Jon Chopan and Thomas Cotsonas: A Conversation

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Jon Chopan: The first thing I am thinking to ask is about essays. What I mean is, you said this was a collection of short stories and I see that, but I read some of these pieces as essays. Do you see yourself at all as an essayist?

Thomas Cotsonas: I don’t see myself as an essayist.  I’m not sure why, exactly.  I think maybe it has something to do with the word itself.  “Essayist” makes me think of someone like Emerson or Montaigne.  I think of Susan Sontag or the Joan Didion of “The White Album.”  I love all those writers, but I think the pieces in the book that are essayish or that have essayish moments are up to something else.  I guess I’m talking about personas here.  It doesn’t occur to me to wonder whether the “I” on the page in “The White Album” is any different from the real life Joan Didion, you know?  But I hope it does occur to readers to wonder whether the “I” in things like “René Renée,” “Quartet (4),” and “Zeno’s Parachute” is different from me, the author.  Something happens when you’re reading something you think is fiction and you come across a passage that makes you question that label.  There’s a dissonance there, like the wrong chord has been struck.  I’ve always liked that dissonance as a reader, and I guess I like that dissonance as a writer too.  Maybe it boils down to this: “essayist” feels too restrictive.  If I think of myself as a writer of fiction—and I do—pretty much anything goes.

Speaking of labels: Pulled from the River has a few.  The blurb on the cover calls it a “memoir,” but the other blurbs call it “fiction” or “a novel.”  Black Lawrence’s website files it under “fiction,” but if I’m looking for the book on Amazon it’s “literary nonfiction.”  What do you think of the book as?

JC: I mean, it’s fiction if only because it breaks the one rule that would otherwise make it nonfiction, which is to say that I play fast and loose with the facts, at times. Otherwise, I think it is a collection of things, stories, essays, fragments, that add up to a book length kind of lyric essay that reflects on and distills and wrestles with a specific moment in my life, with a specific set of mostly real people and mostly real events. I think it is very much a persona of me, but I think even Didion, for instance, is creating a persona. The Joan Didion in “The White Album” isn’t Joan Didion the writer at the desk, right? I mean, it is a version of her. I think the beauty of fiction is that you can steal any form you want, an essay, an index, a contributors note and use that form as you see fit, so long as you understand the conventions of the form. I don’t think, by dictionary definition, that the essay belongs to nonfiction. It might by convention, but that is exactly why fiction writers should be writing essays. Conventions, to my mind, are made to be broken, upset as it were.

To that end, a lot of the work in Nominal Cases uses a kind of frame around its stories. You mentioned “René Renée.” To my mind this story uses the essay as a frame around the story. So, we get the “I” who is weighing something (the essay), the story of “René Renée,” and then the “I” again, who sort of weds the two, the story and the essay together. When you’re working on a piece like this, do you think on that essay part (the part we might call meta) or the story part first? How does your process unravel in regards to where an idea like this comes from?

TC: Absolutely Didion’s creating a persona or a version, I agree.  I didn’t mean to suggest that someone writing an essay is not engaging in some kind of persona-creating, but rather that someone reading “The White Album” (or something like it)—the average reader, let’s say—probably doesn’t ever pause and go, “I wonder to what extent the Didion”—or whomever—“on the page is different from the Didion in real life?”  I think it’s fair to say that most writing involves some element of persona-creating, whether it’s “The White Album,” “Borges and I,” something by Maggie Nelson, or John D’Agata’s About a Mountain—or either of our books, for that matter.  I just think it’s a different experience for readers to encounter explicitly autobiographical elements in something that’s called fiction than it is in something that’s called nonfiction.  Generally speaking, I’d say the autobiographical is more or less assumed in nonfiction that uses an “I,” but somewhat unexpected in fiction.  So: I agree with you overall, but I prefer the fiction label because I don’t want the kind of reader expectations that come with the label of nonfiction or essay.  I mean, in a perfect world maybe we wouldn’t need genre labels.  Bookstores and websites could just file everything alphabetically according to author or something.

As for the process in “René Renée,” I think the story part came first, and that what happened was I didn’t really like where it was going but liked it enough to try to give it something else, to make it turn in on itself in a way that felt engaging and true—not just like “Let’s be meta for meta’s sake, you know?”  In a lot of these stories in the book, the characters are confused or stuck in some way—they’re paralyzed by something.  They hedge.  So it occurred to me at some point to try to make some of the stories themselves confused/stuck/paralyzed.  That part wasn’t too difficult: I have way more false starts and unfinished things laying around than I do finished things, and I’ve always been fascinated by fragments of stories and unfinished projects in any medium.  What was difficult was trying to get a story’s paralysis to feel necessary, to get the reader to go along with stories that hedge or deliberately ask the reader to remember that they’re reading a story, which a lot of readers probably don’t want to do and for which I don’t blame them.  Texts that make use of metafictional devices can be a real slog to get through, especially if you’ve come to that text for escape.  I hope the stories that use metafictional devices aren’t a slog.  I hope they feel rooted in something that’s true.  I hope that’s something like an answer.  That was a tough question, but a good one.

I’d like to shift gears a little bit now, if that’s all right.  As you’ve just said, you think of Pulled from the River as a collection of things that add up to a kind of book-length lyric essay—I like that description of it.  One of the things I really enjoy about the book is the variety of forms on display.  You give us fairly straightforward, traditional short stories, letters, flash fictiony things, and a kind of coroner’s report, to name just a few.  How did you go about putting the book together?  I mean, what was your process for arranging the stories in the order they ended up in?

JC: That’s a tough question. I like it. I guess that, looking at the opening few pieces, the strategy was to get all the balls in the air right away. The title story goes a long way toward doing that, but then I think I needed to get individual pieces focused on those parts right away so that the reader would see early what was going on, which pieces of the mosaic to really focus on. After that, I think the goal was to return to those major story lines, the narrative chunks, before the ball had been in the air too long, before the reader could forget about it. In that way, I think I was trying to juggle everything so that the reader would have an easier go at juggling.

I think, even though this strikes me as a bit lazy on my part, I am really interested in bouncing that question back at you. One could read this as a “traditional” collection, where everything is meant to stand alone, but I really started to see overlap and a kind of dialogue across pieces, across the space of the book. Were you focused on that when you put Nominal Cases together? Were you very consciously thinking about the order?

TC: I know what you mean about the juggling.  Narratively speaking, we have several storylines to hold in our head, several characters to keep straight across an ambiguous timeline and through a variety of styles and forms.  But you definitely pull it off, and you’re right: the title story—for me at least—really helps out with that.  I actually went back to it a couple times as I read.

I wasn’t focused on order at all when I was writing the stories that ended up in the book.  Five of the stories—four and one-third, actually—the ones that deal with Walter Eccles and the Eccles family—were part of a novel I was writing that didn’t really work out.  (Note: I’m not done writing about them.)  All the other stories were written as standalones during a period when I wrote an incredible number of stories—most of which will probably never see the light of day.  At some point, I gathered everything together to see how much I had.  It was only then that I started to see the overlap or dialogue that you’re talking about in your question.  I was completely unaware of it when I was writing.  After I was aware of it though, the process was similar to what you said about your book.  I organized the stories into units: there were the Eccles stories; the first-person monologues; the four “Quartets”; the all-questions story; the baseball things; and the city stories.  I knew I wanted the Robert Moses story to be at the book’s center, and I knew I wanted “The City’s Father” to come right before it.  Everything after that was like a balancing act, you know?  Making sure I rotated between the units in a way that felt coherent if someone was reading the book front-to-back.  I have to give some credit here to Michael Martone: it was his idea to break up the four “Quartets.”  It was one story when I first put the book together, and it wasn’t working like that at all.  We met one day to talk about how things were going, and I think I said that something didn’t feel right about it.  That was when he mentioned breaking up that story.  I went home, gave it a shot, and really liked what it did for the collection.  Everything fell into place after that.

Here’s something a little bit more general: I’m fascinated by what I guess I’ll call underappreciated books or authors.  I’m thinking of things that have meant a lot to me as a reader or a writer, but that for some reason or other haven’t gotten a whole lot of attention.  I’m always interested to hear what other people—other writers, especially—say in response.  Are there any books or authors you’re really into that you think are underappreciated?

JC: I think, maybe, John Haskell’s I am not Jackson Pollock is one of those books. I really love what Haskell is doing there. It reads like an essay collection but it is fiction, the cover says stories. I also really love Bernard Cooper’s Maps to Anywhere. I think something similar is going on. The work lives in that space between fiction and nonfiction, between essay and story. I like that. I enjoy that experience. As narrative goes, I really love Richard Brautigan’s last novella So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away. I read it once a year. There is something really wonderful happening there. It is not, if I am remembering right, one of those works people talk about when they talk about Brautigan, but I think it is one of his best.  What about you?

TC: The first thing that comes to mind for me is Sarah Orne Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs.  It came out in 1896 and is an absolutely killer short story cycle set on the coast of Maine.  It’s short, but the prose is gorgeous.  I’m not sure why no one reads her anymore.  I love Bohumil Hrbal’s Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age too.  People talk about his later novel, I Served the King of England, I think, but not Dancing Lessons for some reason.  NYRB put out an edition a few years ago.  It’s a hilarious, wise, beautiful drunken rant written as one continuous sentence for 117 pages.  Also: J. Robert Lennon’s Pieces for the Left Hand.  It’s a book of 100 little anecdotes that’ll take the wind out of you.  Oh, and thanks for the Brautigan tip: I love In Watermelon Sugar but haven’t read So the Wind.  I’ll have to check it out.

JC: What are you working on now?

TC: A couple things.  A novel that takes place over the course of one winter day in Rochester, New York.  The book’s protagonist is a man who works at a packaging company.  On this particular day he decides he’s not going to go into work, and the book’s about what happens that day.  I’m also kind of always writing these very, very short stories that I call “contortions.”  I’ll write them on the train or during office hours or if I’m stuck with the novel.  Someday I’ll probably have enough good ones to put them together for a book.

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