Joshua Cohen and Gemma Sieff Answer Your Questions


Ask The Paris Review

This week, we are joined by our friends the novelist Joshua Cohen and the writer and editor Gemma Sieff, who lent us their wit and wisdom in service of your queries.

I want to be a writer—one of those who can make enough money to write all the time. I should be writing every day, shouldn’t I?


Gemma: You don’t have to do a huge amount; just get into a rhythm of sitting down at the desk and getting up again when you have more money.

Joshua: Pay no attention to Gemma. She has it all backward. Just get into a rhythm of earning every day until you have enough to rent a chair and desk for the weekends. Alternately, you can just get a job in publishing, where every intern keeps a Microsoft Word window minimized below the work e-mail and manages a comma deletion or synonym for bored between “refreshments.” Call the .doc “Fall_Schedule.” You might not have an office that locks, but you might produce a roman à clef.

How do you know which advice is the right advice for you? How do you know which editor is the right editor for you?


Gemma: The trouble with advice is you get a lot of the unsolicited kind when you’re at your most vulnerable/least equipped to sort the woo-woo from the double-blind, whereas your paid professional keeps asking you questions. The trouble with editors is they never answer their e-mail. The right editor gives you advice about your love life. It’s right because of the dauntless delivery and until you follow it, following which you’ll have something to write about. So wrong it’s right!

Joshua: The right advice tells you what you want to hear. The right editor tells you what you don’t want to hear. Or vice-versa. You decide.

Dear Paris Review,

I am twenty-one years old, and I’m an artist. I spend a great deal of my time worrying that I’m not being productive enough, or that I could have done something that would result in recognition for my work by my age. There are several artistic mediums I’m interested in, like painting, music, and video art, and I’m worried that my lack of focus is holding me back. I’m also easily bored by using the same medium to express different ideas. Should I even think about “choosing” a medium, or should I just make whatever I want?

I. A. Akiti

Joshua: I considered answering your question through an interpretive dance but can’t find the finger cymbals I bought in the Jerusalem shuk back in 1992, and the castanets I lifted from Ñ—the only bar in SoHo where pronunciation fails even before a first drink—are no substitute. Then I thought, Why not just draw you a picture? Or picture a drawing? Which is what I’m doing now. I am picturing a drawing while whistling a song in my head, a totally mental Gesamtkunstwerk that, were you me, would put to rest your worries forever.

Point is, nonsynaesthesic twenty-one-year-olds with media problems are as pointless as the genre goons who decide which books are literary fiction and which aren’t, what differentiates thriller from horror, steampunk from Internal combustionpunk, Holocaust whodunit from YA LGBTQ dystopic establishmentarianism. Gothic once characterized church architecture. Spirituality/New Age was once called Religion.

So build a cathedral (if that’s your calling). Then come over to my place and build me shelving (call first). Bring a Dr. Pepper (diet) and a pack of American Spirits (yellow), and I’ll celebrate you in the pages—okay, on the blog—of The Paris Review as the greatest generosity artist since Oprah. Open a competing bar on Crosby near Broome named with another consonant topped with a tilde and call yourself a “senior mixologist”—or “Señor Mixologist.” Ultimately, though, rest assured that your best medium chooses you. Except, of course, for the more extreme forms of body art. Not tattooing or piercing but scarification, genital beading. Those, my friend, require careful planning, a liability waiver, and medical supervision.

Gemma: Don’t worry about dañar (that’s Spanish for “messing up”), ñaño (that’s a loving way of saying “brother”). What an extraño (odd duck) you are with your many media. Think of it as a ñeque (strength) to be so plastic, like a soft pañuelo (cloth) or a mound of cooked ñame (yam). You are young, which means there’s always mañana and many años TK. You’ll hone your talents the way you emery board your uñas. No one is beating you with a caña. Being añeja (older and wiser) and gruñón (vexed), I engaño (cheat) by hiding my head in the sand like a ñandu (ostrich). It beats hiding in the baño boo-hooing into a pink-monogrammed pañuelo (handkerchief) your impeccable ex- got you for a cusp-of-the-big-three-oh cumpleaños. Or you could try the jalapeños of inspiration, magic champiñónes.

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