Josh Cohen – Q&A

Josh Cohen is the author of How to Live. What to Do published by Ebury on 11 February 2021.

Josh kindly answered a few of my questions.

1. Tell us a little about How to Live. What to Do.

How to Live. What to Do is an exploration through the lens of fiction of life’s stages from childhood to old age. It takes the problems and dilemmas of famous fictional characters, including Wonderland’s Alice, Jane Eyre, Jay Gatsby, Dorothea Brooke and ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, and sets them alongside similar experiences from real lives – both my own and those of (heavily disguised) cases from my psychoanalytic consulting room. It strives for both emotional resonance and philosophical reflection. It’s quite funny in places too.

2. What inspired the book?

As a kid I read voraciously, particularly in comic books (Peanuts, Tintin, Asterix especially). I was often told to get my head out of the clouds, to face the ‘real world’. These representatives of the adult world were inspirationally wrong, it seems to me. Teaching literature and practicing psychoanalysis have persuaded me (or rather confirmed my long-held belief) that imaginative life is part of and not separate from reality. I wanted to get across the idea that great fictional characters are life companions and can help us in the struggle to understand and define ourselves.

3. How much research did you have to undertake before commencing the writing?

Having trained as a psychoanalyst and professor of literature, I’d already done a lot of the research. But I did get deeply into developmental psychology and re-read a huge number of novels. The biggest preparatory task was deciding which characters shed most light on particular stages of life. Letting go of some characters and books was agonising at times. No doubt some people will read it and think they’d have made stronger choices – I hope so! That’s proper engagement…

4. Is there anything about the process of publishing a book that surprised you?

Writing the book, yes. I hadn’t read some of the books, Jane Eyre for example, for decades, and it was rather thrilling to discover how much they’d changed between readings. I’ve published five previous books, so I was familiar with the process. The difference here, of course, was the small matter of a global pandemic – an online launch, no events in person. That felt a bit depriving.

5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?

I spend most of my daily life in my consulting room, so I suspect I write to get away from it all! But I love to walk my dog (a rescue cross-breed, half Staff, half American Bull Terrier) aimlessly across green spaces, make curries and listen to music (especially when walking or cooking). Live music may just have been the single biggest deprivation of lockdown for me. I’m very omnivorous – I can move between Lambchop, Joni Mitchell, Thelonius Monk and Mahler in the course of an evening. My family generally prefer me to use headphones. I’m into visual arts, cinema, theatre and yes, a good TV box set. Mare of Easttown has been a revelation. And conversations with friends (one of the novels discussed in the book, by the way).

6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?

What a fantastically sadistic question.

The title of my book is taken from a Wallace Stevens poem – I think it’d have to be his Collected Poems. They are so inexhaustible; I never get bored of finding new, previously unsuspected riches in them. Stevens gets us to see the depth and strangeness of the most ordinary things.

7. I like to end my Q&As with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?

Q: What or who has been the greatest source of sorrow and frustration in your life?

A: I am a Spurs fan.

About the Book

From the truths and lies we tell about ourselves to the resonant creations of fiction, stories give shape and meaning to all our lives. Both a practicing psychoanalyst and a professor of literature, Josh Cohen has long been taken with the mutual echoes between the life struggles of the consulting room and the dramas of the novel. So what might the most memorable characters in literature tell us about how to live meaningfully?

In How to Live. What to Do, Cohen plots a course through the various stages of our lives, discovering in each the surprising and profound insights literature has to offer. Beginning with the playful mindset of Wonderland‘s Alice, we discover the resilience of Jane Eyre, the rebellious rage of Baldwin’s Johnny Grimes and the catastrophic ambitions of Jay Gatsby, the turbulence of first love for Sally Rooney’s Frances, the sorrows of marriage for Middlemarch‘s Dorothea Brooke, and the regrets and comforts of middle age for Rabbit Angstrom.

About the Author

Josh Cohen is Professor of Modern Literary Theory at Goldsmiths, University of London and a psychoanalyst in private practice. He is the author of books and articles on modern literature, cultural theory and psychoanalysis, including How to Read: Freud, The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark, and Not Working.

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