Lauren Feldman: Many of the stories from We're in Trouble seem to deal with how ordinary people react to extreme situations—that is, they focus on which aspects of a character are brought to the fore by certain circumstances. In fiction, we may think of "circumstance" as plot. When planning a story, what occurs to you first: the character or the plot? Do you construct a plot to test its effects on a pre-conceived character, or do you construct a character to suit a pre-conceived plot?
Christopher Coake: I almost always start a story with a "what if?" I had a difficult childhood and early adulthood, which is probably why I have a dark bent to my imagination . . . whenever I walk into a room, I tend to think, "What's the worst thing that could happen here?" That question has been a rich story-generation device for me. When I stumble across a really compelling "what if?" I then begin stripping myself out of it—I try very hard to write about people who are different from me, even if we share a common sense of fear, or loss.
The title story from We're in Trouble, for example, features an elderly couple dealing with the husband's diagnosis of terminal cancer. I lost a spouse to cancer; my first wife, Joellen Thomas, died in 1999. However, that story (in which the husband asks the wife's help in killing himself) is not autobiographical. I can honestly say that its plot was an example of me asking "What's the worst that could happen?" in the middle of already-terrible circumstances. In short: I write what I'm afraid of, but I give that fear over to made-up people, and watch them work through the consequences. I don't know whether this is theraputic, but it's a process I've been going through all my life, and which I can't seem to quit.
LF: The nature of haunting and the nature of belief are two themes you address in your novel, You Came Back. However, you approach these somewhat unconventionally: you use a literal haunting as a kind of metaphor for a character being haunted by his past, and the exploration of belief almost focuses less on a belief's factual truth than on the implications of its emotional truth. Could you say more about these themes, and why you were drawn to them?
CC: I was drawn to this story for both personal and political reasons. As I've mentioned, I've survived the loss of a spouse; though that's not the same loss my novel's characters Mark and Chloe go through (they're trying to recover from the loss of a child, and the subsequent fracturing of their marriage), I did feel their story was a way through which I could examine same kinds of guilt and remorse that I've been dealing with. Like Mark, I'm an atheist, and try very hard to be a rationalist. But grief—and, in many important ways, recovery from grief—is very often not a rational state. For the last thirteen years, as I've been rebuilding my life, I've been thinking a lot about grief—both as a universally upsetting emotion, and also as one that's personally, philosophically upsetting. For instance, I don't believe in ghosts—but when I'm woken up at three in the morning by a nightmare in which Joellen is still alive, and calling for me, and wondering what I'm doing married to someone else, for a few seconds, I'm not rational, I do believe in ghosts, in an afterlife, and so on.
I'm not the first or even the hundredth person to compare grief and the idea of haunting. Probably the very concept of the ghost came to reside in the human consciousness as a byproduct of some caveperson's grief and need. But I wouldn't have written You Came Back if I hadn't thought of the story as timely—not only because of its personal relevance, but also because we live at moment in which America has an exceptionally weird relationship with fact and superstition and rationality. The book's characters, like me, experience grief in conjunction with 9/11, and the Iraq war, and the prominence of political movements that would do away with fact entirely—boldly so, while embracing a spirituality that, it seems to me, is at heart cruel and diseased.
However, while I might be a polemicist on Facebook, as a novelist my job is to be even-handed—to look at an idea with as much complexity as possible. Sure, I believe in rationality, and in the primacy of evidence and fact. Sure, I'm anti-superstitious. But I still put a lot of stock and faith in concepts like "love," and "free will"—concepts which the preponderance of evidence tells us are not as mystical and "true" as I might want to believe. So the character of Mark Fife is meant to be a test case for all of these ideas. He's an atheist who is given every reason to doubt all of his beliefs. I wanted to see how well he'd hold out, or not, as the evidence mounted—and as his emotions became more and more difficult to keep out of the argument.
LF: Though your short stories are always very well-developed, they are also extraordinarily complex: I could easily see each of them as a full-length novel. What are the factors that determine whether you'll write a piece in short story or novel form?
CC: Well, my first book was written when I was an MFA student at Ohio State University, so it's possible that I didn't make a conscious decision about each of those stories—in case of most of them, I was simply trying to finish a piece that would be appropriate to turn in to a workshop. Some of my classmates at OSU worked successfully on novels, but by and large, MFA programs tend to focus on the short story—it's an easier form to teach in the weekly workshop format. I had hazy ideas then about writing a novel, but I couldn't at that time conceive of writing one in workshoppable chunks.
I used to say—when You Came Back was being written, and giving me fits—that I wanted to be a short story writer again. That I wanted, say, Alice Munro's career. But when I look back at We're in Trouble, I'm not sure that I'd write those stories as stories if I approached them now. They're long, some of them, and maybe that's because I strain at the short story's boundaries. On the other hand, You Came Back had to be edited like crazy—its rough draft was very long—so I also admire the concision with which I did approach the short stories.
In other words, you've asked me a question I'm still struggling with.
LF: What is the best piece of writing advice you've been given to date? What is one piece of writing advice you wish you'd been given?
CC: The best advice I ever got—and it came to me over and over, from many professors and writers—was this: Write what you can write. It's deceptively simple advice. Basically it means: Know thyself. I spent years trying and failing to be David Foster Wallace 2.o, when what I really needed to understand was which stories I could write better than anyone else, and in what style. It sounds all Zen and mystical, but it's true, and as a teacher my primary focus has been trying to help students understand what they can do better than anyone else, more personally than anyone else (as opposed to, say, writing a copy of Twilight.)
The advice I wish I'd been given? That's harder. If I could talk to my younger self I'd tell him not to worry so much—that even if he wasn't going to be published at nineteen (as he truly believed he would be), that was okay, because he still had a lot of learning to do. But even if someone had told me that, would I have listened? Probably not. Writers only get to be writers because they're stubborn and weirdly optimistic about their own chances. I'm where I am now because of my past successes and my past failures. I have to own them all.
Christopher Coake will present a reading of his fiction in Bucknell Hall on Tuesday, October 16, at 7 p.m. This reading and all Stadler Center Writers Series Events are free and open to the public.
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