By Leslie Lindsay
Sprawling multi-generational tale weaving contemporary views of love, marriage, family, birth, death, and secrets in a modern language, but with a timeless feel.
Leah Hager Cohen is the author of ten books, and has been recognized by People Magazine as a “masterful talent,” celebrated for her “keen insight,” (Bustle), and The New York Times says she is “eloquent…stunningly empathetic.”
This is my first read from Leah Hager Cohen and STRANGERS AND COUSINS (Riverhead, May 14 2019) breathes magic into the simple, but not easy Erlend family. Cohen’s prose is glittering. There’s an elegance and timelessness to the way she strings words together, leaving me wholly enraptured.
Fans of Anne Tyler, Lorna Landvik, Elizabeth Berg, and Ann Packer will delight in this richly rendered tale.
STRANGERS AND COUSINS is about a wedding. But that’s just a small microcosm of the layers and layers of uncomfortable truths in the Erlend family. There’s resistance to change (a new Jewish subgroup is moving into the community threatening a sense of cohesion); an elderly aunt with secrets of her own, a mouse mother trapped in the walls of the family home and her rapidly growing brood, ancestors upon ancestors of offspring; as more and more relatives arrive for the upcoming nuptials, things grow increasingly chaotic.
There are collective joys and worries and a rally cry for community but also independence. STRANGERS AND COUSINS has a lot going on; the writing is beautiful, the work intimate and intricate, and the stories of these characters will absolutely resonate.
STRANGERS AND COUSINS is richly layered, with much attention to detail, and Cohen is an absolute wordsmith.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely Leah Hager Cohen to the author interview series.
Leah, it’s a pleasure and delight. So…it’s wedding season. And I am wondering if that’s what prompted you into writing STRANGERS AND COUSINS? Was there a question or theme you wanted to explore? What did you learn?
Leah Hager Cohen:
Ha! I didn’t realize at first there’d even be a wedding. I never have any idea what themes I might be writing toward when I begin a book. It always starts with just an image, or something like a blurry snippet of film footage without sound – just the glimmer of a scene that intrigues me. Then I write to discover who these people are, what they’re doing, what led them to this point, and what is happening next. The original image doesn’t necessarily come at the beginning or even wind up in the finished book at all, but in this case it did turn out to be the opening scene: a mother helping one child bathe on a summer evening, and a little naked boy running up and down the hall.
“In even the simplest wedding there is a hint of pageant, a truth that is at once celebrated and subverted in Leah Hager Cohen’s luminous new novel. Strangers and Cousins has the old-fashioned feel of a sprawling multi-generational tale even as it is animated by very contemporary ideas about love, marriage and family. A beautiful novel by one of our most gifted and insightful writers.”
–Ann Packer, New York Times bestselling author of The Dive from Clausen’s Pier and The Children’s Crusade
Weddings have a way of bringing out the best and worst of people. I love this line in STRANGERS AND COUSINS, and I’m paraphrasing here, but it’s like, ‘no wedding is perfect. They are all amateur.’ Can you talk about that please? And how might the same sentiment be applied to other endeavors?
Leah Hager Cohen:
I really am struck by how much weddings are a form of pageantry, how each wedding ceremony is like a bit of amateur theater that gets staged once, and almost always towards the beginning of a couple’s time together. In the book, the same character follows this statement with, “Marriage is what’s real,” making the distinction between the unique event of the wedding when things are still new and raw, and the long, rich complexity of life together during the marriage, when things deepen and grow.
Amateur comes from the Latin ‘amator,’ lover – as in one who does something out of love rather than as a profession. So there’s nothing demeaning about the statement, and it might apply to anything in life that we do out of love.
While STRANGERS AND COUSINS is a contemporary read, it’s also rooted in sprawling family sagas popular in the 80s and 90s. This one has such a modern feel. There are new issues that didn’t come up, at least not at weddings, twenty-thirty years ago. Sexuality. Color. Religion. Inclusion. Exclusion. Can you talk about that, please?
Leah Hager Cohen:
I grew up in the 70s and 80s, in a family that was black and white, Jewish and Christian, deaf and hearing. So we were always talking about inclusion and exclusion, difference and belonging, from the time I was little – it was just a natural part of who we were and what we encountered. I understand why you say the novel has a modern feel, but the funny thing is, to me it hearkens back to my own experience of an earlier time. In fact – you just made me think about this now – perhaps that’s why the book also has an old-fashioned feel: because in some ways it’s informed by my own nostalgic feelings about childhood and family.
What’s your writing process like? Do you carefully map it out? Do you follow the pen? Who—or what—are your influences?
Leah Hager Cohen:
What a nice expression! Yes: I follow the pen. I am totally map-less when I begin a book, and very often remain map-less all the way through a first draft, which can make for slow and frustrating progress. It can also mean I wind up with a very untidy and rather shapeless first draft, a book that doesn’t really know itself yet. And I tend to overwrite, producing great quantities of passages that don’t ultimately belong or advance the story. Thankfully, I have a wonderful agent and wonderful editor, and they are both brilliant at helping me discern the shape that lies within the baggy, cumbersome pages.
Also, as a subplot to STRANGERS AND COUSINS, ‘the parents’ are selling the family home. Mine are, too. I’m okay with it. But not everyone is. Not in STRANGERS and not in my family. What is it about homes, do you think, that keep us rooted?
Leah Hager Cohen:
That is a fascinating question, especially in light of what’s happening in the world right now, with so many people being displaced as migrants and refugees. The idea of home has always been for me more rooted in people than in geography. But I say that as someone who’s never been displaced nor experienced housing insecurity. I do, however, have recurring dream in which I am living in some sort of fantastic house with my children – often it has many elaborate rooms and entrancingly interesting features – but always there is some major flaw or instability. Like really major. Like a huge hole in the roof through which snow drifts down. Or a staircase that is missing most of the treads. Or a gaping hole in the floor so it’s treacherous to cross the room. I haven’t figured out what the dream is about, but always there is the feeling of being on the edge of survival, of wanting very badly to provide not just a house but a home for my children, and yet being aware of the imminent threat of it all crumbling away to nothing.
Leah, thank you. It’s been so illuminating. Thank you for taking the time. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
Leah Hager Cohen:
Thank you, Leslie. This has been delightful. I guess the one thing that comes to mind is I’ve recently heard someone describe the family in STRANGERS AND COUSINS as dysfunctional, and I don’t think of them this way at all. Messy and boisterous and idiosyncratic and haphazard, yes – all of those things. But despite (or who knows? maybe because of) that, I think they’re quite functional. Even happy. Actually, the working title of this novel, way back in the early stages, was Pageant of the Happy Family.
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of STRANGERS AND COUSINS, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Leah Hager Cohen was born in Manhattan and raised at the Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens and later in Nyack, New York. She attended Hampshire College and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The author of five novels and five works of nonfiction, she is the Barrett Professor of Creative Writing at the College of the Holy Cross.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Riverhead and used with permission. Author photo credit: Liz Linder. Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this.]