Bill Cotter on Writing Characters and Making Art from Trauma
Bill Cotter is a writer whose first two novels, Fever Chart (2009) and The Parallel Apartments (2014) were published by McSweeney’s. Bill Cotter has written for The New Orleans Review, The Paris Review, and elsewhere, and an essay of his for The Believer titled “The Gentleman’s Library” was awarded a Pushcart Prize in 2014.
I’ve been thinking about what makes a character funny in writing. One of my old improv teachers said that audiences want to see a character “fulfill the promise you made for them.” So, if you can get the audience to go, “that was such a totally Mike thing to do,” you’re doing it right. In written fiction, I feel like something similar holds: when a character with a vividly unusual and specific point of view acts in consistent yet unexpected ways, it’s often funny.
Your first novel, Fever Chart, is one of the funniest novels I’ve read. Much of the humor comes from the protagonist, Jerome Coe, who is this anxiety-ridden, weird, charming but quite fucked up guy going on misadventures in Massachusetts and New Orleans. As a random example, there’s a part where Jerome describes how he’ll make a map of all the public bathrooms in a city, coded by bathroom quality. I remember laughing and thinking, “yeah, that’s a total Jerome thing to do.”
What went into Jerome’s viewpoint? How were you able to get such rich, funny details?
Thanks for the kind words about Fever Chart! I love hearing that you enjoyed that book!
The old literary saw is that most first novels are autobiographical to some degree. I don’t know if this is generally true, but mine certainly was, and I was supposed to be Jerome Coe. Thing is, I’m not funny at all, but very much wish I was, so the problem was how to invest a character with a quality I really knew nothing about. I studied on this for quite some time. I asked myself what I really was, if not funny? The answer: I was scared. I was pretty much afraid of everything. Strangers, spiders, getting waterboarded, frostbite, not being able to find a bathroom in time. This, I realized, when focused though a literary scope, could be, maybe, possibly, funny. I went with it, and magnified Jerome’s fears with a fat convex lens, focused it on the page. The hole it burnt became Fever Chart.
In Fever Chart you have these two Danish revelers, Dik and Knops, who are these great, amusing side-characters. How do you get interesting specifics, and a viewpoint, for characters like those, who aren’t you?
Dik and Knops, though they are not much like them on the surface, were actually inspired by Thompson and Thomson, the detectives in the Tintin comics. When I was a kid my family lived in Iran—this was ’72-’75—and some of the only books we could get in English were Tintin. I literally memorized them, and can recite large chunks of text even today. The characters, from Bianca Castafiore to the boy Chang to Professor Calculus to the Thom(p)son twins, are so inherently part of my psyche they likely have formed their own neurons.
Parts of Fever Chart explore some dark territory, esp. when it comes to Jerome being institutionalized. Was this difficult territory to mine? Liberating? Both? Any advice for writers who aim a lens at their own trauma in the service of their art?
Both difficult and liberating, for sure. I was institutionalized for depression for many years in my twenties and thirties, and Fever Chart is, in part, both an expurgation of and a memorial to that black period. To writers who plan to use their own trauma in service of their art, I urge you to have compassion for yourself, to be unflinchingly truthful, and to not go it alone—have a trusted reader, friend, therapist, or an online community available while you write. Solitude and isolation while reliving trauma, even for creative purposes, is a risk a writer should not have to take.
Who’s a writer you love (living or dead), and what question do you want to ask them?
My favorite writer is Nadine Gordimer. The question I would ask her is one I doubt she could answer even if she were still alive, and that is, exactly what kind of alchemy do you perform on your sentences so they emerge so steep, hazardous, yet exquisitely beautiful, so much that I have to read them more than once, twice, and even sometimes forget for a moment the stories in which they occur?
I haven’t read Nadine Gordimer. Where should I start?
I think the best introduction to Nadine Gordimer would be her collection of short stories titled Jump. It’s the most potent and concentrated literature of the late 20th century, in my opinion, and will scar.
What’s something that you’ve changed your mind about recently regarding your creative process?
That I have to write every day. I used to write four hours a day, pretty much without fail, even if “writing” meant staring at the blank page without writing down a single word. I don’t do this anymore. Now I write when the mood strikes me, when I really feel like it. This has proven more productive. I go for stretches without writing at all, but with the old technique, I would produce stretches of bad writing that would wind up getting cut.
This method is better.
I’m lucky I have a day job (selling old books) that allows me to drop everything (so to speak) and just open a file and start writing if I feel like it; I suppose you can’t do that if you teach high school calculus or run an insurance company. But even if you do those things, you still have some freedom in your life to write when the mood strikes, and I highly recommend giving it a try.
Do you feel that different approaches have worked for you at different stages of your writing life? “Write every day” feels like great advice for me, and it might be great advice for a writer at a certain stage. But “write when you feel compelled” might work better in other contexts.
I’ve tried a number of different approaches. “Write four hours every day” I admit did work, for a long time, years. I tried the concentration method, and wrote a novel in five weeks. I tried the attenuation method, and wrote one in six years. I tried writing only in coffee shops, only in libraries, only in the morning. I’ve tried writing in the depths of a fairly serious clinical depression, in the midst of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and during a breakup. (All you get is poetry.) I’ve tried writing while full of wine, bourbon, and tequila. I’ve tried writing on Adderall (q.v. five weeks above). But it all still comes down to this for me: write when the mood strikes!
Who’s the most important mentor or teacher you’ve had? What’s something they’ve taught you?
Certainly my literary agent, Adam Eaglin, is the most important mentor I’ve ever had. (That may come as news to him.) He definitely taught me how to revise, and I could even go so far as to give him credit for teaching me how to write. He’s a truly brilliant man, and deeply understands how fiction (and nonfiction, for that matter) works. He spent more than a year helping me edit a real mess of a novel called The Splendid Ticket; it’s finally been submitted to publishers as of this month.
I can’t wait to read it. Also, wasn’t it originally The Misery Ticket? Why’d the misery become splendid?
I hope it gets picked up! It was originally The Misery Ticket, but my agent didn’t like that—he suggested the new title, which he thinks has more irony. (The novel is about a lottery winner whose husband is kidnapped for ransom.)
You have other novels coming soon as well. What can we look forward to reading from you in 2018 and 2019?
Yes, a middle-grade adventure novel, titled Saint Philomene’s Infirmary for Magical Creatures, due out January 30 from Henry Holt. www.saintphilomenes.com There will be a book signing at BookPeople in Austin on Saturday, February 3d, 2018 at 2pm. The sequel, titled The Hard Rock Sky, is due out in 2019.