ONE QUESTION: Paul Cohen

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HYPERTEXT MAGAZINE ASKED PAUL COHEN, AUTHOR OF THE GLAMSHACK, “WHAT QUESTION DO YOU WISH YOU’D BEEN ASKED ABOUT YOUR WORK?”

By Paul Cohen

Why did you use the 19th Century Sioux Wars as a lens through which to view your modern love story?

While I was writing the first draft of The Glamshack, I was reading Son of the Morning Star, a nonfiction book on the 19th century Sioux Wars by Evan S. Connell, and Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron. Connell conjures the majesty of the Sioux’s unfettered existence and the howling tragedy—for all of us—of its loss, while Styron, with gimlet-eyed audacity, integrates historical research on the Holocaust into his tale of doomed love. I realized that Connell and Styron together provided what I needed: the lens through which Henry’s story—which was veering dangerously toward farce—could be viewed as classical tragedy, and the example of a writer bold enough, and good enough, to pull such a feat off.

At that point the story truly took shape. I soon figured out that Henry’s love for Her is a kind of servitude. Because he sees Her as sole owner of the enchantment code. Without Her to click that code for him, he is a man without a spark. Which brings him to his true terror: that enchantment doesn’t exist—that the world is a value-less place composed not of “god particles” (to borrow a term from physics) but of “madness particles” (to borrow a term from Henry). The problem is, Henry is congenitally unfit to live in such a place. Which makes his struggle, in the sense of the spirit, a struggle for survival, and leads him to the Sioux and their war.

Henry’s vision of the pre-reservation Sioux, who he refers to as the “Tragically Unshackled,” is a vision of pure enchantment. These people, so he believes, led a life of blessed wandering atop those great unplowed plains furred in grasses bejeweled with waterbeads, and every last thing in their vertiginous existence possessed the enchantment code—rocks, trees, babies, bones—and this so galled the enemy that not only did they refuse to walk the tall grass of heaven, they slaughtered it, and hushed their slaughter under bitter labor and barbed wire.

And here’s the kicker: the Sioux, like Henry, were doomed from the start. Yet like Henry they fought on. Because they were as unfit for bitter labor and barbed wire as he is for a world composed of madness particles. And in fighting on, in the beauty and heroism of going all in for liberty (the Sioux) or love (Henry), their enmeshed story rises into the realm of classical tragedy; the hero’s fall is the click that breaks the code, ensuring the world remains enchanted.


Paul Cohen’s debut novel, The Glamshack, will be published this June by 7.13 Books, a Brooklyn press dedicated to publishing the best in literary debuts. The Glamshack has been nominated for a Pushcart Press Editor’s Book Award by Little Brown editor Josh Kendall, and was just included in the “Most Anticipated Small Press Books of 2017” list by John Madera at Big Other. His short fiction has been published in Tin House, Five Chapters and Eleven Eleven. He was a finalist in a Black Warrior Review Fiction Contest, and his new novel, The Sleeping Indian, was recently named a finalist for the 2016 Big Moose Prize from Black Lawrence Press. His nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Village Voice, Details, the Christian Science Monitor and others.  He earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was awarded a teaching scholarship as well as the Prairie Lights Prize for Fiction (judged by Ethan Canin). He has taught writing at UC Berkeley Extension, the University of San Francisco MFA program and the University of Iowa, and has guest lectured at California College of the Arts. He lives in Boulder, Colorado. You can find even more about him at www.paulcohenfiction.com.

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