The Smithereens of Collapse: An Interview with Bill Cotter
April 18, 2014 | by Scott Cheshire
Issue 208 of The Paris Review includes Bill Cotter’s story “The Window Lion,” which pairs remarkably well with his new novel, The Parallel Apartments. In fact, they’re related—but I’ll let Cotter talk about that. The novel is the sort of book that invites opposing adjectives: it’s sexy and repellant, “brainy” and full of “heartfelt joy” (Heidi Julavits); it’s comic but also relentlessly, tragically sad. I spent much of my time while reading the novel trying to articulate its tone. I got this far: “the image of Walt Disney’s dick was a revelation.”
Cotter agreed to a talk on the phone—he lives in Austin, Texas. We spoke for well over two hours, about writing, reading, the idea of “a Texas novel,” and his day job as an antiquarian book dealer and restorer. He has an excellent vocabulary and an imagination that’s far-out and fantastic.
While reading, I was reminded of a favorite quote, from William James—“To better understand a thing’s significance, consider its exaggerations and perversions … learn what particular dangers of corruption it may be exposed to.” The novel, especially with regard to sex and relationships, seems a distorted version of reality, a kaleidoscope of exaggerations.
I like the idea that verity can be glimpsed by bending mirrors and chipping lenses. In fact, I don’t know how to get at the truth of characters in any other way. I don’t know how to send characters on movie dates, have them play tennis on a sunny day, or sit them down for turkey and mashed potatoes. In order to get at them for real, it’s necessary, for me, to dress them in silly clothes, hack off their fingers, smear them with ptomaine, then stick them between the sheets or pitch them starved into a cage or just let them rush around erecting bearing walls too weak to hold up the trembling rafters. It’s in the busted minds of troubled offspring, or among bones not quite picked clean, or poking out of the smithereens of collapse that I think the true truths are found.
I’m always interested when a book changes my perception of a place. Here we have a “Texas novel,” and despite the fact that I have not yet been to Texas—shame on me—it feels like a fresh new look at the place and a new take on what some might consider the “Texas novel.” Am I crazy?
How cool it would be if this were someday considered a Texas novel! I don’t think there’s room for it, though—that city block is already crowded with the pre-quadruple-bypass works of Larry McMurtry on one side, and Madison Cooper’s oceanic Sironia, Texas on the other, and there is little room in the alley between them, even for such excellent novels as Jacqueline Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, Karen Olsson’s Waterloo, and the demi-Texas novels of the honorary Texan Cormac McCarthy. Here we disqualify entirely the unreadable leaden ingot of the decidedly non-Texan James Michener. Even as an Austin novel, mine has little chance to ascend. Billy Lee Brammer’s 1961 The Gay Place, actually a series of three short novels, is solidly affixed to its postament as the quintessential work of Austin fiction and is unlikely to be toppled anytime soon, even though my book is better.
Are you originally from Texas?
I was born in Dallas in 1964, and consider myself a Texan, but I lived elsewhere for many years. In ’73 my family moved to Tehran, and then Ahwaz, a good-size city near the Abadan oil fields. From ’76 to ’94 came the Massachusetts years, a decade of which I mostly spent in psychiatric hospitals or halfway houses. Following stints in New York, New Orleans, and Las Vegas, I found myself in Austin in 1997, arriving in a ruin of a Toyota on the day Diana died. I’ve been here since, and I consider it my hometown.
I like to think that in the novel I paint an Austin that doesn’t often offer itself up for portraiture, one that does not feature the few things that non-Austinites usually collocate with the city, like Stevie Ray Vaughn, Lance Armstrong, SXSW—or, Fuck-by-Fuck-You, the moniker I prefer—Rick Perry, et cetera. But the embarrassing truth of it is that I probably could have set the story, with minor adjustments, in any number of cities. I chose Austin because I know the geography well enough to confidently shuttle the characters about without too much risk of plot paradoxes. I do have a chapter set in the Gulf town of Texas City, about which I will admit another embarrassing truth—I’ve never been there. I just got a feel for it by creeping along the streets with Google Earth.
“The Window Lion” also takes place in Austin, in a place not dissimilar to the apartment complex of The Parallel Apartments. What say you?
Believe it or not, it is the same place! At least in my head it is. I once had a notion to write a collection of interconnected short stories whose common setting was this imaginary complex, which itself is modeled after the Motel 6–style Austin apartment complex called the Dolphin, where I lived in a tiny studio alongside divorcees and grad students and Whataburger cashiers for nine years. But the idea seemed hackneyed, so I abandoned it. “The Window Lion,” and several scenes in the novel, are the most palpable ghosts of that stillborn venture.
I don’t think I set out to write about women—I’m mostly interested in people, regardless of gender—but since my first novel, Fever Chart, had a male protagonist, a semiautobiographical one whom I had grown mighty tired of by the time the book was finally published, there was probably some part of me that thought it would be refreshing to build a story around a gender-neutral or female hero, though precisely how the character of Justine Durant, ostensibly the protagonist, grew from a single, discrete, self-spelunker in the beginning of the book to an inextricable member of a five-generation matriarchy, I cannot say. But because the book turned out to feature this matriarchy, and because I sometimes examine it and its members from very close psychic proximities, I worry that I’m being seen by readers—particularly those of non-male genders—as arrogant and condescending. Who am I, as a man, to assay to write so dearly and so extensively about and within genders I can only ever get so close to? Especially about women who happen to be in on one or another phase of motherhood, arguably the state of being most distant from the experience of being a man? I do come from a family of extremely powerful women, and I like to think that maybe the book is a monument to or an appreciation of them.
On the other hand, the men in the book are often “vicious clowns.”
I think the truth of it is that I don’t know how to write real male characters. Maybe the deepest male character in the book is Rance, the auto-rimming, self-cleaning, half-million-dollar multilingual sex robot.
The book is not a particularly violent book, but when it visits, it swings fast and furious.
Fast and furious, yep. I wanted to prod the reader through an impossible, unlivable universe that he might be glad to escape at the end of the book—but the nature of violence, in real life, is always fast and furious. If it wasn’t, we could simply dodge it, unless we’re tied to a chair by vindictive drug-cartel torturers. And it seemed that the only way to make violence work in this fictive enterprise was to be loyal to its true nature as sudden, angry, and, for want of a competent synonym, violent.
The book is realistic and yet distorted, even cartoonish. It wasn’t until halfway through that I got a handle on articulating its tone—“She looked down; it was the first time she’d seen his dick, and it did seem like a very nice dick, uniform and subtly arced, a Walt-Disney dick.” If R. Crumb ever wrote a novel it would read like The Parallel Apartments.
I don’t know how to characterize the tone of the book, but I will say I strove to avoid earnestness. And by earnestness I mean sincerity without humor. I think only a truly great writer can get away with being really, literarily earnest without coming across as a cloying and sentimental. Jose Saramago, J.M. Coetzee, and Nadine Gordimer can do it. For us lesser pens, humor is essential, especially when it comes to sex scenes.
But you write sex well—which is not necessarily to say you write good sex. “Justine bit into her own cut lip. It tingled and bled. Franklin got on top of her and went to work in a complicated, be-bop like rhythm. He said he’d read about the present variant in Cosmo, but Justine was sure Darling had taught him this oddball syncopation. Justine didn’t care. She began to buck back. Why had she been unconscious for so long? This was just fine. This was nice.”
When I first started writing seriously, in my mid thirties, I recall googling “how to write.” My search was rewarded with a list, written for grade-schoolers, of twenty or so guidelines for writing a good story. The one I recall most vividly is “Make it fun!” This is good theory in general, and, I think, especially important when it comes to writing sex. Sex, the act itself, when viewed without eros, is very silly business, what with all that snuffling and shuddering and pinguid gymnastic theater. It doesn’t look like much fun at all. It is the job of the writer to make it fun on the page, and the only way I know to do this is to subtract sentimentality and add humor. Tease the characters a bit, distract them with jolts and surprises, juxtapose them with highly unerotic fixtures, assign them curious peccadilloes that impede or amplify performance, maybe throw in a shockingly graphic detail or two, to keep the readers on their toes. Make it fun!