The launch of the UnCommon Bodies anthology, edited by Pavarti K. Tyler, is fast approaching. Today I’m talking to another of the UnCommon Bodies author, this time Michael Harris Cohen about the opening story in the anthology – We is We.
What attracted you to the UnCommon Bodies project?
I’m always drawn to freakish and twisted characters, though usually my characters are more psychological freaks than physical ones. So I was stoked right off by an anthology whose notice was “Give us your freaks, your sideshow acts, your mutations,” like some tilted version of Lady Liberty’s inscription.
The other attraction was that it was the end of my break and my classes were starting soon (the death knell for any serious writing) and I was unsatisfied with the work I’d done over the summer. I’m mired in a messy but endlessly fascinating (at least for me) novel draft that’s probably a year or more away from something that satisfies my inner critic. Anyway, I felt creatively constipated and wanted to write something to the end before the start of the semester. An attraction to freaks and a desire for closure, that’s the short answer for what drew me in.
What was the hardest thing about writing the story? Or was it just a walk in the park?
Actually, I started another piece first. I’d dashed off ten pages before hitting a wall. It was a cool brainchild, something I might return to, but I was leading with the idea, forcing the story rather than letting it gain its own legs. One can crush a good idea by leaning on it too hard, snuffing out that initial spark. Most writers know it when they’re forcing the work and it’s a crap feeling. The intellect takes the wheel and locks the imagination in the trunk and what kind of road trip is that? One of the main joys of writing is getting lost in that glorious diving bell of the imagination and exploring. It’s the best high in the world, bar none. But I digress. My second story idea was “We is We” and it came readily. It’s a work that hinges on voice, and once Millie’s voice rang true in my head the story pretty much poured forth.
The most difficult thing, I suppose, was actually stopping. I wrote the first draft in a single sitting, edited it for two days and after—as is almost always the case—saw loads of possibility for expansion. I knew and liked the characters. I felt I could go further and deeper—build more rooms, run more cables—fortunately I realized the piece already had its shape and just needed trim work. Sometimes the hardest thing to do with a story is to stop before you fuck it up.
What do you hope readers will take away from the story?
Well I hope it at least spellbinds them for a brief span. Like I said, it was story fueled by voice and I felt rather hypnotized while writing Millie and Mary, albeit a darkish writing trance. Beyond that I can’t say. I could elaborate on some thematic elements I’ve smelled from the distance of editing but I’ll let the readers find their own echoes and resonances, if any.
If you could create a new genre, specifically for your story what would it be?
I’m not a writer who thinks in terms of genre for his own work. I know for some it’s a useful definition, a sort of compass to navigate by, but I’m not interested in those sorts of constraints—unless it’s cool genre benders like Auster’s spin on the Detective novel in City of Glass or Cormac McCarthy’s vision of the old west, or Calvino’s and Borges stuff.
It’s funny though, when I was blurb-begging for a book a couple of years ago a former teacher and famous author very kindly gave me a blurb that dubbed me a “noir” writer. I’d never thought of myself as noir. I guess I’d always thought of myself as a writer who’d just read too much Kafka too early, and was kind of channeling whatever you’d call that. So, to give a barely serious answer, I guess my new genre would be “Post-Kafka Traumatic Noir.”
Once readers have read your story, which of your books/stories should they read next?
If they liked “We is We” they could check out my novella and story collection The Eyes. I also have a prize-winning piece in another cool anthology, The Modern Grimmoire, that has a similar though more modern fairy tale-ish feel. Not sure either of those books are still available in print from Amazon (the megacorp skins the small presses) but the kindle versions are live. I also have various short stories scattered about the web. Just drop my name in the oracle of Google.
About Michael Harris Cohen
Michael Harris Cohen is a recipient of the New Century Writer’s Scholarship from Zoetrope: All-Story, a Fulbright grant, fellowships from the Djerassi Foundation, The Jentel Artist’s Residency, The Blue Mountain Center, and the Modern Grimmoire Literary Prize as well as Mixer Publishing’s Sex, Violence and Satire prize. He is a graduate of Brown University’s MFA program where he received the Weston Award for best graduate Weston Award for best graduate fiction manuscript. He has published numerous stories, both online and in print, and his first book, The Eyes-A Novella and Stories was blurbed by Brian Evenson, Robert Coover, Stephen Graham Jones and Stephen Wright. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Bulgaria and teaches writing and literature at the American University in Bulgaria.
Check back tomorrow for the next UnCommon Bodies interview and don’t forget, you can pre-order the book on Amazon. And if you want to hang out with some of the authors from the anthology we’re having a Facebook launch party tomorrow.
You can find out more about my upcoming releases, and get four FREE books by signing up for my newsletter here.[UnCommon Bodies Q&A: Michael Harris Cohen by Philip Harris first appeared on Solitary Mindset on 23rd November 2015]