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Librarians Enthrall: A Conversation with Jon Cohen

by on January 14, 2014

Jon Cohen’s The Man in the Window was first published in 1992, but is now enjoying a second life thanks to Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust Rediscoveries. Disfigured from a fire at his father’s hardware store, Louis Malone has spent the past sixteen years observing his neighborhood from the confines of his parents’ house. When he accidentally falls out of a second floor window, he sets in motion a string of events that lead him to Emergency Room nurse Iris Shula. As Iris and Louis tentatively explore a relationship, the reader glimpses into the lives of the people who make up their world, meeting their widowed parents, intrusive neighbors, and a particularly enigmatic ER patient. Cohen’s sensitive and affectionate depiction of these bruised characters will surely appeal to fans of Anne Tyler and Alice Hoffman. Cohen spoke to Brendan Dowling via e-mail on December 22, 2013.

Public Libraries: When we meet Louis, the only people he’s talked to over the past sixteen years are his parents and he’s only ventured outside during the night. What was it like getting into the mind of somebody with such limited social contact?

Jon Cohen: You would think: guy stays in his room for sixteen years, not much going on. Difficult character to bring to life. But Louis Malone is a quivering nerve-ending — nothing escapes his notice. It’s as if he goes Zen for sixteen years, pondering the infinite details of the little slice of the world he can see from his window. Everything tiny or overlooked in life, is large for him; he draws meaning from everything. So my writerly problem with Louis, strangely, was one of abundance. If you have a character who takes in every blade of grass in the section of lawn he can see, how do you direct that lasered light so it has narrative meaning?

The question: is mindfulness — utter engagement with every small thing around you — truly living? Iris Shula thinks Louis is off his rocker. We are not here just to ponder, she insists, but to get out into the world and live. And that’s the tension of the novel. Will Louis exit his window? Is that room of his long self-confinement, heaven, or a beautiful prison?

PL: The ending of Book Lust edition differs slightly than when it was first published in the U.S. What caused you to add the additional paragraph at the end of this edition?

JC: It’s interesting how we think of books as “finished” once they are printed and bound, as if they’re sacred and immutable documents. Because a new edition was coming out, I had a unique opportunity to make the ending clearer and, I believe, better. In the original version, too many readers had the impression that Louis kills himself. And not unreasonably, as the last words in the book were, “Louis…entered the light.” I didn’t mean it as a dying thing, but a living thing. But the phrase, in its popular context, can mean only one thing.

This is an unambiguous, life-celebrating book. Some endings need to leave the reader hanging, need to straddle the fence. But this is a particular kind of love story, and no one should be pondering the possibility of the hero’s death. I want them pondering what the future holds for this unlikely couple, as they go into the light of the world.

PL: While the novel centers around Louis and Ivy, the neighbors who live on Louis’ street are all richly fleshed out even though they don’t appear for very long. What were the challenges of creating these characters in such a limited amount of space?

JC: I’m a big fan of the little detail that weds us instantly to a character. It’s why I was suited for the economy of screenwriting, which demands that you vivify a character with a brushstroke. I do it in novels, too, give each of my characters some little, indelible detail. Kitty’s aqua eyeliner that matches the siding of her house. Herb and his slippery dentures. Arnie’s dog, Duke, who eats fireflies. Even a throwaway character needs to come alive on the page. My novels tend to have a strong comic undercurrent, and comedy naturally lends itself to fun, over-the-top (hence, memorable) details. The cheapskate undertaker who makes a little on the side by selling his slightly-used morgue ice to the local wedding caterer. I love this kind of stuff.

PL: You co-wrote the screenplay for “Minority Report.” What was it like to adapt somebody else’s work after years of writing original stories?

JC: Impossible. I have never been good at entering somebody else’s story. For that reason, I am not a good editor or teacher. I lack the ability to get inside another writer’s creative head. When adapting a story for a screenplay, I would grab the core concept, but create a story and a world that was all my own. Happily, Hollywood is totally comfortable with this. I could never have adapted some beloved novel like Twilight, where everything was set in stone.

“Minority Report” was a short story by Philip K. Dick. Dick was a conceptual genius, an idea guy, but his characters and worlds– especially in this story — are often thin. So I had a free reign to invent a different world, new characters, and all sorts of sci-fi gadgets.

Interestingly, I had never written a word of sci-fi before I wrote that screenplay. All I knew about sci-fi was the same vague stuff any non-aficionado knows. But the Dick concept was so totally brilliant, it was hard to screw up.

PL: You worked for many years as a critical care nurse. Did that work have any effect on how you approach your characters or your writing?

JC: When you enter a hospital, it’s always for something huge. To give birth, to die, to have surgery, to receive some complicated or intense medical intervention. Whatever happens to you in a hospital is something you remember for the rest of your life. Like it or not, you are the main character in an overwhelmingly memorable story. When you’re a hospital patient, you experience drama, pain, fear, excitement, hope, and despair.

And that’s what a nurse’s job is: to help people during an ultimate crisis moment. So many personalities, so many ways to cope, so many intimate and amazing details bombard a nurse during the course of a normal day. Absolutely, my time in the hospital was essential to my storytelling. Most of my novels have nurses and hospitals in them.

PL: What are you working on next?

JC: A novel. There’s a nurse in it.

PL: What role have libraries played in your life?

JC: It’s not so much libraries, as librarians. One librarian in particular was central to my life. When I was in third grade my mother became the elementary school librarian. And I was so proud, it was so stunning, to walk into that library and see my mother surrounded by children, all of them wide-eyed and in awe as she read stories aloud. In her throne-like chair, surrounded by her subjects. She seemed like such a force, like she had her pulse on the essential magic of the world. No one moved a muscle the whole time she spoke. All these squirmy kids, absolutely still. Here’s what I know: librarians enthrall.