Interview with Carolyn Cooke

Why There Are Words Literary Reading Series presents:

An interview with Carolyn Cooke

By Nancy Au

Carolyn Cooke’s Daughters of the Revolution was listed among the best novels of 2011 by the San Francisco Chronicle and The New Yorker Magazine. Her short fiction has appeared in AGNI, The Paris Review, and two volumes each of Best American Short Stories and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. These stories were collected in The Bostons, which won the PEN/Bingham Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway. She teaches in the MFA writing program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.

1.) In Daughters of the Revolution, your character Madeleine is described as an expert at “coaxing nature to an unnatural intensity.” This reminds me of how a writer’s craft can lie in forming sentences with words that might not naturally go together to create a compelling emotion or image in readers’ minds. You do this so beautifully. What does your revision process look like to do so? How much work goes into reshaping individual sentences in your writing?

Carolyn Cooke (CC):  I appreciate what you suggest here:  that our job is to put together words that don’t “naturally go together.”  For me writing is like performance art of a solitary kind. You have material, and a shimmery idea or image.  But the hot moments happen while you’re blind. You can almost feel the parallel world running through your veins, coming out the ends of your fingers. Other times sentences lie there in a state of such pitiable crudeness you have to pound the keys like a bricklayer chopping old grout with a hammer.  Edwin Arlington Robinson spoke of the “ache to be sublime.”  I need experiences of the sublime every day.  It’s like an addiction:  spending hours trying to lose consciousness of ordinary life, waiting for the jolt of capturing something unsayable.

2.) Your character, Carole, is an artist, a gifted painter who “for years…worked only on painted heads…They looked like bowling balls, decapitations. They looked as if they had rolled there.” This image makes me wonder if you are also a visual artist. How do these types of images come into your mind? Do you have suggestions for writers to likewise invigorate their scenes?

CC:  My ambition is to write the way Lucian Freud painted. Somebody said that being painted by Freud was like being “flayed alive.” His family sat for him anyway. I would have, too.  There’s a brutal quality of attention in Freud’s work that feels almost indistinguishable from love. This has to do with the time it takes to really see people who matter to us – even if they’re characters in a novel. It isn’t a trick of paint or of language. Daughters was influenced by two Chicago painters:  Judith Raphael, who paints pubescent girls in attitudes borrowed from heroic Roman sculpture, and Susanna Coffey, who for many years painted only her own head – but many, many versions. I’m not a visual artist, but seek out friends who are. The problems of writers interestingly resemble the problems of painters and performance artists and choreographers. A line like “Build up the color from white” could have been a prompt for Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady.

3.) You have some of the best, most interesting names for characters. What is your process like in selecting first names like “God” (short for Goddard), and last names like Rebozos? Do you have a personal “rule” that you stick to when naming characters?

CC:  My mother was delivered by a man named Coffin. New England is filled with people who go by interesting names – Bun, Shirty, Mucker, Squeak. Look at the early witch hunters – Cotton and Increase Mather. As I hammered away at my novel, my God and Carol Faust enacting their gendered drama, Lawrence Summers got thrown out of Harvard for a line of dialogue that might have come from my own first draft  – and Drew Faust became president of Harvard! Names matter, but I resist trying to create a semblance of the ordinary. Ordinary life isn’t really my subject.

4.) The idea of individuality and personhood — who we believe ourselves to be — seems to be a theme in your novel. For example, when Mrs. Graves helps to type another character’s obituary (I won’t reveal who’s obituary!), she is overcome with a sense of control and closeness to that person. She could edit the obituary as she saw fit, “feeling she knew him better than anyone.” I took this to mean that we are not in control of our own identity, that others see us (and will remember us after death) as they want to. Can you talk about that? What are other themes that you find yourself exploring?

CC: Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary that “If my father had lived to be ninety his life would have ended mine.”  The role of women – especially wives and daughters – in mopping up the literary lives of men, of typing up the remnants as a means of self-expression and because it’s expected, is too provking to thump on here.  Sexuality and mortality are compelling themes, too.

5.) What would I find on your writing desk right now if I could glimpse it, and what would that tell me about the crafting of Daughters of the Revolution?

CC: I’ve now lived in Northern California for over 20 years – and feel liberated to shift focus from the world of Daughters. Right now my desk is piled up with reading about technology and identity – Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, and a couple of books by Ellen Ullman: Close to the Machine about her life as an early software engineer and her new novel, By Blood, about adoption, the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, eavesdropping, sexuality, and San Francisco in the 1970s. Ronaldo Wilson’s Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man – incredibly sexy, scary work. Wilson spontaneously creates prose poems — and records them on his iPhone while running. He’s literally an insight machine. Justin Torres’s We The Animals – because I’m about to meet him at Why There Are Words!  I have a big, messy scribbled-over copy of my forthcoming collection of short stories, Amor & Psycho, and eight or ten small yellow lined pads filled with urgent matter – images, dreams, stolen dialogue, lists of books, essential lines. Half the time I can’t even read the words. Sometimes misreading is useful.  Maybe the point is just being surrounded by writing, by the mess and process of it.