The Chronicles of Now: That is the first time I’ve read anything about Michael Cohen that made me laugh a little. Why are you thinking about Michael Cohen? Why is he a worthy protagonist for you right now?
Jess Walter: I can honestly say I’m usually not thinking about Michael Cohen. There are so many of these Trump characters that I wish I never heard of. But there’s something weird and poignant and needy about him. This sort of broken, needy guy who, if he hadn’t slithered up to Trump’s ship and attached himself like a barnacle, would still be pulling taxicab scams somewhere.
CON: So has your impression of him changed since he decided to testify against Trump?
JW: It’s been baffling throughout the Trump presidency—and those two words still don’t fit together for me—to imagine that these are the characters we’re stuck with. And when one finally decided to turn the tables and tell us what a horrible guy he was, it had to be Michael Cohen. It had to be this fixer attorney who was guilty of his own crimes and had paid off a porn star that Trump had slept with. I mean, the details—as a fiction writer, you kind of marvel at the fact that all this is happening.
I think we all for a moment stopped and rooted for the most ridiculous character to finally tell the truth and finally be listened to. And the fact that his fixer attorney even turned on him, it would be like the Corleone family attorney, Tom Hagen, standing up in that trial in Godfather II and saying, “It’s all true.”
And yet none of it has made a difference to his base. That awareness that they’re just not getting the same news we are—we’re living in such alternate realities. Reading about Cohen’s life in prison and that the other big star in that prison was Mike the Sitch from Jersey Shore, it just felt like the makings of a great really short story.
That moment of connection where you understand someone you couldn’t is the great gift of fiction—of all writing, honestly. It creates empathy and puts you in lives you wouldn’t have been in before.
CON: Cohen seems to represent a very particular kind of character in those surrounding Trump. I’m wondering when you think of the tropes of a cast, a chorus, an entourage, what role is he playing?
JW: That’s a great way to put it. I think he starts off so needy. Every time you hear him say “Mr. Trump,” there’s a sort of neediness in his voice and the idea that he wouldn’t really exist without the umbrella of this corruption. Within that neediness is this desire to be loved. Even when he decided to testify against Trump, I think there was a desire to be loved, to be embraced by the other side.
One of my heroes in fiction, Kurt Vonnegut, would advise writers to throw away the first chapter and put a villain in it. Writing villains is tough for a lot of fiction writers. I always look for some place where you can connect with some bit of humanity that they might have, and there’s no human being who doesn’t understand neediness and the desire to be loved. Imagine we all feel like frauds, we all feel like we’re on the outside. Imagine your certain style of fraud is that you’re not as corrupt as the other monsters around you, that your own corruption maybe isn’t as brilliant, and you’re just evil, not an evil genius.
I think there’s something more reachable in a character like Cohen for me than, like, Mike Pence, where I couldn’t begin to understand how that strange Indiana puritanism connects with selling your soul for whatever bargain he’s made. Cohen speaks more to my feelings. He was one of the few people I could connect with because his insecurities seem so close to the surface. And imagine a guy like that in this low-security prison. I just could see it.
CON: What is the journey like to find yourself with enough sympathy for Michael Cohen to write a story about him? Because I have to tell you, this story is not something that necessarily made me like Cohen more.
JW: Yeah, I hear from readers sometimes, “There’s no one to like in your book,” and I wonder, How many humans do you really like? I do think that these moments of intersection are more important. That moment of connection where you understand someone you couldn’t is the great gift of fiction—of all writing, honestly. It creates empathy and puts you in lives you wouldn’t have been in before. We’re probably as polarized here as we are anywhere else. It’s hard for me to imagine certain lives that I would find some connection to, but when you do, it feels pretty terrific. It’s a real gift to find yourself understanding, even just for a moment, somebody. And again, this is fiction. I don’t know that the real Michael Cohen has thoughts even of betterment, which is sort of where this story starts, but I like imagining that he does.
I’m a first-generation college student, a blue-collar kid, and the idea of betterment is one of the only American tropes I really believe in. I grew up in a union family and that’s the thing my dad really passed along: that you give everyone a fair break, everybody has a chance to rise up. My dad, an eighth-grade dropout, and me graduating high school and college, it felt like some sort of American progress.
So I imagined Michael Cohen in a place like even a minimum-security prison, where you have people who have no choice but to better themselves, to take the GRE, their GED, the SAT. These are people who are really trying to turn their lives around. I love the idea of Michael Cohen bettering himself, even if at the end of the story I don’t know that he’s arrived there. He’s thinking of getting back at one of the other inmates who’s making fun of him, and he seems like the kind of guy who would be bullied—and that’s another place where most of us can connect. Most of us have been bullied at some point.
I keep hearing people talk about coronavirus as some great equalizer, and it’s not. It’s doing what everything does: It kills poor people; it kills people of color. We live in a society that’s so unjust and so unequal, and, to me, celebrity is another side of that.
CON: But why write him in prison, rather than, say, at sentencing?
JW: I think part of it might be the fantasy of imagining all these people in prison, but also it is as far as that character could fall—the extremes of fiction, of finding someone at the peak or at the lowest point. We have this picture in our mind of Oz and this blue-collar prison. When I started reading the stories about Otisville Correctional, with tennis courts and kosher diets and the fact that other celebrities were there—and his moment of reckoning: when for a moment he thinks that celebrity is the great equalizer, and then he realizes it’s the opposite—I loved imagining what he pictures as his low point. Having to pay the price for something you’ve done seems like a really old-fashioned idea. And then I love intersecting with humor, and the idea of Michael Cohen in prison seemed innately humorous to me.
CON: And The Situation really did serve there, right?
JW: Yeah. I saw that they were there at the same time, and so I thought, Oh my god. You can do several things with your cynicism toward American culture, and I always sort of lapse toward humor. And it feels like the moment we’re in culturally that those two would cross each other’s paths.
CON: And Michael Cohen is famous, or infamous like Mike the Situation. What is your story telling us about fame in America right now?
JW: We are so far down that road from the 1960 presidential debate when Nixon lost points for sweating on television, and now we have an actual horrible reality-TV star in the White House. Fame is so ingrained in what’s wrong with America that I don’t even really know where to start except to let it speak for itself. Let Michael Cohen bro-hug the Sitch in prison and feel alone because he’s the only famous person on his block. I don’t know how else to say it, that these marginal characters are famous and are the people we talk about.
CON: What’s up with his jealousy of Giuliani?
JW: I don’t think you turn off something as sick as sycophancy that you’ve practiced for so long. I know the insecurities that I try to get over and how they rear their ugly heads, and so I have to imagine that being a life-long sycophant feels the same way. Often, I’m so glad not to see Giuliani on TV all the time. But for a while there, he was everywhere and haunting our days. And so imagining them gathering around the television and other guys teasing him, I had to think that he missed it, missed being that close to power. The Ratso Rizzos of the world don’t get close to power that often, and I think there’s something of real desperation in the way he turned on Trump. I have to think he missed it.
CON: What was it like using the news to write a short story when you’re someone who has this background in journalism?
JW: Do you ever have that feeling when you’re writing nonfiction where you’re like, Oh, I so wish it would be like this? Or I so wish that would happen? For me, the years of writing nonfiction I would just often think, Ugh, it would be so much better if he knew the Sitch in jail, would be so much better if Martin Shkreli came. It would be great if there was a guy whose nickname was The Ponz like The Fonz from Happy Days. I could always imagine a better version of the story that I was reporting, even when I was doing historical research.
I started putting real characters in fiction in 2005, my novel Citizen Vince. I just decided, I’m going to put Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in the novel. And so I did. I wrote this chapter, and it was so thrilling to find myself in the place where I could try to imagine what went on behind Reagan’s mask. Or there was this photo of Jimmy Carter and his family leaving the White House where they looked like sharecroppers from the ’20s being evicted, and to imagine being Jimmy Carter and feeling like they don’t like you. That’s what happens when you don’t win an election. It’s the same thing we all felt in eighth grade: Oh, it turns out nobody likes me. My last novel, Beautiful Ruins, had the actor Richard Burton in it, and it was so fun to read his diaries and imagine this character and create a version of him.
I think it’s something fiction writers have done forever. Napoleon is in War and Peace. We take these characters and try to imagine where they might go. And I think to be able to do that with empathy—these figures are sort of like places, we have our ideas about them—to try to infuse them with the same humanity we do fictional characters, I find it both to be really challenging and really fun.
Fame is so ingrained in what’s wrong with America that I don’t even really know where to start except to let it speak for itself. Let Michael Cohen bro-hug the Sitch in prison and feel alone because he’s the only famous person on his block.
CON: The New York Post recently reported that Rosie O’Donnell is working on a book with Cohen. Did that surprise you? You wrote this well before that news and that honestly seems like you could have written that in the story.
JW: The thing I just talked about—the world sort of disappointing you—sometimes, the true story becomes so much better than you could imagine. I was stunned to see that, and I think sometimes we underestimate the power of celebrity in this country. And by the power, I don’t mean the altruistic power. I mean the sort of soul-sucking danger of celebrity. One of the first gigs I ever had was helping Christopher Darden, the prosecutor in the O. J. Simpson trial, write a book about the murder trial and the incredible, profound effect of celebrity on that case. I keep hearing people talk about coronavirus as some great equalizer, and it’s not. It’s doing what everything does: It kills poor people; it kills people of color. We live in a society that’s so unjust and so unequal, and, to me, celebrity is another side of that.
CON: So is Michael Cohen just a blip in the Trump world of scandal or does he mean something bigger?
JW: I think in the worst-case scenario, he’s a blip. That rock was lifted, and all these things scurried out we would never know about, and that’s why he meets the Sitch, another person we should not know. We shouldn’t know these people, and the fact that we do is sort of horrifying.
And yet here’s one who has the chance to do something. It’s almost more incumbent on us—and by us, I mean the American people—that I don’t know how much faith we have left in. But if we get the information and we choose to do nothing as voters, then Michael Cohen means the same as the Sitch, the same as Martin Shkreli. It’s just someone that we have the misfortune of having to hear their name.
CON: Is Michael Cohen a better person for having confessed? Can the people trust he’s actually been bettered, as he puts it in your story?
JW: I can’t say that my fictional Cohen is bettered, and that might just be the cynic in me. I mean, the vessels of redemption aren’t chosen for their seaworthiness; you just happen to stumble upon them. And he does have an opportunity. We’ll see when he and Rosie O’Donnell finish this book he’s working on. We’ll see just how redeemed he is. But it’s the kind of thing I find myself drawn to in fiction: Do we get a second chance? Who deserves it? Where does everyday heroism rise up? And I think it’s at best ambiguous at the end of the story whether Michael Cohen is a changed man. But I hope for our sake that, if he’s not changed, he’s at least vindictive as hell.
Jess Walter’s new novel, The Cold Millions, comes out in October. This interview has been edited for clarity.