Interview With Carolyn Cooke

Carolyn Cooke's short stories have been featured in The Best American Short Stories and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. Cooke, a winner of fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and Yaddo and a graduate of Columbia's MFA program, has published fiction and nonfiction in the Paris Review, Ploughshares, the New England Review, and The Nation. Her diverse journalistic experience includes writing for The Nation, editing for Penthouse, and working "as a muckracker for the Anderson Valley Advertiser, a socialist weekly." Cooke is also a founder of Pacific Community Charter School in Point Arena, California, and frequently writes on school reform issues. She lives in northern California with her husband, a poet, and her two children.

Cover of The Bostons by Carolyn Cooke
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Q) Where does the title of your book, The Bostons, come from?

A) My grandfather made it up, I think. Since he was and is so self-deprecating, he used the term to describe his own kind—summer people, not tourists, who went to the coast of Maine from Boston and New York every summer and hoarded real estate through ridiculously intact generations. They lived an austere, cold-water life there, except they had boats and books, and generally they behaved as if they owned the place. As a Maine native—what my grandfather would call "a Maine girl"—I liked the sense of outsiders in a culture seeing themselves as harshly and critically as they imagined the insiders must see them. Henry James did that, of course, though less in The Bostonians than in The Europeans, in which the Old World and the New spend a few hundred pages gazing at each other with horror and interest. One of my favorite lines in literature is in that novel, where James's narrator observes, "There was something rather hard and narrow in Gertrude, and she never cried again."

Q) How autobiographical are the stories in The Bostons, and in what ways?

A) I grew up on the coast of Maine and in the purlieus of Boston, and was always conscious of how warily those two different cultures regarded each other, yet how similar they were. Circumstances were different, but this had mostly to do with class, that weird distillation of money and history. People are the same everywhere, but it seems to me that New Englanders put an enormously high value on qualities of character that don't do them much good—duty, obedience, loyalty, diligence. I wanted to write about people who try to break away from those habits, who make real efforts to experience radical sensations and who reach for things—ike beauty and pleasure—that they don't quite know how to use. My stories don't usually start with my personal stories. They start with beautiful junk, or with ugly junk, with details that resist but suggest significance.

Q) When did you begin writing?

A) When I was seven or eight. I used to write stories in which terrible things happened to a kid like me. It thrilled me to read them aloud to anyone who'd listen. I was so shy I could hardly speak, but I was a loud reader. I loved speaking in a bold voice that didn't have to be mine. My father died in a boating accident when he was thirty. My family, very tiny, powerful women, always told stories, usually over cocktails, the same two or three stories over and over. The stories were finished works, they were so polished. Always the same words, the same dramatic pauses, the same punchlines. Stories were a way of asking, What happened? What did it mean? Did we do it to ourselves? I learned then that "truth" and "reality" are inventable. They depend on who is telling the story, on the fact that someone is telling a story, on certain recognizable pressures of tone and language and voice, organized into a form that makes life seem organized and believable.

I was a secretive kid, myopic and ratlike. I remember going to a slaughterhouse in Boston, seeing hundreds of cats in dark cages. Somebody said they were chickens, but I knew what I saw—cats: tails, stripes, and yellow eyes. I think that's what writing is—allowing yourself to believe what you see without corrective lenses, to see what you see before somebody tells you what's really there, what a child or a nearsighted person or a sick or damaged person sees. If what you saw with your own eyes made sense—if you agreed with the general opinion of reality—you wouldn't need to write.

Q) Who are some writers who have made an impression on you?

A) I admire fluent, strung-out voices that risk poetry and comedy and are rather dark in tone. Among contemporary writers, the short stories of Grace Paley, Lorrie Moore, Denis Johnson, Leonard Michaels, Junot D�az. Among novelists, Joan Didion, Don DeLillo. Rather high-strung narrratives that pull the tune right out of your head. Virginia Woolf. When I was younger, learning to read more greedily, trying to invent a sensibility I could bear to live with, my head was full of men. I read a lot of Updike—particularly the Rabbit books and the early short stories, and Couples of course, which I read with such steamy devotion in the library that the librarian called my mother to complain. Cheever. Poe. Edwin Arlington Robinson, who made such heartbreaking ditties and talked about "the ache to be sublime." I also loved—love—Henry James, who looked at Americans so cleverly, through about three windows. He was a wonderful spy, alien but interested—a real voyeur.

Q) What have you done for work to support your writing habit?

A) In the 1980s I worked at Penthouse magazine—wrote advertising and publicity and was an occasional voiceover on radio. It was a very heady time in the sex business, the very final hours, it turned out, of the sexual revolution! My tuition at the MFA program at Columbia came from my salary at Penthouse. I had to take courses around lunchtime. Those were the days when you could take three-hour lunches and nobody would think twice, they just assumed you were doing coke and having sex. I also worked as an editor and a copywriter at a couple of other magazines in New York, Omni and Avenue. In the early nineties I moved with my husband to northern California, where I live now, and had two babies the way people do here—bellowing undrugged in a cabin in the woods. I worked for several years as an editorial assistant to Alexander Cockburn, the journalist and polemicist, and also as a muckraker for the Anderson Valley Advertiser, an anarcho-syndicalist country weekly put out by the brilliant editor and writer Bruce Anderson.

Q) Do you see yourself as a regional writer—as a particularly New England writer?

A) No. The struggle against conscience and rectitude is the main theme of The Bostons, I guess—though I never thought about that until now. But I've lived in northern California for almost a decade. I live in a town where it's considered rude to ask somebody's last name or where they come from—too historical. I think that's interesting too.

Posted with permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. Copyright © 2002 Houghton Mifflin Company, All Rights Reserved.