Amherst writer Lou Cove recent published the memoir Man of the Year, his debut book (though technically, it’s his second – more on that, below). The author will discuss the book at the JCC of the North Shore in Marblehead (11/9, 7 PM).
Here, he discusses the memoir, the Massachusetts locales that have impacted him as a writer and person, and more from his career creating and advancing literature and culture.
Why Man of the Year (the title)? Why Man of the Year (the book)?
The title has an obvious meaning, and a not-so-obvious one. Man of the Year is about the year that I served as “campaign manager” for Playgirl magazine’s Mr. November 1978 in his bid to become that magazine’s man of the year for 1979. It was a write-in campaign for readers, and although there wasn’t much you might think could be done from Salem, Massachusetts, we ran around town lobbying everyone we could – the cute girls at the Dunkin’ Donuts, the kids in my sixth grade class, the bubbes in my grandmother’s living room… Anyone who would listen. And it worked, he won, and I got to skip my bar mitzvah because I was 13 years old at the time.
That’s the obvious explanation.
But the deeper answer relates to the coming-of-age nature of the story, and is both a play on the Jewish notion that we become adults at that age through a particular set of rituals, (which may or may not help the process), and an admission that the unusual experiences I had during that year unnaturally accelerated my induction into manhood. It’s really about wanting to grow up as fast as possible – and then wondering whether or not growing up is really all it’s cracked up to be.
As for “why the book?” I’ve spent my career championing and enabling the creativity of others – as an editor and publisher; as an executive for a couple of national nonprofits focused on culture and creativity; and as an independent consultant to many similar organizations. But I started out as a writer and journalist and I felt that it was time to indulge a little creativity of my own.
Can you talk about the impact that the city of Salem, Mass. had on you and your memoir?
I arrived in Salem as a jaded kid from New York City. This was just the latest in a series of moves my family had made, so I was already unhappy about being there. And the comparison between Salem and Manhattan just didn’t hold up. The Salem Willows and the Witch House couldn’t capture the imagination like Central Park and the Empire State Building did.
But the North Shore was familiar to me – my dad is from Marblehead and my mom is from Lynn – and I learned through my campaign with Howie Gordon (Mr. November) that getting out and meeting people from all walks of life, really connecting with your community, makes you more affectionate for a place, no matter where you are. It also helped that I became close with Penny Cabot whose mother, Laurie, is the official witch of Salem. I had a crazy crush on Penny, and I was in awe of her mom. There was real magic there.
Penny and I attended the Alternative School, which was a godsend for an outsider like me. In 1978, the Salem school system was still very conservative. I remember them separating boys from girls on the playground at my first school. The Puritan spirit was hanging tough there, but someone had the good sense to start another school and send a clear message to me and my fellow misfits: this was The Alternative. I learned to write there, and my creativity was embraced and encouraged. One of the parents, Bob Ingalls, illustrated a book of my poems and we sold it for a school fundraiser. So this is technically my second book (and one of the poems from the first appears in Man of the Year).
So while I never wanted to move there, Salem revealed that it had a lot to offer me. It’s one of the most important characters in my book.
Along with your book being set in Salem, you currently live in Amherst. How does living in the Pioneer Valley impact you as a writer?
Both Salem and Amherst have some serious literary cred. The Emily Dickinson house is a mile from my own, and the Robert Frost trail crosses through my neighborhood. The Yiddish Book Center (where I used to work) is based here and is a literary jewel, and so is the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. So I am surrounded by inspiration.
I’m also surrounded by writers: There is a terrific community of creative people in the Valley and it’s one of the main reasons I have chosen to live here. The other is the quick and easy access to nature. In order to write, I need to calm my mind and go to a deeper place that isn’t accessible when Facebook and Spotify and Netflix and the news of the day or all vying for my attention. There’s nothing like a walk in the woods, or writing in a café by a river, to get those creative juices flowing. I wrote at least 30% of Man of the Year at the Lady Killigrew, a little café at the Montague Book Mill where the coffee is strong and the water is rushing.
What are you writing now?
I’m working on a book that is kind of a sequel to this memoir. I don’t want to say too much about it right now, but I can tell you that one minor character from Man of the Year will play a major role.
What artist do you most admire but work nothing like?
Prince. I love that he mastered every instrument that mattered to his music, as well as the ability to physically perform and entertain at an astonishing level. Many of his albums are just him playing all the parts. But when he went on tour, he assembled these ridiculously talented musicians to join him on stage. It’s easier to do with music: the technology allows you to create solo, if you want, but you really need others to jam with you in concert. I used to play in a Boston band called Crow Boys and I miss the spirit of collaboration, along with the physical company in creation. Writers rarely have that opportunity. If you ever saw Prince in concert, you couldn’t help but marvel at the creative catharsis he was having on stage.
What’s the best/worst day job you’ve ever had?
Worst: Limo driver in Boston. Ever been a waiter and go back in the kitchen to tell everyone how table 24 is such an annoying group of bossy, entitled, rude jackasses? Driving a limo is like being locked in a room with table 24 for an entire night.
What’s the most surprising response to your art you’ve ever received?
The only negative reviews have been from a few readers online and generally have the same complaint: “I thought there was going to be more porn!” That was kind of surprising, though I guess if you don’t read the book description you could be forgiven for making that mistake. But the real surprise was when people started using a term in correspondence with me that they could only have known if they had read the book carefully. The term is “basil” and it was an expression my childhood friend, Uli, was trying to bring into fashion in the late 70s. He wanted it to replace words like cool or awesome. Like, that’s so basil!
It never took off. Until now. I’ve had multiple people write to tell me the ways in which my memoir impacted them, made them think about their own coming-of-age, the sexual politics of the 1970s, or what it means to become a man. It’s incredibly gratifying. But when they tell me the book is basil, my heart skips a beat.
Share a surprise twist in the Lou Cove story.
The Man of the Year campaign turned out to be the first of many campaigns for me – though it was the only one promoting a male centerfold. I’ve raised around $70 million for nonprofit organizations in the years since. I didn’t think much of how the experience influenced that later work, but as the book was coming together, I started to realize just how much I learned back then, and how it still impacts what I do today. I wrote a piece about it for the Huffington Post.
What do you listen to while you create?
Mostly jazz, nothing with words, usually the masters: Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, etc. It’s an obvious cast of characters, but they are giants and I keep finding new inspiration every time I go back to the well. That said, I have uncovered some really good electronic music lately that is completely immersive but somehow doesn’t feel artificial, which was always my complaint with the genre. I particularly like Tycho. I keep listening to his album Epoch over and over again while I write.
In addition to another book, I am working to grow PJ Library, a project of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation that I have been involved with since its inception. We started by sending Jewish bedtime stories to 200 kids in western Massachusetts about 11 years ago. Today, we send out 180,000 books every month in North America, and more than 550,000 globally. PJ Library is ushering in an entirely new canon of Jewish children’s literature that didn’t exist for people like me growing up… or for anyone older than 16, for that matter.
In a similar vein, I am also working with Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Person’s Foundation on a series of projects to encourage more philanthropists to invest in Jewish arts and culture. It’s an area that – for lack of a better term – has been a bit ghettoized by our own people. I’m very interested in seeing the work elevated and rejuvenated. There is a bit of a Jewish cultural renaissance taking place in the 21st-century among Jewish creatives, but the Renaissance isn’t going to survive without a few Medicis getting involved. My goal is to bridge the gap between them. I guess it’s just like 1978: I keep championing the people and projects I think are cool.
Lou Cove will discuss his book Man of the Year at the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore in Marblehead Nov. 9, 2017, 7 PM.
Image: Lou Cove in a Western Mass. bookstore, photo by Joanna Chattman.