TSP – The Story Prize Guest Blog: My Anti-House

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Carolyn Cooke’s Anti-House


In the 59th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Carolyn Cooke, author of Amor and Psycho (Alfred A. Knopf), gives us a tour of her eccentric studio.


Where do you do most of your work? 
I work in an uninsulated cabin that sits alone on a hill, not quite visible from my house, which is by almost any American standard also a cabin. The cabin that is not my house—call it my anti-house—has nine recycled windows and looks out over redwoods, tanoak, bullpines, and the ocean. A wooden ladder rises to a loft, which holds a futon covered with sheets that never need to be changed and an important pillow made from one of my husband’s old shirts and embroidered with the words “I Love You Mom,” which I keep as I might keep a deed in a safe deposit box, as proof. I sleep better and harder here than anywhere I’ve ever slept, and dream higher-quality dreams.

The anti-house is furnished with discards from my other life. The only precious object is an antique card table with a bit of inlay work at the front. My desk chair, straight-backed and Puritan, has a hole in the seat and wisps of horsehair coming out. There’s also a lounge chair with a pony hide that went through a fire (here, in 1999, my fault). Next to the chair sits a reading table containing a white metal lamp of the kind that cost $2 in the 1970s, two dictionaries, and four ivory elephants. The elephants—they used to be five—are the last things my Nana asked about before she died: “Have you lost my ivory elephants already?” with a kind of resignation I might one day remember to practice. There’s a mug containing the same red pencils my grandfather used to correct my letters to him and three wood-and glass cases containing rocks and birds’ eggs. A canvas guest chair bought at Conran’s in New York in 1980 threatens constantly to rip, but I don’t worry about that because I rarely have guests. 

 The cabin contains a minimum of everything (besides human company) I need to survive: hot plate, sink, coffee articles, cans of soup, and a jar of peanut butter bought from the co-op the year my daughter turned nine. There’s one fork, one spoon, a Buck knife, and a Ball jar. There’s a telephone, an olive-green typewriter bought in Hamburg, Germany, in 1991, a dog bed, and a dog.
The books here are those I wandered up the hill with—essays, novels, diaries and poetry: Woolf, Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Roth, Trevor, Joyce, Ellison, Davis, Munro, Paley, Jewett, Lahiri, Lopez, Gaitskill, Michaels, Chekhov, Sontag, Didion, Eliot, Glück, Robinson, Stevens, Whitman, and Yeats. There are letters of Flaubert and Bishop (this last a fat volume that went through the fire and smells strongly of ashes and pine) and also twenty or so binders of letters, notes, journals, and sketches, which I combine in an endless work called “The Cord” and pillage regularly.

My anti-house is a private shell, a container for things that seemed important enough to drag up the hill. Myself, for example. It contains the part of life I made out of nothing, out of sentences. When I make my way here and get to work, I leave myself for a while, forget what I am. Later I head down the hill blurry and disoriented, stumbling over pine roots.

Where does this obsession come from, to see life, to nail it down with words, essentially instead of living, or as a way of living? I have a friend who designed and built an art studio in one of the years it took me not to finish my second book. He dug holes, poured concrete, laid joists and beams, erected a shell, ran electric wire through the walls, hung sheet rock, painted and plumbed—while I constructed and tore down phrases. (Now he has an anti-house to face his demons in.)

The house I live in embraces what Roland Barthes has called “the spectacular pleasures of domestic life”: newspapers, Band-Aids, roast chickens, day lilies, brass polish, old address books, train sets, ski jackets, sheet sets, screw drivers, stamps, soaps, vitamins, constant wireless contact with the world and an evolving cast of people to whom I feel connected by ties of affection and duty. My anti-house says no to all that.


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26th Anniversary

Image26th anniversary.  It was the whole time in a day.  We disposed of a dead mouse, accessing the inner Woody Allen movie and confronting the terrors that have been the sous-conversation of the marriage. Who takes care of whom and what? Considerable heat – a little agony, a little ecstasy, followed by a long walk in the redwoods, a frittata, a competitive Times crossword, a promise to trade two 300-page manuscripts this Thursday and Friday, the constant conversation/negotiation/anxiety that apparently comforts us.  We are maniacs now, too extreme for anyone but each other.  We end the evening with a playlist:  J.U.F. meets Amy Winehouse, Mabel Mercer meets Leonard Cohen, Siouxsie and the Banshees meet Mahalia. Amid the chaos of this extended effort and the sudden silence of the music, we retreat to our separate corners, momentarily at peace.

Note to self:  “Are you in your stall, brother?” Virginia supposedly said to Leonard – a courtesy between writers/intimates who work a room away from each other – before unleashing the full force. 

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Why There Are Words Literary Reading Series presents: An interview with Carolyn Cooke By Nancy Au

Carolyn Cooke’s Daughters of the Revolution was listed among the best novels of 2011 by the San Francisco Chronicle and The New Yorker Magazine. Her short fiction has appeared in AGNI, The Paris Review, and two volumes each of Best American Short Stories and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. These stories were collected in The Bostons, which won the PEN/Bingham Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway. She teaches in the MFA writing program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.

1.) In Daughters of the Revolution, your character Madeleine is described as an expert at “coaxing nature to an unnatural intensity.” This reminds me of how a writer’s craft can lie in forming sentences with words that might not naturally go together to create a compelling emotion or image in readers’ minds. You do this so beautifully. What does your revision process look like to do so? How much work goes into reshaping individual sentences in your writing?

Carolyn Cooke:  I appreciate what you suggest here:  that our job is to put together words that don’t “naturally go together.”  For me writing is like performance art of a solitary kind. You have material, and a shimmery idea or image.  But the hot moments happen while you’re blind. You can almost feel the parallel world running through your veins, coming out the ends of your fingers. Other times sentences lie there in a state of such pitiable crudeness you have to pound the keys like a bricklayer chopping old grout with a hammer.  Edwin Arlington Robinson spoke of the “ache to be sublime.”  I need experiences of the sublime every day.  It’s like an addiction:  spending hours trying to lose consciousness of ordinary life, waiting for the jolt of capturing something unsayable.

2.) Your character, Carole, is an artist, a gifted painter who “for years…worked only on painted heads…They looked like bowling balls, decapitations. They looked as if they had rolled there.” This image makes me wonder if you are also a visual artist. How do these types of images come into your mind? Do you have suggestions for writers to likewise invigorate their scenes?

Carolyn: My ambition is to write the way Lucian Freud painted. Somebody said that being painted by Freud was like being “flayed alive.” His family sat for him anyway. I would have, too.  There’s a brutal quality of attention in Freud’s work that feels almost indistinguishable from love. This has to do with the time it takes to really see people who matter to us – even if they’re characters in a novel. It isn’t a trick of paint or of language. Daughters was influenced by two Chicago painters:  Judith Raphael, who paints pubescent girls in attitudes borrowed from heroic Roman sculpture, and Susanna Coffey, who for many years painted only her own head – but many, many versions. I’m not a visual artist, but seek out friends who are. The problems of writers interestingly resemble the problems of painters and performance artists and choreographers. A line like “Build up the color from white” could have been a prompt for Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady.

3.) You have some of the best, most interesting names for characters. What is your process like in selecting first names like “God” (short for Goddard), and last names like Rebozos? Do you have a personal “rule” that you stick to when naming characters?

Carolyn: My mother was delivered by a man named Coffin. New England is filled with people who go by interesting names – Bun, Shirty, Mucker, Squeak. Look at the early witch hunters – Cotton and Increase Mather. As I hammered away at my novel, my God and Carol Faust enacting their gendered drama, Lawrence Summers got thrown out of Harvard for a line of dialogue that might have come from my own first draft  – and Drew Faust became president of Harvard! Names matter, but I resist trying to create a semblance of the ordinary. Ordinary life isn’t really my subject.

4.) The idea of individuality and personhood — who we believe ourselves to be — seems to be a theme in your novel. For example, when Mrs. Graves helps to type another character’s obituary (I won’t reveal who’s obituary!), she is overcome with a sense of control and closeness to that person. She could edit the obituary as she saw fit, “feeling she knew him better than anyone.” I took this to mean that we are not in control of our own identity, that others see us (and will remember us after death) as they want to. Can you talk about that? What are other themes that you find yourself exploring?

Carolyn: Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary that “If my father had lived to be ninety his life would have ended mine.”  The role of women – especially wives and daughters – in mopping up the literary lives of men, of typing up the remnants as a means of self-expression and because it’s expected, is too provoking to thump on here.  Sexuality and mortality are compelling themes, too.

5.) What would I find on your writing desk right now if I could glimpse it, and what would that tell me about the crafting of Daughters of the Revolution?

Carolyn: I’ve now lived in Northern California for over 20 years – and feel liberated to shift focus from the world of Daughters. Right now my desk is piled up with reading about technology and identity – Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, and a couple of books by Ellen Ullman: Close to the Machine about her life as an early software engineer and her new novel, By Blood, about adoption, the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, eavesdropping, sexuality, and San Francisco in the 1970s. Ronaldo Wilson’s Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man – incredibly sexy, scary work. Wilson spontaneously creates prose poems — and records them on his iPhone while running. He’s literally an insight machine. Justin Torres’s We The Animals – because I’m about to meet him at Why There Are Words!  I have a big, messy scribbled-over copy of my forthcoming collection of short stories, Amor & Psycho, and eight or ten small yellow lined pads filled with urgent matter – images, dreams, stolen dialogue, lists of books, essential lines. Half the time I can’t even read the words. Sometimes misreading is useful.  Maybe the point is just being surrounded by writing, by the mess and process of it.  

Come out and hear Carolyn Cooke — and Justin Torres! — June 14.

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Like many people all over the world this week, I’ve gorged myself on whatever information I can find about the people’s revolution in Egypt. I watch Al Jazeera English while listening in the background to CNN, scanning updates from the New York Times and the BBC, and following six or seven Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and blogs. In the face of such relentless “connection,” who has time to read?

Writers constantly experiment to find how various shades of “meaning” can be conveyed by information and atmosphere, description and detail. Many of the narratives we (as writers and readers) value are not “informative” in a 24-hour cycle way; they speak to other urgencies, which in heated moments feel harder to articulate. What kinds of information and description best broadcast the “situation” on the ground? What kinds of detail evoke the atmosphere and context of the larger social-economic-cultural-historical picture?

Dare I mention – novels, essays, memoirs?

The late, great Cairo-raised Palestinian critic and public intellectual Edward Said, who so eloquently challenged and dissected the western construct of “Orientalism,” describes in an essay called “After Mahfouz” the ways in which “narrative prose fiction played a crucial role in creating a national consciousness” in Egypt and the Arab world, and how “Arabic novelists stood squarely wherever issues of destiny, society and direction were being debated or investigated.”

This weekend, I’ll be turning back to a few works of fiction and nonfiction born of Egypt, to tap into the deeper currents of last week’s events.

André Aciman, Out of Egypt: A Memoir
Alaa Al Aswany, The Yacoubian Building
Naguib Mahfouz, Midaq Alley, The Thief and the Dogs, and Miramar
Max Rodenbeck, Cairo: The City Victorious
Edward Said, Reflections on Exile

Finally, I’ll take a sneak peek at “El Shooq,” the photo portfolio by noted musicologist and resident of Cairo, Kristina Nelson, which will appear in the CIIS literary magazine, Mission at Tenth, later this spring. The portfolio documents the shooting of the recently-released film “El Shooq” (Translated as “Lust”) by author and screenwriter Sayed Ragab – as well as compelling photos of Tahrir Square in the “Days of Hope.”

What books, images and other texts and works have moved you to think more deeply about Egypt and the Middle East?

Carolyn Cooke is an Associate Professor in the Writing, Consciousness and Creative Inquiry MFA Department at the California Institute of Integral Studies, and the author of the novel, Daughters of the Revolution, forthcoming in June from Alfred A. Knopf.

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Going Graphic: The Comics and Tragics of Mere Literary Mortals

A few years ago I drew a couple of spontaneous, semi-tragic comics. One described events on the day my father died, and the other an afternoon in 1998 when my 98-year-old grandmother demanded that we visit the pet cemetery; she no longer wished to be buried on top of her husband in the family plot. I’d worked over this material before – writing is for me a form of chewing – but it felt both too charged and too ridiculous. The visual aspects of both stories overwhelmed my desire to describe them in words. And so, with my poor spatial sense and stick figure skills, I drew them. The form – the structure of the four boxes – opened three-dimensionally; my pen moved in a new way, described a wheelchair pushed by my then-three-year old daughter up a vertiginous hill into the pet cemetery. Choosing a few visual elements and severely limiting the narrative opened both stories up. Four panels, and suddenly, the stories made sense.

A few of the most intensely imagined novels I’ve read over the past decade (or two) have been, well, graphic: Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (The Holocaust) and In the Shadow of No Towers (9/11); Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (Iranian Revolution of 1979), Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (a young lesbian comes out more or less simultaneously with her father). Last Saturday night, Gene Luen Yang came to CIIS to talk about his trajectory from comics geek to author of American-Born Chinese, the first graphic novel to be nominated for the National Book Award.

The quality that allows comics to handle serious, even tragic subjects, Yang says, is “intimacy.” Comics remind me inexorably of the seductive spinning drugstore racks of my youth, filled with cheap newsprint stories whose cachet consisted almost entirely of my economic power to acquire and devour them. (One working definition of “intimacy” must certainly be early experience of greedy possession.)
But the comic is also – by the very limits of the frame – a withholding medium. Roland Barthes described engagement by the reader brought about by the author’s refusal to reveal the whole story as “writerly” fiction. The reader “reads” into the text – “enters” it in an erotic and (if you are lucky enough to have this sort of imagination) a literal sense. Spiegelman’s Jewish mice, or the simply rendered, repetitive masses of veiled women in Satrapi’s Persepolis, or the father in Fun Home, the funeral director with a fever for restoration, are all wittily, charmingly rendered – and serious as death. The device of the frame is also an invitation to the gaze.

I thought again of these frames last night, while watching the Iranian Director Abbas Kiarostami’s brilliantly intimate film, “10.” The film consists of ten scenes that take place entirely within a car, as a young-ish Iranian woman, a photographer, divorced, loosely veiled, drives around Tehran. Everything we know about the woman, the city and the social, religious and political culture she inhabits comes from her seemingly casual conversation within the “frame” of the car, as the woman talks with her son, her sister, and even picks up strangers, including an old woman, a young, spurned would-be bride, and a prostitute.

The narrative never enters the mind of the woman; there’s no internal monologue, no voice-over. Yet frame is, if not quite a “voice,” a definite point of view. The constraints of the film echo the cultural and gender constraints upon the woman. We see her up close, all revealing surface – perhaps more intimately than she can see herself. The constraint of the frame (and possibly even the constraint of making such a revealing film in an authoritarian theocratic country like Iran) becomes part of the power of the story. This is not a psychologically nuanced story “about” a divorced female photographer living in Iran; it is, arguably, a more difficult thing – a story about the relentless surface of the world.

In conversation with poet Brynn Saito, Gene Yang described how as a kid he was drawn to the “two-in-one” clash-of-titans adventures like “Thing” and “Rom.” He persevered in solitary authorship, becoming weirder and more singular, as writers often do. In the world of comics, however, “self-publishing” and mini-comics sold by hand at conventions are not signs of loser-ness, but of “awesomeness,” he said – they show that you can manage and navigate the real world as well as fantasy.

The Revenge of the Geeks has been lavishly rendered by David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s recent film, “The Social Network” (book by Ben Mezrich), which chronicles and snarkily champions the asbergersy genius of the Mark Zuckerbergs over the old-money noblesse-obligey veneer of the WASP ancien régime. Meanwhile, in another realm of geekdom, it was inspiring to hear two American-born artist-writers named Brynn and Gene discussing their respective Chinese and Korean-Japanese families’ career expectations (“any specialty of doctor is okay”) and ways in which comics, graphic novels and even traditional poetic forms can eloquently render complex experiences of class, ethnicity, gender, alienation, tragedy and yes, even comedy – to capture the heroic quotidian, and the primal struggles of mortals.


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Danger and Beauty: Stories We Tell to Live

We were talking about the intersection of information and atmosphere in the short stories of the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat. What kind of consciousness and expectation does the reader bring to stories “about” Haiti? The challenge for Danticat is to subvert what we thought we knew, to write with the authority of observed detail, even detail observed inarguably in the imagination or passed down generations, hardened to a gemlike consistency. The challenge is to suggest (but not slavishly replicate) the sensations of lived life, to break down the distancing wall of our pity and evoke rather than merely name the atrocities – rape, suicide, dislocation, poverty, torture, murder – that
humans suffer at one another’s hands.

The job of the reporter is to give us facts and evidence, causes and effects. The job of the fiction writer is to refuse the simple story we thought we knew, to inscribe indelible marks on our soul. The artist Francis Bacon said, “I look for phrases that cut me.” This strikes me as a fairly accurate description of the serious and complex experience of reading Danticat, whose stories again and again reveal stark beauty of the hard thing said simply: “Madame Roger came home with her son’s head.” Or, “Her teeth were a dark red, as though caked with blood from the initial beating during her arrest.” Or, “The woman we had been staying with carried her dead son by the legs.” “All of these women were here for the same reason. They were said to have been seen at night rising from the ground like birds on fire.”

The risk of repelling the finer sensibilities of the reader is one risk of writing beautifully about danger and survival. Offending fellow survivors is another. In his essay “Return to Sender,” Mark Doty speaks of writing a memoir that ended his relationship with his father. “If there is meaning in this,” Doty writes, “it is that art cannot be counted on to mend the rifts within or without. Its work is to take us to the brink of clarity.” Writing does not alleviate suffering. Doty’s father’s silence “is a burning in which I reside.”

Survival stories – the stories we tell to live – may be realist or postmodern, geopolitical or personal. They may find forms of beauty in the most harrowing things. Indeed the act of reading – of taking the hard stories of others into our own skins – may even expand and intensify human suffering, which is one definition of consciousness.

This Saturday night (October 9th) at the Litquake Lit Crawl, students and faculty of the California Institute of Integral Studies’ MFA Department present “Danger and Beauty: Stories We Tell To Live.” 7:15-8:15 p.m. at the Women’s Building, Room A, 3543 18th Street, San Francisco. Readers include Sarah Stone, April Serr, Brynn Saito, Pauline Reif, and Carolyn Cooke.

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The Novel, Unplugged

Did you happen to see the essay on the back page of yesterday’s (July 18, 2010) New York Times Book Review? It’s by Gary Shteyngart (also interviewed by Deborah Solomon in the Sunday mag about his new novel Super Sad True Love Story – the greedy gut!). It’s called “Only Disconnect,” and is a witty take on “unplugging” for a weekend in upstate New York and reading a novel instead of playing with his iphone:

“I open a novel, A Short History of Women, by Kate Walbert, a book I will grow to love over the coming week, but at first my data-addled brain is puzzled by the density and length of it (256 pages? How many screens will that fill?), the onrush of feeling and fact, the surprise that someone has let me not into her Facebook account but into the way other minds work. I read and reread the first two pages understanding nothing. Big things are happening. World War I. The suffragist movement. Out of instinct I almost try to press the text of the deckle-edged pages, hoping something will pop up, a link to something trivial and fast. But nothing does. Slowly, and surely, just as the sun begins to swoon over the Hudson River and another Amtrak honks its way past Rhinebeck, delivering its digital refugees upstream, I begin to sense the world between covers, much as I sense the world around me, a world corporeal and complete, a world that doesn’t need the press of my thumb, because here beneath the weeping willow my input is meaningless.”

How cool for Kate, her book as the delivery mechanism for such a revelation.


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