The Book That Changed My Life: Rich Cohen

Credit: Pascal Perich

Among the most rewarding aspects of reading Rich Cohen's nonfiction is his ability to approach complex subjects from all sides. His subjects are impressive in their breadth, including the 1985 Chicago Bears, pirate captain Jean Lafitte, the history of Israel, and the invention of artificial sweetener. His latest book examines a very different institution: namely, the Rolling Stones. The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones juxtaposes a history of the band’s formative years with Cohen's experiences traveling with them as a young reporter in the early 1990s. Beyond simply being a compelling account of the history of a seismically influential band, it also impressively chronicles the group's evolution into something iconic. Cohen discussed one book that’s had a significant impact on his life with us.

What's one of the books that’s had a substantial effect on you? How did you first encounter it?
One book that really blew me away when I read it was In Patagonia, the Bruce Chatwin book. When I first came to start writing nonfiction, I was looking for stuff that was very literary nonfiction. That interested me, [writing] that was between genres. It was literature, but it was true, and it wasn’t dependent on plot. Some friend must've said, "This is a great book." This was in my early twenties. I read it, and it connected with me on so many levels that are relevant to this book. With the Rolling Stones book, the whole thing is propelled by my hearing "Honky Tonk Woman," coming down the stairs from my older brother's room in the attic. I wasn't allowed up into his room. He would not allow me upstairs. I was hearing this thing at a great distance, and it fired my imagination and drove me on, and ultimately, [to] this whole life with this band and apart from this band, thinking about this band and listening to them.

In In Patagonia, [Chatwin] sees an old piece of dried skin that his grandmother has in a curiosity cabinet, and it's supposed to be an ancient mastodon — some kind of dinosaur skin or something. He's fixated on it when he's a kid, and he's told that it's from Patagonia. And, from when he's a kid, that makes him want to go where that came from.

The structure of it, which is all of these great stories interwoven around his travel, is such a great, classic structure. You could be a movie camera that winds through the narrative, and then he goes into the stories and comes out of the stories, and each story in and of itself is interesting. And then you put them all together and you get a bigger story. And all of that’s something that’s magic, that you can study again and again, and it’s really fun to read.

Is Chatwin's writing where you got the idea to use the cinematic metaphors that you use throughout The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones?
I don't think I got that from Chatwin so much. I started doing that while writing at Rolling Stone. I remember that the first time I did it, it was a discovery for me. I always thought that movies, interestingly, work from the outside in, and writing works from the inside out, if that makes sense. There are certain effects that you can get in movies where you think, "Oh, it would be great to get that in a story." Like in Mean Streets, when Johnny Boy comes into the bar in the beginning and he seems to be floating through the bar; you can think of a million really cool movie effects. And I thought, you can just say that. You can just reference it. You don’t have to re-create a version of it, because everyone’s so familiar with cinema and movies that you can just say, "This is the kind of effect you should imagine here." It does the job inside the person’s head.

Bruce Chatwin has a very large body of work, including both fiction and nonfiction. What is it about this particular work that stands out to you above and beyond everything else he's done?
You almost feel like really, really good writers often will have one book that's every other book. It's the summation of the entire career. And they can't really stop writing — they're writers. To me, that book is the concentrate of what’s good about Bruce Chatwin. The economy of it, the brevity of it, the way it’s really boiled down. So much is left for the reader to do. So much of the power comes from the transitions. The juxtaposition is almost like arranging pictures on a table, this one next to this one, and you have to figure out what’s really odd about those transitions. I think all of that’s something he played with for his entire career. It's the ultimate form in In Patagonia. He's got a landscape that’s almost a fairy-tale landscape.

And also, sometimes I think — and this is what I struggle with — if you're interested in writing when you're in college, you're taught to believe that fiction, writing a novel, is the high priesthood. That's the real art, and everything else, like journalism, is below that. I don't believe that at all. It's a constant fight that I have. And I believe that even Bruce Chatwin felt this need to write these novels, because that’s what a good writer does, and that's where you’re judged. All of the things that make a novel a novel, all of the phoniness that you sometimes get in novels — he wasn’t that great at it, because he wasn't truly that interested in it. The stuff he was interested in was all of the true stuff — the places he went to, the stuff he looked at. So with In Patagonia, he could dispense with all of the stuff he felt that he had to do because that was the convention of a novel, and do what he really wanted to do and was great at.

There's what seems to be a brief homage to Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March in The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones. Have you ever worked an homage or reference to Bruce Chatwin's work into your own writing?
Not really. There is stuff that I definitely have an homage to. Augie March is a huge influence. There are conscious homages throughout the book. I couldn't remember one from Augie March, but every time I mention Chicago, I have to say "That gray city" or "That somber city." With Bruce Chatwin, the thing about him isn't his sentences, so much. They aren't as much of an influence on me. The thing that influenced me about Bruce Chatwin was the structure.

There's another book that, if you're a nonfiction author, you can study the structure forever, and if you can figure out how it works… That's Son of the Morning Star. It took me a long time to get into it. The first couple of times I read it, I couldn't get into it, and then, suddenly, it clicked. It’s an Evan S. Connell book — he’s another guy who wrote a lot of fiction, but this book is the best book. It's a masterpiece. And you can't figure out how it is structured. Finally, I did. I tried to borrow from that structure — not so much in this book, but in my last book, which is about the Chicago Bears. His book's about Little Big Horn and Custer; it's another thing that’s similar to the challenge of writing about the Rolling Stones, which is — what's been written about more than Little Big Horn and Custer? How do you do something new and lasting with it? And he did. He wrote the best book on it.

The structure is, he drifts from topic to topic by how it touches other stuff. If he's describing a general in a battle, then he might describe another general who was there, and then he goes off and follows that general. It drifts all the way around, so that by the end, he covers every single conceivable angle of Little Big Horn, and it ends where he began. It’s that very weird feeling of, "Oh! We’re back where we started!" It's the feeling when you’re walking through a maze — "Isn't this where we came in?" It’s very cool.

How frequently do you find yourself revisiting In Patagonia? Do you find that your relationship to it has changed over time?
Every five years, I read it again. It always seems like a new book to me. In the middle of it, suddenly, there's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And it’s the real Butch Cassidy, as opposed to the Robert Redford Butch Cassidy. It's a familiar figure that you think you know, and you come upon him unexpectedly and find out that he’s a completely different kind of guy, and a way more interesting kind of guy than I thought he’d be because of that movie. I was born in 1968; that movie came out when I was 1. I saw it a hundred times. And that movie's really about Robert Redford and Paul Newman — but you don't get that when you're a kid.