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Real Space: An Interview with Patty Yumi Cottrell

By

At Work

I think writers attend M.F.A. programs to meet people like Patty Yumi Cottrell—or at least, I did. When we met in our first semester, she was a quietly focused and deeply intelligent student who sat back from the pack as we clamored for attention and support. Cottrell and I began sending each other work, and the constructions of the classroom soon felt secondary. Reading the forceful clarity of her sentences, how they openly wrestle with their influences while still feeling original—somehow both arch and sincere—I knew I was in on a secret that wouldn’t stay hidden for long.

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace announces Cottrell’s arrival. A manic detective story about a young woman seeking to understand the suicide of her adoptive brother, her debut novel is prickly, hilarious, and extremely sad. I interviewed Cottrell over the phone, and what was meant to be an hour-long conversation gave way easily to four (and more than 120 pages of transcription). Cottrell talks like she writes—with great authority and considerable anxiety—and I left our conversation as I left her book: feeling electrified and knowing I would have stuck with it for as long as it would have me. 

INTERVIEWER

I’ve been reading your work for something like six years now, and this book marks a departure for you. It’s more straightforward than your earlier work, which often reads more like a fable—familiar at its core but on the surface very strange. How did the change come about?

COTTRELL

I wanted to see if I could keep myself interested in something more traditional. I had a professor in grad school who read my work and asked, Where is this set? What year is this set in? I wanted to write something that could answer those questions—it’s Milwaukee and it’s 2013. I was curious to see if I could sustain that. I was also reading Jane Bowles more closely. Her work employs a kind of curdled realism. It’s off-kilter and has a weird tone, but it’s set in a real place. That was inspiring—that even if you can answer the setting question, it doesn’t have to be strict domestic realism. You can still make it strange. Some of the power of this story comes from the fact that it could be real.

INTERVIEWER

Did the subject of suicide influence your decision to move away from a fantastic setting?

COTTRELL

If it were set in a fabulist world, it wouldn’t have the same charge. Books that feel close to “real life” have a unique tension to them, because some readers can’t help wondering what’s real and what’s not. Although this book is fiction, because of the autobiographical details, I’m sure some readers will read it as if it’s close to some kind of lived experience. That tension is compelling.

INTERVIEWER

So you were interested in playing with autobiographical overlap?

COTTRELL

A few years ago, I said I was writing an antimemoir. I was thinking of it as a response to people who suggested that I write a memoir, which I was never interested in doing. The further along I went, the less it became a preoccupation, though. The autobiographical details that overlap with the book—they’re very emotional, I was writing from a place of emotion. But I wasn’t hoping to create confusion between me and Helen. If people want to read the details of my life into the events in Helen’s, that choice has nothing to do with me. That’s the reader’s response, which is private and subjective. I’m aware I need to hold space for all different types of responses, and I’m hopeful I can do that.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think people get out of reading in that way?

COTTRELL

There’s something powerful about the idea that the story in a book actually happened. That’s why people read memoirs. But I think it can be a very problematic way of reading novels. There has to be space for fiction to be a work of imagination. It came from my brain, and in that way it’s personal—every book is personal—but this is largely invented. That’s why I inserted that note, which is meant to be playful, on the hardcover, underneath the book jacket.

From the book’s cover.

INTERVIEWER

Was there a process of editing yourself out?

COTTRELL

I’ve been tempted to write more directly about my life—the person I am and how I experience the world—but the way I apprehended this book was as a work of imagination. I had fictional tools at my disposal, so characters, events, et cetera are shaped and constructed with deliberation. There might be elements of my personality, exaggerated to an extreme, in Helen, but I put myself at a remove, as the writer of the book, so I’d argue that there is an ironic distance between us. This experience of editing myself and my own thoughts out wasn’t weird at all. It was like having a tree-shaded picnic near a riverbank—very pleasant.

INTERVIEWER

I read in another interview that you started this novel, hung out with it for a little bit, and then wrote the first draft in a blast. Do you think that energy helped produce the book’s propulsive energy or did you have to tease that out?

COTTRELL

When I started, I had a handful of chapters, and then I moved from New York to LA and had a long time away from it. When I went back to it, I was able to write it quickly, partly because the voice was relatively immediate for me—it never really left. It  was just there, like a cactus in a pot on a desk. Plus, if I wrote every day, I think I would start to dislike writing, but if I’m doing other things, I can muster up the motivation to do it.

I also took a break from contemporary fiction, and I think that helped—not having any idea what the trends were and what other people were doing. I only read older books, and that helped create the space and the freedom to do whatever felt natural.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve folded the words of other artists’ and writers’ into your text. In most cases, they’re quietly quoted alongside your words or in the middle of your words. How did you come to that approach?

COTTRELL

Helen is a sponge and also maybe a bit of a parasite. She absorbs things from art and from reading and from other people, and she uses these other words and ideas to help make sense of her world. We had to get permission for a few of the quotes, and at one point, it looked like we might not be able to secure the Nabokov one. I decided to try to rewrite it and thought, This is so easy—“flattish and faded.” Three words, one of them is “and,” but it was impossible to write anything to replace them! I couldn’t do it.

INTERVIEWER

How did the selection process happen?

COTTRELL

To be honest, they were lines and texts that I remembered reading in high school. Or sometimes, in the case of Clarice Lispector, from books I read more recently and that stayed with me. My influences are very obvious. When I’m writing, I gravitate toward the writers and the books that I love. Helen’s mind is like a collage of all of her influences, and it’s interesting the way she absorbs them, takes them in, and utilizes them for her own purposes. She doesn’t give them credit or cite them. Unlike Helen, I gave the writers credit in the back.

You described the book as propulsive earlier, and that’s funny because I felt like I was writing the slowest book ever, like unwinding an endless spool of thread. Not much happens. It takes several chapters for Helen just to move from one room to another.

INTERVIEWER

It’s striking, and funny, how you handle that. We get so deep into Helen’s thoughts that the physical world drifts away, until she offhandedly describes having entered another room or someone interrupts her train of thought. That’s something you see in Bernhard, too, that juxtaposition of intense interiority looping back to a quick reminder of how little progress is being made on the physical plane.

COTTRELL

Right. She walks through the house, but progression in the book occurs more through voice than physical movement. My family moved around a lot when I was young, so I got used to moving and inhabiting new houses. Maybe that’s why, even as Helen goes from room to room and eats a cake or kills the flowers, she’s not giving much description in the narrative about the details of place.There’s a loneliness to a person who’s moving without any kind of big event happening and who’s going through an intense, individual experience. Certain places can be psychologically loaded, but it has less to do with individual objects—a cup or a picture frame—than with the fact that they’re settings for emotion. Childhood homes are like that. So when Helen goes back to her parents’ house, where she grew up, she feels a mixture of fondness for and ambivalence about those objects. There’s an element of recognition and reunion, but sometimes the objects are not as she remembers them—they’re distorted. It’s an eerie feeling, and it sets up the house as a kind of haunted house, or a gothic one, where strange events can happen, like when she imagines her parents’ grief entering the house as a balding European man. In this way, the house functions as a place of emotion, sadness, loneliness, isolation, daydreaming, and passivity.

INTERVIEWER

You use repetition—which we also see in Bernhard—to create a sense of urgency, almost mania at times, but it’s also a grounding element. Every time a word or phrase is repeated, it becomes more familiar. Helen will use a particular phrase every time she describes something or someone, and every time we hear it, it carves out a space for whatever or whomever she’s talking about. Helen also becomes known to the reader in this way—her speech patterns sometimes reveal more about her than what’s she’s saying.

COTTRELL

That’s definitely influenced by reading Bernhard. For me, it gives the story energy—it’s about rhythm, the way Helen’s voice sounded to me. It’s also meant to mimic the way people repeat themselves when they deliver stories verbally. The repetition pushed the book forward and also seemed to draw attention to her feeling of estrangement from her family and other people in her life.

INTERVIEWER

The repetition of “adoptive parents” and “adoptive brother” not only highlights that dynamic, it also reveals the desire to communicate that distance.

COTTRELL

It asserts a distance, while pointing at it. The repetition of adopted and adoptive makes visible the feeling of being adopted, which is sometimes a feeling of invisibility. Using it repeatedly helps ground it. It also draws attention to the fact that the arrangement of the family is artificial. Not that adoption itself is artificial, but in this story, Helen feels that the fact of her adoption is outside of her, separate from her. She feels a clinical detachment from her experience of adoption, and the adoptive qualifier is a constant reminder of that detachment. There’s an estrangement from her circumstances as an adoptee in relation to the parents who “chose” her. It stems from something I remembered reading as a child when my parents introduced me to books about adoption, from the experience of being an adoptee. Sometimes adoption was presented as “magical,” and the adoptee is “special” and “chosen” and “unique.” In my novel, this relationship is deflated with every utterance of “adoptive.” It’s dry, it’s grounding, it’s not magical at all.

 INTERVIEWER

I like that you approached the story as an “investigation.” A detective is someone whose job it is to remain on the outside of something, while working hard to come to an intimate and comprehensive understanding of it.

COTTRELL

I suppose aloofness might be a good characteristic for a detective. For example, I think Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote sometimes runs into trouble because she’s a kindhearted person. She trusts people who seem decent, and that trust always seems to be undermined or eroded by the end of the episode. But Helen’s view of reality is askew, and she’s not a good detective by any means. She is estranged from the people in her life but thinks she can see them clearly, in her own way. Really, she has no idea what she’s doing. The investigation is a distraction from the horrors of what’s happening.

INTERVIEWER

Was it hard to leave this novel?

COTTRELL

As far as mentally leaving the novel and getting distance from it was concerned, that wasn’t hard. There’s pleasure in seeing a project through to completion. But it was a great joy to work on the novel with my editor, Andi Winnette. She’s a special person, very well-read and intelligent. In that sense, it was hard to leave the book.

INTERVIEWER

At what point has an investigation come to its end?

COTTRELL

I suppose an investigation has come to an end when a person has exhausted all possibilities.

 

Colin Winnette’s most recent novel, The Job of the Wasp, is forthcoming from Soft Skull Press this year. He lives in San Francisco.