Your story “Shelter” recounts the adventures of an American man on a business trip to Israel who gets caught up in an unexpected drama. What drew you to Cohen as a character?
In the story, Cohen, middle-aged, believes himself to be in stasis, but stumbles unwittingly into a moment of great dynamism. As a younger person, I used to think of middle age the way many coastal people driving across the country think of the Midwest: as a huge, vaguely menacing, but mostly boring expanse where one contemplates how far one has come and how far one still has left to go. I didn’t understand what was meant by a “midlife crisis,” beyond the disappointment of no longer being what I still happily was: fabulously young. For that reason, I mostly avoided middle-aged characters in my writing, preferring the young or the old, whose crises I somehow imagined myself more equipped to fathom. But, now that I’ve arrived at middle age myself, I realize that I couldn’t have been more mistaken. I guess it’s always the case that we believe whatever age we are at to be the most interesting. But what a radical, rich, utterly riveting time of life it is! I look around at my friends—admittedly a lively, searching bunch—and I’m just amazed by the variety of dramatic positions and problems and possibilities everyone is facing. There’s something very moving to me about all the late revelations that are not yet so late that they can be ignored, about the deep settling into oneself that makes settling for what doesn’t fit no longer acceptable. To be honest, I’ve come to feel a great warmth for middle age, and more and more I find myself wanting to be there in my writing.
The climactic scene of the story takes place in a mamak, a reinforced safe room, in Tel Aviv. Why did you choose that space for Cohen’s moment of action and the birth of a baby?
Being in Tel Aviv while rockets are exploded overhead by anti-missiles is a surreal experience. I mean, war itself must always seem surreal. But, in Tel Aviv, what often fascinates me is the way that, a moment after the missiles have been destroyed and the sirens have fallen silent, the whole city snaps back to whatever it was doing right before the emergency began. The conversation that had stopped midsentence resumes, the waiters and waitresses once more sail smoothly between tables, and everything continues as if nothing had happened. This deft restoration of normalcy is itself surreal, the result of a collective refusal to allow a certain aspect of reality—the one where fear and horror live—to take root and unfurl. The shelter, then, where one goes to wait for the danger to pass is, in a sense, the only place where that reality—the reality of death, of the fact that people want to kill and are killed—is acknowledged. So it interested me, by contrast, to set a birth there. And not just any birth but one attended to by a man who is returning from his own private excursion into surrealism, courtesy of psychedelics, and descending back into a reality he would rather not face.
Why did you choose to have Cohen be on psilocybin in this scene?
For the reason above. And I’d add that in this scene he’s actually coming down from his trip. Like sex, psychedelics are easier done than written about. It’s nearly impossible to convincingly describe the specific experiences one has had on psilocybin because an aspect of sobriety is skepticism, and skepticism is completely annulled by psychedelics. Everything one feels and experiences—positive or negative, beautiful or scary—is wholly felt and believed. Doubt requires distance, and there is no distance in a psychedelic experience, no stepping back or away. But then one has to come down, and that return, I suppose, is what I was interested in writing about—that middle zone where one has not yet lost access to that state of being and belief, even as one is recalled to a reality that can’t fully host it. When Cohen is confronted with, as they say, the miracle of life, he hasn’t yet lost his sense of wonder, his belief in his own goodness; he hasn’t yet been reminded of his own failures, so he can half believe himself to be a part of the miracle.
Cohen feels that he has played a momentous role in the delivery of Nava’s baby—and, of course, physically, he has. But, since we see everything in the story through his eyes, it’s difficult to know how Nava feels about what happened. Do you have an idea?
Of what Nava feels for Cohen and his part? In the grand scheme of her own experience, probably not all that much. Giving birth—talk about a totalizing experience. Talk about be here now! I don’t know of another sober experience more self-absorbing than labor. Everyone else—the nurses, the doctor, even the father—sort of fades away offstage, as far as I recall, and you are alone inside this enormous event. Which is ironic, because the moment you give birth you cease to be the main protagonist of your own life. Your child takes up that role, and you fall back to play all the other parts. So the labor of delivery is your last chance to be the star of your own life, at least for a very long while.
The story is written in the third person, but, as discussed, it’s more or less Cohen’s internal monologue. What appeals to you about writing from that perspective?
There’s a line in the story: “between Cohen and Cohen something else had slipped in, courtesy of the perspective of middle age: a hand span of ironic distance.” I think it’s that hand span of distance—not too much and not too little—that also attracts me to a close third person. The photographer Diane Arbus once described how everyone has a need to look one way but is always seen in another. This space between what we want people to know about us and what we can’t help people knowing about us she called the gap between intention and effect. And it’s that gap that a close third-person perspective bridges, allowing for irony and a touch of humor.
“Shelter” reminds me a little of your story “Zusya on the Roof”—another narrative in which a man at a turning point in his life is confronted with the so-called miracle of birth and deeply affected by it. Why do you think this is such a rich subject for you? What do Brodman, the protagonist of “Zusya,” and Cohen have in common?
A writer friend of mine described the character of Cohen as one of my “less ruined men.” It’s true that there’s a certain kind of stymied character that interests me, though not so much for his failure or his ruination as for the moment when he suddenly sees, shining up ahead, a way out. It allows for a story that both looks back at a life and looks forward into the future, a view that can be heady, even breathtaking. Whether the escape or the solution is real or not—whether he actually transcends what he feels bound or oppressed by—interests me less than the encounter with possibility. The chance for redemption: isn’t that finally the great subject of all literature? ♦