AN INTERVIEW WITH T COOPER, AUTHOR OF SOME OF THE PARTS
"...I guess for me, it's important to see characters rendered solidly in their geography. I know New York very well, and it was where I wanted most of this book to take place. As for Los Angeles, it was hard I guess, not to let it slip in. It's such a weird fucking place. People are just so strange there in their little ways and needs and wants. The cliches that surround the character Taylor, especially, were intentional on my part. It's totally cliched that she would go there, sleep her way into "the business" and not ever really get grounded. It's almost impossible not to if you're half-way good-looking and otherwise unskilled."
Matthew Wascovich interviews T Cooper
COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
I was the newest addition to the freak show. And don't think it was easy getting the job. I got it purely on account of the geek's misfortune. Once the animal protection laws went into effect and actually started being enforced, the geek was rendered pretty much useless and couldn't get good enough at anything else to stay with the show. Sure, he tried sword-swallowing, but soon after discovered that his gag reflex wasn't as persistent as most people's, and thus he couldn't get the swords out of there when needed. Then, I think, he tried lifting heavy objects as the strong man but ended up with a slipped disc in his spine.
Anytime you asked one of the old-timers what happened to the geek, they'd cast their eyes down and shake their heads. The snake charmer invariably crossed herself and muttered something softly in Latin even at the mention of the geek's name, which I was told not to utter or pass on in any way, shape or form. It was apparently something more than the amnimal protection laws that plagued the geek.
3AM: Please tell me about your background.
TC: I was born and raised in Los Angeles, although I consistently feel like a space alien whenever I return there. I left at age 17 to go to college in Vermont. It was very cold in Vermont. I repeatedly awoke in the mornings to perfectly blue skies and bright sun, took my shower, ate some breakfast, and then promptly put on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt--bringing along a sweatshirt jumper in case I got a chill. Needless to say, you cannot dress this way in Vermont, even in September and October. It took a few fall seasons for me to figure this out. Or in other words, to start wearing dopey pants and bulky wool sweaters even though it appeared to my Southern Californian eyes to be clear, sunny and warm each day.
After college, I moved to New Orleans and taught high and middle school English and writing for a couple of years before moving up to New York, where I've been for about six years or so. I've worked in magazine publishing, including a few years during which I for some mysterious reason longed to write articles for publications like Parenting and Out magazines. But soon I wised up to the ridiculousness of writing "service" pieces for these types of slicks, and then I started graduate school in fiction writing at Columbia University. (I do have to my credit a few gems from my Parenting magazine years: What to do when your child becomes the teacher's pet, and a hard-news story on family restrooms being established at various stadiums around the country.)
3AM: How did you start out as a writer? Talk a bit about the development of your book, Some of the Parts.
TC: I initially worked on short stories for about a year but knew that I wanted to start a novel, so I just started this one. It didn't dawn on me to write a typical coming-of-age novel, centering on one character. Those have never appealed to me as a reader, so it wasn't there as a writer. So I came up with a story of these four, a kind of post-nuclear-family family. I ended up completing about half of "Some of the Parts" as my graduate thesis, and then finished it up, did a few revisions and started sending it out shortly thereafter. I was looking at agents, but also smaller publishers simultaneously. Akashic liked it, and so that was that. I really have grown to appreciate the attention writers get from small publishers like Akashic. It's just such a fair arrangement, where you can be as involved (or as uninvolved) as you'd like to be in virtually every aspect of creating a book. I know a lot of folks with whom I attended grad school (an MFA program) who snagged great deals with big corporate publishers for their books, and yet after booking one event for them, securing a review or two in the S.F. Chronicle or N.Y. Times, their publishers pretty much forget that they exist. With smaller publishers, there's more of a partnership-the small press doesn't choose to publish books that it doesn't believe in 100%. Because the very existence and survival of small presses depend on each book they publish.
I'm not sure how I got on that tangent... I guess that the idea of the "development of the book" can have many interpretations.
I came up with the characters from my head. They are not based on real life characters from my experience. Nor is the novel particularly autobiographical. I guess the standard line that none of it is true and all of it is true holds here. Other types of development... Well, lots and lots of revision. Not the kind where you thow away entire drafts and repeatedly start over, but the kind where you just keep reading and re-reading, writing stuff on big paper on the wall to see how it lines up, fits in, and then moving around scenes and chapters and the like. And deleting a lot. A lot of sloppy-writing-elimination for me. I guess I just need to get it all out first, and then I can whittle it down accordingly.
I also have a background in performance. I started a boy-band drag king performance troupe called the Backdoor Boys. We basically poked fun at pop culture through the medium of the boy-band phenomenon--especially the Backstreet Boys, the uber-boy-band. We performed their songs, with perfect style, choreography, etc., but we brought out the homoeroticism in these groups. How they are so femmey and gay in so many ways, these boys. Back to Sinatra, the Beatles, Frankie Avalon, Ricky Martin, Sean Cassidy, you name it. All are so well-groomed and beautiful, non-sexually threatening in many ways. And they borrow so much from gay male culture without knowing it. Perfectly sculpted facial hair? Check. Latest "edgy" tattoos? Check. You name it, and the boys in boy bands do what the boys in Chelsea and West Hollywood and the Castro have been doing for a year prior. We played out our eroticism toward each other on stage, rather than toward our "fans" (teenybopper girls in theory, even though we had in reality fans from pretty much every background except the white, over-50 Republican set). It was a trip and got much bigger than we'd expected. Started out as a joke, but took off into something bigger (though still a goof in the bigger picture). We did get a lot of press, TV appearances, film cameos, etc.. I think people thought we looked so "real" and were so sweet and cute, and yet we were basically having anal sex and going down on each other by the end of each number on stage... Raised some eyebrows along the way (you can check out some pix of the group on my website (click on the Backdoor Boys link).
As for the character Isak in the book. I definitely imbued her with some of my performance experience as a Backdoor Boy. And as a person. I have passed as a boy in some of my experience, and the cross-country scenes in the book are taken somewhat from that. Well, that and what I know has happened to friends of mine with similar gender differences. But again, it wouldn't be right to say that Isak is me. In some ways, I "relate" to her the most on the surface. But in a lot of ways, the character of Arlene is my "favorite" character in the book. She gets the least "screen-time" so to speak, but in many ways she kills me the most. I don't exactly know why. Something about that place where you've fucked up so much over and over, and there's nowhere else to turn but down another grocery store aisle, but then you slowly start to figure it out. That's such a universal place.
3AM: Tell me more about Charlie, one of your four primary characters in the book. I found it intriguing that his sister, Arlene, would be so accepting of him, however difficult that it may be.
TC: I guess that Charlie was an important aspect of the "family" I was creating in the book. It seemed like any representation of urban families in the new century had to include the epidemic which decimated so many families (both given and chosen) in the latter part of the 20th century. Only this is an "updated" version of someone with the virus. This is not a character who is sadly, sickly dying in the arms of ex-lovers, friends etc, in a dismal hospital bed in New York City or San Francisco. Yes, he's HIV positive, but he's healthy, and who the hell knows what's going to happen--if/when/how he's going to die. It may end like that, but that's not the part of the process I was interested in portraying through his character.
Charlie's faced with this virus coursing through him, but in a way, it's the least of his problems--or at least not his biggest problem. When you look at it, he has the same needs, fears, fuck-ups, loves, hates (etc.) as many people, HIV positive or not. Being HIV positive doesn't define him and presage the rest of his life. I'm not saying there's not a place for this kind of AIDS literature, just that perhaps that time has morphed into something else. By no means is the disease not a problem anymore, but it's just different, and I hope Charlie somewhat represents this shift.
Charlie is more affected by mortality in the form of his dying friend Bryan than his own mortality. He is more consumed with the death of his intense friendship with Isak than with the prospect of his own potential demise. I guess it just came out that way with some of these characters. Even Isak: Yes, she's a transgendered person who is often in danger because she is so different than most people on the gender spectrum, but that is not all she is. It is only one aspect of her, while her needs, problems, concerns, etc. are practically universal--like Charlie's, Arlene's, yours, mine.
Some literature with "different" characters focuses so intensely on the differences; sometimes it's to the exclusion of other interesting things that happen to people--other real-life experiences that are equally as present as discrimination, violence etc... I guess I was hoping to take that a little further than "This is what it's like to be a fag, and this is what it's like to be a fag at work, on the street, at the gym. Here's me--as a fag--fucking my boyfriend," and so on. Yeah, that's all important and sometimes interesting to read, but what else? What more can we see of a person, underneath the sexual orientation, gender identity, color, health status, class and so forth.
I think Arlene ultimately accepts Charlie and lets him in because she witnessed what happens to a family when something as ridiculous as sexuality tears it apart (what might've happened in her past with her parents and their handling of Charlie as a son). So she's finally coming around to the place where she can put a stop to the cycle and start doing the right thing by her family, by her self. It doesn't always come quickly, but in bits she starts to figure it out. She sees the disintegration of her relationship with the only remaining family she has (her daughter Taylor), and somewhere it hits her that you have to start somewhere. I think she sees the opportunity to breathe some life into her relationship with her brother as that place to start. She may not get it right every time (she blunders with some of the things she says to Charlie, and of course doesn't "get" him), but in general, slowly, they're heading in the right direction-figuring some of it out together.
3AM: Your novel takes the reader through NYC, Providence, Rhode Island, and Los Angeles-- tell me a little about the geography of your book.
TC: Well, I live in New York, grew up in Los Angeles, and at one point thought that it might be cool to live with a "family" type of circle of people up in Providence. That's the short answer, and I'm not sure how much of it has to do with why they play large parts in the book.
The longer answer is that I guess for me, it's important to see characters rendered solidly in their geography. I know New York very well, and it was where I wanted most of this book to take place. As for Los Angeles, it was hard I guess, not to let it slip in. It's such a weird fucking place. People are just so strange there in their little ways and needs and wants. The cliches that surround the character Taylor, especially, were intentional on my part. It's totally cliched that she would go there, sleep her way into "the business" and not ever really get grounded. It's almost impossible not to if you're half-way good-looking and otherwise unskilled.
I think that the criss-crossing of the country--the triangle of cities--these are important to what the characters are doing on "deeper" levels in the book. So I guess the geography mirrors what's going on with them to some extent--the searching for home business. And I think that the characters find that both the geographical and figurative places that often seem like home don't necessarily end up being home.
3AM: What's next for you T?
TC: I'm embarking upon an *almost* 30-city reading tour across the U.S. and Canada, from September to December. Doing a lot of independent bookstores, but since my book was selected in the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, we added about 8 or 9 Barnes & Noble stores on the tour--mostly in the bigger cities like L.A. and Denver. I never thought I'd be reading at places like these, but for a small press, first-time author, it's very helpful to have a massive corporate bookseller behind you. It's a complicated balance, but if it gets more people interested in my book, I'm all for it. I'm also hitting some women's bookstores across the country--though they are sadly a dying breed, aren't they?
3AM: Any new books in the works?
TC: I'm at the very beginning stages of another novel. No working title, and not much more than a few pages and some outlines and ideas. I'd really intended to do a lot of work on it this summer, but the planning and production of SOTP ended up taking much more time than I'd anticipated. I'll have some time to turn to this project after the first of the year, when I imagine my reading schedule will have died down considerably.
3AM: Anything else that you would like to mention?
TC: Not so much. My dog Murray is turning 9 in April. That's like, 63.
3AM: We love to hear what people are listening to. Name your current top five records or songs.
TC: Do they have to be current music? If so, I'm in trouble. Here are five of the CD's that are scattered on my table because they've been recently played a lot:
- Bix Beiderbecke--One of my favorite horn-blowers of all time. I've got a bunch of his old recordings from the 20's and 30's, and specifically I just got a new 2-CD collection from a company I think is in Britain. It's one of those cheesy "Gold Collections," but there were a few recordings on it that I didn't have on other records. A fine couple of hours of some pretty swinging and transcendant jazz. It's called "Bix Beiderbecke: Dejavu Retro Gold Collection," (2001)
- Eminem's newest record, "The Eminem Show," (2002) I have no excuse for this, and no one is forcing me to listen to it.
- The Carter Family, "The Carter Family," (1991)
- Dolly Parton, "Little Sparrow," 2001 (Her first new bluegrass album)
- Lucinda Williams, "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road," 1998