Monday, August 10, 2020

Iris Martin Cohen

Iris Martin Cohen grew up in the French Quarter of New Orleans. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and studied Creative Nonfiction at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is the author of The Little Clan (2018). Her new novel is Last Call on Decatur Street. She lives in Brooklyn.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I’m happy with this title because it’s very specific to New Orleans and this book is very much about New Orleans, Decatur Street is famous for its dive bars, but it also alludes to a more universal experience–that moment of last call, when it’s time to go home and face up to whatever you’ve been avoiding by hanging out in bars. My main character, Rosemary has been using the world of nightlife, performing as a burlesque dancer, drinking too much, making bad choices with men, to run away from certain hard truths about herself and this one night is her journey to self awareness.

An earlier title was Nocturnal Creatures because over the course of the book Rosemary meets a range of characters, bartenders, strippers, teenage punks, and I wanted to allude to this idea of a whole ecosystem that only comes alive at night, but it lacked the sense of a journey or a reckoning that seemed so important for the book.

What's in a name?

I love names and all the associations they contain. I chose Rosemary for my main character partly because the nicknames of Rose and Rosie feel very old fashioned in a way that suits her vintage aesthetic as a fifties style burlesque dancer, but also when she meets Christopher, the sad, teenage punk, he has a monologue about the herb and how it reminds him of someone cooking, the smell of roast chicken, of being a kid and being taken care of. Rosemary spend much of the book searching for a sense of home and the ideas of caretaking or being cared for are a big part of her story so it felt right.

Christopher is named after the saint, the book takes place in New Orleans where many people are Catholic and know he is the patron saint of travelers and children. Christopher and Rosemary are definitely fellow travelers through the world of the city at night, and he has an innocence to him, he is kind of a child. Most of the names in the book have similar thematic undertones.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I love to write beginnings. I always start with a character and a feeling or a situation and then I have to just trust that they will lead me to the right place in the end. I started this book with a burlesque dancer with a secret heartbreak who didn’t want to go home one night and the whole story unfolded from there. It took me many drafts before I even realized what specifically was in her house that she was avoiding, which won’t specify because it’s a spoiler, but I did always know that this book began with twilight and ended with the dawn.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I tend to write very autobiographically. I spent my twenties living in a French Quarter apartment with a cranky dog, performing burlesque and drinking too much so I have a lot in common with Rosemary. There is also a lot in this book about race and white privilege. I wanted to examine aspects of myself as a white woman growing up in the south and the ways I may have inadvertently been complicit with the society I was raised in. I change things up when I write, but I also borrow a lot from people I know and things I have experienced.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

For this book, film noir movies were a big inspiration. Those movies often show a flawed protagonist traveling through the seedy side of a nighttime city looking for some kind of truth or enlightenment. I also listened to a lot of New Orleans music while writing this, bands that are less famous but really convey a local scene or mood, like The Happy Talk Band or The New Orleans Bingo Show. Twin Peaks was also a big influence in terms of the style and humor of this novel.
Visit Iris Martin Cohen's website.

--Marshal Zeringue