Iris Martin Cohen’s debut novel is a witty, incisive, and very funny send up of New York City literary circles and the ambition that drives them. The Common’s Interviews Editor Melody Nixon spoke with Cohen this month about The Little Clan, New York high society, contemporary American male writers and their pitfalls, the female socialite ideal, and, you know, what to do about patriarchal capitalism.
Melody Nixon (MN): In The Little Clan you manage to capture so well the 2010s zeitgeist of angsty millennial NYC, yet there’s an element of (and parody of) high society that will feel totally unfamiliar to a lot of folks. Where did you draw your inspiration for the Lazarus Club, that rabbit’s den of the 1%, where much of the novel is set?
Iris Cohen (IC): Rather unbelievably, my inspiration for the Lazarus Club came from personal experience. In my twenties a friend and I started a literary club and salon in a venerable old social club. Through a strange set of coincidences, we stumbled on to someone who knew of a space that was not being used in their huge, gorgeous mansion and somehow we talked the club into letting us take it over. They were looking for younger members and some press, so they rented to us for a reasonable price and suddenly we found ourselves immersed in this strange alternate universe straight out of the 1870’s. It was like we were the first people under the age of eighty that had been there in a hundred years. Our salon was a huge success because we were able to provide access to this rarified closed world full of chandlery and ballrooms and all the writers and artists we brought in for events flipped out. But then, as in the book, our parties got a little too successful, the literary events got a little wild and the partnership didn’t last. But it was an amazing couple of years. While the Lazarus Club is decidedly fictional, I think as a writer, we draw from our life experiences, and I found a lot of inspiration in that particular set of memories.
MN: We met in a historically memorable class on historical fiction, taught by Simon Schama at Columbia University. This novel plays on the fixation of one character with “old” fiction; the male dominated canon of Nineteenth-Century English and French lit. Can you talk about your own relationship to the novels of yore? What led you to create a protagonist, Ava, so obsessed with them?
IC: I grew up in a very unusual, bohemian environment in the French Quarter of New Orleans. My parents are both artists and participated in artistic and intellectual circles that were very enamored of the past. I don’t know if it was just them, of if it’s a New Orleans thing, but I just grew up immersed in the canon. My parents’ friends were giving me Balzac and Dumas to read when I was ten and I really loved them. The Three Musketeers or The Hunchback of Notre Dame or Little Dorrit—I just thought these were the only books that mattered and no one ever really told me any different.
It took me years and years to free myself from this idea. As a young girl who also always wanted to be a writer, it creates a kind of perverse Stockholm syndrome where you come to value a world that you are excluded from. I think Virginia Woolf does such a good job describing this in a Room of One’s Own—when you are raised in a certain value system, it can be hard to shift your perspective. I think for Ava these writers symbolize an idea of belonging. She identifies so heavily with the past because she wants to feel included, to feel like she matters. It’s a hard lesson for her to realize these men will never speak for her, she will never be a great male writer of history and that she has to find a new true voice and consciousness.
MN: There’s a lot of literary reference to folks like Doyle, Wharton, Dickens—plus, through characters like Aloysius, reference to effete European aristocracy. Also thematically I see American writers like Fitzgerald and McInerney bubbling through. How much was the book shaped by your own reading preferences? Or did you set about reading a whole bunch of Proust just to prepare?
IC: I can’t imagine wading through all the books you mentioned just in order to write a novel that critiques them. What a slog that would be. I included all these old authors because I really do love them. This book was a way for me to both celebrate the parts of the great Nineteenth-Century canon that I still love and also to free myself from it. The Little Clan opens with an epigraph from Marx about the weight of the past and this book was a way for me to pay affectionate homage, while also to “murder my fathers” as it were. Proust is a little different because I think he is the greatest example of taking the huge 19th-C realist novel and shattering it into a million little pieces. In Search of Lost Time manages to be the most glittering of all the big Parisian novels but it also finds a space within to explore alternate perspectives, queerness, and consciousness.
MN: Is Virginia Woolf really the solution to all, or any, of this? I ask because I shy away from the assertions (usually made in the syllabi of classes in the “nonfiction canon,” for example), that she’s the one female author we need to read to overturn these centuries of women writers being silenced. How much did reading her work have an impact on your understanding of feminism and patriarchy in literature (“Litriarchy?”)?
IC: I certainly don’t think Virginia Woolf is the be all end all of feminist thought. I found her useful in the context of this book because she is so ‘of the canon’. If you’ve read The Common Reader, you know, she’s read literally everything in the western canon with a close, careful, loving attention that I think positions her well to offer her specific perspective on it. [In] the same way Marx isn’t the end of economic theory (as some would have it), but because he is so deeply a part of the German philosophical tradition he comes out of, his protest is particularly instructive.
I actually didn’t read Woolf until very late in life because of the kind of annoying hagiography that has built up around her. And when you read Alice Walker or Audre Lorde or Bell Hooks, she definitely does start to feel like an out-of-date, slightly embarrassing aunt. But when I finally got around to A Room of One’s Own, I did think it was a brilliant book—such an elegant, succinct, radical way of looking at the western literary tradition. I also love Three Guineas since we often think of Woolf as being this delicate, decorous figure and she basically advocates setting all of the institutions of patriarchy on fire. I can get behind that.
MN: Your parody in The Little Clan of the contemporary American male novel, “a nine-hundred page tour de force about an internet startup… a call to arms for the cubicle age,” is glorious. I especially relished Ava’s critiques: “like forty pages about his testicles seems kind of self- aggrandizing… Can we at least talk about how there’s no women in this except that one who does pornographic web cam stuff?” (“But the main character’s in love with her, she’s a huge part of the book,” comes the retort.) How much fun did you have writing that section?
IC: That section was unfortunately too easy to write because I feel like every time I open a book review, I’m getting smacked in the face by another brave, important, ambitious novel by a man. And honestly, they all sound so boring. I’m kind of glad to be able to say that it isn’t a parody of Lerner or Murakami or Foster-Wallace because I haven’t read any of them. It’s more just a constant churn. It’s hard not to notice what appeals to the prestige literary marketplace.
MN: I was delighted by the emergence of a theme of queerness in your novel, and specifically female queerness. I don’t know if you identify as straight (and don’t want to be so reductive to ask you that), but I’m curious how and why you came to the conclusion that queerness was a key aspect of character development in this particular story? What potentials did queerness hold?
IC: I’m definitely on the queer spectrum, and I think that certainly informs this book. For Ava, I think her intellectual and sexual awakenings are intimately linked. In the same way that she has accepted all these male writers and thinkers and the patriarchal values they represent, she unthinkingly accepts her place as a straight woman even though neither really speak to her. I think philosophically, Ava’s discovery of alternate ways of seeing the world and of reframing her identity is an extremely queer practice. The process of writing this book, and the concurrent political situation, really made me want to set everything on fire and retreat to the woods and live in a radical queer feminist witch commune. Which is funny, since this book on the surface reads very polished and restrained and kind of old fashioned.
MN: Earlier I mentioned Jay McInerney. I see a lot of parallels between your character of Stephanie and McInerney’s Amanda of Bright Lights, Big City. But perhaps Stephanie has more depth—she’s tender, and savvy (yet abusive). She is both unable to escape the patriarchal role ascribed to her as a tall, young, blond, former beauty-pageant winner, and hyper-aware of its consequences: “There is nothing the world hates more,” she says, when lamenting the short time she has left to make her fortune, “than a middle-aged woman.”
IC: I love Stephanie. You see these women everywhere when you’re moving in certain circles of New York City— beautiful, brilliant women that all seem to be desperately chasing the wrong golden ring, and I was always fascinated by them, a little horrified, a little jealous, impressed and worried about them all at the same time. I wanted to write a character that had made these choices, but as you say, was smart and self-aware. I had a friend once who I think had the misfortune of being born too beautiful, and I was amazed at the way all of patriarchy conspired to just ruin her, it added such complicating perspective on “the beautiful blonde”.
More than anything, though, I was inspired by Edith Wharton, which is why the salon in the book is literally called the House of Mirth. I think Lily Bart is a beautiful example, where we take a young woman who is basically a gold digger and look at her entire life and her choices with empathy and agency and she ends up being the most deeply sympathetic character, and a much crueler indictment of the society she lives in than her. Unfortunately, she comes to a bad end. I’m not sure how things will turn out for Stephanie.
MN: Ava, the protagonist comes across as Stephanie’s opposite: deeply moved by internal forces (that she’s not quite able to follow through much of the book), unconventional, and also unique, her own person. Can you talk about your relationship to her? And I know it is the worst possible thing to ask a fiction writer (ever) how much of themselves is in a character, so I’ll try to avoid that by asking: how much of your own experience running a salon do you draw on to write her?
IC: I’ll just go ahead and say straight out that there is a lot of me in Ava. I love sitting down to a good nine hundred pages of Nineteenth-Century fiction, and I’m not going to lie, I may have an embroidery ring or two. I have a great fondness for Ava, ridiculous as she can be. She was a useful way for me to exaggerate certain aspects of myself to the point of absurdity and so to interrogate certain parts of myself that it was time to question. I think I approach all my characters that way more or less, different parts of me exist in all of them. But yes, if you walked into my living room, you’d think, “Yep. Ava.”
MN: Ava has some pretty difficult realizations throughout the course of The Little Clan. What lessons did you learn from her?
IC: I mostly learned the value of being less conciliatory. If books, and by extension, movies and social circles, etc., are not speaking to your best interest, just walk away, disengage a little. We don’t have all that much control over the society we live in, but we can choose what to feed with our attention. I stopped reading books by men while I was writing this. That’s an unfair and probably needless extreme, but it felt useful. I had to stop watching Game of Thrones. I don’t go to the cool literary parties anymore and stopped seeking the approval of the 27-year-old, tall, thin Ivy League white guys in cardigans that run all the journals and dictate popular opinion. I have a lot of women writer friends.
MN: I loved the motif that you bring up in this interview of “burning things down.” In The Little Clan this motif appealed to me both through its direct reference to Woolf’s more radical rumination and its applicability to the present moment. Do we need a new burning? Is the only solution now to burn the institutions that carry the legacies of oppression in this country?
IC: Haha, are you asking me how to fix patriarchal capitalism?
IC: I wish I knew. In theory, I would like to set everything on fire, as mentioned, because everything we live in now still bears the shape and organizing principles of a corrupt set of values, but in reality, I may be less of a radical. Big fiery ideas sometimes lead to Stalin’s five year plan and while we are setting the old literary world on fire, it may be hard for writers to get paid. I would settle for just putting women and people of color in charge of everything for a while. Let’s see what these journals and movie studios and publishing houses and Congress look like with different people running the place and then we can reassess.
Iris Martin Cohen is the author of The Little Clan, released by Park Row in April.
Melody Nixon is the Interviews Editor for The Common.
Headshot photo credit: Michael Assous