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Powell’s Q&A: Jonathan Cott

Describe your latest book.
Days That I'll Remember: Spending Time with John Lennon and Yoko Ono is a personal memoir in which I tell the story of how my own life and the lives of John Lennon and Yoko Ono intersected over a period of 45 years. Ever since I met them in London in 1968, I was fortunate to have been able to interview both of them at a number of significant moments in their lives, and my book uniquely focuses on John and Yoko as coequal partners both in life and in art — the two halves of one sky.

In 1968, I did the first extensive interview with John after he and Yoko had become lovers and collaborators. John would later remark to me that "Yoko is the most famous unknown artist — everybody knows her name, but nobody knows what she does"; and in 1970, with his encouragement and participation, I wrote one of the first in-depth profiles of Yoko in which I described her extraordinary life and explored her often-misunderstood work as a filmmaker, poet, singer-songwriter, and pioneer of performance and conceptual art. And on December 5, 1980 — three days before his death — I spent nine hours conversing with John Lennon for what would turn out to be his last major interview.

These conversations were originally published in Rolling Stone in shortened form. In Days That I'll Remember I am for the first time presenting them in their complete and unedited versions; all of them contain new and previously unpublished material. The book concludes with a lengthy interview that I conducted with Yoko in March 2012 especially for my book, which includes many remarkable photographs, as well as drawings done by both her and John, from her private archive. Days That I'll Remember is being published in the same month as Yoko Ono's 80th birthday (February 18, 2013).

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Paul Goodman (1911-1972) was an extraordinary American novelist, poet, playwright, literary critic, psychotherapist, pacifist, and social activist. All of these facets of his being are in evidence in his prodigiously inventive and audacious novel about New York City entitled The Empire City, which depicts a small group of radically sane "misfits" living in a world of eight million "normal" lunatics.

Offer a favorite quote from another writer.
"Don't need a sword to cut through flowers." (John Lennon)

What is your idea of absolute happiness?
To float endlessly down a river and embrace Huckleberry Finn's notion that "It's lovely to live on a raft."

Why do you write?
In order to praise.

Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
In 1981 I published a small poetry booklet that included my adaptation of a tiny Japanese poem entitled "Death of a Child." The poem read: "If I could see a face / Like my child's face / I'd go look for it / Among the little dancers." Shortly after my booklet came out, a friend of mine passed on to me a note from a woman in which she wrote: "My world had been shattered when my two-year-old son died of sudden bacterial meningitis. I bought the volume for that one poem alone because it grabbed me fiercely and worked that mysterious act of poetry that sears the heart and kindles hot tears and profound release." These are certainly the most beautiful and meaningful words I have ever received about something that I have written.

Talk about your vision of the ideal life.
My vision of such a life has been best described by the Japanese Zen teacher D. T. Suzuki who writes about the rewards of being "satisfied with a little hut, a room of two or three tatami, and with a dish of vegetables picked in the neighboring fields, and perhaps to be listening to the pattering of a gentle spring rainfall."

Who are your favorite characters in history? Have any of them influenced your writing?
My favorite is the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. I consider his Meditations to be the greatest self-help book of all time. And with regard to writing, I try whenever possible, but much too often unsuccessfully, to guard against what Marcus felt were the three "aberrations" that undermine a writer, namely: "This is a thought that is not necessary," "This is one that would undermine my fellowship," and "This is not the voice of my true self." Might all writers and critics, including, of course, myself, pay heed to such advice.

Five great children's books (plus a bonus book):
I have an abiding interest in and love for children's literature, and in 1983 I wrote a book about writers such as Maurice Sendak, William Steig, and Astrid Lindgren called Pipers at the Gates of Dawn, which took its title from Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows and which also provided the title for Pink Floyd's first album, as well as for a song by Van Morrison. (The Wind in the Willows was one of John Lennon's favorite childhood books.) And to me, rock 'n' roll is itself a kind of children's literature, e.g., The Who's "Boris the Spider," The Kinks's "Phenomenal Cat," Randy Newman's "Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear," and Bob Dylan's "Man Gave Names to All the Animals," which has in fact been turned into a children's picture book by the illustrator Scott Menchin. "I Am the Walrus" is a nonsense poem in the tradition of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, and "Yellow Submarine" is one of the greatest children's songs ever written.

The following five children's books, as well as a sixth book that by all rights should belong to children, are ones that I particularly cherish and frequently reread:

The Golden Key by George MacDonald
The World Is Round by Gertrude Stein
Rootabaga Stories by Carl Sandburg
Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
Dominic by William Steig
Indian Tales by Jaime de Angulo

÷ ÷ ÷

Jonathan Cott is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and has written for the the New York Times and the New Yorker. He is the author of more than 16 books including Dylan (a biography), Conversations with Glenn Gould, Stockhausen: Conversations with the Composer, and Back to a Shadow in the Night: Music Writings and Interviews, 1968-2001, and is the coeditor of The Ballad of John and Yoko. He lives in New York City.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Conversations with Glenn Gould New Trade Paper $24.95
  2. Back to a Shadow in the Night: Music... New Hardcover $26.50
  3. The Ballad of John and Yoko Used Trade Paper $2.95
  4. Days That I'll Remember: Spending... Used Hardcover $8.95
  5. The Wind in the Willows (Puffin... Used Trade Paper $3.50

  6. Dominic Used Trade Paper $3.50
  7. Finn Family Moomintroll (Moomintrolls)
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  8. The Golden Key Used Trade Paper $4.95
  9. Rootabaga Stories Used Hardcover $14.95
  10. Meditations: With Selected... New Trade Paper $9.95
  11. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn...
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  12. The Empire City: A Novel of New York... New Trade Paper $17.95

Jonathan Cott is the author of Days That I'll Remember: Spending Time with John Lennon and Yoko Ono

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