Please welcome Gabriel Cohen, June's Edgar Award- nominated featured author!
Back in January 2008, New Mystery Reader conducted an interview with Mr. Cohen after the publication of his new novel, The Graving Dock. And after reading his latest, The Ninth Step, and thoroughly enjoying it, our staff reviewer Ray Palen thought it would be great to revisit Mr. Cohen and talk about what’s new. So please welcome Ray Palen and Gabriel Cohen in their interesting and thought provoking interview.
Interview with Gabriel Cohen June 2010:
Ray Palen: Any significance to the
novel being set in the year 2005?
NMR: Thanks you Mr. Cohen, it was great to catch up with you!
Gabriel Cohen Interview from January 2008 with Stephanie Padilla For New Mystery Reader
1. There was quite a bit of time between the release of your first novel Red Hook, featuring Detective Jack Leightner of the Brooklyn South Homicide Task Force, and your follow up title The Graving Dock; why the long stretch between books? (AS
I published another novel in between, called Boombox, and I wrote a nonfiction book (coming out in March) and some journalism, plus I got married (and divorced). Now I’m I’m finishing up a third Jack Leightner novel, so life’s been pretty busy.
2. With The Graving Dock set shortly after 9/11, yet written much later, was it difficult for you to recreate the time and place?
Not really. I lived through that crazy, terrible time here in New York, and the memories of what the city felt like are indelible. I remember climbing up on my roof that morning and seeing a huge column of smoke rising up where the towers once stood; I remember walking through the streets with a handkerchief pressed against my mouth to block the falling ash, as I tried to find a hospital where I could donate blood. I didn’t want to make that day the center of the book, but I did want to include a bit of the feeling of what the city was like afterward. I think mysteries are largely about mortality, which we normally don’t like to think much about, but that event forced everyone to think about it, at the same time—and it forced the city to temporarily come together in some very interesting ways.
3. In both of your Leightner titles New York and its environs, including its people, pace, and uniqueness, all play a very important role. So when you started out writing this series, was it the place and time that you built the story around first, or Jack himself?
I love writing about the feel of Brooklyn, and its speech patterns, incredible ethnic diversity, and feistiness all play a big part in the books, but I really started with the character. I thought that it would be interesting to write about someone with such a weird job—homicide detective—and I did my best to create a real human being. I wanted to get away from the usual hard-drinking, constantly wisecracking, tough-guy detective—I was more interested in things like what kind of a parent or what kind of a lover someone who dealt with dead people all day might turn out to be.
4. Do you think Jack would be a different guy if he lived in say Miami?
Well, he would probably have a more colorful wardrobe. I like reading books in which character and place work together in interesting ways—like the Dexter series, which has a real Miami feel to it. I don’t know if Jack would be a different guy if he lived there, but I like the idea of dropping him in a radically different place like that and seeing how his Brooklyn instincts would help or hinder him.
5. Readers will no doubt be impressed with your realistic portrayal of the world of cops; your dialogue and inside look at investigating being especially convincing. Did you have to hang out with these guys to get such an in depth perspective?
Thanks for the compliment. I know some good crime writers who don’t sweat the research, but to me, it’s a big part of the fun of writing, and I feel really honored when I meet a cop who says I got things right. I have interviewed homicide detectives and regular precinct detectives, and I also did a 13-week Citizens Police Academy training course, which was very helpful. I think that there’s a richness that comes from learning specific details about how someone’s job really works, whether it be police procedure or even glove making (which Phillip Roth managed to make so fascinating in American Pastoral). For The Graving Dock, for example, I learned about the wild job of the NYPD scuba divers, who might have to search the totally murky bottom of one of New York’s rivers for a specific tossed gun. One of them said, “One time, we came up with four wrong guns in forty-five minutes.” It’s hard to make up stuff like that.
6. Now, of course, these aren't the only books you've written—it also seems you took the time in between to write an entirely different type of fiction with your novel Boombox; why the different direction?
Actually, I don’t think it’s that much of a different direction. Boombox is about the friction between four different Brooklyn neighbors after one of them—a teenager—buys a huge sound system and starts broadcasting gangster rap into the center of their shared courtyard. There’s a killing in it, though there’s no mystery about who did it. I think the basic questions are actually the same: what makes people behave the way they do, and why is it so difficult for us to get along? All of my books, including the new nonfiction one, which is called Storms Can’t Hurt the Sky: a Buddhist Path Through Divorce, are essentially mystery stories.
7. After writing a stand alone fiction novel and two related fiction novels, have you found it to be more interesting and challenging to write something different, or do you find it more gratifying to return to familiar places and faces?
I enjoyed doing something different—especially the nonfiction book, which combined memoir and self-help and presented some fresh writing challenges—but I also like the idea of a series. It can be an exciting art form, as long as you view it as a chance to deepen characters and give them an evolving story, rather than just telling the same story over and over (which is what happens when a series goes stale). Some TV series have done really well with that unique opportunity, shows like The Wire or The Sopranos. That concept goes back to the time of writers like Balzac, who got excited about the chance to develop the interplay within a whole rich world of characters, and to really explore a place and time.
8. You've also wrote a bit of non-fiction. How does the challenge and satisfaction of this type of writing compare to fiction, if at all?
There are definitely some similarities. Ultimately, you have to keep the reader interested and eager to turn the page, so I try to use some fiction techniques, like building a story arc, creating suspense, and painting vivid scenes. In my upcoming nonfiction book about divorce, there’s even a murder. (Don’t worry, it didn’t involve my ex-wife.) I also faced some new challenges, like trying to write about my marriage in an honest way, yet also trying to protecting her privacy and to be fair. When I think that the new book might possibly help someone lessen the pain of a tough divorce, or even help them save a rocky marriage, that’s pretty exciting.
9. Your bio indicates that you've had a variety of careers, ranging from teaching and writing, to musician, to waiter. When you were a child, did you have any dreams and hopes of doing any of these things?
Well, I certainly never dreamt of being a waiter! But I’ve always done whatever freelance jobs might leave me with the time and the energy to write. (Back in my 20s I did harbor some hopes of becoming a rock star, and I pursued that dream for five years as the lead singer and guitarist for an indie band called Valley of Kings. We put out an album and did some touring, but then I realized that I probably didn’t have the voice or songwriting chops to really make it.) Sometimes I regret that I didn’t pursue the book writing consistently from an early age—but then again, I often find that my wacky, diverse work history has provided me with interesting things to write about. In Boombox, for example, I was able to give some of my jobs to my characters. One of them discovers what it’s like to work as a restaurant dishwasher (my first job); another works in a high echelon of a big corporate office—something I witnessed, oddly enough, during a stint working in catering.
10. If you could make this one wish come true, what would you most like your readers to get out of your books?
Crime stories follow a pattern: they introduce chaos into society, in the form of a disruptive event such as a murder, and then they move toward putting everything back into order. There’s a certain simple satisfaction in that raising and then calming of tension and anxiety—the evil killer gets caught or killed—but if that’s all a book is about, you might forget it a day or two later. And life doesn’t really work that way, since we’re all moving toward an ending (death) that actually feels very confusing and mysterious. I like to think that a crime novel can do more than just resolve tension, that it can be an opportunity to explore some deeper questions, like Why do people do bad things to each other? (Greed and cruelty are just symptoms—you have to probe deeper to get to the underlying cause.) How can humans come to grip with their mortality? Why is a successful romantic relationship so difficult to sustain? I believe readers want more than just a flashy story—they want to care about the characters, to travel through a story with them and emerge having had some kind of challenging and moving and cathartic experience. That’s the job, as I see it.
11. And finally, are readers going to be lucky enough to see a return of Jack Leightner, and if so, what might he be facing for the next go around?
I’m under contract for a third Jack Leightner novel, called Neptune Avenue. This one deals with a police shooting in Red Hook, ex-pat Russian life in Brighton Beach, a murderer of young women in Crown Heights, and a sexy romance for Jack. There are definitely a number of strands in this one, and I’m enjoying discovering how I can weave them together.
Gabriel Cohen’s debut novel Red Hook was nominated for the Edgar award for Best First Novel, and he is also the author of the novels The Graving Dock and Boombox. His nonfiction book Storms Can’t Hurt the Sky: A Buddhist Path Through Divorce will be published in March. He has written for The New York Times and Time Out New York, and taught writing at New York University. He has worked as an inner-city schoolteacher, a rock’n’roll musician, a waiter, a researcher, a script reader, and a composer for film soundtracks, and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
For more info on Gabriel Cohen,
please visit his site at: