. Thank you.

Robert Birnbaum: Is it the case that one of the benefits of having someone like Eric is that you don’t think much about the business?

Rachel Cohen: I think it is. It’s also the case that having a steady teaching job has allowed me to have more flexibility about the kinds of things I write. I tried a little bit to make more of a living as a freelance writer, and that’s hard. It really is hard. I was writing about one piece a year for The New Yorker and I really liked doing it but I was spending six months researching the pieces. It was taking pretty much all my time to do that one piece a year. Which was maybe worth it but I couldn’t do it forever.

Robert Birnbaum: Do you have enough essays, criticisms, etc. that you could anthologize?
Rachel Cohen: Almost. The thing I’m proudest of, actually, that I wrote in conjunction with the Berenson book was an essay that was in The Believer. It was called GoldGolden Gilded Glittery. [10]It was about four ages of artistic and financial invention and how financial invention and artistic invention often would have very similar structures in different periods of history. There was one part comparing double entry book keeping and perspective painting and another part comparing abstract expressionism and basically what got us into the Lehmann brothers. (laughter) .These amazing mathematical models that are ways of mapping the future into the present.

Robert Birnbaum: Algorithms.

Rachel Cohen: Exactly. That’s, in some sense, what abstract expressionism does is take future time and zap it into the present.


Hari Kunzru [photo: Robert Birnbaum

Hari Kunzru [photo: Robert Birnbaum

Robert Birnbaum: Hari Kunzru, in his last novel, [11]one of the parts of it about a stock broker, one of the characters  who worked at a hedge fund  and they were looking for this incredible algorithm that would put the most diverse events in the world together. A plague on the silkworms in Burma would somehow effect the output of machinery in Germany…

Rachel Cohen: Not so far fetched, yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: Right.

Rachel Cohen: I haven’t read that book but I guess maybe this is connected to things that we were talking about earlier. I’m interested in finding strange forms for the unbelievable knowledge streams that are available to us. In some sense, that’s what those formulas are obviously trying to do.

Robert Birnbaum: I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but we’re talking about looking at old things in new ways…somehow seeing them from a more oblique angle.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. In conjunction with things with which they were never juxtaposed before so that you’re then just taking into account huge new things.

Robert Birnbaum: And that’s at the base of A Chance Meeting?

Rachel Cohen: Yes.

Robert Birnbaum: About two individuals that most people wouldn’t see connecting.

Rachel Cohen: Through a landscape in some sense, yeah.

XXRobert Birnbaum: Speaking of landscape, do you know Simon Schama’s book Landscape and Memory[12]?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. I do know that book. Thank you for reminding me of it, because I haven’t looked at in a while. You asked before, am I going to do something formally innovative again. Both of my current projects are that. To me, if you’re really trying to reflect the way we see now, it requires some kind of formal innovation. You want something that…

Robert Birnbaum: Like Jennifer Egan [13]writing a novel in PowerPoint?

Rachel Cohen: That’s a possibility?

Robert Birnbaum: She did it.

Rachel Cohen: I know. I know. I know. I don’t know if that’s it, but I do think is in some sense, yes. In some sense, I like that she just goes for it. She thinks, “Okay. Maybe there’s a way to do this. Let me see what I can do.” I feel that too about these little essays that I’m writing online that are about paintings. Part of the reason I’m interested in the impressionists is because they’ve had to respond to photography. They were the first group of painters who had grown up with photography and had to think about the painted image with the print image always in their mind. They responded brilliantly. They really, in some sense, they seemed to be very stimulated. They both used photographs themselves in order to paint and worked to distinguish painting from photography. That seems the variety and  possibility of invention that come with new technology. It was an interesting thing that  they were able to do. And formally, they were brilliantly inventive.

Robert Birnbaum: Impressionists  are seemingly dismissed by a lot of people. Because,  we’re over saturated with them? You see them so often,

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. Ironically, they’re still reproduced. They were of a world where that stuff, … There was an exhibition last year at the Met that was called “Impressionism and Fashion.’ There’s some way in which they’re very close to apparel. They already look like fashion.

Robert Birnbaum: There’s always books being issued on the Impressionists. This year I got a book about Impressionists’s images of water.

Rachel Cohen: They’re incredibly specific. So many books about Monet and Cézanne, but I do think they’ve become very easy for us to love, but that in itself is very interesting because they were not. They were wild when they were made. People thought they were slap dash and vulgar, and ugly, and that the colors they chose were ugly. That the combinations of colors, but the started to do something that became the way we see things. Now everything looks like a Monet, or even Van Gogh.

Robert Birnbaum: You can make photographs that look like Monet’s with certain filters. There’s a photographer named Abelardo Morell who lives around here and one of the projects he’s going to embark on is he wants to go to Giverny. He wants to go there and take photographs just because things were painted there. I think he uses tents to, he has a very specific process where he uses the inside and outside of something. As a photography, he’s impressed by painting. He said something to me about it and I didn’t even realize people still painted.

Rachel Cohen: For me, I was going to tell you this story at the beginning actually with my little girl, Sylvia, that after many times going to the MFA to see paintings, I thought we should go to the children’s museum. I took her to the children’s museum. The things she loved there was the bubbles. They have bubbles for kids, big vats of bubble stuff and you can blow bubbles and move stuff around with bubbles and bubbles float in the air. She couldn’t get enough of the bubbles. We came home and she has a little plastic horse called Lagoo and she was sending Magoo to the museum. Magoo was going to the museum and I said, “Some museums have paintings, and some museums have bubbles, and which kind is Magoo going to? She said, “Bubbles.” (laughter) Don’t be stupid. Of course bubbles. Afterwards, I was thinking, “That’s what paintings are like for me.” It’s like bubbles, like you’re really physically in them in a way that’s totally different than any other visual experience or museum experience. No photograph gives me that experience of entering and being part of a world, breathing the air, feeling the weather. I was pleased about that in a way. I think she’s getting the right idea of museums, that they are collectors of direct experience.

Robert Birnbaum: For me the museum experience is always difficult because there’s so much. It’s hard to sit in front of one thing even though one thing seems to draw you.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: Even if I end up spending more time on one thing you’re distracted. It’s like reading.

Rachel Cohen: You feel like, “Oh, but there are fifteen thing under my bedside table.” Maybe somehow getting patient with that is a significant part of enjoying museums. For me, feeling that I go often makes me feel like, “Well, I’ll be here again.” It doesn’t matter if I go past all of these things. Today, I’m just going to look at this thing. I tend to only look at one or two things. Maybe walk past a few things to get a sense of what I might like to look at next. Being patient with that is helpful.

Robert Birnbaum: I’ve relied on museums to send me the monographs of the exhibitions.

Rachel Cohen: If you’re fundamentally a reader, that’s a way into the images.

Guernica by Pablo PIcasso

Guernica by Pablo PIcasso



Robert Birnbaum: I don’t think a reproduction of Guernica is going to do it for me, but I understand and I’m not sure how I would look at it anyway. Guernica always reminds of the opening of that film on Basquiat.[14] Have you  see the film by Julian Schnabel

Rachel Cohen: Yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: Which opens with a kid staring at Guernica.[15] Forever that’s the way I see the painting now. (laughter)

Rachel Cohen: I think it’s somehow a medium that’s hard to get into relation with or something. That is also part of what interests me and it used to part of everybody’s life, or more regularly part of people’s lives. Not so much anymore.

Robert Birnbaum: I own one painting. The painting I have is of a man with short hair, dressed in a slip on the edge of a cliff. His hands seem to be scrunched up, expressing a kind of anger or tension, or something like that. It got to me.

Rachel Cohen: That is the thing about paintings. The way you described that, it was the way somebody would describe a dream or something. The images in a dream and they’re condensed in the way that dreams are. They’re powerful and they allow you to imaging different directions out of them. All of that can be true of photographs, or of films, certainly.

Robert Birnbaum: I like Fernando Botero [16]too. They’re sort of silly, but not. I don’t know, his cartoonish way of looking at painting but a lot of it has to do with colors and the odd people you put in paintings.


Botero "Picasso" 1999

Botero “Picasso” 1999

Rachel Cohen: Which, in a way, can be a lot like fiction. You’re making a world, inhabited by people. It’s not the real world but it’s close to the real world and considering it

Robert Birnbaum: Writer’s today, who I think are very conscious of putting some kind of artwork in their narratives. Not necessarily novels. There is a writer,  Mark Z. Danielewski  [17],who has these hybrid illustrated  novels. Anyway, have you written other fiction besides the novel you’re working on. Its a

Rachel Cohen: Not really.I’ve written a few stories.

Robert Birnbaum: Brave place to start.

Rachel Cohen: (laughter) I guess so.

Robert Birnbaum: Pretty ambitious.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. I know. I know. I guess I love to read novels. I’m not such a short story reader. I admire the craft of them, but they’re not where my own attention gravitates. I have always loved novels, so somehow that was where I headed. I had tried to write a novel once before and failed.

Robert Birnbaum: Where is it?

Rachel Cohen: What?

Robert Birnbaum: You trashed it or did you…?

Rachel Cohen: Trashed it. It exists on some obsolete computer that would hard to access now but it wasn’t worth keeping.

Robert Birnbaum: I’m always fascinated with people’s, what they do with their failed first efforts. Some people keep them, somewhere.

Rachel Cohen: It’s somewhere.

Robert Birnbaum: They’re closer to them than you’ve described.And  some people just can throw them away. That’s it, forget it.

Rachel Cohen: This was so bad that I could let go of it. I really could. I failed several times in trying to write the thing I’m writing now and I kept all of those failures.

Robert Birnbaum: You’re going to get it right.

Rachel Cohen: I am. I hope so. I hope so. Yeah. I like to go live in a world for a long time, so to me the working on a novel was a lot at the beginning, which is actually an unbelievable effort is getting the world up and running. Getting it so that it has it’s own principles of functions and it’s own kind of characters and it’s own language. Now that that’s all there

Robert Birnbaum: Do you know what the ending is?

Rachel Cohen: I do now, although only recently. I worked on it for six years before I started to have the sense of how it might finish. All of that development, once you’re far enough along that it is a place, then going there is…

Robert Birnbaum: Do you get the same feeling in writing fiction as you do from writing other forms

Rachel Cohen: It’s a different internal experience, I think. My feeling is they’re related things. You still need a lot of imagination to write non-fiction. You still need openness and sensitivity.

Robert Birnbaum: A certain kind of excitement or uplift.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. It’s different. I get excited from both things but the feeling of one is different. Maybe more internal for the fiction and non-fiction I have a little more sense of, “This is an idea that has purchase. This is a thought that has stuff that’s worth some consideration.”

Robert Birnbaum: You may not have to work as hard because you have a grasp of what it involves?

Rachel Cohen: The stages of work are different. In non-fiction, for me there’s a huge amount of research before there starts to be a feeling of what the thoughts are that are interesting. There’s one period of wandering and reading and not knowing and then the gears turn. In fiction, the preparatory work is more imagination. Wondering also, but not accumulating facts. Then when things start to get going it’s because the world is alive. It’s a little bit different thing than a non-fiction where it’s in line].

Robert Birnbaum: What do you like reading? You said you like to read novels. What novels have stood out to you, let’s say this past year?

Rachel Cohen: Past year? I haven’t been reading that much because of the baby and the various projects. One thing I’ve been reading over and over is Jane Austen’s Persuasion because that is a really fantastic book. That’s a wonderful thing to read. I’ve read some things which have been pleasure to me. I read Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, and that was fun to read, go through and have the exhilaration of story. I read Margot Livesey’s Jane Eyre book, The Flight of Gemma Hardy and really enjoyed the pulse of that. Actually, now that I think of it, those are both novels well-plotted novels where you move through. That’s actually not the kind of book I’m writing. (laughs) Anyway, those are the ones I like.

Robert Birnbaum: What’s a formative book for you in your life? What’s a book that when you read it you had some sort of “a-ha” moment?

Rachel Cohen: The Brother’s Karamazov is a book  that I read over and over.

Robert Birnbaum: I have a problem with Russian novels. I can’t remember the names. I can’t pronounce the names. I can’t remember the names. It’s hard for me to

Rachel Cohen: Hold them. Yeah. They sprawl. They really do sprawl. It’s true.

Robert Birnbaum: I’m fascinated by people who say War and Peace is the greatest novel ever. I wish I read it. I wonder if somebody would actually anglicize all the names.

Rachel Cohen: So you could read it, or give you some visual diagram that you can see and that would keep your

Robert Birnbaum: They must be on audio, right? War and Peace? Although a length audio.
Rachel Cohen: Yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: Maybe that’s what I should do.

Rachel Cohen: If somebody was saying it for you then…

Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres

Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres


Robert Birnbaum: Actually, there was a novel  that Louis de Bernières [18]wrote, it was the one after Corelli’s Mandolin. Birds Without  Wings —the one about Anatolia. It was a vivid novel about the life in in the Eastern Mediterranean around the turn of the 20th century , and there was an audio version that makes all these, there are eight or nine different nationalities in this book and all manner of tongue twisting kinds of names, so after reading it, hearing it was illuminating.

Rachel Cohen:I’m really good at names. Proper names correlate and make sense to me. I’m definitely the person who’ll leaf through the index of a book first to see who’s in it. Then I remember all the places where they are. Those books map for me. I can see all the people in them in an almost visual way.


Robert Birnbaum: You were teaching at Sarah Lawrence?

Rachel Cohen: I’m not teaching right now. I’m on leave. I’m on this super extended leave that they’re kindly making available to me.

Robert Birnbaum: What’s Sarah Lawrence look like these days?

Rachel Cohen: Sarah Lawrence is great. I love Sarah Lawrence. I’ve had seven or eight years of teaching there. I have tenure there. It’s been a wonderful place to be. The student body is extremely creative. They went a different route than a lot of the schools. They didn’t take test scores. They didn’t make that the main thing about admission. As a consequence they got all kinds of terrific students who are not necessarily good at taking standardized tests. Those are actually wonderful people to teach in creative writing. Those are the students you want.

Robert Birnbaum: That’s pretty bold.

Rachel Cohen: It was bold and really good. They have great students.

Robert Birnbaum: What are the aspirations of these great students?

Rachel Cohen: Many of them want to work in the arts somehow. There are other kinds of students too. There are scientists and other things, but there’s a strong arts community.

Robert Birnbaum: Affluent backgrounds?

Rachel Cohen: A mixture. It’s an extremely expensive school. Some of the students have a lot of money. Some of the students are scholarship students without much money. That is a challenge.

Robert Birnbaum:In James Galdofini’s last movie Enough Said ,[19]with Julia Dreyfus. There’s a short scene where Galdofini’s really snotty daughter, who’s very hip, meets Dreyfus and they’re talking about colleges. Dreyfus’ daughter is off going to Sarah Lawrence in the fall, and the snotty little girl said, “Oh, it’s going downhill.” (laughter) Like this eighteen, nineteen, twenty year old girl knows anything.

Rachel Cohen: They say it’s going downhill. I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think it’s going downhill.  The other thing I liked at Sarah Lawrence is the graduate program. I taught a lot in the graduate non-fiction program. They’re wonderful students there, many of them returning after having working in various ways in the world. Those are great.

Robert Birnbaum: Who are your peers there? In writing?

Rachel Cohen: The person who I work with most closely is Vijay Seshadri, who’s a wonderful poet, and who is the director of the non-fiction program. That’s been really nice. Our other close colleague in non-fiction is Jo Ann Beard, who also writes fiction. That group has been really wonderful. There are other people who come through and teach. Nicky Dawidoff  [20]has taught.

Robert Birnbaum: I’m talking to him next week.

Rachel Cohen: Oh really? He’s going to be in town I think.

Robert Birnbaum: I talked to him years ago. He wrote a book about his grandfather, but he’s also edited an anthology on baseball for The Library of America.

Rachel Cohen: Yes. Does he writes a lot on sports.

Robert Birnbaum: His new book is about football, a sport that I hate. I hate football. My son plays football. But I hate it especially the upper levels—college and the pros.

To Be Continued



1 Rachel Cohen’s website

2 Ansel Adams photographs

3 Saul Steinberg’s art

4 One of my 5 or 6 conversations with Robert Stone

5 Biographies of Bernard Berenson

6 On Stefan Zweig

7 Rachel Cohen’s  review of The Chess Game by Stefan Zweig

8 The Last Days by Laurent Seksik

9 One of my conversations (2004)with Edward Jones

10  Golden Gilded Glittery by Rachel Cohen

11 My LA Review of Books  chat with Hari Kunzru,

12 Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama

13  My most recent conversation with Jennifer Egan

14 Basquit by Julian Schnabel

15 Guernica by Pablo Picasso

16 Columbian painter Fernando Botero

17   Writer Mark Z. Danielewski ‘s website

18 My last conversation with  Louis de Bernières

19 Trailer for Enough Said

20 Talking with Nicholas Dawidoff



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