As contributors to the Object Lessons series from Bloomsbury, Dinah Lenney and Kenneth R. Rosen each chose to investigate the deeper meaning and implication of a thing they encounter with some frequency—Dinah as a writer of memoir and personal essay, Ken as a war correspondent.
Dinah’s book, Coffee, turns out to be a personal history in which she confides and confronts the challenges of the day-to-day. And in Bulletproof Vest, Ken grapples with an introspective journey into the properties and precisions of his object on a molecular level and on the world stage.
The authors caught up to talk about not only coffee and bulletproof vests, but research and writing, process and metaphor, the things we can afford to take for granted, and the things we can’t and don’t.
Dinah Lenney: I’m remembering my daughter once had a teacher who was all the time saying, “Everything is connected to everything else.” (She never mentioned she was quoting Da Vinci…) So can we connect our objects, you and I? Did you know there’s a brand of coffee called Bulletproof?
Kenneth R. Rosen: I do—I remember it from my post-graduate days of putting grass-fed butter into my coffee, or something like that—something about being bulletproof in the gym, or bulletproof under the stressors of cubical office life.
DL: Says here on their site: “For the CEOs, the churners and burners, the parents, the dreamers, the people who want to be the best versions of themselves.” I’ve never tried it, though. And I know that’s done, butter and coffee—I haven’t tried that either, myself. Nor have I ever seen, so much as worn anything bulletproof. How did you decide you wanted to write a whole book about bulletproof vests? And how did you know where to start?
KRR: Bulletproof vests were an easy conduit to writing about safety and security, perceived and actual, as most of my travels in conflict zones were marked by fears not typically associated with bulletproof vests or what we might call Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): I was more terrified of working with fixers I never met, of missing deadline, of not being sympathetic enough to my subjects, of failing to answer questions correctly while detained at airports across the Middle East and once back stateside. I knew that the bulletproof vest, always located in the trunk of whatever car I travelled in, was a symbol of protection but suppressed anxieties rather than quelled them completely. Likewise, the vests themselves stood for the products we use and effort we make to do things that might otherwise scare us.
DL: I love that, the thing standing in for other things. In my case, I hoped coffee would be a way to talk about time. As in where does it go, and how to make it last. But coffee seems so ordinary (that’s what I thought at the start anyway). We mostly take it for granted, right? Even if you don’t drink coffee, chances are you’re acquainted with people who do.
The thing about your object (the bulletproof vest in the trunk of the car); if the feelings around it are familiar—or universal (anxiety, fear)—the object itself is very evidently anything but. So I wonder how far you take the metaphor. Like, do you consider the case of the sensitive flower who needs a bulletproof vest (in the guise of a good cup of coffee, maybe?) to deal with her day job, for instance? Or do you mostly tell stories about times when an actual bulletproof vest did or didn’t come in handy? Or even saved a life?
KRR: Never in a tactile sense. I have never been shot and never really wore my bulletproof vest while on assignments in Iraq and Syria. What made me most at ease, what offered me the most protection, were the people I travelled with: the fixers and interpreters and my editors with whom I emailed with every night. I look at bulletproofing from that perspective, as something we come to develop through relationships and rituals. Say, a heavy set of blankets at night or a piping-hot coffee in the morning.
DL: And was there piping-hot coffee in the morning? Kidding. I’m kidding, you don’t have to tell me (but you can!).
KRR: Coffee always. Always. And forever. Which is how I imagine you felt…you wanted from the outset for time to play into the writing and themes throughout your book. Was there something that came of the writing which was counter to what you had thought you’d find in coffee? I’m thinking of Dave Eggers’s The Monk of Mokha and the shocking story behind where our coffee comes from.
DL: Well, yes, that’s always true, isn’t it? That things come of the writing—there’s the reason to write in the first place. But in terms of what came of my research, definitely, yes, that, too. Starting with Eggers—early on I read his book, and it was shocking all right. High stakes coffee, coffee to literally die for. But there were other things that surprised me—the sweetness of a coffee cherry straight from the tree; the political history of coffee, and its longtime presence in art and song; my own growing fascination with the variations of taste and smell.
The interesting thing, though, for both of us sounds like, is that you start out writing about an object, whatever it is, and you wind up thinking about people, right? Or place? Relationships, personal history, yada yada. Some writers might want to avoid that sort of thing. Might shake it off, and force themselves to get back on track. Whereas for me— it’s so useful to have a way to fool myself into the kind of writing I most want to do.
KRR: This makes me think of the description of a mug through which Philip Roth traced his father’s father and their family lineage, in the opening sequence of Patrimony. A mug wasn’t simply a leak-proof vessel and holder of a shaving razor, but rather the grounding Roth needed to understand he came from elsewhere and that sometimes a family line can, overnight, or however disturbing to our ontological security, cease to exist—like the potential meaning behind an object, replaced as lives overturn and the object changes hands.
DL: Exactly. We endow objects much in the way we endow relationships. So the way we feel about things (and people, and place) says as much about us as those things (people, places). And, in particular, the thing about a thing—an object, I mean—is that it very often contains all of the above. It’s a vessel of meaning, right? And now I’m wondering if my job wasn’t easier than yours in the sense that I was dealing with something so common. Coffee is ubiquitous, it turns up everywhere, that’s what I discovered. Never mind all the stuff in the news, and on the shelves in your local bookstore. Coffee is a prop, if not a bona fide character, in literature, and film, and TV. It appears in galleries and museums. And almost everyone has a coffee story. And is eager to tell it. Truth is (now I can confess), I spent some months feeling overwhelmed by my object. Whereas a bulletproof vest. That’s so specific. Did you know from the outset how to approach? What you wanted to say? What sort of research did you have to do, and how did the writing itself surprise you? What did it yield—the writing, I mean—that you couldn’t have known when you started?
KRR: Actually I think yours was more difficult, precisely because of its ubiquity and the place it holds in the negative space of our collective imagination. As you note, a coffee (mug, bean, machine, etc.) is such a fixture—from the home to the office, to communal and ceremonial gatherings, to everywhere in between—I empathize with your struggle. Yours was the harder task. Sure, not everyone has a few sets of bulletproof vests and ceramic plates lounging around their home office, but I had to impose certain feelings onto the vest that might not be necessarily associated with it. I took pains to underscore that these vests do save lives, that I was thankful enough never to have seen them in action in that way. I likewise took pains to relate the vest to something people do recognize—like coffee. Something that brings a sense of continuity and comfort. We might now be talking in circles.
DL: Well, not so much that we’re talking in circles as that our objects really are connected. In the sense that they turn out to be ways to write about some of the same things. Continuity and comfort. There it is, well said. And you knew you wanted to write about those things?
KRR: I knew from the outset that I wanted to write about the vest as an anxiety blanket of sorts. And I knew that in order for me to succeed with downplaying its role as a physical protector and upping its role as an emotional guardian, I had to juxtapose the vest with what actually—in my few years traveling through war zones—made me feel safe. It’s why I splice chapters of memoir with reported, historical, and cultural sections. In this structure, the writing came fast and easy. I completed the manuscript in about three weeks, followed by a few editing run-throughs. I also hired an independent fact-checker to review the manuscript, which is a profession of protection and security in its own right.
DL: Three weeks! Ken, three weeks. I’m guessing this sort of sustained focus makes for a smooth read. Whereas coffee-the-book happened (happens) in fits and starts. (I just looked that up, that expression—dates back to the 1500s, just like coffee.)
KRR: Do you still feel that same sense of being overwhelmed when you have a coffee now? I’ve heard writers talk about their process as a total divestment from the world, with the eventual gradual return to the news cycle, families, vacations, something of a shock. What might surprise me that I may not have already known about coffee? Any strange traditions you came across in your research? (Likewise, where did you begin your research?)
DL: I really did start with Dave Eggers’s book. Or no, wait—even before I read The Monk of Mokha (and talk about daunting: to sign on to write about coffee only to find out that Dave Eggers got there first), I went to see a coffee farm in Goleta. I tasted the cherries—I got an idea of how labor intensive is the process; what it takes to get coffee from the orchard to pot; and all of us taking the stuff for granted, as if it grows on trees, which it does, but not in vacuum-sealed bags.
As for strange traditions. Well, the strangest might have to do with our fetishizing the process the way we do. I mean coffee has been delicious for centuries, right? For hundreds of years people have been brewing the stuff with their eyes and noses—checking the color, the aroma at every stage—but now. Now we have gadgets galore—we’re madly weighing, measuring, investing in special kettles with special thermometers.
KRR: But those newfangled gadgets are a way of elevating what we’ve come to know about coffee, no? In a way, they further that centuries-old tradition of sniffing and sipping and enjoying. An object has that power: to take something recognizable, something mundane or otherwise ever present, and reintroduce it. Think of seltzer! Man, they used to deliver that stuff in wooden cases. Now the majority of us enjoy it more regularly, with our own carbonation machine at home. An object can make something cool, or desirable again.
DL: Well, yeah. I love my Sodastream, love, love, love it. Although I also love the idea of people delivering things in wooden crates—Ken, I’m old enough to remember the milkman, and the galvanized box on our back porch where he left two glass bottles of whole, two of skim, red and green tops, depending. Crate/box/package, gosh, there’s a whole array of objects to reckon with, right? Altogether? As in “Containers”? One at a time? “Paper bag”?
KRR: Oh my god, those galvanized boxes—I forgot all about those! And there I go, swept off into memories of my childhood at the Jersey Shore, all at the behest of an inanimate square.
DL: Exactly. Anyway. I’m not overwhelmed anymore, no. Only grateful, not just to be done, but for the doing itself. It’s nice to simply look forward to getting up and making that first pot of coffee, which, having written the book, I appreciate more than ever. Not just because it’s actually better—though it is. But having given it all that time and thought (in fits and starts), I’m not likely to take coffee for granted ever again. At some point in the process, I had enough material to write, I dunno, three books, at least, and each from a different angle. Did you feel that way, too?
KRR: I’ve never had enough assignments. My “unpublished” and “story idea” folders grow by the day, as well as objects I could totally see myself writing about one day.
DL: Did writing the book change your relationship with the anxiety that first prompted the idea? Or with the vest itself?
KRR: For bulletproof vests, it did further my ability to witness events and visit regions, countries I otherwise would have felt out-of-place visiting. One of the first scenes in the book takes place at a hostile environment training course where myself and other journalists and aid workers are taught to treat ballistics wounds (as best we can) and to evade capture. The training manifests itself in its final form as the vest, which takes all the knowledge of safety and literally displays it.
DL: Are you still working in war zones?
KRR: I do still cover armed conflict. Though I had worked for three years in conflict zones before writing this book, my fourth article from Iraq was a personal essay on how traveling to a conflict zone as a naturally anxious and depressed person enlightened me to my own baseless woes. The bulletproof vest was a natural foil.
It seemed to me that everyone is scared, always, whether it be worry surrounding the start of a new job or entering into a new relationship or deciding to enlist in the military or go off to college. To crib from Michael Herr, we carry things (physical, emotional, spiritual) to help us pull ourselves through. In war, for me, that ends up being the friendships I have formed with my fixers and interpreters.
Were you to write about a new object, what would it be and why? Have you taken closer looks into other objects as a result of your writing an OL book?
DL: I know a writer who wants to pitch “Orchestra”—which is a great idea, isn’t it? But I tend to think small—if I were to do another OL book, I might go with piano or guitar (or singer!) as opposed to band. Although I like the idea of a book titled Band. But you know what I’d really love to write about? Windows.
KRR: Perhaps another OL book is in your future? Didn’t you write a book called The Object Parade?
DL: It’s true; I can’t seem to get enough. That’s why I pitched Coffee, along with other items, and that was the one the editors liked. Honestly, I feel like I could write about objects for the rest of my writing life. (Herr is absolutely right—they pull us through, and also they remind us where we’ve already been.) How will I ever move on? Why should I?