2017-01-01 - Stolen From Life: An Interview with Jack Kohl

By Michael Johnson
Original Interview

Rarely does a musician with a Juilliard background and a Ph.D. in piano performance find the energy, much less the time, to plot, write and produce a series of well-constructed novels. But after I read Jack Kohl’s first published work, That Iron String, an engrossing story about the world of piano competitions, I decided to keep track of him. His second novel, Loco-Motive, was a more polished page-turner, a philosophical thriller built around distance running and the ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson. When he sent me a CD of himself playing Bach, Liszt and Charles Ives, I sensed an array of talent and wanted to know more.

Finally I interviewed him and learned of his double life. Jack Kohl is a tightly wound, self-effacing, compulsive writer – soon to bring out his third novel, You, Knighted States – who supports his writing obsession financially by playing piano. He is amused to note that he has done the opposite of his idol Charles Ives, who supported his music obsession by working in business. Kohl is frank about his material. He says he was so close to That Iron String that “it wrote itself”, but only after he had hundreds of pages of journal notes and outlines. As for Loco-Motive, he told me he “just stole it all from life – everything – and it was an easy theft.”

It is a matter of special interest to me that Kohl’s writing can be observed developing from novel to novel. Loco-Motive is a concentrated roman-fleuve, flowing at a leisurely pace and moving naturally from the American South to Long Island near New York. In his story, cultural differences reflect the changing American geography of the tale. He takes his time with character-building detours to create sympathy and curiosity. Kohl has lived in the South and is a resident of Long Island, and his intimacy with these locales is evident. He pulls it all together in a gripping story of journalism and running that lead to small-town newspapering.

I felt he had lessons to impart, if only I could draw him out in an interview. I had taken to heart the ideas of New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch, who served as editor of the Paris Review from 2005 to 2010. Gourevitch believes that even the ancients “understood the dramatic force and intimacy of direct colloquy” – in other words, of a serious interview. He became particularly fascinated by the writer as a personality type. “What makes writers different,” he concluded, “is that they write, day after day, year after year, decade after decade, story after story, book after book.” The object, Gourevitch says, “is not to catch writers off guard but to elicit from them the fullest possible reckoning of what interests them most.” This is what I sought to discover about Kohl. Over a period of about six months, we met on several occasions in Boston to discuss his life and work; we also drilled into the detail of his motivations and artistic challenges via email.

MJ: Which is the larger challenge—performing a piano sonata or publishing a novel?

KOHL: I always say, and I have peers who echo me on this, that if one can play a solo piano recital from memory, nothing – nothing – in life equals that degree of intimidation. Things that others wrestle with (public speaking, social confrontations) seem comical to me when measured against the challenge of the recital platform. No other activity demands such effort. Not even my Boston-qualifying marathons come close. Not even writing my novels – which have given me great relaxation in comparison.

MJ: What are the good habits that you transferred from music to writing?

KOHL: As simple as it sounds, the discipline that the piano enforces—sitting in one place to conquer the task at hand—is one of the greatest lessons that a piano background can offer a writer. If you don’t get up from the bench, something will compel you to practice and eventually you will have a sonata in your fingers. And in writing, I find that the book lodged in the mind will eventually spill out from nib to paper.

MJ: How does the actual work differ between playing and writing?

KOHL: It’s a matter of concentration in both cases. If the pianist interrupts his work for a few days, he suffers a setback in a physical sense, not just in the work at hand, but in the upkeep of his base. If a writer does the same, and keeps his work in a safe place, it doesn’t slip from the fingers after a week off. And, yet! There is a sort of in-practice need that one has when writing regularly. I think that keeping a journal—and I mean this in the thoughtful Emerson and Thoreau sense – is close to the pianist’s constant practicing of scales and études.

MJ: Both of these activities demand all you can give.

KOHL: Yes, to do either well requires an enthusiasm, nay, a devotion, that follows one around from the moment of waking to the time of sleep. It can even invade your dreams. But if pressed for a practical answer, I would say a pianist must work harder in a sustained and concentrated physical and temporal way.

MJ: Pianists have told me they practice tricky passages for hours at a time while reading a book. Charles Rosen, for example, did this, favoring detective fiction.

KOHL: Yes, I understand this, though I myself don’t read other things while I practice. But I can say that some of my best insights for writing come to me when I am engaged in the ostensible interference that the mere physical maintenance of practicing often demands.

MJ: How did you end up at Juilliard as a teenager?

KOHL: I was bitten by the bug to play piano professionally and worked with Finn Augensen when I was 14, after having started with Marie Babiak when I was 8. Augensen helped me with my audition. On the second try I made it. I studied at the Juilliard Pre-College from 1986 to 1988 under Leonard Eisner.

MJ: Leonard Eisner was one of the greats, with antecedents going way back, wasn’t he?

KOHL: Yes, I loved his first-hand stories of the Russian conductor/composer Alexander Siloti, a pupil of Liszt. Siloti was so enamored of Liszt that he was said to reserve a place setting and chair for him any time he dined. After Mr. Eisner passed away I studied with Gerald Robbins (a Van Cliburn Competition prizewinner in 1969) at Queens College/CUNY where I took my bachelor’s in piano performance. There are things I learned from Robbins that I still apply today, and we remain in touch. We have played four-hand Beethoven together in concert.

MJ: Can you point to any specifics Eisner and Robbins techniques that stayed with you?

KOHL: Mr. Eisner was the first pianist I ever worked with who had had a career as a performer. He was a gentle man, and I think he made efforts to warn me and my family about the odds against a playing career. And as for Robbins, I learned about weight-placement of the hand, as opposed to brute finger power. And it was his cultivation of sight-reading as a skill—and there are indeed ways to practice sight-reading—that allowed me to become the sight-reader I am today, critical in the theater playing I mostly do now. Also, when one is compelled to learn something on the spot as a sight-reader, the “nifty-shifties” (Robbins’ term) allow one to find the best way to tackle things when there isn’t any time to prepare.

MJ: Err … nifty shifties?

KOHL: Imagine leaning at an angle and applying all your weight when trying to close a door against the wind instead of, say, just trying to use your arm strength while standing vertically. The nifty-shifties are about using the weight of the hand and body in place of building up the strength of the fingers. What Robbins showed me in that respect was profound, I have been studying it daily ever since.

MJ: But you took a detour from music and entered law school. Why?

KOHL: With the social outlet of school behind me, and with nothing but long days at the piano to divert me, this did not seem like enough of an existence.

MJ: What were you looking for?

KOHL: As in the case of Charles Ives’ reliance on the insurance business for a living, it seemed that law would be a good daytime pursuit, leaving evenings to pursue my true calling—music. So I used the fact that I received no offer of assistantships from music schools as a sign to try law school.

MJ: So now you’re a lawyer too?

KOHL: No, No. After only a few weeks I knew the law wasn’t for me. A real fear had possessed me—that I would never really be a part of the piano world again, even if just as a hack. I remember listening to the beautiful Suite No. 2 Op. 17 for Two Pianos of Rachmaninoff in the leaf-whirling autumn evenings when I was supposed to be reading my law books and feeling that the music bespoke a painful valediction to my true callings. I felt this especially from the haunting waltz of the second movement. So I quit law school.

MJ: You have the very challenging Ives Concord Sonata in your repertoire. Is Ives a constant presence in your mind?

KOHL: The influence of Ives—the idea of having a day job that allows one’s parallel career to remain pure—was a big influence on my attempt at the law. Little did I imagine the reverse—that the piano itself would become my Ivesian insurance business, providing the income that underpins my calling as an author.

MJ: Your parents must have been devastated when you dropped law school.

KOHL: Not at all. My mother was overjoyed when I let it go. When I went to my father with the news, he uttered a joking expletive at the news—as if to say that things were no longer easy and set—but his support was utterly with my decision too.

MJ: Your music studies took you from the North Shore of Long Island to the University of South Carolina where you earned a Ph.D. in piano performance. How smooth was the cultural transition from North to South?

KOHL: I approached the South, with its nineteenth-century image and complexities, in awe and respect. But because I was in a college town (Columbia), and because I was always around people in music and in the arts, the usual response was to disavow the Confederate legacy. I regretted that because if there is one universal truth, it is that people in music and the arts claim almost without fail a badge of independent thinking, and yet are usually, instead, the most predictable in their responses. But South Carolina allowed me to pause and consider my fate whilst still continuing to study the piano, and to read and prepare as a writer at a deeper level than I had before—and to do all this amidst balmy midnights of pickup soccer games, on fields in the shadow of a Statehouse dome with the pockmarks of Sherman cannonballs.

MJ: And musically… ?

KOHL: I credit my piano teacher with much support, as well: W. John Williams. He worked with me on many big pieces, including the Goldberg Variations, the Liszt Second Piano Concerto, both Ives Piano Sonatas, among other things—and my transcription for piano of Jerome Moross’ score for the 1958 film “The Big Country.”

MJ: You have described writing as “fun” yet it also requires preparatory work, hard work.

KOHL: Yes, I had hundreds of pages of journal notes and charts and outlines before I began writing That Iron String. Even the material in my second novel, Loco-Motive, on distance running, lobstering and seals, I worked out in my journal so as to reflect the evolutionary mad musings, the almost anti-environmental views of my character. But as to the grist of it all, I just stole it all from life – everything—and it was an easy theft: the village here in Northport, the running club, the magnificent women from the hundreds of races I’ve run and the women of the gym, the lobster men who work the harbor right down the hill from there.

MJ: Writers of novels often suffer or nearly go insane putting the “nib to paper”, as you have described it. But is writing really a joy for you?

KOHL: Yes, it has always been a joy. When one is accustomed to lack of commercial success, as I am, driven to write large books without any prospect of any public reaction, as I am, I think one must be motivated by joy, or whatever impulse drives you to leave a mark. It’s like whatever drove the builder of the Watts Towers in California; like what must have spurred Charles Ives onward; or like the prehistoric painters who left their hand prints in soot upon the walls of almost impenetrable caves.

MJ: The source of the joy still seems elusive.

KOHL: Well, when one writes in obscurity—and finds reassurance in the Charles Ives model of persistence—one will inevitably be actuated by joy, for in the lack of commercial attention, reactions and compensations are never there. One is seeking the honorable fatigue that comes with the work that seems singularly assigned to the self, hence the act of writing becomes the act of recorded thinking.

MJ: What can you say to other writers who fail to find the joy?

KOHL : Okay, by joy I don’t always mean pleasure or comfort, but I do mean that one is left with a joyful sense of duty done—of having realized a work that no one else had undertaken. I don’t always think of myself as a writer, but I do think of myself as a man who has thoughts that can only be realized through writing. There is a benign mental fatigue that comes from this labor that I find through nothing else. And in my own experience, I would say that nearly all of the grief I have observed in others in this life comes from their failure to find that work, that labor, that leaves them properly fatigued at day’s end.

MJ: The joy is tempered then by a rigorous process of clarification?

KOHL: I think a writer who is compelled to write, and is free from the lure of commissioned work, must surely be actuated by joy. To finish a massive task of inspiration, and yet have had no deadline, must surely be an act of joy. The kind of joy I describe is still accompanied, of course, by all manner of superficial discomforts and uncertainties. The remarkable ultra-runner and writer Dean Karnazes writes: “Somewhere along the line we seem to have confused comfort with happiness.” And as Emerson observes in his essay “Circles”: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”

MJ: Aren’t you talking about confusions of the mind being shaped into the clarity that written words can provide?

KOHL: Indeed. I would say that if one really finds honor in thinking, and in accepting the unsettled state in which hard thinking leaves one, then the joy of writing is inevitable, for I think writing is ultimately the reordering of hard thinking. And that joy should not be in finding repose; it should be as a joy that is equated with action, with an impulse as if to rise from a bed of nails.

MJ: Usually musicians only write their memoirs. It’s rare to find a novelist-pianist. Are you a multi-tasker?

KOHL: Oh there are others. Janice Weber of the Boston Conservatory is both pianist and novelist. John Phillip Sousa wrote novels. And I am curious what sense of dissatisfaction with the piano world led the Juilliard professor and broadcaster David Dubal to turn to the novel. For me, writing has been so much fun thus far, and I say that with great sobriety of spirit, with great care in my choice of words. I think I will continue in this manner as long as I can, and whatever stops me—death or necessity—will only find me looking back to say that it has been a privilege and a joy to be here, to be awake, to catch a glimpse of this corner of the cosmos. I cannot think of it as a labor.

MJ: That Iron String is a complex story with tightly woven plotlines. Surely this was a stretch.

KOHL: Not really. That Iron String almost wrote itself. I knew I wanted to write a book about a pianist. But as l was sketching this book, my own inner resentments about joining an overcrowded field dictated the ideas and plot of the novel, and dictated the material with such ease that the physical writing of the book seemed more like the act of taking down material from dictation than writing something of my own composition.

MJ: And then you tackled fitness and running as your narrative line in Loco-Motive.

KOHL: I think both the piano playing and running are good reminders of this unsettled state for the writer. Both of these tasks bring constant reminders of the elusiveness of ideal circumstances. It forces one to be an attentive witness, to be recipient of thought and reason. For no matter how fit I have ever been, distance running is always attended by a sense of duress and battle, and no matter what degree of mastery I’ve ever attained over a piece of music, there is always a sense that one is never utterly, absolutely, in complete control. One is more a witness, through great discipline, to occasional glimpses of ideals through these pursuits. And I think writing is the systematic gathering of such glimpses, and its physical challenges should seem mild when compared to the discomforts we can find in greater degree in so many other arenas.

MJ: At what point did you develop an interest in writing novels?

KOHL: I tried to memorialize my happy childhood in my first book, The Native State, which I composed almost out of compulsion. I consider that immense book now a work without opus number, and it is in need of revision. But I started to work on the book more than the piano, and to this day I am certain that the best path for me—as writer more than pianist —was thereby set in motion.

MJ: Who were your main influences as a writer?

KOHL: I had a thorough grounding in Dickens and Melville (especially Moby-Dick) from elementary school days. Ever since I first heard A Christmas Carol, I have been convinced that one of the most beautiful sentences in the English language is: “Bear but a touch of my hand there,” said the spirit, “and you shall be upheld in more than this!”

MJ: Those were your formative years?

KOHL: Yes, by the time I started writing my first novel, I knew that my childhood would be the principal capital I would draw upon as a beginning writer. And I was already fascinated by great childhood prose pieces like Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales and the great LP of Thomas reading that same piece. I had also become enthralled by a short 1975 piece by Ray Bradbury: Tricks! Treats! Gangway! That story is among the most magnificent and acutely structured reminiscences of the American past I have read. And then there is Emerson, and my emulation of his manner of indexed journal-keeping, that provided the definitive influence upon me for writing novels. What Emerson gave me in that time between my first and second books was a system to look at the cosmos as an infinite storehouse of emblems. By emblems I mean that everything in our experience, as soon as it is past, even if just by a few seconds, immediately becomes a symbol for the expression of principles.

MJ: How has Emerson figured in your writing, specifically?

KOHL: I realized the joy of setting Emersonian principles slightly akilter, and creating unusual novels in which the engine is Transcendentalism gone awry. That is what led to That Iron String, my novel of pianists, and also led, in part, to Loco-Motive, a madman’s tale of distance running. Melville had done this to such mighty effect in Moby-Dick. Chapter 36, “The Quarter Deck,” hit me with such power and practicality, as a writer on the verge of a new and joyful sense of system, that I have returned to the novel again and again. Applying Emersonian ideas to the world of the concert pianist (as in That Iron String), to the long distance runner (as in Loco-Motive), to a cattle baron (as in the soon-to-appear You, Knighted States), became another matter of system for me. And I apply that sense of latent system to the new book I am writing even now. So to answer the question: Emerson’s Nature; Representative Men; and his Essays, first and second series, are my ultimate resources. Buried in Emerson’s taut prose are arsenals of untapped power, just awaiting application.

MJ: Now you earn your living as a rehearsal pianist and musical director for theater. No shame there – Richter, Mussorgsky, Slonimsky, Barrere, even Marvin Hamlisch—did something similar early on. Does one kind of music feed into another in any way?

KOHL: Oh yes. My experience in theater has influenced my classical piano education. In theater, because I’ve had the chance to experience more performances and all sorts of practical and strange public venues, I can achieve a higher level of calm in public, although the sense of intimidation is still there. Thus I credit theater with finishing my piano technique. It has really helped me to be less concerned by who may be listening to me at any given time. This helps when I go back to classical playing. Theater also places a high value on general musicianship that the training of a concert pianist often neglects: sight-reading, transposition, chord voicing, and improvisation.

MJ: Isn’t rehearsal work a distraction, a lowering of your standards?

KOHL: Well, it keeps one’s fingers nimble, for a start. It can be a lowering of one’s aspirations if one feels that only playing the classical literature will justify pianistic existence. But it is gratifying if one feels that playing in some capacity is better than not playing at all. But it also offers a rare opportunity. It has allowed me to witness astonishing things. I even play for master classes in which women are taught to “belt.” I find the result really execrable. Modern belting is nothing like the sound of Ethel Merman. It is a streamlined and disheartening kind of method-yelling. I am not talking about enforced sweetness here; here I am talking about waves of instrumental noise—and then the belt-screams that follow.

MJ: You are publishing your own writing now?

KOHL: Yes, but my first book had two different agents over the span of a year or so. Who knows how reputable those agents ultimately were; I never got a chance to speak to them. But nothing had come of my efforts to place That Iron String by traditional means. And after that second book, I virtually abandoned the consideration of reaching agents or publishers. Yet I continued to write books with the same sense of urgency.

MJ: How hard did you try to place your two manuscripts before deciding on self-publishing? How satisfying has self-publishing been for you?

KOHL: I slaughtered countless trees with my query letters in the age before email, and the two agencies that did take up That Iron String were the kind of enterprises, I think, that new authors should beware of. I think they were merely elaborate photocopying services, performing the same feckless angles of submission that I could have performed myself. I still resisted turning to self-publishing (though nearly all of my own idols from the nineteenth-century did this as a matter of course, and served as their own editors). But a number of influences caused me at last to take that step for myself in 2014.

MJ: Self-publishing has its antecedents in music, too.

KOHL: Yes, I always knew of the example of Ives’ publishing his second Piano Sonata and his songs at his own expense while serving as his own editor, and needing to tell the engraver that the “wrong notes” were actually right. And then I was surprised at the disparate sources who advised that I go it alone on the business end of writing. I wrote a letter of admiration to Robert D. Richardson, author of Emerson: The Mind on Fire. When I asked about publication leads for books inspired by Emersonian thinking, he said he was hearing more and more good things about independent publishing. Among others, David Mamet has turned to self-publication. Everywhere I was seeing signs of the logical and obvious course, and I finally took the leap myself.

MJ: But what about the fine hand of an editor on your work?

KOHL: I have always thought it strange that of all the arts, prose suffers most from the middleman. Nearly all of the text that readers consume has been subjected to incessant editorial processing, an interference dedicated to an imagined objective standard of art, but a standard that must serve a market standard, supposedly to ensure easy consumption. And this is the same predatory force that surrounds the piano field—like the competition world demanding standardization and perpetuating itself.

MJ: Graduate work in creative writing never appealed to you?

KOHL: Ha. After acquiring a useless doctorate in piano, the idea of going for a useless MFA in writing—in a field that should be even more individualized than the piano—struck me, frankly, as madness.

MJ: You have chosen two very crowded fields for your dual career path—the piano and fiction writing. Will you have the moxie to keep going indefinitely?

KOHL: Yes, I think I have the energy to keep going indefinitely as a writer. Of course, it is common to challenge writers who cannot place their work with the question as to whether they are deluded about the worth of their writing. Shouldn’t constant rejection be taken as a sign? Perhaps. But I continue notwithstanding—certain, in my own conscience, that there are other factors at play. But even if I am simply a bad writer, I will persist. I have always loved this passage from the end of the first chapter of Rex Harrison’s autobiography, in which a mentor doubted his talent. “Please, Rex,” he said, “why don’t you try and do something else?” Harrison thought, “All right … I’ll never be a successful actor, but I can go on being an unsuccessful actor, nobody can deny me that.”

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