- The True North Interview with Terry Price and Carolyn Flynn, July 17, 2012. Podcast Link.
- One on One with Sandy Moss on Prescott’s KQNA (AM
This interview aired July 26, 2004, prior to the Hassayampa Writers’ Conference. Cook was a featured author at the conference. Listen to this radio interview with K. L. Cook (9:22):
- Reading the American West
The Girl From Charnelle P.S.
Interview by Dr. Jill Talbot, for her English 347: Reading the American West course at St. Lawrence University, Fall 2012.
Jill Talbot: You lived in the North Country for a year as St. Lawrence University’s Viebranz Professor of Writing. How do you describe the landscape and feel of the North Country in relation to the spaces of the West?
K. L. Cook: What initially surprised me about the North Country was its brutal beauty and its inhabitants’ endurance. Before coming to St. Lawrence, I had been to a few artist colonies in Saratoga Springs and Blue Mountain Lake for a month at a time. I realize that those places are considered tropical compared to Canton and Potsdam. But still, I had experienced some North Country extremes–the heavy and translucent silence of the snow, the carnivorous black flies in June (I still have scars to show for it), the startling colors of the leaves the two days before they are all replaced by denuded branches, the bears and deer nosing for leftovers outside the window.
What I didn’t expect in Canton was the humidity–and the lack of air conditioning! I had grown up in Texas and have lived my life in the South and the desert Southwest, so I’d never been to a place in the civilized world where the people figured they could endure a few weeks, much less a few months, of ninety-degree weather and outrageous humidity without Freon-generated relief. I remember my first months in Canton, in late summer stretching into mid-October. It was hot and unbearably muggy, with only a couple of scrawny oscillating fans available at the hardware store to circulate the misery. Even the St. Lawrence University library didn’t have air conditioning. Crazy, I thought, as I lay sweating. This is worse than Houston! When I inquired about this, the locals just said, “Oh, it’ll pass in a day or two.” They lied.
Finally the heat passed. Fall arrived, only to be replaced a week later by the first blizzard, blanketing the campus in a thick sheet of white fur, which my family and I thought was gorgeous. Now this is what we’ve been waiting for, we rejoiced, sledding down the university hills on open-faced cardboard boxes. Unfortunately, the snow just kept falling and falling and falling in what turned out to be one of the worst winters in Canton history. Five gazillion inches was the official tally, I believe. The roads covered in black ice. Huge piles of dirty snow, as hard and thick and high and gray as prison walls, piled for months on the sides of the roads. Stalactite-sized icicles dangling precariously from the sagging gutters. Landscapes of lost mittens and gloves and wool caps (and even, inexplicably, a pair of women’s purple panties) discovered half a year later during the spring thaw. Negative-25 degree temperatures cold enough to make nose hairs and eyelashes click together like castanets!
In Texas and Arizona, we may have angry landscapes, endless deserts of huge saguaro cacti and sagebrush and tumbleweeds, wide brutal blue skies, occasional 120-degree heat, and zero percent humidity. . . but we don’t really know suffering like North Country folks know suffering!
JT: I, too, grew up in Texas and have lived mostly in the West (Colorado, Utah, Idaho), so when I arrived here, I felt as if I had to whisper. There’s a reserve here—in the people, the landscape. I was told, “You’ll get a lot of writing done here.” And it’s true. I’ve written more here than I have anywhere else I’ve lived. And it’s not because I’m snowed in or the fallen leaves are blocking the red front door of the house I rent. There’s a closed-offness to the landscape, a quietude that invites me to sit down and transfer that inwardness to my writing.
How about you? Do you feel that where you are alters your writing? And how does the West in particular shape your writing?
KC: I love what you’re saying about the closed-offness to the landscape and a quietude that invites inwardness. I think that has been true for me as well, though I’m unsure if my own productivity in upstate New York and the Northeast has more to do with the landscape or with the fact that when I’ve been there—while at St. Lawrence and at artist colonies in New Hampshire and New York—I’ve had the luxury of time that is not necessarily afforded me in my real life. Perhaps both. I also think there’s an element of homesickness. When I’m in the Northeast, which is an essentially alien landscape to me, I find myself able to imagine the West more fully and deeply—and with a greater sense of both clarity and longing. It’s as if the beauty and strangeness of a foreign place makes me keenly aware that it’s not reallymy place, which in turn makes me want to write about the places I know intimately. I’m curious if that is the case for you.
How does the West in particular shape my writing? I’ve thought about this a lot over the years, and it’s complicated for me, as I’m sure it is for you. I’ve studied and taught the literature and films of the American West for decades now. As a writer whose subject is the West, I feel like I’m in constant conversation and tension with that literary and cinematic history, just as I’m sure a writer from the American South can’t escape the shadows of Faulkner, O’Connor, or Welty, or a New England writer can’t escape the shadows of Hawthorne, Melville, Dickinson, or Emerson. I feel my work butting up against Twain, Steinbeck, Didion, McMurtry, Proulx, Stegner, McCarthy, Katherine Anne Porter, Nathanial West, Joy Harjo, Sherman Alexie, and Rick Bass, as well as John Ford, Sergio Leone, and the schlocky history of the Western as a pulp genre. So writing about Texas and the Southwest has as much to do with my love for, and argument with, that tradition as it does with my familiarity with it as my home. This issue, I believe, is more problematic for Texas writers because Texas, in literature and film, is so often a caricature of itself. Every serious Texas writer probably feels that tension even more acutely. As a writer from Texas yourself, does that ring true to you?
JT: While reading Texas writer Larry McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By for this course, I was sitting on my front porch and got to the last line that ends “he reminded me of someone that I cared for, he reminded me of everyone I knew.” Something came back to me in that moment, and I sobbed (rare for me when I read) because I realized how much I miss Texas, Texans, and the voices McMurtry captures, the drawls and the y’alls of my past. Writers from Texas have voices with grit, a coarseness like sand in your teeth. It’s an authenticity I think supplants any stereotype. And it’s not just Texas, writers in the West have a dare to their voice, and I often worry if I don’t get back there soon, I’ll lose mine.
Our Viebranz Writer from 2011-2012, Mark Slouka, is now in Arizona, and in one of his letters to me, he describes the town where he’s living as “dusty.” I know what he means, how the dust of the West gets into your words. I need dust in my writing—in both what I read and in what I write.
You mention some of the great writers of the West. I’m hoping you’ll share a few of your favorite lines from selected works that ring true to you.
KC: I think you’re correct that there is a kind of daring in Western writers—more of a willingness to let the characters get into some serious melodramatic trouble. Larry McMurtry was a major influence on my writing, in large part because he was writing about the people I knew from West Texas and Houston, though a generation removed. I actually wrote my master’s literature thesis on McMurtry’s ambivalent relationship to his frontier heritage, focusing on three key novels—Horseman, Pass By (which you mentioned), All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, and Lonesome Dove. I haven’t been as interested in McMurtry’s fiction post-Lonesome Dove, but those early books, including his moving collection of essays, In a Narrow Grave, gave me much-needed permission to write seriously about the dusty, half-articulate West Texas culture that I’d known. As a poor kid from Amarillo whose family weren’t readers, I didn’t think “literature” could be written about my neck of the woods. I don’t think I would have dared, to use your word, to write without his example.
What moved me most about his work was the mixture of humor and pathos, and the elegiac spirit of those early books—a celebration and mourning for a passing way of life. The haunting ending lines of Horseman, Pass By, which McMurtry wrote when he was in his early twenties, continue to be the most resonant refrain in his work. I’ve been influenced and moved by Sam Shepard’s surreal version of the West, in plays such as Fool for Love and True West, and Annie Proulx’s anthropological studies of Wyoming life, but it’s McMurtry’s mixture of critique and elegy that still excites me most and moves me to write.
JT: Each of these aspects you mention—celebrate, mourn, haunt, surreal, elegy—even humor and pathos, may be attributed to your story, “Bonnie and Clyde in the Backyard,” originally published in Glimmer Train and featured in the powerful, evocative collection, Best of the West 2011: New Stories from the Wide Side of the Missouri. When my Reading the American West class read it, I brought in copies of Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife and Joy Fielding’s The Age of Desire. I also discussed Jed Mercurio’s American Adulterer: A Novel (about JFK) and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris in order to provide context for a burgeoning trend in recent literary works that realistically (via research and the author’s own words) fictionalize a figure. But here, you have integrated that historical, albeit mythologized duo Bonnie and Clyde into a narrative about family, among other things. The story was a hit with both me and the class, and it’s one we eventually discussed as being a contender for the most representative story in that anthology for encapsulating the prevalent themes of the literature of the west. I’ll stop writing about our experience in discussing it and allow you to discuss your inspiration for the story and your strategy in writing it.
KC: Thanks for your kind words about the story. I write in bits and pieces, revising relentlessly, over months and sometimes years, before I see the larger design and meaning of a work. I think of it as a steeping process. “Bonnie and Clyde in the Backyard” steeped for a long time, with its genesis in an anecdote my grandfather told me about Bonnie and Clyde driving through his backyard when he was a teenager during the Great Depression—a time in which he also had to quit school to help care for his dying father. I wrote a few pages of the story twenty years ago and then put it in a drawer and forgot about them. When I found those pages years later, a long draft came quickly, as if I had been subconsciously writing it all that time. I think one key for me was the point of view of the narrator, Riley, who tells this story in present tense, but we learn, early on and then certainly by the end, that he’s a much older man looking back on this event and its repercussions for his family, and he’s trying to figure out his own responsibility for what happened. That is always the case for me with first-person narratives. It takes a while for me to understand why a character must tell the story he or she is telling. But when I do figure that out, everything tends to fall into place. I also think that, with this particular story, it took me a long time to feel confident enough to write about historical characters. Those early pages alluded to Bonnie and Clyde, but the duo never arrived on the scene. Perhaps I was, on some level, afraid to make that imaginative leap. When I discovered the pages later, I gave myself permission to let the historical characters directly occupy the story, and that made all the difference.
JT: You’ve written an award-winning collection of linked stories, Last Call, which is set in West Texas. Will you describe West Texas to readers who may not be familiar with the flatness of the landscape, the storms of sand, the oil drills yawning across the panhandle?
KC: Well, you just described it very well. I went to Amarillo High School, and our mascot was a sandstorm—the Fightin’ Sandies—which suggests just how significant wind and dust are in the Texas Panhandle. And those oil drills were a major part of my family’s economic life since my uncles and grandfather all worked as riggers. And the weather fluctuates radically, with thirty and forty-degree shifts in a day and 100+ degree days oscillating with freakish snowstorms. And the flatness—well, you’ll never understand how expansive or empty or how beautiful the horizon can be until you’ve been to the Panhandle. The upside is the grand openness of the sky. The downside is that there’s no place to hide in that kind of landscape. Whenever I visit the South or the East, I always feel a little claustrophobic because of all the hills and trees and uneven ground. West Texas is a harsh landscape and an acquired taste. You perhaps need to have been born and raised there to love it. I don’t want to live there again, but it has, through three books and more to come, occupied a huge space in my imagination and defined, for better or worse, my understanding of the American West.Reading the American West
Writer and Teacher: An Interview with K.L. Cook by Lucrecia Guerrero
Lucrecia Guerrero’s short stories have appeared in literary journals, including Colorado Review and Louisville Review. She is the author of a collection of stories, Chasing Shadows (Chronicle Books 2000) and recently completed her first novel, Tree of Sighs.
Lucrecia Guerrero: You have a BA in English and Theatre. How did you get started in writing fiction, and what did you do to develop your craft?
K.L. Cook: I went to the local university because the theatre professor there gave me a scholarship. I not only studied theatre with him and performed in about thirty productions, but I also married his daughter—an actress, director, singer, and playwright. For a long time, I wanted to become an actor. I didn’t write a story or take a fiction writing workshop until I had already begun a PhD program in literature. And I only did that because my thesis mentor for my master’s degree in literature was a young novelist himself, Richard Russo, and he urged me to try my hand at fiction. Once I started writing stories, I discovered that all that training in theatre was perfect for fiction writing. Learning how to analyze a play with the intention of directing it or performing in it is very similar to the way a writer must think about literature—as something alive and malleable, as something that must not just be understood and dissected but be fully inhabited. I think of writing as performance—something that ideally enchants, haunts, and persuades through the senses.
Lucrecia Guerrero: Who are some of your literary influences, and who are you reading
K.L. Cook: My early influences were adventure narratives—Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan chronicles, Encyclopedia Brown, Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang. In my adolescence, I read a lot of my mother’s trashy novels by such writers as Harold Robbins, primarily for the forbidden passages. In high school, I loved the transcendentalists, especially Emerson. I read Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, when I was seventeen and was transformed. I didn’t know that you could write in such a nakedly vulnerable way about family. I fell in love with theatre and plays around this time. The major literary influence in my life is, hands down, Shakespeare—a twenty-five-year love affair. I’ve acted in Shakespeare. I gobble up Shakespeare criticism. I’ve seen almost every filmed version of the tragedies. I’ve made special trips to New York, London, Stratford-on-Avon, and other places to see productions. I teach a Shakespeare seminar every other year. I’m doing research right now for a novel set at Shakespeare festival. I’m obsessed. You wouldn’t necessarily know it from reading my fiction, which has largely been about semi-literate characters from West Texas, but Shakespeare’s footprints are all over my work.
Lucrecia Guerrero: Could you give me an example?
K. L. Cook: What most inspires me about Shakespeare’s plays is the complexity of the characters, what I think of as their thickness. You can never reach the bottom of them. Hamlet is the most honorable of the great tragic heroes, the only one given a soldier’s funeral, the sweet prince delivered by angels to his peace, and yet he’s also unpardonably cruel to Ophelia and to his mother, and he feels no regret about killing Ophelia’s father or sending his old pals, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to their deaths. Throughout the play, he seems both brilliant and foolish, spiritual and crude, melancholy and manic, empathetic and callous, indecisive to the point of paralysis at one point and then suicidally impulsive at others. There is a mysterious contradiction at the center of his character that is both consistent and unfathomable. The same with Iago. He’s a sadistic monster, the most detailed portrait of evil that Shakespeare created. And yet Shakespeare never allows us to feel too distanced from Iago, never allows us to experience Iago as a symbol or abstract embodiment of an idea. The whole play is torqued because Iago is essentially our narrator. Shakespeare invites us into that mind, into that soul, and yes, sure, he’s rotten, but he’s also charming and fascinating and, above all, seductive. We are with him as he figures out and then executes his plot to ensnare all of the other characters. In this way, Shakespeare makes us complicit with Iago. Our relationship to the character is almost unbearably complicated. Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that my own characters have the level of complexity of a Hamlet or Iago, but when I develop my characters, even a protagonist as seemingly sympathetic as Laura Tate, I search for opportunities to complicate and deepen the readers’ relationship to them.
Lucrecia Guerrero: Your first book, Last Call, is a collection of linked short stories. When you began writing the first story did you see it initially as becoming part of a collection?
K.L. Cook: No, I didn’t see the final design of Last Call as an integrated short story cycle until fairly late in the revision process, after most of the stories had already been published in literary journals. A few of the stories were linked, such as the Lee stories in the “Pool Boy” section and the two stories that take place at the honky-tonk called the Texas Moon. The radical revision that I did in the final year of work on that book was to envision all the stories as part of a larger narrative—the multi-generational story of a family. The four 1958 stories came last for me and were the key that unlocked the secret design of the book.
Lucrecia Guerrero: What do you mean by “secret” design?
K.L. Cook: After working on a book for a long time, you, at some point, have to give up on your original intentions for it and start honoring the book that you actually did write. Or at least that was one of the major discoveries I made in writing this book. By writing about these characters when they were children and adolescents—and focusing on the key event that unites them (the disappearance of their mother)—I finally understood the full trajectory of not only their individual lives but the life of the family, and I realized that it wasn’t just a thematically-linked cycle or one character’s story but rather the entire family’s story.
Lucrecia Guerrero: Some of the stories from Last Call have been adapted as chapters in your novel, The Girl from Charnelle. When and why did you decide to turn these stories into novel chapters? What changes needed to be made so that they would work as chapters rather than stories?
K.L. Cook: As I mentioned, I wrote the 1958 stories fairly late in the process of revision for Last Call. I became so fascinated with this family at that particular point in time I didn’t want to stop writing about them, especially since I knew the people they would eventually become. I finished the novel and the final revisions of Last Call at roughly the same time, and when Last Call was about to be published, I negotiated with the press to be able to use those four stories in my novel. The stories were changed in minor ways for the novel and serve as italicized prologues for each of the four main parts of the book. I knew I might be accused of double-dipping, but I couldn’t be assured that readers of my second book would also read the first, and those chapters seemed crucial to the novel.
Lucrecia Guerrero: The following is a quotation from Daniel Rifenburgh, in his review of The Girl from Charnelle for the Houston Chronicle: “It’s often said that the ultimate test of a male novelist lies in his ability to faithfully and compellingly portray the inner, emotional life of a woman and that only the greats like Tolstoy, Flaubert and James can pull it off. . . . Cook pulls it off admirably.” Your ability to get into the mind and soul of a teenage girl is impressive. The book is told from a third person point of view from Laura Tate’s perspective. How did you decide on third person point of view? And why specifically from Laura’s, and only Laura’s, point of view? In Last Call the stories are told from the points of view of different characters.
K.L. Cook: When asked this question, I sometimes say that I felt, during the writing of this novel, like I was a sixteen year-old girl. Seriously, I struggled with point of view in this book. One of the challenges for me was writing believably from Laura’s point of view for four hundred pages. At times, I questioned whether I could or should do it, but she was the character I was most interested in. The novel is hers. I wrote a complete draft in third person from her perspective. Then I re-wrote the novel in first person, which of course necessitated many changes in voice. The big problem with first person was that it didn’t allow me as much freedom with language. I also grappled with the retrospective voice. Anytime you use a first-person narrator, you must, unless you’re writing in present tense, figure out what I call the fixed point in the retrospective narration—the point in time from which the narrative is being written. In a first-person narration, there are always two narrators: the character who went through the events and the older narrator looking back on and making sense of those events. After writing the novel in first person, I realized that such a choice was wrong for this book; it lost its immediacy and perspective and drained the story of some of its suspense. So I switched it back to third person, and again made many more changes.
Lucrecia Guerrero: Coming back to your training in theatre, do you feel that may have helped, as you said earlier, to inhabit the character of Laura? Or did you ask women for their insights or feedback on your characterization of Laura?
K.L. Cook: Absolutely. Writing stories—especially stories narrated by characters very different from me such as oil riggers, railroad workers, waitresses, bartenders, middle-aged women—was really just an extension of the kind of art I practiced in the theatre: the art of inhabiting characters. The great thing about writing, as opposed to acting, however, is that the writer is not limited by his or her gender or body type or vocal range or ethnicity. The writer can be anybody he or she wants to be. The only limitation is imagination. I felt I knew Laura and could intuit my way into her consciousness. Of course, in revision, the insights and feedback from my wife, my agent, and my editor (all very insightful women) were invaluable, and I made some changes as a result of their suggestions.
Lucrecia Guerrero: You have said that The Girl from Charnelle grew out of your desire to reconnect with your mother from whom you were periodically estranged. Once the novel was completed and read by family members, I imagine they may have recognized parts of themselves. Were there misunderstandings with family members who might have expected you to remain more true to the “real” story? Did some feel you revealed too much?
K.L. Cook: My family’s reaction to the novel has been wonderful. Although my mother and her family provided the imaginative seed, the narrative I invented for them is very different from their lives. For instance, my grandmother never disappeared—though her second husband did. In fact, she is the original writer in the family. She’s been a journalist and a newspaper editor for more than fifty years, and, while now in her mid-eighties, she still works full-time, investigating and writing articles in Childress, Texas. My mother said that she was often shocked by how I could have known things about her private life, how she thought and felt when she was that age. Most of what I wrote, however, was invented. One of the exciting things about writing fiction is the process of writing not what you know, but exploring what you don’t know about what you know. I was on a panel at the Texas Book Festival called “What Would Mom Say?: Fiction and Family.” My mother came down for the panel, and it thrilled me to say, “There’s the original girl from Charnelle.” She felt like a minor celebrity.
Lucrecia Guerrero: You show great empathy and compassion for all the characters in the novel. You took time to develop each one, and made them human with their conflicting emotions and actions. Were the characters always so well drawn, or after finishing the novel did you find you had to return to any of the characters for further development?
K.L. Cook: First off, thank you. I worked hard to make sure that all the principle players were fully imagined and complexly drawn. The character that I struggled with the most in the first draft was John Letig, the man with whom Laura has an affair. I have two daughters myself, so I found myself unconsciously judging him throughout. I was afraid to identify too deeply with him. In revision, I had to imagine him more fully, making sure I understood the kind of man he was and why Laura would be attracted to him. This didn’t mean that I refrained from having the other characters judge him. But I came to see him as a tragic figure. It was an exercise for me in what Keats called “negative capability”—the ability and willingness of the writer to remain in “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Some readers, especially those with teenage daughters, have told me or emailed me that the subject matter was disturbing for them. As for younger readers? School Library Journal listed the novel as one of the best adult books for high school students, which surprised me because of the subject matter, but it seems to have found an audience with those readers. I haven’t let my own children read the book yet, not even my sixteen-year-old son.
Lucrecia Guerrero: Your novel is set in the late fifties and 1960. You did not fall into the trap of having characters from another time think and react as though they were living in contemporary times. I’m thinking specifically of the role of women in the novel.
K.L. Cook: One of my goals in writing this novel was to try to inhabit not just different characters but also a different time, place, and cultural sensibility. This novel is set before I was born, and I did a lot of research—both reading about and talking with people, especially women, who grew up in the Texas Panhandle during that era. There is an anti-nostalgic thread running through the book. Life was hard, especially for a girl abandoned by her older sister and her mother and left alone to take care of her three brothers and father. Most of the domestic burdens fell to her simply because she was a girl. That’s what women and daughters did. There are many scenes that deal quite bluntly with Laura’s conflicted feelings about these responsibilities, her guilt and resentment and anger. My mother married my father at a very young age partly, I believe, to escape these burdens. The way she talked about this time in her life—with a tangled sense of pride and bitterness—fascinated me. It was also one way that I felt intimately connected to Laura. My children were very young while I wrote this book. I often felt that my life was consumed by the relentlessness of rigors of domestic life: laundry, cooking, dishes, and a desperate desire for more sleep.
Lucrecia Guerrero: One of the themes of your novel is the idea that people we know often have secret lives. Only Mrs. Tate, the mother, is allowed to maintain her mystery. And since you felt such empathy for your characters, I can’t help but wonder if there were times when you might have felt guilty revealing their secrets?
K.L. Cook: Did I feel guilty about revealing the secrets of my characters? No. Secrecy and revelation are at center of most narratives. And at the heart of most of our lives. One of the epigraphs for the novel comes from Chekhov’s short story, “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” where the protagonist realizes that “everything that was essential to him, everything about which he felt sincerely and did not deceive himself, everything that constituted the core of his life, was going on concealed from others.” I designed the novel—from the epigraph to the final pages—so that I could investigate this pattern of secrecy and revelation, so that I could test the premise of the value of a secret life. Every major character and most of the secondary and minor characters have secret lives, and they each exist on a continuum. The mother remains a total sphinx, with the characters concocting theories about her disappearance. The level of revelation varies from character to character, and the level of exposure varies as well. One of the questions that John’s wife, Anne Letig, contemplates near the end of the book is how much exposure is healthy or necessary. And Laura herself realizes that a part of her will always remain buried in the secret center of the Letigs’ marriage. One of the great things about fiction—both writing and reading it—is that we are given more access to the inner lives of characters than we are allowed with people in our own lives, even those we love the most. This access to other lives is why fiction is such a great humanizing art.
Lucrecia Guerrero: If the access to other lives is why fiction is the great humanizing art, did you ever fear that allowing only the mother to remain a “total sphinx” might leave the reader seeing her as less humanized that the other characters? Or, at least, that the reader might have less empathy for her?
K.L. Cook: That was a risk I was willing to take. I did, at the suggestion of my editor, provide more short scenes depicting the mother. But I didn’t want to undermine the essential mystery of her disappearance. All the other characters—Laura, Mrs. Letig, Laura’s father, Laura’s sister and brothers, Aunt Velma—offer their own theories about why she left. I hope I have provided enough evidence in the novel so that readers can put together a fairly complex portrait of her. I feel, by the way, great empathy for the mother. I started thinking about her situation soon after my fourth child was born. At that time, my wife and I had three children in diapers. I could understand how a person whose life is determined by needy children, endless domestic chores, and too little money might very well feel desperate for a different life.
Lucrecia Guerrero: The novel is structured into four parts, and each part begins with a section that returns to the issue of the mysterious mother. Why choose this structure, and at what point did you decide to go with this structure?
K.L. Cook: In my original structure, the four 1958 sections concerning the disappearance of the mother happened chronologically and appeared first in the novel, as an extended prologue. But as I continued to write and revise, I understood that the central narrative question was this: Would Laura, like her mother and sister before her, leave Charnelle, and if so, under what conditions? Once this became clear to me, I thought about the chapters concerning the mother differently, and I decided to use them as prologues to the different sections, so that the reader, like Laura, would keep looping back to this central mystery. After I made that decision, I felt liberated to deepen the thematic connections between the 1960 chapters in each section and the preceding 1958 chapter. For instance, part three of the novel is called “Careful” and begins with the harrowing story of the crazy family dog, Greta. The chapters that follow are full of emotional trapdoors and dangers for Laura and deliberately echo the dangers in the Greta chapter. Whenever you write a book, you are searching, I believe, for the invisible design. Sometimes you know it from the beginning. Sometimes it reveals itself as you’re writing. Sometimes it only reveals itself in revision. The goal, though, is to find the design that reinforces the most pressing thematic and dramatic intentions.
Lucrecia Guerrero: The book opens with a beautiful and terrifying image of a rainstorm and of a great oak being split open by lightning. The mother touches “the trunk, the branches, the leaves, as if searching for a heartbeat.” This splitting of the family tree, revealing its very heart, precipitates the disappearance of Mrs. Tate. Like the tree, the Tate family has been split, its heart exposed. It is an indelible image. Did the image develop out of the story or the story out of the image?
K.L. Cook: It’s hard to say, really. Probably both. When I was young, I remember standing at the window of my grandparents’ house during a storm when lightning struck the tree in the front yard. Like Laura, I felt as if the lightning had struck me. Afterwards, I felt the electricity chattering in my teeth, and I walked around half-blinded by a cross-hatched blur of light. I gave that experience to Laura. I knew of course that the mother was leaving, and that the tree would serve as a private catalyst for her. All of those 1958 chapters circle around traumatic events. We don’t know why she leaves, and we can’t fully decode the private meanings of these events for her, but there’s the incident in the barn in Amarillo, Greta going crazy, and then the tree being struck by lightning. The mother searches for a heartbeat. And then the next day she’s gone for good.
Lucrecia Guerrero: I have read that you are now working on a new novel that focuses on the man Laura Tate eventually marries. If you originally created Laura Tate to better understand your mother, do you feel that you and your mother have been brought closer?
K.L. Cook: Yes, I’m about a third of the way into a novel, The Man Who Fell from the Sky, which focuses on the man Laura marries. He’s also an important character in a few of the Last Call stories. This book is, in effect, the third book in what I like to think of as the Last Call Trilogy. If The Girl from Charnelle is a love letter to my mother, then this new novel is one for my father. I am currently the age that my father was when he died, so this is a particularly significant moment in my life to be writing this novel. The book, of course, is fiction and largely invented, but his spirit animates the novel—which doesn’t, by the way, necessarily make it easier to write.
Lucrecia Guerrero: You are a professor at Prescott College in Arizona and Spalding University’s MFA Program in Writing. How do you arrange your schedule in order to have time to write?
K.L. Cook: It’s not always been easy to establish a daily routine, even though I do advocate the habit of art. I’ve been teaching for more than two decades now. I also have young children. So it’s been a constant struggle to carve out consistent time to write. I remember reading that when his kids were young, Raymond Carver would hole up in his car for twelve or fifteen hours just to find the silence to write the first draft of a story. I understand that desperation. What usually happens is that I write like mad during my times off—vacations, spring break, summer. Since my last child was born, I have tried at least once a year to go away to an artist colony for four or five weeks. Most of The Girl from Charnelle was written during several month-long stays at Blue Mountain Center, Yaddo, and The MacDowell Colony. Those colonies saved my creative life. Now that my kids are a little older, and more self-sufficient (that is, they can make their own breakfasts and take baths without drowning and sort of look out for each other), I find that I have more time and emotional energy to write at home and throughout the year.
Lucrecia Guerrero: Are there aspects of teaching which enrich your writing?
K. L. Cook: I know a lot of writers who feel that teaching is not good for their writing, that it saps them of the energy that should be funneled into their creative work, that it forces them to think too analytically about what is essentially an intuitive and mysterious process, and that the constant exposure to student writing deadens their own delight in language. There’s not a writing teacher alive, myself included, who hasn’t had to grapple with these issues at one time or another. But teaching is as crucial a part of my identity as writing. I love designing and fostering a community and an experience in which students can discover the pleasures of reading and the sometimes deeper pleasure of writing their own stories. I’m fortunate in that I teach a lot of literature courses in addition to fiction workshops. I relish the opportunities that my classes give me to revisit Shakespeare or Faulkner or Doctorow or Louise Erdrich or Tim O’Brien, to think about literature in terms of family systems or the thread of the American Dream, or as a touchstone for the way our private lives intersect with our public lives. Working with both undergraduate and graduate writers on their stories, novels, and essays makes me think harder about the nature and aim of fiction and about the practicalities and implications of craft decisions. It keeps my mind nimble and keeps me in the river of language. I spend a lot of time writing letters to my students, responding at length to their work.
Lucrecia Guerrero: You said earlier that your training in theatre has affected your writing. Has that training also affected your teaching? Have you adapted any specific exercises for teaching theatre to teaching writing?
K.L. Cook: Teaching, for me, is a kind of performance. I like my classes to feel a bit like a carnival with lots of laughter and opportunities to play with whatever material we’re looking at, whether it’s Othello or a student manuscript. But I don’t necessarily see myself as the performer and them as the audience. I see my job as a director or facilitator of an experience in which we’re all participants. The experience will always be different because the students are different, but it’s my job to help them discover the material for themselves, just as an experienced director helps actors discover individual moments as well as what actors call the super-objective, the emotional through-line. A lot of the questions that I ask of students, when discussing their work, are questions that are routine for actors: What do your characters want? What do they fear? How do they go about getting what the want and confronting or avoiding what they fear? What secrets are they keeping from others or themselves? What form or style does this material require of you?
Lucrecia Guerrero: There has been much debate about the value of MFA programs for writers. You studied in an MFA program and now teach at another. Do you feel there is anything to the criticisms against MFA programs?
K. L. Cook: I encourage any young writer thinking about entering a writing program to avoid teachers who don’t believe that writing can be taught. The truth is that most of the best writing published today is written by people who have been, at some point in their apprenticeships, students in creative writing workshops or who now teach in writing programs. Workshops are full of wildly divergent sensibilities and serve as great laboratories for aesthetics; groups of writers come together and are forced to think carefully about what a story or poem or play is and how it behaves or, even better, how it misbehaves. I find that students have more often than not read the workshop story three or more times and have written extensive notes about it, really interrogated it—something that many literature students and most editors don’t feel inclined to do. Also, workshop participants are pretty good at recognizing talent and genius when they see it. The truly original work is inevitably praised and the weaker work is handled, for the most part, generously but fairly. Besides all that, the MFA program offers one of the few opportunities in the writer’s life to devote concentrated time to honing both vision and craft. The world, for the most part, doesn’t want you to be an artist, doesn’t really care if you write a poem or novel or play. For the two or three years of an MFA program, you are at least in a community that honors that dream and provides time and fellow artists and (sometimes) money to support it.
Lucrecia Guerrero: I’m sure you’ve heard of the so-called “workshop story.” What is your take on this issue?
K. L. Cook: I’ve never really understood what is meant by the so-called “workshop story,” even though I’ve been a student or teacher in hundreds of workshops. Critics of workshops might argue that I can’t see it because I’m so ensconced. My best guess is that it’s a catch-all criticism for any story that is technically competent but boring. When reviewers, editors, or cultural critics use the term, they often mean that the work is parochial or narcissistic—concerned with suburban malaise, family dysfunction, or the small disturbances of the self. Of course, if you take away all the literature that’s been written about suburban malaise, family dysfunction, and the small disturbances of the self, then you have eliminated most literature. I’m always surprised and often impressed with the rich variety and ambition of work I see from students, even if the work may not be in its final brilliant incarnation. And the students get better. You see them, just over the course of the few short months of a quarter or semester, grow. They make smarter decisions about narrative strategy and become more skilled, and often inspired, in terms of developing their stories or novels. I like to tell the skeptics who ask me if writing can be taught that I can’t teach brilliance but I can certainly nurture talent. We all have stories to tell. The workshop is a good place to explore ways of telling those stories with greater agility, urgency, and resonance.
Interview by Jan Bowman, originally appeared in Trajectory in Fall 2012
Jan Bowman: Thank you for taking the time for this interview. Let’s begin by discussing your new story collection, Love Songs for the Quarantined. I recently read it and said, “Wow!” and then I sat down to read it again. I admire the craft in these stories. Why did you structure this collection into four sections?
K. L. Cook: Thanks for the kind words about the book. I originally had about thirty-five pieces for the collection, and the process of constructing the book was a winnowing process. I knew that I wanted it to be more than the sum of its individual parts. I wanted the stories to be in conversation with one another and for the four sections to have a natural emotional progression. The first and last sections, each consisting of two long stories, frame the book. And those four stories are different in tone and voice from the middle two sections. They are historical pieces—and each is a form of meditation on, or love song for, not only death but on our obligations to the ones we love. I think of the two middle sections—each consisting of six stories of varying length (some very short, some longer, many of them experimental)—as my lifespan development sequences.
JB: What did you see as the significance, the natural order, of putting the middle sections together like this?
KLC: The first set of six stories begins prenatally and progresses through childhood and adolescence, ending with a sudden leap forward into middle age. The second set of six stories begins with young married life and progresses into what one of the narrators calls “full-throttle parenthood.”
JB: I had read “Bonnie and Clyde in the Backyard”when it was originally published in Glimmer Train and thought it was amazing. It has the “feel” of being passed down through a family. What is the story behind this story? Can you tell us about how it was conceived?
KLC: I write in bits and pieces, revising relentlessly, over months and sometimes years, before I see the larger design and meaning of a work. I think of it as a steeping process. “Bonnie and Clyde in the Backyard” steeped for a long time, with its genesis in an anecdote my grandfather told me about Bonnie and Clyde driving through his backyard when he was a teenager during the Great Depression—a time in which he also had to quit school to help care for his dying father. It took a while for me to see the story’s shape and clearly hear the voice of the narrator, but when I did, I was able to write a long draft relatively quickly.
JB: Your endings in stories such as the title story, “Love Song for the Quarantined,” “What They Didn’t Tell You About the Vasectomy,” and “Bonnie and Clyde in the Backyard” and, of course,“Filament,” are amazing. The endings continue to resonate. Have endings always come easily to your writing, or did you revise until you “found” the ending?
KLC: The short story is the most ending-obsessed of forms. Because of their brevity, stories need the ending to lock everything into place—and in a way that is both inevitable and mysterious. Endings are very difficult for me, and each of the endings in the stories you referenced took a great deal of time, sometimes months or years, to discover. I’d work on it a while and then put it in the drawer and come back later, hoping to have found the right conclusion. When I did discover these endings, then I would often radically revise the rest of the story to move more organically toward it.
JB: What was your process to get to such well-earned endings?
KLC: I’ve had help. My wife, Charissa Menefee, is a playwright and a brilliant and very creative editor, and she was (and continues to be) indispensible in helping me find endings. In the title story, for instance, I remember her saying, after reading an early draft, that she felt that ending was somehow connected to him tending to his bloody feet. As soon as she said that, I knew she was right—that everything the man feels about his family’s vulnerability could be captured in him tending to his self-inflicted wounds.
For the ending of “Filament,” I owe a debt to Hannah Tinti, the editor of One Story, who worked hard with me on the revision, harder than any editor other than my wife has ever worked with me on a story. The original version had about five or six more pages, and it tracked the protagonist, Loretta, as well as many other characters through several more years of their lives—a kind of extended epilogue. Part of the pleasure of writing that story was the long, novelistic scope of the story. Hannah liked the long narrative scope, but she felt that, as a story, it needed to end with Blue’s dying fall and the resonate image of him serving as a literal eclipse of the sun in the window. A wonderful, creative solution, and like my wife’s suggestions, one that can only come from a fellow writer. It still took many more drafts to make the language work, but her feedback was inspired.
JB: Let’s talk about the powerful image of the storm-shattered tree, ruined by a bolt of lightning, that serves as a metaphor in the opening of your novel, The Girl from Charnelle, and which also had appeared earlier in several stories in your collections, Last Call. What brought that image to mind? Did you begin with that image or did it come organically from the process of telling the story of this ruined Texas family, left trying to comprehend the aftermath when the mother abruptly leaves her family?
KLC: It came organically, as I believe all the best images do. Once, when I was a child, visiting my grandparents in Dumas, Texas, a huge storm hit the town. I remember standing at the window looking out into the darkness when lightning hit the tree in the yard, blinding me and making my teeth click—not only then but in the days afterward, as we drove around the town, inspecting the storm’s debris. I gave that experience to my main character, Laura, and then continued to track the significance of that tree, laying about the yard like a stricken animal. I believed it to be a resonant image, from a writer’s perspective. But more importantly, I felt that the characters themselves thought of the lightning strike and the tree as a metaphor and as a symbol. I’m always more interested in the way that characters interpret the events in their lives rather than in the overly symbolic manipulations of authors. So the important thing for me about that lightning and that tree is that Mrs. Tate seems to view it as an omen, triggering her abandonment of the family. The family, in the wake of the larger tragedy of Mrs. Tate’s disappearance, is left looking at this dead tree, like a stricken carcass in their yard.
JB: What did you learn from writing the stories in Last Call that led you to deepen the exploration of the family dynamics of the impact of abandonment in The Girl from Charnelle?
KLC: The key sentence in Last Call appears late in the last story, “Penance,” in which Laura, as a middle-aged woman, confused by the disastrous direction her life has taken, contemplates her mother’s abandonment of the family: “I had thought that I had let that go, but at times like these, she [her mother] was always there, or rather the fact of her disappearance was always there, like an amputee’s limb. A phantom.” That line helped me complete both Last Call and The Girl from Charnelle. In fact, the line determined a major revision of all the stories, in which I discovered how the characters I had been writing about were related to one another. The line inspired me to write the opening four-story section of the book dealing with the circumstances surrounding Mrs. Tate’s disappearance. Once I finished that—and discovered the overarching design of Last Call—I was able to tackle The Girl from Charnelle. I already understood who the characters were and what the long-term consequences would be of that initial traumatic episode for the family. The novel gave me the opportunity to explore the initial aftermath of those events.
JB: Characters in both books struggle with the tension of the hidden world of human lives. The Tate family’s response to the mother’s abandonment of her family, and to a lesser degree the older girl Gloria’s sudden elopement, leaves the family unraveling. The remaining younger daughter, Laura, becomes involved in a hidden relationship with her father’s married friend. That series of events really ratchets up the tension. I’m wondering which story idea came first to you – Laura’s affair or the mother’s abandonment?
KLC: The mother’s abandonment came first—connected as it was to the story called “Penance.” I started contemplating what Laura and her family’s life would be like a couple of years after her mother had disappeared, when the initial shock had worn off and the routine of normal life had reasserted itself. I felt Laura might search for solace in a sexual affair, especially given the string of relationships with men I knew she would have later in her life. It would be a natural way for her to explore her own secret life. In fact, the theme of the hidden life is at the heart of The Girl from Charnelle. The working title was The Value of a Secret Life.
JB: That’s interesting. I have begun to reread both Last Call and just finished rereading The Girl from Charnelle. And each reading provides a greater appreciation for what you’ve done in both these books. Lately I have been thinking about how place drives the stories we tell. You’ve created a memorable imaginary town, Charnelle, Texas, for your stories. The unspoken power of landscape, of place – by that I mean the aching desolation of a Texas rural community, which combines with the powerful bonds of loyalty that hold people close and angry. Place plays a powerful role in the women’s desire to escape and limits choices for those who remain. Can you talk about your impressions of the impact and power of place on family dynamics?
KLC: I’ve always been fascinated by writers who create, as Faulkner said, their “own little postage stamp of the universe.” My master’s thesis in literature was on the influence of place, specifically the American West and the frontier heritage, on literature. Larry McMurtry was the subject of that thesis, and he is a writer who remains intensely and unsentimentally interested in the relationship between the American West and character. Most of my family lives in Texas and Oklahoma. I am one of the few members of my family who has actually left home. So I understand, from my own experience, that tension between community and travel, between the desire for rootedness and connection and the desire to disappear and reinvent yourself. That tension is built into our DNA and reinforced by American history and the cultural history of the American West. But for me, I often can’t start a story until I know where it’s set and the effect of that place on the characters’ lives—physically, culturally, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually.
JB: Of the stories that you’ve written so far, which are your favorites?
KLC: That’s like asking me which of my four children I love the best. I love them all and for different reasons. I’ve written a lot more stories than I’ve published. In ways, it’s a little easier to love the stories already published because they’ve become independent; they’ve found homes for themselves and, on some level, have thrived. The stories that are still locked in my computer files, in various stages of revision, are the ones I’m more urgently (and often painfully) connected to. I’m still trying to help them become independent, so they cause me more heartache.
JB: But having said that, are there touchstone or breakthrough stories for you?
KLC: Of the stories I’ve published, “Costa Rica” and “Bonnie and Clyde in the Backyard” have received the most acclaim, and they are often the stories I gravitate toward when asked to give a reading. Both, interestingly, have their origins in family myth. I’ve told you about the genesis for “Bonnie and Clyde.” “Costa Rica” was inspired by my father’s life as a conman who once schemed to buy Costa Rica, his plane crash and miraculous survival in the Costa Rican jungle, and the way his death continues to haunt me. That story became the inspiration for the story, “The Man Who Fell from the Sky,” which is in Love Songs for the Quarantined, and now for the novel that I’ve been writing and revising for the last few years. That’s often how stories work for me. If I’m lucky, the characters continue to haunt my imagination long after I’ve published the story, leading me to expansion.
JB: What are you working on right now?
KLC: I’m what I call a creative polygamist. I have several projects happening at once. There is the novel I referenced in your last question. But I also have another novel I’m researching and writing set in a Shakespeare festival on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. Several stories, a couple of nonfiction books. Perhaps an expansion of “Bonnie and Clyde in the Backyard” into a novel. Fortunately, I’m on sabbatical this year, so I actually have time to work on and—knock on wood—finish some of these projects.
JB: Who are your mentors or models for writing excellence?
KLC: I had a lot of excellent mentors as a student, mentors whose work I love and continue to read—Richard Russo, Joan Silber, Robert Boswell, and Jean Thompson. I actually worked with Russo on my master’s thesis in literature—on Larry McMurtry—and he was the first one to really encourage me to write stories. He pointed me toward Warren Wilson College, where I worked with him again on my MFA thesis. There are many more writers I read and love—too many to mention here.
My reading is often dictated by other forces: the texts I’ve assigned for the literature or creative writing classes I’m teaching at the time, my participation as a judge in novel or book-length writing contests. (I was, for instance, a judge for three years for the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction.) I also spend a great deal of time reading and responding in depth to my students’ stories, novels, and essays.
JB: And which authors writing in the US today are -in your opinion- under appreciated?
KLC: I believe we live in a literary renaissance, with amazing work published (or not published) daily, despite our culture becoming increasingly visual with television and film and the internet replacing the traditional pleasures of reading a good novel or story. Given that reality, most literary writers, in this country, are underappreciated.
JB: What was the last truly excellent book you read? And what did you particularly admire about it? What do you plan to read next?
KLC: Joseph M. Schuster’s The Might Have Been, which was published in spring of 2012, is an amazing novel—hailed by some, rightly so, as the best baseball novel ever and probably one of the best novels about sports culture, about living with compromised dreams, and about the negotiation between idealism and pragmatism that I’ve read. I also loved Patrick deWitt’s novel, The Sisters Brothers, which won the Governor’s General Award (the Canadian Pulitzer) and was short-listed for the Man Booker Award. What drew me to it was a review that said, “This is the kind of novel Cormac McCarthy would write if he had a sense of humor.” The book is mordantly funny but also melancholy with a unique narrator (one of the criminal Sisters brothers) and a compelling plot that seems like something out of a Coen Brothers or Paul Thomas Anderson film. As for what’s next: Richard Ford’s Canada.
JB: What were your two best-loved childhood books? Do you still have them? Ever reread them or read/share them with your children?
KLC: Dr. Seuss was the only children’s writer who could keep me awake when, sleep-deprived, I was reading regularly to my kids—and especially Green Eggs and Ham. The first work of literature that got me excited about reading was Jack London’s Call of the Wild, a book that still holds up pretty well. My family and I just took a long road trip, and two of my children read aloud a contemporary epistolary novel, Same Sun Here, co-authored by Neela Vaswani and Silas House, and written from the perspective of a young boy from rural Kentucky and a young Indian girl living illegally with her family in New York City. It is marvelous—funny, deeply moving, complex in its portrait of cross-cultural connection, and unique in its collaborative origins. I’ve read it twice now, as have some of my kids. It’s wonderful.
JB: Since you are teaching at both Prescott College in Arizona and in Spalding University’s brief-residency MFA in Writing Program, what do you see as some of the benefits that a good MFA program offers aspiring writers?
KLC: Community, deadlines, and mentors. Writers often require a great deal of solitude to do their work, and that can be lonely and somewhat dispiriting, given how difficult it is to write something that merits not just publication but authentic praise. Your friends and family and colleagues often worry about you when you’re in this apprenticeship. An MFA legitimizes your aspirations and your commitment to your talent. It gives you a community of kindred spirits who understand your dream and desire to become a better artist. It offers you a structured way of producing and revising work relatively efficiently. And it gives you mentors to help you with that process so that you can shave, if you’re lucky, years off your apprenticeship. And it ideally gives you some lifelong comrades, with whom you can commiserate and cheer and go to for advice and honest feedback.
JB: What books about writing do you recommend to young aspiring writers?
KLC: As a teacher of both undergraduates and graduate students, I recommend a lot of books about writing. Some of my favorites are Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House, Robert Boswell’s The Half-Known World, the Writers at Work series (the Paris Review interviews), Joan Silber’s The Art of Time in Fiction, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, and Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. For beginning writers, I often teach Ron Carlson’s Ron Carlson Writes a Story. For inspiration, I recommend reading the letters of Chekhov and Flannery O’Connor. And read some of these strange, remarkable books—Geoff Dyer’s wonderfully profane meditation on writerly procrastination, Out of Sheer Rage, and Lewis Hyde’s great study of the relationship between gift cultures and the plight of the modern artist—The Gift.
JB: And finally, what is the best advice you’ve ever received about writing and what advice have you chosen to ignore?
KLC: I resist any prescriptive advice that tells me there is a single way to do something—whether that be write, teach, build a career, organize a novel, parent, stay married, you name it. If the history of art and literature has taught us anything, it’s that there is no single right way. You have to discover, hone, and make peace with your own habits of art—and hopefully figure out how you can best get your work done over the course of your life.
The best advice I received is that the best writing, as John Gardner suggests, is always “a shining performance.” Every line of poetry, every sentence, every page, every story or chapter you write should embody the sheer joy of performance. I was an actor before I was a writer, and my wife is an actress, director, singer, and playwright, so this idea of writing as performance resonates deeply with me.
JB: Thank you for sharing your insights with readers. I look forward to reading your next book.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
Where did the idea of this story come from?
My grandmother was the original writer in the family—a reporter and editor in the Texas Panhandle for close to sixty years before her death. In her late eighties, she was still filing three stories a week for The Childress Index. Her life was not an easy one, but I always admired her fierce devotion to her vocation as a journalist. The character of Loretta is based on her, though the plot is all fiction.
Most of your work is set in Charnelle, Texas . What keeps bringing you back to this small, panhandle town?
I have set other stories and novels in different places, but Charnelle is a place of my own invention, cobbled together from many small towns encircling Amarillo . I’ve always been inspired by writers who have carved out their imaginary postage stamps of the universe, to paraphrase Faulkner. I’m thinking of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, but also of Louise Erdrich’s North Dakota, Larry McMurtry’s Thalia, James Joyce’s Dublin, Alice Munro’s rural Ontario, Richard Russo’s Mohawk, Charles Baxter’s Five Oaks...the list goes on and on. We’re talking about the place of the heart. I was born and spent a significant part of my life in the Texas Panhandle. Although I haven’t lived there in more than twenty-five years, it’s still the place my imagination naturally returns to with a mixture of pain, love, and ambivalence—a good mix for fiction.
“Filament” drifts seamlessly between many different points of view. Why did you choose to tell the story this way, going into each character’s mind?
I’ve long wanted to write a story using full-blown omniscience—a voice able to move forward and backward in time and, catlike, in and out of the consciousness of many different characters. The omniscient point of view is particularly well-suited to stories that focus on a community rather than one or two individuals. I loved the liberation and the generosity of this point of view. I didn’t just want to write Loretta’s story; I was interested in the way the other characters, and even the town itself, are all drawn in and irrevocably affected by the murder. So my forays, some brief and some more extensive, into the perspectives of Blue, the children, Fortney, the sheriff, Hef Givens, and others are an important part of the conception and vision of the story.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
I loved writing in the omniscient voice. I loved telling a more novelistic story. I love reading these kinds of narratives—by Tolstoy, Sherwood Anderson, and Chekhov, as well as Joan Silber, Annie Proulx, and Alice Munro. The challenge is: how to tame the beast? My early drafts were much longer and covered many more years in the lives of the characters, both before and after the murder. Although I’m pleased with this version of the story, these characters and this world are still very much alive for me, which may mean that I also have a novel on my hands. That would be a good thing.
The descriptions of Blue’s welding job, and the piece of filament in his eye, are so precise. Do you have any experience in this line of work, or is it just the result of good research?
My grandfather was a skilled welder and still owned his own welding shop until the day he died, in his nineties. I vividly remember those burn holes in his work shirts and coveralls and the way his skin was pocked with small heat blisters. My great nightmare—imagining his world when I was a child and later as a writer—was the possibility of hot steel in the eye. How that possibility could change the course of a whole life became the guiding metaphor for the story.
“Filament” feels like a tragic love story. How you can love someone and hate them at the same time. Was that what you set out to write? Or was it more about the promise of beginnings?
Both of those interpretations are good readings of the story—though I’m not sure I could have articulated those themes when I began writing it. I do know this: whenever an event or a relationship contains contradictory emotions—characters feeling many things simultaneously—I know I’m on the right track. Marriage offers the richest, most complicated kind of relationship, especially for people for whom divorce or separation is not a readily available option. The promise of beginnings—I like the sound of that. Looking back on my work, I see that I have clearly been obsessed with the long-term promises we make not only to others (spouses, lovers, parents, children, brothers, sisters, friends) but more importantly to ourselves. There’s always an interesting story embedded in the way we negotiate those promises and how we sometimes come circuitously around to our original aspirations, as I believe Loretta does. She wants to be a journalist; her marriage and motherhood derail that promise she made to herself. How she negotiates that derailment seems to me to be one of the things the story is about.
What’s next for Loretta? Will she ever be a reporter?
Oh, yes. Even though I cut the extended epilogue about her career in journalism, everything is spelled out in the first paragraph of the story: Blue’s death and her return to her vocation.
How does this story, “Filament,” connect with the others in your forthcoming collection, Love Songs for the Quarantined(scheduled for publication in fall 2011)?
They’re all love songs—love stories—but love songs for those who have been quarantined or have quarantined themselves. Literally in some cases. Always figuratively.
How long did it take you to complete this story?
I started writing a draft in Wyoming in the summer of 2007 and continued to expand and revise it, while also working on other stories in the collection. That’s normal for me. Stories take a long time to simmer, and I enjoy that process. I also enjoy the way the different stories simmer together, counterpointing and calling to one another.
What are you working on now?
I just finished a draft of a novel about a character from some earlier stories—a man who once schemed to buy Costa Rica, a scheme that went disastrously wrong. A significant portion of the book takes place in my fictional town of Charnelle.
What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever gotten?
Every story is a love song.
Scene Missing: Please recommend a phrase to mutter under one's breath, moments after running out of bullets, crouched behind a rock, hearing the approaching footsteps of a rival.
K. L. Cook: Sucken-rusen-rusen-frat!
SM: How would you recommend we recognize you in the land of sleep and dreaming?
KLC: I’m a friendly, smiling soul, but I’m also the size of an NFL fullback with a dark beard and glasses, so in the land of sleep and dreaming I could very well be mistaken for Emmit Smith’s lead blocker or the bouncer at Lyzzard’s Lounge who is either going to toss you in the street or read you a Rilke poem.
SM: What do you think would be a good opening line for a romance novel?
KLC: Here’s the opening line from the first chapter of my forthcoming novel, The Girl from Charnelle, which has plenty of romance in it: “She’d only tasted beer before, never champagne; it was sweet and sharp and stung high in her head.”
SM: What is the first thing you want to know on arriving in a strange city?
KLC: Where’s the nearest bathroom because I always drink too many liquids on planes, and airplane bathrooms are woefully small for a man my size!
SM: Please tell us a brief anecdote to enliven our evening/afternoon/morning.
KLC: Last fall, my family and I embarked on a 9-week book tour—a self-funded affair, what I called “The Great Futon Tour” since we depended on the hospitality of friends and family. At the end of October, we stayed in Nashville with my sister-in-law, who was 9 ½ months pregnant. I was driving back there late from a gig in Memphis. Within minutes of my arrival, my sister-in-law’s water broke. My wife and I went to the hospital the next morning, kissed the new baby, and then I caught a ride, minutes later, with a colleague to Kentucky, where I would be teaching at another university. That night my wife phoned to tell me that a friend and colleague of ours from Arizona had just been killed in a bicycling accident. The next day, I flew to Austin for a book festival. Two high school friends took me out on the town—Halloween Eve. Within a 48-hour period, I had traveled to four different cities in three states, my niece was born, my friend had been tragically killed, I met about 250 writers, and I sleeplessly wandered, with the friends of my youth, down the streets of a strange city cram-packed with drunken vampires, monsters, ghouls, and Disney characters. It was the most surreal 48 hours of my life.
SM: Please invent an imaginary friend and an imaginary enemy, set them to dueling, and let us know who wins.
KLC: Creating imaginary friends and enemies at odds with one another is my job. When I’m stumped for a story idea, I give myself this task: create a character who wants something from another character (e. g., gold, love, a buffalo head nickel) that the other character doesn’t want to give up. In my story, “Knock Down, Drag Out,” an oil-rigger, motivated by sun-induced hallucinations, returns from his offshore rig to rescue his estranged wife, who he believes is being seduced by their landlord. She doesn’t appreciate his brand of chivalry, but determined to save her, the oil-rigger ties her up, puts her in the back of his pick-up truck, and drives away. Of course he only thinks he won until he hears her in the truck bed, “squirming, rocking slightly from side to side, crying, calling to him in what now seemed like a song he’d heard long ago, a lament or hymn.”
SM: What aspect of your work are you proudest of?
KLC: Several years ago my writing seemed dead to me. I went to the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire and was housed in this amazing chateau where Leonard Bernstein had written his requiem mass for John F. Kennedy. None of the projects I brought with me—an unfinished book of stories and the beginning of a novel—seemed any good. I walked around the snowy acres for a week, expecting the fraud police to boot me out of the colony for impersonating a writer. About a week and a half in, I began a long, sentimental love letter to my wife. I couldn’t stop. I laughed and wept for hours as I wrote. By the end of my stay, it was 135 pages. I titled it Private Magic, bound it, and gave to my wife as an anniversary present. Writing that letter reminded me that writing is supposed to be a gift—for others and for yourself—not a job to be dreaded. After that, I was able to finish both the collection and the novel. But Private Magic—a deeply embarrassing, sentimental book that no one but my wife will ever read—is what I’m proudest of.
SM: When was the last time you drank to excess?
KLC: I could report a shameful and harrowing story, but my wife tells me that this is just the sort of thing that would pop up first on Google and Yahoo.
SM: What was your last good deed?
KLC: Last November I visited my mother and grandmother in Childress, Texas as part of my book tour. They set me up with non-paying gigs at a high school, an assisted-living center, and a prison: all captive audiences with no money to buy books. I was nervous about the prison. I’d never been inside one before, much less addressed a large group of inmates. The other two events were okay, but those inmates were great, eager for stories, eager to have someone there who didn’t condescend to them. Laughing with them about the way stories can clarify, lighten, and even save our lives was one of the best moments of my professional life.
SM: Please compose a brief poem or haiku on the subject of your choosing.
KLC: I’m not a good poet, but my good friend Joe Schuster (who is actually a fiction writer as well) wrote this series of wonderful haikus that he encouraged me to give to my students or to myself (depending on my mood):
Work moved me to tears
Not of joy but something else:
Pinprick in raw skin
Such a waste of paper,
Think of something else:
Sewer cleaning, plumbing, crime.
But write no more. Please.
Harper Perennial “P. S.” - The Girl From Charnelle
Why did you set the novel in 1960? The novel grew out of my fascination with characters from my first book, Last Call, a collection of linked stories that spans thirty-two years in the life of the Tate family. In the final story, “Penance,” a middle-aged Laura Tate reflects back on her life and tries to make sense of it, and she feels that the hole at the center is her mother’s mysterious disappearance in 1958. There are other stories in that book by Gene and Rich and Gloria’s family, and even a series of stories told from Laura’s son’s perspective. I decided to go back to 1958 and explore the circumstances surrounding Mrs. Tate’s disappearance, the primal event in the family’s history. I was also interested in the immediate shockwaves it sent through the family. That sequence of stories opens Last Call (and they also serve as the italicized 1958 sections in The Girl from Charnelle). When I finished Last Call, I discovered that I wasn’t finished with the Tates. In particular, I was fascinated by Laura. I wanted to know what happened right after her mother left. I knew what happened to the family members much later in their lives, the people they would become. I also knew, from my many conversations with my mother and her family, that while we may think of the late fifties and early sixties as a simpler time, it wasn’t in reality. The kinds of moral, emotional, political, racial, psychological, and sexual issues facing people then felt just as perplexing to them as they feel to us today. The Girl from Charnelle was my attempt to explore that complexity. The process of writing fiction, for me, is also an act of compassion. And one of my goals in writing about this time (before I was born) was to try to imagine what it may have been like for someone like my mother to be a teenager finding her way in what she may have felt was a fractured world. I should also mention that once I knew I was writing a novel that would take place in 1960, I started asking what was happening then—culturally and politically. What kind of parallels could I draw between the world of 1960 and the early part of the twenty-first century? That’s how the presidential election and the thematic strand of the literature of the American Dream began to make their way into the novel.
How would the novel differ if it was set in current times? Oh, the cultural milieu is very different now. But I do think that the emotional and psychological dilemmas facing teenagers (and adults) have not changed that much. How do we make our way in the world? How do we balance our love for our families and our communities with our desires, which may not be very wholesome? Who do we turn to when the people we most love and depend upon have left us? What kind of emotional legacy is created by the actions of our parents and siblings? What do we do with the secret life that we all have, and how does that secret life affect others? What happens when the “Yes” and the “No” in our lives become inextricably entangled? I think those are issues that we all struggle with. They have been around forever and are never going to go away.
Throughout the novel, Laura reflects on various stories, novels, plays, essays, and movies. What role do these texts serve in her life and in your novel? Literature and films have played a huge role in my own life. I have been a voracious reader since I was a kid. As a literature and writing teacher, I believe passionately in the power of stories and language to illuminate and even transform our lives. I like to joke with my students that literature, a liberal arts education, and the love of a good woman saved my life. Though I say it in a light-hearted way, it’s the truth. I think, especially when we are younger, we use stories and films as a way of making sense of our experiences. I wanted Laura to feel that all of her experiences—what she’s listening to on the radio, what she’s reading in school, what she’s watching on television, and what she’s seeing at the Charnelle Drive-In or the Amarillo Paladian Theater—are vibrating with resonance. I wanted these “texts” to seem to her like a refracted mirror of her inner life. Her teacher, Dwight Sparling, articulates that explicitly in the middle of the book, but I wanted Laura to have already experienced the feeling that her life was intersecting with the world around her, including the literary and cinematic world. So pieces of literature and popular culture such as Conrad’s Secret Sharer, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and “Wakefield” and “Young Goodman Brown,” Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, Hitchcock’s Psycho, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” start to seem very personal to her, as if these writers and filmmakers are commenting specifically on her inner life.
What are you working on now? A new novel that focuses on the man Laura eventually marries. Loosely inspired by the life of my father, it spans twenty years, from 1962-81. Whereas The Girl from Charnelle is about being part of a small community and deciding whether or not to leave that community, and on what terms, this new novel is more nomadic in its setting and its themes, with the characters constantly roaming—from Oklahoma to Charnelle, from post-assassination Dallas to the Costa Rican jungles and ultimately to the desert of Las Vegas on the brink of the Reagan presidency. A section of the novel will appear next year in Glimmer Train Stories.