Novelists often say each new book is so individual that it requires learning the writing process all over again. Leah Hager Cohen has written five novels—on top of five nonfiction books—but her latest, No Book But the World, has an origin unlike any of her others.
“This is the first time I’ve ever started a novel with an idea instead of with a scene,” she says. “And the idea was what happens when there’s someone who’s hard for the world to love, and hard for the world to grasp.”
Cohen sat with that abstract idea for a while, unsure what story would carry it. Finally, she came upon Ava, her narrator. “Ava was just a gift,” Cohen says. She began writing in Ava’s voice, and in that way found her way to Ava’s brother, Fred, who appears to be somewhere on the autism spectrum: Cohen’s difficult-to-love character, which, as Fred and Ava’s mother June puts it, is “not the same as unlovable.”
Ava narrates from her mid-30s, beginning when Fred, whom she hasn’t seen in two years, has been arrested for a crime he may or may not have committed. But much of the story is told in flashbacks to their past. “Her voice kept sort of pulling me back into understanding their childhood,” Cohen says—a surprise to her. Ava and Fred grow up in what was once an experimental school, headed by their father, Neel, a Rousseau fanatic and champion of child-driven learning. But his empathy is quite limited; as Ava puts it at one point: “People should be free so long as they think and feel exactly like him, is what he means!” A few other families inhabit the former school buildings, in the wonderfully named Batter Hollow, including Kitty, who becomes Ava’s best friend; Ava later marries Kitty’s brother Dennis. Though Kitty and Ava end up enrolling in public school—Ava has to beg her father—Fred, who quickly proves unsuited for structured education, is instead given free reign. His self-directed learning largely takes place in the woods, with questionable results.
Cohen has personal experience with unconventional education: Though she can hear, she attended a deaf school—the Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens, of which her father was superintendent—for preschool and kindergarten. Later, she and her brother spent a couple of years at a school with a child-driven educational model, like the iconic Summerhill School. And Cohen’s own children went to an integrated preschool for children on the autism spectrum, and were in the minority of students who weren’t.
The Summerhill-like years were kind to Cohen and her brother. “It was really wonderful, to tell you the truth,” she says. In No Book But the World, she complicates the picture. “I think something my brother and I had was balance. But I think I was interested in fiction to explore the idea of, what if you grow up in this kind of environment and there’s not a kind of counterweight—it’s just this unremitting sense of freedom and independence?” she says. “What if I were to explore the potential downsides of an experience, or all the gradations of good and bad and complexity?” For one thing, complexity makes for a better story. It also sheds light on the dangers of applying any model wholesale, without concern for the individual child: Might Fred have been better off elsewhere? But in the end, the novel becomes less about unconventional education, specifically, and more about the dangers of extremism and rigidity.
Cohen’s original desire to write about a hard-to-love character also has roots in her background. When she was five and her sister was six, their family adopted her brother, a four-year-old boy. Unlike the rest of the family, who is white, he is black. “In a completely different way from Fred, he came into our family with a set of circumstances that required a lot of bridging to reach him,” Cohen says: his adoption, his age and prior experiences, his race. She knew that she didn’t want to write autobiographically, but wanted to find another way to approach “difficult otherness in the eyes of the mainstream.” And so, she found Fred.
In the novel, outsiders often misinterpret Fred’s behavior, sometimes reading it as cruel. In fact, Kitty, Ava’s best friend—the two and Fred often form a childhood threesome—at times exhibits what could more fairly be understood as cruelty: She can be insensitive and callous, and at times taunts Fred. But she is pretty, and “normal,” and so she isn’t held accountable for this behavior. “Kitty has the ability to conform to societal expectations as a child and as an adult,” Cohen says. Fred is looked at as a troublemaker at best, dangerous at worst, “but I see Fred as essentially not at all cruel, quite tenderhearted, but not having the tools to be understood and embraced by society with its norms.”
Though No Book But the World draws frequently on Rousseau’s philosophy—the title is a partial quotation of his—Cohen came to the subject matter as a novice. She was trained as a journalist, and borrows from that toolkit in her fictional writing, diving into unfamiliar subject matter enough to gather the basis for a compelling story, though not so much as to feel constrained by it. “I’m happy to play the fool; I’m happy to play the person who doesn’t know anything and has to ask questions,” she says. A similar kind of openness, she feels, is necessary to connect with and explore artistic inspiration. “I think if we all cast our memories back to childhood or adolescence, we might be able to recall moments where we were that open to the intensity of everything, everywhere, all the time,” she says. Naturally, as we age, we become thicker-skinned as a way of protecting ourselves. “I think often the challenge for people who work in the arts is to figure out how not to be too thick-skinned,” Cohen says. “I think it’s the work of artists to figure out how to keep those filters a little bit open.”
Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City.