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 now?
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. Issue 73 (Winter 2010) of Glimmer Train Stories