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Affirming The Truth of Enchantment: An Interview with Paul Cohen, author of The Glamshack

THE GLAMSHACK book cover

The Glamshack, Paul Cohen’s debut novel, reads like a genre all its own: a story of love and obsession, a snapshot of the Bay Area as the 1990’s came to an end, a meditation on history and violence and the Plains Indians Wars of the 19th Century. Throw in a beautiful woman, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, and electric prose that lingers in one’s memory like a favorite song—once you pick up The Glamshack, you won’t put it down.

Cohen shared his thoughts on the novel, the late James Salter, and more in this interview with Cease, Cows. Purchase a copy of The Glamshack here.

Chuck Augello: If you were in a bookstore and saw a potential reader holding a copy of The Glamshack, what might you say to entice him or her to read it?

Paul Cohen: I might start by saying to the potential reader (heretofore referred to as The PR) that I can tell you’ve got class on account of that book you’re holding, but then my opinion is suspect as I wrote the thing so rather than listen to me go on about my work I invite you to turn the book over and check out the blurbs because I think they capture the experience I set out to create for readers, particularly the blurbs from Laird Hunt and Rebecca Lee, especially the part that talks about the book cutting “so close to the heart of experience it feels …like life itself: sacred, invincible, beautiful, full of meaning.” Or the part that calls The Glamshack “smart, sexy, wonder-filled (and) haunting.” If, by then, The PR was not hightailing it for the cash register in the airport bookstore (I doubt my book will ever make it into an airport bookstore but for some reason that’s the setting I envision for this conversation) I’d say there’s nothing out there quite like The Glamshack, but again, don’t take it from me, take it from the Little Brown executive editor who, in his letter nominating it for a Pushcart Press Editor’s Book Award, called the novel “singular” and “uncategorizable”.

I might add that another goal of mine was to create a kind of full-body literary experience for the reader in the way that music does for a listener–intellectual, emotional, physical. If, at that point, The PR was still not plunking down $15.99 but was instead edging toward the shrink-wrapped porn in the bookstore’s mag section (do they still sell porn mags in airport bookstores? Once you’ve purchased a porn mag in an airport, what then?) I would make a last ditch attempt at enticement (entrapment?) by saying hey, I don’t write fiction simply to depict societal slivers or record pathos, though I’ve done both of those things; I aim for classical tragedy. In fact, I aimed for it in that hot item you hold in your classy hand right now. And within that tragedy, I hope to find–to affirm the truth of–enchantment.

CA: Tell us about your main character, Henry, and his relationship with Her.

PC: Henry is a man whose external and internal selves are at war. I find this war, these contrasting selves, profoundly lifelike and utterly fascinating, and the friction works a bit like plot to help drive the narrative. So Henry lives rent-free in a borrowed pool house, works as a journalist for a celebrity rag (and briefly as a fashion model), is overly focused–for the novel’s first hundred pages–on how he’s viewed by others and sleeps with a woman who is engaged to another man. That’s the external. Not pretty. On the inside, he’s terrified that the world is composed of “madness particles,” as he puts it, rather than “god particles,” as the physicists say. He pines for a vision of the divine, for a sense that he is part of a world that is greater than himself, one that makes some sort of rapturous sense. And he is blessed and cursed with the ability to–or rather, the compulsion to–inhabit sensation’s every crevice. A kiss, say. Or “lit-pink” tuna dipped in soy. The vision of Her sleek, gleaming belly. Or that guttural ache when something, or someone, you crave is missing. Particularly that guttural ache. Which, in my view, helps make Henry a hero. “As in (yes I’m quoting myself here): those who feel the missing thing most are the ones most able to feel the missing thing when it’s no longer missing . . . and their presence in our midst sends sun salving down our bitten throats.”

Henry is compelled toward Her, at first, for unseemly, external reasons: Her beauty draws a lot of attention from others and this attention, by association, is bestowed upon Henry. The fact that She has a fiancé is a perverse enticement that, he briefly believes, will make his victory in the war for Her all the more sweet. And above all, She appears to possess, deep in her “seabelly,” that thing for which Henry has a guttural ache: enchantment. And so he is compelled toward Her to the point of obsession. And in the course of this obsessive relationship, he discovers not only Her internal realm, but the connections between his inside and Hers. She too, he discovers, is compelled to explore, to linger in, sensation’s every crevice. She too needs enchantment like a buzzard needs dead meat. She too feels that guttural ache every day of Her life. And when he realizes that She’s actually heroic, and that they are similar in their epic cravings, his mission, which has been to see Her as ordinary and unworthy so as to escape the talons of this obsessive love, must be fundamentally revised. Therein lies the story’s core.

CA: The novel has an interesting structure, in that each chapter is given a specific date, and the dates jump around in time. What drove your decision to structure it this way? Also, most of the dates are set in 1999. Is there something essential about that time that you were trying to capture?

PC: The first draft of The Glamshack was written–surprise!–in a pool house in the woods on a “tilted forested Silicon estate.” It came from heartbreak and emerged in a fever and it told the story of past love. I liken the experience of writing the first draft to my childhood memory of clinging to the musky-wet mane of a retired thoroughbred that’s just taken off with me through thick woods. Terrifying and gorgeous. Once I had the first draft, though, even I had a hard time hanging on to its mad flow. So I worked on that, the mad flow aspect, and soon realized that not only did I need to exert control over this humid beast, I needed to make sense of its power. The sections titled “Glamshack”, which are like punctuation at regular intervals, allowed me to do that. They’re the stakes that hold down the straining hot balloon. They’re also a plot ladder; each rung is a new understanding on the part of current-time Henry, which in turn influences what part of that past love he’ll enter next, and how the section will be rendered. And finally, they allow the reader to breathe. Without the Glamshack sections imposing a sustainable pace on the story, the novel’s sensual headlong gallop of events and swirling lyrical prose would end up exhausting the reader. As for 1999, that is indeed essential both on an internal and external level. Internally, Henry is on the brink of a sea change in his psyche and soul, and She is the agent of that transformation. Externally, we’re at millennium’s end in the Bay Area. There, the Nineties were marked by the birth of the internet, the gentrification of scruffy neighborhoods and a strong sense (on the part of a certain privileged crew) of being at the center of the world; it was a decade, in my opinion, of heady vanity. Then the dot-com crash hit and George W started “deciding” and there was a sense of waking from a tasty dream into a dawn fraught with unformed threat. How to gird for such a morning? My gut said to go deep.

CA: Early in the novel Henry states that as a boy he always wanted to be an Indian. As the novel develops, the Plains Indian Wars and Custer’s Last Stand take on prominent roles. Was the historical connection part of the your plan for the novel right from the start? How does the historical content interact with Henry’s life?

PC: At the start of The Glamshack‘s first draft, the extent of my plan was this: write until you feel better. And that meant writing only about love gone wrong. But as the story progressed, I sensed it was becoming overly focused on the aforementioned external aspects of Henry’s character. The unseemly ones. Or as a few readers have termed it, the “unlikeable” ones. (A digression: I must confess that I do not find the terms “likeable” and “unlikeable” particularly useful either as a writer or reader of fiction, which is why I stick to the terms “external” and “internal” as a way to differentiate between Henry’s selves, and I find that the messy blending of these selves not only creates necessary dramatic tension, it also generates characters that stir me and strike me as authentic.)

At the time I was reading two books: Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star, which is a beautiful and tragic story of the collision between Crazy Horse and Custer, and William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, which daringly integrates imagined scenes from the Holocaust into a what is essentially a tale of teenage romantic obsession. I was inspired by Styron’s boldness of craft, and I realized–or rather, Henry realizes–that the Plains Indian Wars could serve as the thing I needed to lift Henry’s conflict and character out of the ordinary and into the realm of the heroic. The fact that the Sioux’s war, like Henry’s, was essentially doomed from the start only elevated its stature in my view. They were waging total war for the sake of liberty–a life essential if ever I saw one–just as Henry (and I’m painfully aware of a certain sacrilegious aspect of this comparison) is fighting for a gorgeous and damned (there’s that messy blending again) love. My goal in linking the Sioux Wars to Henry’s struggle is to lift his story into the realm of classical tragedy, i.e., he sacrifices himself for something greater than his own existence–still the ultimate life-affirming act.

CA: How did you approach the research?

PC: Because I was already reading Connell’s Son of the Morning Star and Sophie’s Choice while drafting The Glamshack, the research was organically intertwined with the writing. For example, there’s a passage about how Sitting Bull would, in the midst of battle, tie himself to a stake sunk into the ground and vow to fight off all comers where he stood or die trying. Connell adds that, while this act surely proves Sitting Bull’s almost reckless courage, Sioux custom does give him an out–he is permitted to untie himself and run away if another warrior ceremonially whips him with a “quirt”. “Which is to say,” writes Connell, “the warrior was so brave that he would not retreat unless whipped like a dog.” Somehow this messy blend of bravery and recklessness and humiliation suggested to me the next Glamshack scene, wherein– with Her sitting on Henry’s lap and immediately following a phone call during which She cooed sympathetic nothings to the fiancé after hearing about his contraction of eye herpes–Henry says, “I want to say, I love you,” and She responds, chillingly, “I know what it feels like, to want to say that.” Taking a page from Styron’s book, so to speak, I used the Connell quote (above) as a way to transition from Sitting Bull to Henry. I did that again when I quoted Connell’s brilliant line about Major Reno’s emotional state as the brains of his scout, Bloody Knife, splatter onto his hat. “A bloody shirt or trousers can be endured,” Connell writes, “but a bloody hat hangs close to the face.”

As The Glamshack‘s first draft progressed I saw a novelistic, and tragic, arc in the progression from the Indians’ first celebratory Rendezvous with the US Army in 1851 to the Ghost Dance’s sad and desperate prophecy and the Wounded Knee massacre in 1889. Problem was, the Ghost Dance wasn’t in Son of the Morning Star. For that I had to go online and do more traditional research. But there again, I was researching and writing at the same time, and the relationship between research and writing was symbiotic. The delusional joy engendered by Wovoka’s prophecy–a prophecy that told the beaten Indians to dance their way back to an Edenic past, and to wear certain symbols on their clothing as a way to stop bullets–helped dictate the events of Henry’s last-ditch attempt to make this thing with Her work. And the bloody tragedy of Wounded Knee suggested to me Henry’s own physical loss. At that point the arc drawn by my research ended, and it was up to me to invent a way for Henry to, authentically, rise from his ruins.

CA: The cover features a blurb from the late, legendary James Salter of A Sport and a Pastime fame. How did this come about?

PC: As a student at Iowa, I had an awareness that my work diverged from the prevailing workshop aesthetic of meticulously constructed stories with pinpoint epiphanies, and while some there appreciated what I was trying to do in my writing, others had a hard time engaging (I don’t blame those non-engagers, btw–at that time I had a lot to learn about revision). Salter, who taught one of my workshops at Iowa, championed my work there in a powerful way, and it gave me the courage to stick to my guns during grad school and after (another Iowa teacher who gave me critically timed support was Marilynne Robinson). After Iowa, Salter and I corresponded by letter (I’ve got a stack of them in my basement). In one of the letters I wrote to Salter, I remember going on about being dumped by a woman. “Time is a sickness that comes on strongest in the afternoons,” I wrote. I also remember that he would invariably finish his letters to me–typed with a manual typewriter on hotel stationery–with a beautiful, and seemingly unrelated anecdote or image, and that, in my replies, I often (insert cringe here) attempted to mimic his quietly poetic send-offs with lines like “I hear the rocky redness is most beautiful in winter.” Or some such drivel. And I remember that one of his letters performed the almost magical feat of getting me to abandon a fatally flawed manuscript (I’d tried to glue a series of stories together to make a novel and they weren’t sticking) while at the same time bolstering my confidence to start something new. “You can throw heat but you don’t have game control yet,” he wrote. And also, most importantly: “Stay the course.” Which I did, and came up with, among other things, The Glamshack, which I sent to Salter asking him for an agent referral, and though he never responded (“The emissary does not stoop to banter”) I received a phone call a couple of months later from an agent who said she’d just finished the manuscript, which she’d received from Salter, and that she was “breathless.” Somewhere along the way Salter wrote a letter to editors in support of my work, and the blurb on The Glamshack is taken from that letter. Now that Salter is gone, the memories that stand out are more of him as an individual than as the literary giant. I remember sitting in his Aspen house with him and a few others and he was grinning at my two-fisted drinking style in a way that suggested nostalgic connection. I remember skiing with him the next day and a stranger asked him what he did for work and his matter-of-fact response, “I’m a writer,” revealed to me everything I wanted to be and was not yet. And I remember—or maybe I imagine–that his art and his life were marked, as is mine, by this unslakeable yearning toward rapture.

CA: Are there future works fans of The Glamshack can look forward to reading?

PC: Hell yes. I’m a month or so away from finishing my novel-in-progress, The Sleeping Indian, an earlier draft of which was named a finalist for the 2016 Big Moose Prize. Indian, which cuts between the woods of Wyoming, where the main character lives outside along with a crew of miscreants, and the streets of Paris, where this same character, 7 years later, has gone to hide from a deed done back in Wyoming and the man who may come to exact payment for said deed. Like The Glamshack, Indian struggles with how to view the universe—is it anchored in mystery or simply spinning in a state of profound disorder? Indian also relies to some extent on the music of its writing to create that full-body experience for the reader, and there is a love story that’s critical to the plot. Unlike The Glamshack, Indian has a plot marked by political and personal violence, an exotic setting and a historical crime that is undergirded by biblical injunction (sins of the fathers . . .). Right now I’m upgrading a few last, critical plot connections, which I liken to changing an electrical system in a house from tube and knob to copper wiring. Given that I’m more naturally a musician than an electrician, these last couple months of work are, well, work. But I’ve got high hopes for Indian. I want it to succeed on all levels. I want it to feel urgent and deep, threatening and sexy, atmospheric and otherworldly. And when I’m done Indian I’ve got a brand new book based on notes and a shape in my mind, the glimmering outline of which became visible right around the time—no shit!–of the recent solar eclipse.

CA: If you were given the front page of the New York Times Book Review to promote an under-appreciated or forgotten writer, who would you pick?

PC: Lawrence Osborne might take umbrage at my calling him under-appreciated, but it seems to me I don’t see his name come up very often in the pages of The New York Times or Chicago Tribune, and I haven’t run across his work in one of those best-of lists that seem to be minted daily by social media, but I’ve got to say that his novel, The Ballad of a Small Player, took my breath away. It’s the story of a mildly unhappy Englishman who’s embezzled money from his firm and run off to drink and gamble and whore his life away in Macau (I believe), a place where he is acutely aware of being not-of-that-place. Reading Osborne’s prose was an atmospheric-to-the-point-of-physical experience for me, like treading water at night in a booming ocean, the surface of which comes alive–occasionally at first and then vengefully–with phosphorescence. That messy blending of likeable and unlikeable selves, profane and sacred, earthly and numinous, is masterfully accomplished in this novel, and the effect this blending achieves is nothing short of actuality. Even the appearance, and disappearance, of grace, leaves an imprint not unlike knuckles.

CA: What drove you to become a writer? Was there a moment when you knew this was something you needed to make part of your life?

PC: I think I can safely speak for a lot of writers when I say that as I was becoming a young adult I had a hard time finding my place in the world. I was running through the woods, building forts and escape routes and trick escape routes when my peers were cheering the high school football team. After an underachieving year in college I dropped out and got a job as a handyman in a ski lodge in Utah, and was delighted to find myself in a place—a life—marked by pure physicality, extreme conditions and otherworldly beauty. I seem to recall that I didn’t talk much at that time, but I sure felt a lot. After Utah I hitchhiked to Wyoming and got a job at a ranch and then as a landscaper and I lived outside, illegally, on the mountain above town. When I wasn’t working I climbed, drank beer, listened to Bruce Springsteen full blast with friends while driving through endless sagebrush in a van with the sliding door wide open, and read. Not necessarily in that order. Then, after returning to college, I read Saul Bellow’s Henderson The Rain King, and suddenly I wanted to be a writer. This came as a surprise. I hadn’t planned on being a writer. I was a physical kid and after entering college I was going to be a geologist so that I could work outside—to this day I feel better outside—but nixed that idea when I came up against the math requirements. Next it was archeology, which touched my sense that the dead hold something central to us living. Then, when even archeology proved to be too mathy-sciencey for me, I moved to cultural anthropology and finally history. But none of these disciplines struck that Keatsian note I didn’t know I needed, or achieved that rich harmonic resonance, wherein truth and beauty are the same sound. Bellow achieved that, for me, finally. Later would come Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor and Joseph Conrad. But Henderson The Rain King, with its crackling sentences and virtuosic blending of worlds—of selves–and its unabashed notion of the soul, struck the waking note.

CA: Finally, what was the biggest challenge in writing The Glamshack?

PC: My biggest challenge in writing The Glamshack was working on that drenched and nearly incoherent beast that was my first draft in a way that would allow readers to engage, to hold on, but not diminish the draft’s raw power. That was hard. When I say nearly incoherent I’m talking to me. I had to go through the draft, translating, until I found the language I understood. Then I had to do it for readers. And then do that over again. Situating readers in time, distinguishing between points of view, technical stuff. Then came the bigger stuff. Early drafts of The Glamshack had an element of cute that I realized was camouflage for under-confidence. For example: the talking fish. Or the second-person point of view. Once I recognized these were weeds not buds, I had to go through and yank them out. I also had to kill off some darlings, a brutal business, the success of which I owe to my editor and publisher at 7.13 Books, Leland Cheuk. There were, for instance, three “Henry and the Conquistador” chapters that took place in a bar shaped like an airplane and populated by Nineties Twentysomethings who worked in the newly birthed internet economy. Netkids I called them. A bit of cultural context to broaden the novel’s reach, I thought. But Leland thought otherwise, and he was right. And finally, I had to flesh Her out, so to speak, in a way that allowed Her to be more than Her demons—to rise above them in a way that enabled both Her and Henry to become heroes.

Chuck Augello (Contributing Editor) lives in New Jersey with his wife, dog, two cats, and several cows that refuse to cease. His work has appeared in One Story, Juked, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, and other fine places. He publishes The Daily Vonnegut and contributes interviews to The Review Review. He’s currently at work on a novel.