The Literary Life and How To Live It
by Sean Murphy
An Interview with Christopher Coake
It seems safe to predict that Chris Coake is a writer to watch out for. With his first book, a collection of short stories entitled We're in Trouble coming out in spring 05, and several projects in the works, there should be ample opportunity for readers to become familiar with him. It is also easy to wish Chris all the success he seems certain to achieve due to his obvious amiability and enthusiasm. While it might be understandable for a hard-working writer on the verge of a breakthrough to have an air of confidence, if not arrogance, Chris seems genuine, and genuinely humble about the work he's done and the recognition he's beginning to receive. Sometimes good guys do finish first, and the smart money is on Mr. Coake making waves well into the future. Chris is currently studying and teaching at Ohio State University, and will begin teaching English at the University of Nevada, Reno, next January. His work has appeared recently in The Gettysburg Review and will be featured in the forthcoming Best American Mystery Stories 2004 collection.
SM: Please talk about your upcoming projects for publication.
CC: Last summer I sold my first book, a collection of short stories titled We're in Trouble. It's coming out from Harcourt in April, 2005, and so far it's also been bought by four foreign markets-the UK (Penguin UK is the publisher), Germany (Random House Germany), France (Albin Michel), and Italy (Guanda). We have nibbles in other countries as well. The book's made up of seven stories, three of which are nearly novella-length. I wrote most of them in the last four years, which means that, with two exceptions, they've gone through the workshopping process at Ohio State, where I'm just finishing up my MFA.
One of the stories- "All Through the House," which was originally published last summer in The Gettysburg Review-is going to appear in the Best American Mystery Stories 2004 collection, due out in October '04.
I'm actually in the curious position of still trying to place some stories from the book in journals. It all came together so quickly that I haven't had a chance to find homes for some of them-which isn't helped by their length, either. Barring some last-minute acceptances, only four of the seven will have been published by the time of the book's release.
SM: Has your experience tended to demystify the publishing process, or has it made it even more special?
CC: Hm. Yes, and yes, I think. I know a heck of a lot more about publishing-about the process of putting a book together, seeing it sold, etc.-than I did a year and a half ago, and the possession of that knowledge can't help but demystify things. I've met my editor at Harcourt, Ann Patty, who is a twenty-five year publishing vet-back in the day, she told me, she discovered V.C. Andrews, and she just had a bestseller last year with Yann Martel's The Life of Pi-and though I pretty much owe her my career, she's not at all terrifying or aloof. I've been a journal editor (I edited Miami University of Ohio's journal Oxford Magazine for a year, and I've helped out on OSU's The Journal), so I know all about that process. (Submitting to journals was demystified the first time I found a couple of story submissions that had slipped into the wrong pile in my office at Miami, bearing six-month-old postmarks.) But book publishers-they're another story. Up until recently they were gods up on mountaintops.
I'm the product of two graduate writing programs: I got my MA at MU-Ohio, and now I'm at Ohio State, and one of the benefits of being in programs like these is that a young (or, rather, beginning) writer gets to consult with people who have published books, who've climbed the mountaintop. My advisor and mentor at OSU, Michelle Herman, even teaches a class in literary publishing, the whole purpose of which is demystification. (She taught the course last year, and managed to talk Ann Patty into coming to visit Columbus; Ann did her best to lay bare the process).
But all the same, that this has happened to me in the first place makes me feel-I don't know, I'm not a religious person, so I won't say "blessed" . . . but the word has some aspects that I like to it, in that I do feel as though this book, my career, has been helped and guided by people with a lot more of a clue than me. Michelle and I share an agent, because Michelle thought my work was ready and told me to send it along. That I finished a book at all is due to Nick Hornby, who was a guest instructor here, and mentioned me to his publisher on his way out of the country, and that sent me scrambling to compile a complete work. (Though his US publisher turned me down, the indefatigable Mr. Hornby is responsible for my UK and Italian contracts; Penguin and Guanda are his publishers, too. He's also giving We're in Trouble its first review, in his September column for The Believer.) My agent, Marian Young, is terrific, both a taskmaster and a great person to bounce ideas off of; she's the one who got the book sold so fast-we had an offer five weeks after I gave her the manuscript.
I don't want to be disingenuous-I wrote the stories to begin with, and none of this would have happened if they were awful. But all the same, a year and a half ago I was an MFA student stuck in his room-like a lot of other folks here who are good enough to have books-wondering if anyone would ever care, and without this community of people with more power and savvy around me, I might very well still be that lonely guy in his room. So in answer to your question, that help feels "special," and always will.
SM: Any other works on the way?
CC: Yeah, a couple of things. Random House Germany bought a novel-to-come from me, and I'm working on one right now, an expansion of one of the stories from the book. (Which got its start as a contraction of a failed novella.) I've got a couple of years to deliver anything, yet. That novel, though, looks more and more to be a long project (it's about a Slovenian Himalayan mountaineer, which is exactly not what I am, personally) requiring years of research. So I want to do something more local-something that doesn't require me to read a book to finish writing a page. I write a lot of novellas, and I have ideas for more; if only they sold better I could say I'm only a few months away from a second collection. I'm also starting to delve into non-fiction, which so far has been more rewarding than I would have guessed. I've finished a long essay my agent wants to send out; in fact I'm taking a break from revising it to do this interview.
I've also been working on editing an anthology-a compilation of contemporary literary fiction that deals, directly or indirectly, with cancer. But that's been back-burnered for a while, until my collection has had its time. To be honest, I still need more time to read for the anthology, anyway. We might try to market it with my novel manuscript, a couple of years down the road.
SM: Has teaching enriched your writing?
CC: Yes, a big yes. This would be a good time to mention that I am soon to be a teacher by profession; in January I'm starting work as an assistant professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno. I'll teach predominantly creative writing, which I find thrilling.
I've taught a lot of composition over the years, and though I like it, and seem to be good at it, comp demands a lot of time. Unreal amounts of time, particularly if you're teaching first-year college students. A good comp teacher has to urge students to revise, and revise, and revise; and that teacher has to read and reread and reread, and all the while these essays are going to be projects the students did under duress. No matter how positive students are about learning, very few dream of doing four revisions of a paper about, say, an analysis of a television commercial. So the papers, with a few notable exceptions, tend to drag. Now, that's not to say that teaching comp doesn't have rewards-but let's just say the rewards are subtle and spaced far apart, sometimes.
But a creative writing workshop is different. Students may write at all levels of achievement, but most of the time a story on the table in workshop represents work they're proud of, excited about. Passionate about, worried about. And that makes the vibe different. A good workshop hums; everyone's always thinking out loud. And the neat and sideways thing about fiction workshops is that-done well-they do teach other skills. I've seen students learn more about critical thinking in a workshop setting than they do in comp, again and again, simply by dint of the subject at hand, and their investment in it. A good workshop feels to me like a very pure distillation of the college experience-what I always thought the college experience ought to be, when I was a student. (Which explains why I'm going to have two advanced degrees in creative writing myself.) And having a part in that, being in the room with people who are actually learning, and excited to be learning, leaves me hopping with good energy and optimism that I can take back t0 my own writing.
Plus there's the element of having to walk the walk-if I'm vehemently arguing something for my students' benefit, then I'm forced, constantly, to sharpen those opinions. To hone my aesthetic, such as it is. Teaching workshop keeps me on my toes. (Which is only going to get more fraught in April; so far my students haven't had access to my writing, and I'm curious and a little terrified of the moment that will sooner or later come, when a student in my writing workshop waves my own book at me and points out nine examples of how I don't follow my own advice.)
SM: In your estimation, has the writing of students gotten better over time? Worse? The same? Trends? Is it true to presume that regardless of genre or generation, good writers tend to find their way?
CC: I haven't been teaching that long, all told, so it's hard for me to judge student writing on an historic scale. I think it's probably demonstrable that educated Americans, as a whole, write more poorly than they did back in the day-that we're suffering from too much video intrusion and Internet overuse and all of that. But I do think whether writing is bad or good has more to do with underlying ideas than with technical virtuosity, and that, by that measure, the number of truly creative people-people whose ideas and stories are worth reading-is probably the same from generation to generation. (I base this observation on absolutely no research whatsoever, incidentally.) Schools that interviewed me for teaching jobs asked what my criteria would be for admitting students to writing programs, and I answered truthfully that I'd want students with obvious passion, and/or a topic-a sense of immediacy and need in their work. Technical stuff (how to, for instance, make graceful transitions between the past and past perfect tenses) can be taught easily. The hard work is in shaping passions, guiding students deeper into those passions in search of complexity.
I just read Tobias Wolff's wonderful novel Old School, which is about bad writers in a private boys' school in the sixties. It's an amazing book, and it answers your question with subtleties I can't approach.
I can only talk about a couple of obvious trends-and keep in mind that I've only taught undergrads to this point. The big one, the one I'm guaranteed to see in every class, is the Hemingway style: Terse minimalism about heavy drinking and bafflement about women and general malaise. I see that a lot more than the more austere Carver-esque minimalism I had expected to see. The other--or maybe it's an offshoot-is that a lot of students are imitating Chuck Palahniuk these days, which means Hemingwayesque terse sentences mixed with a kind of aggressive surrealism. Other trends: students want trick endings; I hear The Sixth Sense referenced a lot. (It's safe to say that even English majors are more comfortable discussing movies than books.) More than a few want to write shared-world stories--drawing on mythology from Dungeons and Dragons or Everquest. Vampires are always popular. I see a lot of dialogue that can trace its origins back to Quentin Tarantino.
SM: MFA/No MFA? Any comments or opinions for the folks who are adamant (pro OR con) about the value of MFA programs?
CC: I still see the occasional book review in the New York Times that insists on beating the old, dead horse, about how MFA programs produce the same Carveresque minimalism, or the same high-gloss, low-wattage boring blah blah blah. (The typical review in this vein almost always goes on to express surprise: Despite writer X's MFA background, imagine this reviewer's surprise upon finding X's stories to be thrilling and inventive and new . . .) On the part of mainstream reviewers, this always stinks of laziness: setting up the straw man and knocking it down, rather than thinking up a real intro. It's not as though there's still any legitimate debate about whether writing programs ought to exist-the genie's out of the bottle; the programs aren't going away. There are well over a hundred writing programs in the country, producing thousands of writers, and by sheer dint of numbers some of those writers are going to be spectacular, and some of them are going to be high-gloss, low-wattage. And I might point out that a lot of bad, boring books were published in the days when a hundred grad programs weren't there to take the blame for them.
And anyway: writing programs don't make people rich. My monthly check at Miami of Ohio, back in '93, was about $650.00. I had a lot of time, yes, along with a lot of bills and not a lot of food, and a number of MFA students-particularly the young ones without reserves of cash-struggle in the same way today, and will ten years from now, too.)
I've been through two programs, and visited a lot of others, and I can say that, based on my experience, the idea of programs espousing a particular style-of producing "cookie-cutter fiction"-is past its prime. Miami let me experiment wildly. OSU let me experiment wildly. The growing number of programs in this country means that a lot of MFA-holders have been hired up to teach the new generation; my guess is that many programs are taught by people who themselves are rebelling against the styles of generations past.
So I guess it's fair to say that I am a strong proponent of the MFA system. I see it do a lot more right than wrong. But you must keep in mind my bias; I wouldn't be where I am without the help my own programs have provided me.
SM: What writers do you particularly enjoy and/or have most profoundly influenced you?
CC: I've already mentioned Tim O'Brien-his The Things They Carried was one of those books that changed everything, when I read it in 1993. It opened doors for me, showed me that fiction had more possibilities than I'd ever imagined.
I've mentioned Powers and Wallace, too. Galatea 2.2 and Infinite Jest are both remarkable books. Tobias Wolff, too: he's someone to whom most writers I know pay close attention. Alice Munro has been a huge influence on me. I'd read about five of her stories without "getting it," and then all of the sudden, six years or so ago, the light clicked on, and I read her Selected Stories in a few sittings. Munro breaks every rule there is, and she does it politely and subtly. She's amazing. Cormac McCarthy's recent stuff is great, but if he never writes another book I think he'll go to the pantheon for Blood Meridian.
A short list of names of other people I've read avidly, which should only be viewed as incomplete: George Saunders, Andrea Barrett, Toni Morrison, Denis Johnson, Steven Millhauser, Don DeLillo, Nick Hornby.
My profs at OSU are people who I think need more attention, and they all have new books out, or forthcoming: Lee K. Abbott, Michelle Herman, Erin McGraw, Lee Martin. This isn't just a plug-these people write really vital and beautiful literature. When I was a freshman at Ball State University my comp professor, Dennis Hoilman, taught us Joyce's "The Dead." That was the story that switched me over from writing genre to trying to write lit, and I still love it.
I should have mentioned Joyce Carol Oates up above. She was the first "lit" author I read on my own recognizance, and I still think she's great.
SM: Any other notable influences, artistic or otherwise?
CC: I'm a huge film buff, and, like anyone of my generation (people who grew up with an intimate relationship to the screen) I have a deep, romantic, sometimes troubled and codependent relationship with the movies. But great movies have influenced me as much as books have. Pulp Fiction, for instance, I saw at Miami University, right when I was first having my creative imagination really pushed open. I still write a lot of a-chronological stuff because of it. I'm not even going to attempt a comprehensive list of influential movies. But I will mention Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, from 1997, which is hands-down my favorite film, ever. I don't feel the need to make movies, but when I came out of the theater I found myself wishing I'd made that one. To this day I feel possessive of that film, like somehow I had a hand in it. That I have been in something of a spiritual relationship with Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films goes without saying. They're flawed, yes, but for all that they feel perfect.
SM: If you could succinctly summarize the trajectory (thus far!) of your writing life, how different is it from what you imagined, as an earnest but unpublished author? How is it better? Worse? What things would you have changed?
CC: 'll have to give a complicated answer in a lot shorter form than it deserves. I'll start by saying that when I was younger I thought writing would make me rich. I idolized not just Stephen King's writing, but his fame; I figured that my eventual career would go like his did, and that by the time I was forty I'd be living in a house that had secret passages, and that I'd work like King does, in an office above an indoor pool.
But that didn't happen, obviously. I just finished my first year living as a guy whose writing has paid for things he enjoys, but I'm not rich, and I understand I'm not likely to be. It's safe to say that my book's most valuable service has been to give me access to a job I like, with a good salary. Assuming I don't screw up on the way to tenure, I see myself as very happy with that job, with Reno, with teaching, for a long time to come. And let me say that, after five years in grad school and six years working in a used bookstore, the idea of my time at the computer being lucrative is still mind-blowing. The grad programs I've been to have been uniform in their blunt assessment of the market for literary fiction and for jobs teaching literary fiction. Just two years ago I was resigned to leaving OSU for a job doing something not at all related to writing. Dorothy Allison (add her to my list of influences above) visited our program, and told us a story about a writer she admires who drives a bread truck by day and writes at night, because he likes the smell of bread; he gets, she said, a lot of thinking done on his routes. All of us MFAers in the room were looking at each other and nodding and thinking that wasn't such a bad gig. So for me to have gone from thinking that, to being here in my present life, still makes my head spin. I have moments where I have to convince myself that it all really happened.
And of course nothing has really happened yet; the book is still on its way; I'm still a month from being able to walk into a Borders and see my name in a table of contents. So maybe a year from now this whole answer will be invalid. I don't know.
One thing I've avoided mentioning so far is that my life prior to a year ago was very difficult. I am a widower; I lost my wife, Joellen Thomas, to cancer in 1999. We met as grad students at Miami U. So when I say that I often have to sit back and ask myself what the hell happened, that's a big part of the reason why.
It's a sad story, and I don't want to tell it all here, but I can say this: I had nearly stopped writing during my relationship with Joellen. That wasn't her fault; what happened was that I was in a job I liked, and living with a woman I loved, and at that time I was content to get fat and lazy. It was a lot easier to sit on the couch and watch television at night than it was to spend two hours writing. I had a few finished stories I liked, and every few months I'd rouse myself and send them out, but I rarely produced anything new. In retrospect I had only one story that was any good, and it's scary to look back and see it as the link between that time and this one.
As it happened I'd sent that one story out right before Joellen's cancer recurred for the final time. And one of the places I'd sent it was to The Journal at Ohio State, a few blocks from our apartment. I promptly forgot about it. Then-just two days after we found out Joellen was terminal-I came home to a message from Michelle Herman that my story had been accepted. I don't believe in fate, though a lot of people around me who do point to that string of events as evidence. I look at it this way: in the middle of awful, awful times, in the middle of the worst luck there is, one good thing happened. My wife got to hear it, and the news gave her some happiness. And I had something to think about, and after Joellen was gone, I had something to build on. As it happened I met with Michelle Herman a few months after Joellen died, and she arranged for me to take her workshop as a continuing ed student, and then I decided to dive back into school, and Michelle talked me out of Utah and into Ohio State, which is where everything changed for me.
So I think it's fair to say that at almost every turn my career has gone differently than I'd imagined it going. In 1999 I couldn't have imagined that just five years later I'd have a book on the way, and a job in the mountains, and a woman I love (I am in a long-term relationship with a woman named Stephanie Lauer) going with me.
It's hard for me to look back, too. We're in Trouble isn't overtly about cancer, but Joellen's death is all over that book. Every story is about loss, and a couple are about these kind of hapless men who have outlived the women they love. A lot of people I know look at my story as inspiring, and sometimes I think so too, but just as often it's a source of tremendous guilt. My success came out of tragedy, but it's also built on tragedy. I used what happened to me. It's fair to say that in 1999 I wouldn't have imagined that, either. For the most part I'm a happy guy . . . I just don't want to forget what brought me here. The debts I owe.
SM: Any advice for aspiring writers?
CC: h, boy. Here goes (and keep in mind that I am recycling almost all of this from advice that's been passed on to me): The world is full of people who will tell you how difficult writing and publishing is. Believe them; never look away from the truth of this business. But also find and listen to people who will believe in your potential, people who think that you've got it in you to break through the poor odds. Whether that means going the MFA route, or surrounding yourself with supportive and well-read friends, is up to you to decide. It goes without saying that you have to believe in yourself; I just think it's impossible to keep believing in yourself without others who believe in you, too.
Next I'd say this: Good criticism is a luxury. You'll almost certainly find people (parents, significant others) who will love what you do, no matter what it is. But make sure that among your circle of readers are two or three people who can tell you when you've failed, and who can tell you why. And if you are in, or considering going to, a writing program, go with the understanding that you will be criticized, and with the willingness to let that happen. You'll be better for it.
The inverse is true, too: if you're the sort of writer who is overly self-critical, then find someone trusted who can tell you to quit screwing around and put it in the mail. I'm not the sort of writer who will tell anyone to write every day. I don't write every day; I write when I feel I'm going to do good work, and I know myself well enough that this isn't really a cop-out I use to play video games or go book-shopping, instead of writing. But I do think aspiring writers should learn their best possible work habits and adhere to them. If you need to write every day, then for the love of Pete write every day. I will say that even though I don't write every day, I work on writing every day: I turn potential stories over in my head; I do research; I read books and think about whether I liked them or loved them or hated them. I keep a journal---sporadically--in which I try to dissect what I think about books and my own work, and why.
But just in case, I'll end with something Roger Ebert (who is a very fine writer) once wrote, which I keep pinned to the wall above my computer: "The muse comes during composition, not before."