Q&A: 'No Book but the World' Author Leah Hager Cohen on Empathy, Education, and Knowing

When I closed the cover on Leah Hager Cohen's No Book but the World (Riverhead), I may have been done with the pages, but my experience with the novel was far from over. Cohen's voice is the kind that lingers in the head of a reader long after she's finished with the book. I find myself remembering the narrator's keen insight into Cohen's characters when watching kids fight on the subway, thinking about education, and when/if anyone dare mention Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Let me explain. In Cohen's fifth novel, she depicts the somewhat insular world of Ava and Fred Robbins, two siblings who grow up in upstate New York in the 1960s. Ava and Fred's father Neel founded a progressive school based on the ideals of Rousseau: freedom is the best instructor, and "no book but the world" shall teach young kids. Ava manages to find her independence and go on to live a peaceful, productive life, but Fred has always had trouble communicating and behaving. (It's suggested he's autistic, but the parents reject any attempt to classify him.) When they're grown, Ava receives the distressing news that Fred's been accused of murdering a young man in the depths of the woods. As she sifts through memories and flashbacks, Ava must come to terms with her upbringing and her strained relationship with Fred while defending him from the unthinkable.

With her signature attention to the quiet realities of family dynamics, Cohen provides the reader with a rare combination: poetic, crafted language, and a deeply involving story. I spoke with Cohen about how No Book but the World took shape, and how the themes resonate with her.

BUSTLE: You said in a previous interview that this is the first book you started with an idea rather than a scene. How did this idea sprout into a novel?

LEAH HAGER COHEN: I’d been really sort of a little bit obsessed with the puzzle of how many people in the world are difficult for the world to love and accept and understand generally because of differences. Whether differences because of gender or gender identity or race or socioeconomic status or whether the person is considered typically-abled or disabled — you know, all kinds of sort of marginalized groups. And people can find themselves a little bit on the outside of society’s affections or willingness to embrace them. That was the big idea that I was spending a lot of time thinking about. Eventually, slowly, the sort of specific elements of a story that might support exploring that question became clear to me.

Among all of those differences, what is it about Fred that really stuck out to you as a story worth telling?

His vulnerability, first and foremost ... What strikes me about [Fred] is his vulnerability. What strikes most of the people in the fictional world I created about him is that he’s unlovable. Weird, that he’s difficult, that he’s hard to even sort of understand what he’s thinking and why he’s behaving the way he behaves. But what I see when I think of him is just that he’s just so extremely vulnerable. 

And the reader gets that, because you make him so deserving of empathy. Did you always envision this story set in New England?

It’s not that I imagined it set somewhere else necessarily. I spent most of my childhood sort of in the Hudson River Valley area. So I think that felt like a place that I could fictionalize — I could create a fictionalized version with some intimacy with what that part of the world feels like. My mother’s side of the family is from way upstate New York, and I think I’ve always been intrigued with how even though it’s all within one state, the more rural parts of the state can feel like really a world apart.

Much of this book is about education and how a kid comes to learn. What kind of student were you as a kid?

I really loved freedoms. Any time there was any indication from a specific teacher or within a specific assignment or in any part of the learning experience, any glimmer of freedom to take risks or to be creative, or to sort of explore questions — I really loved that. And any time I had the sense that a certain class or a certain lesson was more about producing the correct answer, that made me a little bit miserable.

Do you think your views on education changed at all once you had kids?

That’s an interesting question. As a kid of parents who really embraced a lot of the values in free, progressive education, I sort of imagined that I would want to raise kids with similar values and freedoms. And my kids pretty much have gone to public school the whole time, which I haven’t … I would say my opinions or values didn’t really change, if anything, they were sort of confirmed because as grateful as I am to the public schools for the job they did educating the kids, I also felt like I had to constantly be the one to help my kids see that there are other ways of being in the world, there are others ways of learning, that not everything is about filling in the ovals on a test with a number two pencil. So, no, I don’t think my values or beliefs about education changed so much as were confirmed.

Do you find you're more confident writing fiction or nonfiction?

Well, I don’t know. Obviously with nonfiction, there’s the concrete element of your notes, your research, and reporting. But as you very well know, that sort of doesn’t get you all the way there. But then there’s still, you know, you’ve still got to figure out what the story is and how to tell the story. And with fiction, similarly, your imagination is the thing supplying the equivalent of your notes, and then this other part of you has to rise to the occasion of figuring out what the story is and how to tell it. I feel like both fiction and nonfiction, for me, require a kind of letting go and trusting this unknown part of my mind to know what to do.

Is that difficult for you?

No, it’s not … I think, earlier on when I was a younger writer, I felt like that was a really not legitimate way to work, and that it was sort of a dirty secret and that I shouldn’t ever reveal to anyone that I didn’t really know what I was doing and that a lot of the writing process was about this sort of blinding feeling my way toward something. So what’s gotten easier for me is just admitting that that’s how I work and not having to apologize for it.

Well, definitely. And one of my favorite works of yours is I Don’t Know, where you discuss how beneficial it is to admit when you don’t know something.

Yeah. It was a nice relief to kind of write that book and become that much more practiced at just saying, “I don’t know.”

What did you have to learn in order to write this book?

In a very practical sense, I had to learn stuff about the criminal justice system. I did want to learn enough about autism spectrum disorders to render Fred in a way that was where I wasn’t imposing my fantasy of what it means to be developmentally delayed on someone but where i was being true to at least one model of what someone who’s developmentally delayed, how that might manifest. And I didn’t actually need to learn a whole lot about free schools because I had spent lots of time in my youth and adulthood, because I’m just so interested in the concept of free schools — reading about them and attending some, as well.

Did you have any experience with a school that was like Neel’s?

The Neel in the book is sort of in an homage to A.S. Neal, who is the founder of Summer Hill, which is this famous school in England. I think he founded it in the 1920s. So that was a very conscious, not exactly an imitation, but sort of a very conscious homage to Summer Hill and A.S. Neal. And I bring that up because when I was little, my parents actually wrote to A.S. Neal and asked if they could come teach at Summer Hill, and it didn’t work out. He said no — he didn’t have space for our whole family to come over. But in some ways from the time I was a baby I was exposed to the idea of a place like Summer Hill. And then I did, in middle school — my brother and I attended a Summer Hill-like school in the Hudson River Valley for a couple of years, and then I went to Hampshire College, which is very much — I don’t know if you’re familiar with Hampshire, but it’s like the college version. No majors, no required classes, no grades.

Ava again and again reiterates that she is one of the few people who can understand Freddy when they’re little kids. Is that something you experienced with your siblings, that kind of bond? Or something you observed in your kids, maybe?

My younger brother is adopted, he came to the family when he was four and I was five, and he’s black, and the rest of the family is white ... Some of the people who knew us definitely treated him differently than they treated my sister and me, and whether it was because they were uncomfortable with the idea of adoption, or because they were uncomfortable with his race. I was aware from a very young age that ... here’s my brother, and people don’t look at us the same way. Not all of them extend the same degree of openness and warmth to him as they do me. And that was awful. I mean, before I could articulate it, I felt it as a burden and I felt a sense of responsiblity to make sure that he was okay, and included and loved. 

Image: John Earle

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