A roomful of people greeted Leah Hager Cohen on January 15 when she read at the South End branch from her latest, and highly acclaimed, novel, The Grief of Others. Introduced by author Doug Bauer, who substituted for Sue Miller, out with a bad cold, Hager Cohen started out by saying that she is happiest when writing but "second happiest' when in a library "with other library people." She read a section from the novel that harkened back to a summer vacation in a family cabin where a couple and three children from two relationships are united for the first time in years, each bringing with them an assortment of wounds and sorrows that are explored underneath the starry skies of the Adirondack mountains, a place where, as Hager Cohen described it, the lake's black water at night "is warmer than the air." This is the first novel where she used physical details from places she knows well, the Adirondacks and the town of Nyack, NY, something she had resisted in her previous work, she told the spellbound audience, until her agent suggested doing otherwise for this novel.
How people grieve is not quantifiable, the author suggested in response to various comments about how contemporary culture deals with sorrows large and small because "we each do it in our own unique way." Her mother taught her "no one lives very long without sorrow or grief," and that, through like experiences, we are all part of a larger community, in our own time --horizontally-- and through time --vertically-- with our ancestors and descendants.
One of Hager Cohen's earlier non-fiction books, Train Go Sorry, offered personal history of a different kind, specifically the experience of her immigrant grandparents, both deaf, and of her father who ran a school for deaf children, told from the author's perspective as a person with hearing. Or, as Doug Bauer put it, as someone who "yearns to be part of that culture, one she grew up so close to, and yet could not fully be a member of."
Answering a question from the audience of how she became a writer Hager Cohen said that, when she was little, she would name each of her fingers and tell stories about them, which her mother transcribed. "She gave me the gift of taking seriously what I was doing," Hager Cohen said. Later on, in journalism school, a professor asked whether he could show the non-fiction she had written, about the deaf culture, to his agent, which set her on the road to being a published writer, first in non-fiction, but in fiction shortly after.
Hager Cohen said she is "excited" about the new book she is working on: It is based on the question of how to love, or live with, someone who is hard to love.
Her five favorite books are listed on the FOSEL web site under The South End Reads.