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Real People & Weird Creatures: Novelist John Cotter on Life and Fiction

A few months ago I got an e-mail from a fiction writer who had just moved to Denver from Boston. His novel, Under the Small Lights, had recently been published by Miami University Press, and he’d taught at Grub Street, our sister indie literary center in Boston. He’d also managed to pick up his master’s in literature at Harvard. In the e-mail, he sounded both smart and jazzed. We like hiring people who are smart and jazzed. It portends well for the energy in a classroom–or, in the case of Lighthouse workshops, in a room with couches and chairs and a fireplace, with wine (or coffee) decanting on the table. After meeting him, I could indeed predict that he’s exactly the type of guy to inspire a room of writers to push through creative blocks, as well as to write a critically praised first novel, as well as to run a literary and arts review that brightens any booklover’s browser.  And there’s much, much more. A modern day, super-tall renaissance person in the Virginia Woolf mold, John will be at the helm of our new 8-week fiction workshop held on Saturday mornings. I asked him a few questions about balancing many demands, writing great dialogue, and advice he’ll never forget.

John Cotter chats books for work and pleasure.

Q. You’re a writer, a teacher, and an editor of a very active literary Web site, Open Letters MonthlyHow do you keep it all straight? Does each reinforce the other, or do they fight for time and energy in your brain?

You’re one to talk! They fight for energy. I used to be a theater director too and I wish I still had time for it. Maybe because of how much I wish I could do, my real heroes as writers are the ones who did it all, all mediums, all kinds of tone, work of all lengths — Anthony Burgess’ operas and essays and a hundred novels each utterly unlike the other, or Virginia Woolf’s novels and stories and of course the Hogarth Press that she ran. I feel as though people today feel pressured to specialize too often in order to move their career forward. I don’t seem to have that problem!

Q. Ron Carlson said of your novel, Under the Small Lights, that you know “how to write cutting dialogue,” and I wondered if that’s something that comes naturally or if perhaps your background in performance helps you there. Who are some of your favorite models for dialogue?

Well there’s two extremes for dialogue, there’s the hems and haws of the way people really talk and then there’s the sort of pointed, plot-driving dialogue that people like Dorothy Parker are so good at. You wish you could do both but almost no one can. William Gaddis had a great ear for how people talk, and his books were important to me — his characters never shut up and they never communicate. I do think it comes naturally to me, for good or ill. That’s probably where my background in performance came from, rather than the other way around. I’m awful to dine out with because I’m a mimic, though I try to keep a handle on it during class.  Oh — but I should mention Barry Gifford, who’s got a fantastic ear for weird bits of speech in the Sailor and Lula books. And the dialogue in Lance Olsen’s latest, Calendar of Regrets, was as note-perfect as the rest of the novel.

John Cotter's first short novel, called "an auspicious debut" by National Book Award finalist Janet Peery.

Q. You’ve said in other interviews that your novel was borne out of a desire to “write about identity and the formation of that identity.” You took on, like Eugenides in The Marriage Plot, college age kids in love with ideas and books and each other. Do you feel you came up with new ideas about identity formation by writing the novel? Did anything surprise you? 

I think I was more of a utopianist before I wrote the book, more closely allied with some of my characters’ aspirations. I was younger. Then, as I wrote and re-wrote the book, I watched as they relentlessly disassembled one another’s dreams.  Jack, my protagonist, tries to step into his friend Bill’s life by impersonating Bill as best he can. His friends Paul and Corinna assume they can marry young and settle down in a respectable little village and both security and happiness will arrive at their door.

Did I learn anything? I suppose I learned how you can’t custom design your own life because the world has its own ideas for you, thrash against it as you will. And even when you achieve what you were struggling for you find it’s different from what you’d expected. It was about 1994 when I first started browsing bookstores, fingering those fiction spines and wishing my own book was tucked in between them. That’s what I wanted my life to be, an integration with those voices. Flash forward so many years and it turns out the road I was running didn’t take me where I expected it would. That old bookstore I used to browse is closed, I live in a different city, and all of the books on my own shelves are new. Astoundingly, it turns out I didn’t want to publish a novel after all, or rather, I did, but I wanted to do it exclusively in 1994. I wanted to be 35 and accomplished in 1994 instead of 18 and oblivious. But of course I wasn’t a real person yet, just an aspirant. The characters in Under the Small Lights are like that too.

Q. What’s the best bit of advice you’ve ever been given for writing fiction?

The best advice I’ve been given that applies to other writers as well is probably to make sure I write THE END on whatever I’m working on before going back and picking nits. It’s impossible to follow, because with every word you type you’re lowering yourself deeper into a dark well — you can’t see the edges, you don’t know how deep it is, and you’ve no idea what could be waiting for you down there (weird creatures, probably, and hungry ones). It’s tempting to try to stay right where you are, but you’ve got to let go of the rope. That’s something I fight with all the time. This interview was a nice break from the fight so thanks!

Thanks to John for his great answers. Check out his class on Writing Fiction, starting Saturday, January 14. And also read up his delectable online literary and arts review here. Oh, and beware the creature lurking in the well.


3 comments on “Real People & Weird Creatures: Novelist John Cotter on Life and Fiction

  1. Pingback: The starlit wave is still

  2. mjhenry
    January 9, 2012

    Very smart!

    I wish we could all be utopianists.

  3. JT
    February 18, 2012

    Love it!!! Love the stuff on dialogue! Also handy for all those screenwriters out there…

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This entry was posted on January 8, 2012 by in Uncategorized.

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