Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Rich Cohen, Author of "Monsters," on Books, Writing and Other Obsessions



Monsters_omni

I love football. I spend every Sunday (and most Monday and Thursday nights) on my couch yelling at my television, drinking beer, and fist-pumping every time the Seahawks score a touchdown. But there are moments when I'm reminded of the brutality that I'm witnessing. In the week 4 game against the Texans, Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett was carted off the field in a stretcher. Thankfully, it turned out just to be a minor strain in his neck muscle, but for a few scary moments, it looked far worse. The camera cut to Bennett's father, wearing his son's jersey and helplessly screaming, "Michael!" from the sideline.

This summarizes our conflicted relationship with football. The violence of the sport is both what makes it exciting and also horrifying. One realizes the danger these players are putting themselves in for the amusement of millions of Americans.

We picked Rich Cohen's new book, Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football, as our spotlight pick for the Best Books of November not just because it's a beautifully written narrative about one of the NFL's greatest football teams (though it is very much that). It's a football history from a modern perspective, one that acknowledges the sport as we know it and as it was.

Cohen was gracious enough to share a Q&A with us about his book, his favorite books, and his other obsessions.


What's the elevator pitch for your book?

This is a story of one of the greatest teams in the history of the American sports -- a team great precisely because they transcended their game. Ditka. McMahon. Fridge. They became household names and pop stars, and I've done my best to recapture the wild, violent, hyper-real vividness of their championship season. But to me, most interesting were those questions that kept popping into my head as I interviewed these guys nearly three decades after Super Bowl XX: What happens when your dream comes true? How do you go on from there? How do you cope with winning? How about failing, getting old, being forced from the game? To me, the best of these players teach not only how to compete but how to age and even how to die. Because a pro football player dies twice. Once, when he is old, like the rest of us, and once when he is still young and everything he was, everything he wanted, trained and hoped for comes to an end. It's like my father used to say about the Sinatra tune about the ball park that we all knew was Ebbet's Field. "It's not about a stadium, you schmuck. It's about life!"

What's on your nightstand/bedside table/Kindle?

The Illiad as translated by Stephen Mitchell, Absolutely American by David Lipsky, The Big Crowd by Kevin Baker, and a 32 pack of Sucrets.

Top 3-5 favorite books of all time?

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Speak Memory by Nabakov, Anna Karenina by Mr. Tolstoy, The Sun Also Rises by Hemmingstein, Red Cavalry Stories by Isaac Babel, and Augie March by the big man from Chicago.

Important book you never read?

Ulysses by James Joyce. And damn it all to hell, I will read it.

Book that changed your life?

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. Made me realize I am a freak and a watcher but I am not alone in that. And McSorley's Wonderful Saloon. I read the first sentence of "Professor Sea Gull" and said to myself, "No fucking way I'm going to law school."

Book that made you want to become a writer?

The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn. It's about the 1955 Dodgers. I spotted the look on my father's face when he was reading it and thought, Now you see, that's how I want to make the old man feel. Just like that. Monsters is my belated attempt. Have to watch very carefully as he reads.

What talent or superpower would you like to have (not including flight or invisibility)?

Unbelievable physical strength. If it does happen, all members of the 1977 Winnetka Warriors AA Hockey Club better watch out. Remember me? From the Deerfield Falcons? Well, it's payback time.

What are you obsessed with now?

Vintage turn tables. I want to replicate the sound of music circa 1979, when everything was just a little over exposed and a little too lush.

What are you stressed about now?

That my kids are copying me, and I don't really know what the hell I'm doing. Have to be very careful. It's like a movie about aliens. I'm being watched all the time.

What's your most prized/treasured possession?

I have an old hardback "Simpsons" book inscribed to me by Matt Groening with a picture of Bart on the inside flap drawn by Groening. It's my Picasso. I love it.

What's the best piece of advice you ever got? The worst?

Best piece of advice from Ian Frazier: Don't be afraid to make a complete fool of yourself. Worse piece of advice by a kid before a high school hockey game when I asked about the weird pad that had come lose from my pants: it probably doesn't do anything. I wouldn't worry about it.

What's your favorite method of procrastination? Temptation? Vice?

Oddly enough, I like to garden. This mostly amounts to pulling weeds. It's the adult version of popping bubble wrap. I can do it forever.

Best piece of fan mail you ever got?

A guy recently told me my book on Chess records reminded him of early Dylan. A guy really did say that. Or write that. Now I just have to let my hair grow, my face shrivel and my words become incomprehensible and my destiny will be achieved.



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