Her childhood in New Orleans gave Iris Martin Cohen hospitality know-how that came in handy when she struck out on her own in New York City, running a literary salon in the National Arts Club. “I started (it) so I could have a place to talk about all the old-fashioned books that I love,” she said. “It became a wild, tearing success with movie stars and socialites all suddenly appearing in our ragtag space in this gorgeous old building to drink cheap wine and listen to poetry.” Although the salon has closed, she relied on the experience while writing her debut novel, The Little Clan, whose characters run an arty New York venue called the Lazarus Club.
But don’t think the author has forgotten New Orleans. Look for Last Call on Decatur Street, her “love letter to the French Quarter," in April.
What’s on your nightstand?
Right now I’m reading The Singapore Grip by J.G. Farrell. It’s (part of) a Booker Prize-winning trilogy about the collapse of the British empire in different places. This one takes place in colonial Singapore at the start of World War II, and I can’t put it down. I also just bought The Yellow House by Sarah Broom because there are really exciting books coming out of New Orleans right now.
I strongly recommend Farrell’s. It’s got everything. It’s a page turner, a comedy of manners, a war book, a love story. I also find I’m drawn to books right now about the end of empires, the arrogance of these colonial societies, and the way they exploited people and natural resources feels very resonant to our own historical moment. I would recommend it for any readers with a sneaking feeling that the world as we know it is ending but who still want to get lost in a deliciously absorbing novel. The Broom book feels like a great complement, as it is about the people whose stories have historically been left out of the literature of New Orleans and the Global South.
Can you track your early years through authors?
When I was little, I was a huge fan of Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins and An Old-Fashioned Girl. They were full of virtuous young people that terrible things kept happening to: dying, going blind, losing all their money. I really liked a good cry as a kid. As a teenager, I kept reading classics, but all I wanted were books about dreamy, intense, revolutionary students like Crime and Punishment, The Red and the Black, Les Miserables. Those guys were my high school crushes. I still love a big 19th century novel to get lost in, but it was a combination of reading A Room of One’s Own and Beloved my senior year that blew my mind and made me realize how much I was missing and how much work I needed to do to decolonize my own reading habits. It’s something I work on to this day.