On writer (and current Memphian) C. Bard Cole's latest book, the experimental This Is Where My Life Went Wrong (BLATT Books): a [Q]&A.
My friend in Memphis, Brian Pera ... I've known him since the late 1990s. I'd met him in New York City. We had the same editor at St. Martin's for our first books.
Brian was planning to start shooting his first movie, The Way I See Things. He had one position he could pay for and that he hadn't filled. It was boom operator. Brian said, "Do you want to work on my movie? You can forget about New Orleans for the month or so it'll take to shoot." I said okay. The cinematographer on that movie, Ryan Parker, trained me to operate the boom. I had a great time.
Then I went home to Maryland to figure out what I was going to do ... hoard some money. Tulane had canceled the semester. It had fired the instructors in my position ... first-year writing instructor. So I worked at a commercial greenhouse in Maryland.
Then Ryan helped me get a job at WKNO in Memphis, and that's where I've been ever since. I started as a production assistant doing all sorts of stuff — from manual labor to working on sets to learning about editing. Now I'm in promotions and the public information department.
There's another movie with Brian and Ryan coming up. I'm the production designer, and this time, we're trying to be a bit more "Hollywood." Ann Magnuson is gonna be one of our stars. I'm excited to meet her. When I was a little kid, well, not a little kid, a teenager, I used to look at Interview magazine and things I thought were cool, urban ... New York. Ann was there, right in there.
I grew up in Maryland, went to Sarah Lawrence as an undergrad, and lived in New York for most of the '90s — in the great fat days of the late '90s. I was a graphic designer for a financial management consulting firm, back when you had the last group of executives who didn't think they should touch computers. Then the new generation asked, Why do we have these extra people?
I love New York, and I don't want to say I loved being there during 9/11. But it was one of those moments when the reality of the world so completely overtakes any individual feeling. Where ... it's like people living through WWII: a primary reality. That year in New York after 9/11 was such an enveloping experience that I treasure it in a lot of ways. But it also wrecked the city's economy.
I couldn't figure out ... as you get older, in New York, you think either I'm making enough money that I can imagine staying there the rest of my life. Or I'm not. I thought, I don't want to be so career-driven that I have to worry about it.
Just the other day, WKNO moved to a new building. Station president Mike LaBonia's secretary was throwing out stuff that had accumulated in his office, and that included a U of A ashtray. I'm not "Alabama" enough to have ever bought that on my own, but I AM Alabama enough not to let it go in the trash.
[Sandy Huss vs. Willa Cather.]
Sandy Huss was a teacher at Alabama, and Sandy is ... I would lay the blame for This Is Where My Life Went Wrong ... well, you'd have to split the blame between Sandy and another teacher, Michael Martone. Sandy: She was a big believer in automatic-writing exercises.
You know how the people who are the most rule-bending and rule-breaking also love to be disciplinarians? We were gonna do automatic writing whether we thought it was BS or not.
But I'd already gone through a puritanical period. You know when you read contemporary fiction and there are so many adjectives? I remember reading a first-person novel and someone describes the color of their eyes. That would just enrage me! Now when does anybody ever say "My eyes were the color of an overly ripe persimmon that has been left out to broil"? NO ONE ever describes the color of their own eyes. So I went through a period where I just didn't want anything that was "writer-program-y."
Well, Sandy broke me down ... through automatic writing.
The idea ... what you could do ... once I'd cleared my head of the conventional ways to employ language to produce beautiful effects, once I'd wiped out my desire to imitate New Yorker beautiful prose, I started to be attracted to ways that used language in a loving, lush kind of way. That puritanical part of me was appeased.
[This Is How My Life Went Wrong.]
Actually, the rough draft I wrote over a summer. What I'd do was sit down for an hour every day. I had a jar containing what started as 24 pencils. They were Black Warrior pencils, for all of us Tuscaloosans.
"Black Warrior" is the translation of "Tuscaloosa." It's a make of pencil that has nothing to do with Tuscaloosa.
I'd write continuously for an hour. And by "continuously," I mean that, literally. I'd end up every morning with five or six pages covered with pencil markings, some of which I was never able to read again.
When I was halfway through, I started transcribing what I'd written. That sharpened my sense of the themes and images that were emerging. That's when I had the idea that this book was sort of, in certain thematic and emotional ways, the arc of a life, starting with childhood and one's early explorations of the world and going up though a teenage and young-adult awakening of love and eroticism. Then blending into more of a philosophical, contemplative place where you start to think about mortality, why we exist and die, and what we leave behind.
I really came to love this project. There's so much you want to be able to share with other people. When I'm writing conventional stories, sometimes it feels like I'm building a large infrastructure around a little insight or an emotional moment. With this book, I thought: I at least have to write one thing that puts almost everything I know into it. Even if it's not something most people would conventionally enjoy. At least I know I got it all out at one time.
In a lot of ways, that comes naturally to me. In more conventional story forms, I've always felt ... a lot of people will remark on the quality of my conversation, in terms of punning, allusiveness, tying things together you wouldn't necessarily expect to tie together. I don't want to be one of those writers who, after they've gone, well ... I wanted to find a way to capture that part of myself, rather than hoping I could write a wryly ironic New Yorker story.
I have three older sisters. The oldest loved painting. The middle sister was into sports. And my youngest wrote. She taught me to read when I was 3 or 4 because she was bored and wanted to play school.
Some of the books we had in the house ... they were, I think, my oldest sister's Bluebird handbooks, like Campfire Girls. Are there still Campfire Girls? They competed with Girl Scouts. These books had little illustrations, little sequenced illustrations of, say, how to tie your kerchief, instructional illustrations. My mom's old textbooks too ... they had phrases like, "An alligator pear is neither an alligator nor a pear." I didn't realize until maybe last year that an alligator pear is an avocado.
We were country children. There's a kind of isolation ... I didn't grow up around children on a daily basis. My grandparents' house ... my parents bought it from them. It wasn't a farm, but we had chickens. I had a goat.
In college, a friend of mine ... she grew up in the country, in Georgia. It was a chic thing for the kids we were in college with to say they NEVER watched TV, TV is so stupid. But me and my friend from Georgia, we just LOVED television. It was the only way we knew there was a Europe and art museums. It was from watching television and looking at National Geographic. Those were the ways we learned about the world and what was out there.
Funny, the first thing I had published in a book was in an anthology of gay erotic stories, a series called Flesh and the Word. And I thought, this is not something you should show to your mother.
But there's something in me ... I just couldn't ... when you have, for the first time, your fiction put in a book ... I'm the kind of person I'm going to show it to my mother: You know, "You don't have to read this, but I wanted you to know I've done it." And after she read my book of short stories, Briefly Told Lives, one of the things she said to me was, "Well, I guess now I know you've smoked marijuana." Because one of the stories in there is about a high school student who seemed a lot like me who smoked pot. Funny, because it was fiction.
This book, though, This Is Where My Life Went Wrong, I don't know what she'll think. My mom's 72. The book comes out almost 10 years since my first book. This one: I had to dedicate it to my mother. If I wait 10 more years ...
He died when I was a teenager.
One of the scary things they do at Sarah Lawrence, I don't know if they do it now ... you looked at the course offerings, you'd sign up on the teacher's door for an interview, you talked to them and found out if the course was right for you.
I got to Sarah Lawrence, I wanted to study writing, and I went into the little annex where the writers had their offices. I panicked. I can't sign up at E.L. Doctorow's door to ask why I should take his course. I was too intimidated to take writing courses then. I didn't until my senior year, when I formally studied fiction. I instead studied art history, spent a year at Parson's to study architecture. History and art history. French and Italian. That really suited me.
I'd known Travis Jeppesen, one of BLATT's founders, in New York, and he went to Europe very shortly after that. He'd done short books at BLATT, and he wanted to do a novel contest. That was under way, and I'd had this book being looked at. Meanwhile, Michael Martone showed it to Fiction Collective 2 — an arduous, horrible process: to have your book being looked at by FC2.
FC2 was designed to highlight experimental fiction. It has a contest. Michael Martone sponsored my book.
FC2: It's like the Vatican, the path to sainthood. One person proposes your manuscript. Another person has to be the advocate for it. The advocate has to convince other people that it's worth considering. Then more people read it.
FC2: It became, like, a year. I was feeling like a 38-year-old who's trying out for the Olympics in a sport he loves, making the second cut but not making the team. I was thinking how much more energy do I have to do this?
So when FC2 decided they didn't want to publish my manuscript, I showed it to Travis. When he read it, he wanted to know why I hadn't put the book in his contest. That's how I ended up at BLATT.
[Six Little Things.]
Six Little Things is a quarterly online literary magazine I came up with after I finished my MFA. I wanted to find a project I could use that would keep me in touch with the kind of writers' community I was lucky to be a part of for three years at Alabama.
I thought hard about how to come up with an idea I could always manage to do, by myself, four times a year, no matter where I was or what else I was doing. Focusing on prose poems and short short stories by others was a way to do that. It also made it the kind of space that attracted fiction writers and poets and put them on the same footing. I've learned a lot about fiction writing from poets, and I wanted to keep playing with them.
Since I've settled into living here, it's given me a good reason to contact artists whose work interests me, like Tad Lauritzen Wright and Alex "Warble" Harrison, who, as it turns out, is my neighbor. Alex's paintings are featured in the next issue of Six Little Things.
I did a tour with my first book, and some of the readings were great. Some of them ... you're there with two people. You're deciding which is more humiliating: to not do the reading or to read like you're in a lecture hall ... with two people.
But I'm grateful for any attention I get. Experimental fiction is not ... it's an obscure art.
Oh my God, yeah ... in a certain way the "Capote on Cather" piece in This Is Where My Life Went Wrong is me talking about Sarah. I met her when I was 22 or so. I was an intern at a gay newspaper called The Native, which is now defunct. She has a pretty intense sense of moral clarity. It's very convincing. But sometimes her judgment of other writers, whether or not their work is worthy, it can be a little harsh. But she's somebody I admire tremendously.
She doesn't blurb just anyone. But Sarah would tell me who will like my work, where I should send it. And I did send it to a number of writers I like, people I thought would be sympathetic to the project. Like Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy in San Francisco. "New Narrative" writers, that's what they're called.
When Sarah gave me that blurb ... I didn't even ask her. She's somebody ... you don't want to even ask them for a compliment.
When I looked at it, what I saw was my uncle, my dad's older sister's husband. He was a farmer, worked in a Black and Decker factory.
The picture of Vernon personalized it for me in a way that was shocking: I thought, wow, this guy came from nothing, had his family in a little shack in a nowhere place, and in 1978, he's in this humongous house with all this money that his son who's now dead earned. His wife's gone. His son's gone. That struck me as a situation worthy of further contemplation. I started it before I even moved to Memphis.
I think I've always had a magical ability to write about places and end up there.
It's hard to say, but I find it a really comfortable place to work. New York's a great place to be if you're an artist. But it also instills a hypersensitivity to what other people are doing.
As a writer, it's easy to make me feel jealous of the attention other people are getting. But I don't have a natural desire to see what everybody else is doing all the time.
I read old books. To find a book that was written a hundred years ago that speaks to me is better than finding a new book by a brand-new writer who's really good. A book from a hundred years ago, it's a point on a map that can lead me to other places. Whereas the new book hasn't acquired all those connections.
A reading experience I wanted to capture with this book: the feeling of finding a weird book that you didn't know existed, in a strange place.
There was a sports writer, who also wrote about hunting, the outdoors. He also wrote an experimental novel in the early '70s. Robert F. Jones was his name. He wrote Blood Sport. It's as if Richard Brautigan had written Deliverance. It's a very allusive, playful story about a father and son on a hunting trip, and the son is kidnapped by a bandit. The father has to fight the bandit to get his son back.
A friend's dad in Georgia had bought this book, because he'd liked the guy's pieces about deer hunting. And he read it and said, "What the HELL is this?" It was on the bookshelf in their cabin in rural Georgia. When I was staying with them, I picked it up because I was bored, and it was like, wow.
I never pictured my book as being something that book-review pages would be all aflutter over, like, Oh, what a great new voice! I was thinking about in 10 years maybe somebody's gonna look at it and say, "What the hell is this?" Flip through it. Read it. And say, "What ... what?"
That's my goal with my book.
[You have achieved that goal.]
Well, thank you.