An interview with Eric Lerner, author of “Matters of Vital Interest” – the latest Leonard Cohen book:

Q: Why did you write the book?

A: During the last years of Leonard’s life, I got really sick and we found ourselves in the same tight spot, dazed and struggling to write. I was sick as well with sadness because he was dying and the once impossible had become certain—our friendship was going to end. That’s when the story started to come clear to me, and I started writing it.

Q: What’s the story of the book?

A: It’s a progression of realizations, an accumulation of knowledge, if you want to think of it that way. The plot thickening. That’s what our long friendship looked like to me at the end. And to Leonard, too.

Q: Did Leonard know you were going to write this book?

A: I told him I’d started writing our story, and our story with Roshi, about six months before he died. I even told him the form it would take—our riffs. He asked me from time to time how it was going. He said he looked forward to reading it, though we both knew he’d be dead before I finished it.

Q: How would you define Roshi’s role in the story?

A: That was a question I had to answer to make the story work. Roshi was the compass of our lives. Due north. Though for the longest time we had no fucking idea how to tell north from south. Or east from west for that matter. Even so, it was an impeccable compass. We trusted it implicitly.

Q: The book contains so many conversations with Leonard. How could you remember them in such precise detail?

A: Talking to each other was the heart of our friendship, and the more we talked over the years, the less we needed to explain, because we created our own technical language of exploration and explication. We spoke with purposeful precision. The terminology had to be established and remembered so that the conclusions wouldn’t be forgotten or misplaced. Everything that’s in the book we said to each other.

Q: Does it concern you that you’ve written a book about a very well-known public figure and other people might disagree with your portrait of him?

A: The book isn’t a portrait of him. It isn’t even about Leonard Cohen. Within the two covers of this book we exist in relation to each other. Most of the time we spent together we were by ourselves. Visitors were rare. In the book, with the exception of Roshi, others only occasionally enter the scene in cameo roles, even though they played huge parts in our individual lives. There’s nothing to disagree with or dispute in the book. You can open it and enter the room and join us. Or you can close the book and leave.

Q: Was it all just talk?

A: We’d get tired of talking and go out. But we’d keep talking anyway. We’d go a cup of coffee, a hot dog, the occasional odd meal. We’d drive up to Montreal. We did sesshins with Roshi and went to hat stores and wandered around New York City. And we had some other stranger adventures together.

Q: You had no problem, then, recollecting enough to fill an entire book?

A: The problem wasn’t enough to include, but deciding what to leave out. With each draft I excised more as the criteria for inclusion became clearer to me. When I finally arrived at my own definition of the book, I was less intrigued by the narratives of our lives, particularly my own, and much more interested in re-creating our activity of puzzling, over forty years, until the puzzle made sense on paper, as it finally made sense to us at the end.

Q: Who do you talk to now that he’s gone?

A: I talk to him. Who else am I going to talk to about this stuff?

Categories: Interviews, News

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