Tag Archives: Interview

Between Obligation and Desire: An Interview with Des Cooper

This Write Now column originally appeared in The Washington Independent Review of Books on 20 July 2017.

In June, I found myself at my first-ever writer’s retreat at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in tiny Interlochen, Michigan. A music camp since the early 20th century, Interlochen now also plays host to all types of artists, including writers.

There, I had the pleasure to meet and learn from Michigan-based author Desiree Cooper, who was leading the short-story seminar. Cooper’s 2016 debut, Know the Mother, is a collection of flash fiction (short-short stories). After hearing a craft talk that she gave, which drew from a recent essay of hers for Origins Journal called “Writing into the Blindness of Race,” I knew I needed to read her fiction. Once I did, I asked if I could interview her for the Independent.

Like my own, Cooper’s debut came rather later in life, her creative writing having taken a backseat to a career as a lawyer, journalist, and advocate for women’s reproductive rights, and been squeezed into the spaces between caregiving for children, then grandchildren, and now parents.

The theme of obligation overtaking dreams, desires, and even identity is strong in Know the Mother, no more so than in the title story. In the following interview, Cooper and I discussed that theme, as well as — both of us being debut authors of a certain age — understanding that time is not to be taken for granted.

Did you initially set out to develop a collection of stories that speak to a theme of caregiving/mothering, or did you simply find that you had a large body of work that took that path?

It took me 20 years to write this slim collection of stories. Being a mother and wife had everything to do with both the themes of the book and my laborious process. The conflict between the imposed role of caregiving and my life’s desire to be a writer has had me feeling creatively stifled, repressed, and unfulfilled most of my adult life. It’s no surprise to me that every time I sat down to write, my stories touched the theme of gender and the trade-offs women must make in order to be themselves.

Your story “Nocturne” explores the lifelong tension between obligation — even when it’s a loving obligation — and desire, which seems like something you’ve had to wrestle with. Do you have that sense of needing to make up for lost time?

That’s so funny. When I had a desktop computer, I had a Bible verse taped below the screen. I’m not particularly devout, but the verse was from Joel 2:25: “I will restore to you the years the locusts have eaten.” I have a profound sense of lost time when it comes to my art. That verse spoke to my grief for all that I haven’t yet had the time or resources to write. I love the idea that somehow the reward for my commitment to family will be warp-speed productivity in the latter half of my life. If there is a God, that would be one of my prayers.

Unlike the main character in that story, who wanted to be a concert pianist, it’s never “too late” for a writer, is it? Don’t we get better with age?

I remember my friends happily telling me that Doris Lessing won a Nobel Prize in Literature at age 89. (Read: There’s still plenty of time for you!) But the idea made me furious. Are we as women really supposed to wait until old age to self-actualize — and be grateful for that? (This does not apply to Lessing, by the way, who was as prolific her whole life as she was profound.)

While writers may have a longer work life, it’s not true that they have all the time in the world, or even that they get better with age. I was in an accident in 2015 and have been recovering from a traumatic brain injury ever since. Rather than affecting my mobility, the accident has affected my facility with language and concentration. At the same time, I’m taking care of my parents — both in their 80s — who have memory issues. I can’t help but wonder how much longer I will be able write a cogent paragraph, even though, at 57, people will try to assure me that I’m still “young” (in writer years).

Tomorrow is not promised, no matter your age. At this point in my life, I feel a healthy urgency to get it done before it really is “too late.”

Do you feel like you’re winding down on having so many obligations and can now allow yourself more freedom to pursue the track you want?

Yes and no. The accident pulled me out of an intense professional and political life advocating for women’s reproductive rights. In some ways, it’s been a forced retirement, if only a temporary one.

But at the same time, my family obligations are only multiplying. My parents can no longer live alone, and I’ve had to leave my home of 30 years to move to Virginia to stay with them. My millennial children have not fully launched, and my two grandchildren need a vast amount of daily support from me. I often say that this isn’t the Sandwich Generation, it’s the Hero Sandwich Generation. The pull of caregiving has only gotten more powerful.

But there is a difference. I have learned to manage boundaries and guilt. Actually getting a book published has made a lifelong dream become tangible, and with that reality has come a commitment to myself to be more disciplined in my practice. I don’t know if it will mean another book. But it will most certainly mean that I will put my writing first.

How did your career choices affect your fiction?

While practicing banking and bankruptcy at a major Detroit law firm, I learned so much about privilege and money. The pressure of working at a corporate firm taught me how to assimilate information efficiently, digest it, and use it to make a point.

My longest professional stint has been as a journalist — mostly as a columnist for the Detroit Free Press, and also as a commentator for public radio. I wrote about gender, race, and child welfare, with a generous number of profiles sprinkled in. Journalism clearly taught me compression, so much so that when I had room to stretch as a fiction writer, I couldn’t. If there was no such thing as flash fiction, I would have had to invent it.

My activism has been around women’s rights and reproductive freedom. As an activist, I’ve learned that storytelling is far more powerful than rhetoric. When I sat down to write fiction, I wanted to illuminate how the subtle forces of racism and sexism work in the most intimate spaces, influencing relationships and life choices. I have no interest in preaching. I only care about creating empathy.

Would you describe your going to law school as part of that sense of obligation, or was it what you truly wanted at the time?

Obligation. I was born to middle-class, striving parents and was part of the first generation out of the Civil Rights Movement. It was our job to walk through the doors that had been opened for us by those who marched, protested, and gave their lives. In that milieu, writing was not a job, it was a hobby.

I majored in journalism as an undergraduate because that was the closest thing to a writing job. I went to law school because I knew I couldn’t live independently without more education. I was five years into law practice before I realized that I couldn’t thrive in a life devoid of creativity. I left to join the nonprofit sector, but it was 12 years before I landed in journalism as a columnist.

Do you consider one story in particular as serving as a climax of the collection?

I’m not sure I have a story that represents the climax of the collection. But the title story was the first that I wrote decades before my own mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It remains the axis of the stories: Women’s lives are so invisible and so overshadowed by the mantle of “mother,” that we really don’t ever learn who they really are.

In both “Reporting for Duty, 1959” — the story I was most haunted by — and “Home for the Holidays,” the car becomes a fraught space, a space that magnifies the everyday frustrations we all share, but then it also becomes an acute source of vulnerability for African Americans. Instead of representing freedom, a car trip is a gauntlet to be overcome, or even survived. Thoughts?

I didn’t realize until I’d finished the collection how many [of the stories] include a scene in the car. The car is iconic in American history but, for different reasons, in black history as well. It was a safe bubble in which black families could travel this country, as long as they stayed in the car and followed the rules of the road. It represented freedom as well as danger. To this day, the predominant reason for African-American tourism is to visit family (especially family reunions). There’s a reason for that.

In Detroit, it was the thing of lore for African-American auto workers to pile the family in their new American car and visit the folks down South. There was no greater pride! From a craft point of view, however, the car is perfect for flash fiction. It’s a setting of ready-made compression in terms of emotion, tension, and action. It also gives the story a temporal arc: something has to happen between leaving and arriving.

My sense is that Michigan seems to have a particularly strong support network for writers. I often hear about Michigan writing programs, and obviously we met at Interlochen. Is that the experience that you’ve had — beyond, for example, having a publisher call out across the parking lot for you to send your manuscript even before you had one?

Yes! The whole reason that the publisher suspected that I was sitting on a horde of stories was because he heard me read at a number of community events. Detroit is crawling with creative energy, reading series, and writing groups, especially now. I find great collegiality and a significant amount of cross-pollination among Detroit writers (i.e., writers are crossing racial, gender, and geographic lines).

I was pushed to take my craft seriously while sitting at coffeehouse sessions with the Detroit poet, Vievee Francis. She took many writers under her wing and was personally responsible for preparing them to be professional. I can’t say enough about Wayne State University Press, whose Made in Michigan Writers Series has opened the doors to so many diverse voices, and Kresge Arts in Detroit, which has catapulted so many Detroit-area artists into the national limelight.

Read more from Desiree Cooper at descooper.com and follow her on Twitter at @descooper.

[Photo by Justin Milhouse.]

E. A. Aymar, Author of the DEAD Trilogy, Talks Noir and Sympathy

The following interview originally appeared on the blog Late Last Night Books, for which I am a contributor.

eaE.A. Aymar is a noir kind of guy. He hosts D.C.’s “Noir at the Bar”, and just finished up hosting the expanded version, “Noir on the Air” on 11 January, in which nine noted thriller writers read their work on the Global Radio Network. His short story “The Line” appeared this month in Out of the Gutter, a lit mag known for its dark, edgy content. He’s also the managing editor of The Thrill Begins, the online resource for beginning and debut thriller writers from the International Thriller Writers Organization. Aymar is best known as the author of the Dead Trilogy (Black Opal Books), the first two entries of which are I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead and You’re as Good as Dead. Fans eagerly awaiting the final installment can get their fix of Aymar’s signature deadpan humor and general take on things in his monthly column “Decisions and Revisions” in the Washington Independent Review of Books. I met Ed through my own participation with the Independent, and asked him to chat with me here about his writing.

Q: Did you always plan to write Dead as a trilogy, or did that concept develop as you wrote?

A: I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead was written as a standalone, but I loved the idea of recurring characters. Part of that is because I’ve always admired series writers, but felt that the concept was too constraining; I imagined having to revisit a creative well that had long run dry. But the idea for a trilogy hit me after the first book was completed, and I went with it. I wish it had occurred to me before that time, because the first book is pretty much self-contained. Kind of like how the first Star Wars movie worked on its own, and a sequel wasn’t truly necessary.

I’m sorry. Everything with me is Star Wars right now. That’s how I’m seeing the world. It’s not productive.

So, yeah, in retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have defined these books as part of a trilogy. Part of that comes from a marketing realization—no one reads the second book without reading the first, even though I think You’re As Good As Dead is a much better book than the first. Plus it’s easier to write another book that stays in the same world, but doesn’t have to adhere to the same parameters (for example, the first book was told from one perspective, the second from multiple). I dunno. That’s all after-the-fact stuff I didn’t realize when I was writing the book. I just enjoyed the story.

Q: How do you keep characters, plot points, timelines, and small details straight across multiple books?

A: The good thing about writing thriller is that you can kill off characters and, voila, one less timeline! But, in seriousness, I did find myself going back to Book One when writing Book Two for some things. I’m good at remembering certain details, like the makeup of a house or apartment, but terrible at others. Like ages. I constantly have to remind myself how old Tom and Julie (his daughter) are. It’s annoying. I guess someone has to die.

I think you get so immersed in the world you’re creating, especially when you revisit it on a constant basis, that it becomes intimately familiar. Or, at least, that happens when you’re writing well, and it’s a lovely moment in creation—that point where you look around and everything is sort of bleary.

Of course, my novels are set in the present day, so I have it easy. I would hate the burden that Up the Hill to Home must have placed on you. Determining the accuracy behind historical details seems really hard. I avoid hard work.

Q: Your protagonist, Tom Starks, is not always a sympathetic character. Was it challenging to find the balance between taking him to the edge (sometimes even taking him over the edge) and keeping him sympathetic enough that the reader is still pulling for him?

A: I’m a terrible judge of a reader’s empathy. Sometimes a character does something I agree with, and it’s loathsome, and I don’t realize how much that can bother readers. I read an interview with Phillip Roth, and the interviewer asked if Roth failed to realize how shocking his characters can act. Roth was irritated by the question, but I get it. I think Ellis had the same issue in the feminist backlash to American Psycho.

I wonder, sometimes, if this problem is more prevalent among male writers. I don’t think that men, as writers or readers, are terribly empathetic toward characters, and we rarely form relationships or identify with them. That’s somewhat at the brunt of Rebecca Solnit’s irritation in this essay (http://lithub.com/men-explain-lolita-to-me/), particularly with the character of Lolita. If you accept that male readers are typically less empathetic than their female counterparts, then those men may fail to understand the f—ing horror of what’s happening to Lolita, or realize exactly how terrible Humbert is (that said, I think Nabokov understood).

That’s one approach. But I want to use a specific example for the second. Tom was a prick to Julie in the first book (particularly in one conversation) and, even though that book was partially about his acceptance of fatherhood, it rubbed a lot of readers the wrong way. Not necessarily because of what he said, but because of how it made her feel. Given the chance to rewrite it, I would. Not because Tom said anything false, and certainly nothing worse than what parents have said to their kids, but because it was too rough for readers. I stubbornly feel that conversation is real, and true, but I should have softened it.

Tom and Julie’s difficulties in the second book are more easily and better handled but, then again, the second book is better than the first.

Q: In both books, you use the classic novels that Tom teaches as a parallel to the themes you’re developing. How did you choose which classics to use? Were they favorites of yours in school?

A: I’d only read The Count of Monte Cristo just before I started I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, mainly because I wanted to study the elements of a classic revenge story. And Monte Cristo was so enjoyable that I ended up incorporating it into my own book, and having Tom’s class echo my own thoughts as I studied Dumas’s work.

I really liked doing that for the first book, and I wanted to do it again in the second (I love giving shout outs to things that inspire me, which is why I also mentioned the musicians Sara Jones and Abby Mott in the first book). I had a lot of influential books to choose from, but I felt that For Whom the Bell Tolls fit the theme of You’re As Good As Dead in several ways, some overt, some subtle. And I just loved Hemingway’s book. I know he falls in and out of favor and style, but that book was so powerful it literally changed the way I saw the world. The ending lines felt like the end of some great orchestral piece, sudden and dominant and reverberating.

If someone reads my book, and then decides to read Hemingway or Dumas, or listen to Sara Jones or Abby Mott, then I’m happy.

Q: You are a funny, open, laid-back guy—or at least you pretend really well!—but you write about some pretty dark stuff. Where does that come from?

A: That’s nice of you to say. My wife doesn’t think I’m funny, but she’s seen my shtick for a long time and is pretty tired of it. I get that. It’d be awful to live with me.

Anyway, I once dated this woman who had been horribly abused—sexually, physically—by an ex-boyfriend. She’d never really healed, and part of that was because she didn’t have anyone to talk to. The people she did open up to (a hard thing in itself) told her that the brutality was too much to listen to. She even told me about this one guy she’d been dating, a hopeful poet, and the guy once interrupted one of her stories and said, “I’m sorry, I just can’t listen to this. It’s too hard.”

Part of me understands that. I heard all her stories, about the rapes and burns and torture this woman underwent, and I get how hard it is to listen to this stuff.

But when you’re a writer, it’s your duty. You have to look deep into the terrible things men and women (mostly men) do. You can’t risk being artificial. That’s not to say you need to walk down those dark alleys, but you have to know what’s happening in them if you’re going to portray them truthfully.

F—ing poets.

Q: How do you fill out the details and backstory of your characters to understand what they would do in a given situation? Did Tom ever surprise you with something that he did? (I can think of a scene in a basement in You’re as Good as Dead that was pretty surprising.)

A: Oh, thanks! I really like that scene and wanted it to hit right. I’m glad it had a good effect on you.

That particular scene did surprise me. It’s weird when that happens, because even if you don’t exactly know what’s going to happen, the scene is somewhere inside of you. And it occurs to you, and you know it’s right, but it’s one of those things you write that continues to surprise you long after its written. That’s rare.

My main characters don’t always have that effect on me. I think it’s because they’re close to me—emotionally—and they sort of echo me. It’s actually the other characters (Diane in the first book, Switch in the second) who really surprise me. I feel more freedom with them. And in some ways, those characters outshine Tom. Readers liked Tom, to an extent, but he’s a pretty typical guy (aside from the killing). Diane and Switch are more unique, I think.

Q: Like so many other writers these days, this is not your full-time job. How do you fit your writing in with everything else?

A: I’m wildly fortunate in a couple of ways. My day job doesn’t stray outside of 9-5 hours. So I don’t have to bring work home, go in early, or work on weekends. And I have a supportive spouse. I waited a long time to get married, and even longer to have a kid. And I did both with the explicit understanding that I need time to write every day. My wife is really terrific about that, and that’s huge. I dated women before her who were less understanding. To be fair to them, it’s not easy. I mean, if you’re dating an Olympic athlete, then you understand that they need time to train, and they’ll have to hoard that time selfishly. When you’re dating some guy who wants to write a novel, then it’s less obvious that they need the same amount of time.

You know?

It’s hard for people to consider something that you’re not doing professionally as anything less than a hobby. But if you do it enough, then you don’t need to convince them. They see it’s part of you.

Q: When can we expect the finale to the Dead trilogy? Any teasers you’d care to share?

A: I’m actually putting off the end of the trilogy to work on something else. And I hope to announce that something else soon. (JBY note: Ed shared some of the subject matter he’s been working on in his latest Independent column, Tough Research.)

Q: What is the question that you wish someone would ask you but they never do? You get to answer it now.

A: Ha! Good question. But I don’t really have a question I’ve always wanted. I guess probably something like, “How do you feel now that you’ve won the lottery, and you’re famous, and you can live anywhere in the world?”

Unfortunately for Ed, it doesn’t look like anyone’s asking him that question again this week.