Gaines:It’s hard to believe this is your first book. Can you speak about your inspiration?
Christopher Coake:Well, I’ve been writing—seriously writing, though of course not writing well—since I was an adolescent. This is what I’ve always wanted to do, and I’ve worked for years and years, and have obtained two graduate degrees in writing, all so that my first book wouldn’t make someone think a rookie had done it. I’ve written several book-length works and thousands and thousands of pages’ worth of stories in order to get this book on the shelves. Most writers would, I guess, I tell you the same (though I do know a few prodigies who just picked it up in the space of a couple of years—but they are most definitely exceptions).
As for inspiration . . . all the stories in this book were written after I lost my first wife, Joellen Thomas, to cancer in 1999. I’d written a lot before then—some of it good—but I knew Joellen’s death, and my reaction to it, was bound to shape everything I wrote for a while. As I’ve said, I’d been writing for a long time before Joellen died, and even before she got sick, five years before her death—in fact she and I met while I was getting my M.A. in fiction at Miami University of Ohio. But just before she died I learned I’d had my first story accepted for publication, by The Journal at Ohio State. And after she died that gave me some kind of goal to work toward. Most of what I wrote—especially right after it happened—was necessarily awful and self-pitying, but I did begin to shape the stories, after a time. And then I decided I needed to go back to school, to give myself some focused time for writing, and for getting my head together through writing. I ended up at the MFA program at Ohio State—my publication had let me get to know the people there—and wrote almost everything in We’re in Trouble while a student there. I was able to examine all the painful things I had to deal with, but I also had deadlines and assignments and people around me, faculty and students, who were able to tell me when what I was doing was, for instance, emotionally strong, as opposed to just too sentimental.
The stories in We’re in Trouble have a central theme, death. How difficult was it to write about it while avoiding inherent negativity?
Well, that was a struggle. Much of what I wrote after Joellen died was either too negative or too sentimental. But Joellen had been sick for years before she died, and I’d already been dealing with the ideas of death and suffering and hardship for a while. So it wasn’t as though my worldview changed overnight—if it had (if I’d lost her suddenly, without foreknowledge) then I’m sure my writing now would be different. The book is what it is because of a complex admixture of what happened to Joellen, and to me, and the sort of person I am.
And I should say, too, that I’d seen plenty of misfortune in the world before meeting Joellen. My family was, to use a bad, reductive word, dysfunctional. I’ve witnessed a lot of violence and hurt. And I’ve never been a religious person—I don’t see pain as part of a larger framework, or leading to a bigger purpose. So all my life I’ve sought to understand how to be a person—to be a good person—in a world in which danger is either random (taking the form of, say, cancer or car accidents) or comes from human failure and frailty and prejudice. If the book avoids negativity—and I’m glad to hear you think it does—then it’s because of this underlying worldview of mine. Which is that all we have to put between us and horror and our own shortcomings is love and loyalty. Even the bleakest of my stories is bleak because of love; the things that hurt us only hurt us because our hearts leave us open to pain and loss.
And I find that idea, strangely enough, redemptive. I’m remarried now, for instance; I’ve been able to fall in love again. And the characters who survive in We’re in Trouble will do so only because they have the ability to love and to trust, no matter their flaws.
The first story, “Back Down to Earth,” was shocking, but brutally honest. Is it based on a true story?
No! I’ve been reading this piece a lot at book-release events, and I have to stress that nothing like this has ever happened to me, or any dog of mine. In fact, I want to stress now that everything in this book is fictional, especially stories that do butt up against my autobiography. One of my goals with this book was to take the emotions surrounding my own grief and shape them—to use them to find points of commonality with other characters feeling loss or guilt or pain. But it’s all made up.
“Back Down to Earth,” actually, was in large part a nightmare I had. It woke me up with a case of the shudders, and I decided to write it down. (The first and only time something like that has ever happened to me, by the way.) Then I had to decide what sort of person this had happened to, and why he might want to remember or tell it, and that’s how I came up with Eric and Kristen.
By the way: my wife and I have just adopted a dog (she’s sleeping on my foot right now). We’re spoiling her rotten. I love dogs—I write about what I fear, after all.
Each story presents another face of inevitability and the aftermath of loss. Was it your intention to explore the many facets and circumstances of death? Have you succeeded?
As I’ve said, my first goal was to be able to write sanely about what happened to me. But I mean this in the fictional sense—I may someday write a memoir, but my first instinct is to shift the truth; to write honestly about emotions, but to do so through fictional people and circumstances. I was in a writing program when I was doing this sort of work, which meant I was showing stories to a workshop; when I first started at Ohio State I was just trying to find ideas I could deal with in 20-30 pages. (Or 50, in some cases.)
When I was in my first year Nick Hornby came to visit our program; we spent a week with him, and he liked a couple of my stories (“We’re in Trouble” and “Cross Country”) quite a bit, and told me so. Then, on his way out of the country, he did something remarkable: he told his publisher about me. They got in touch with me, and—after consultation with all my advisers—I sent them what I thought were my five best stories. In retrospect many of them were not good, but in the long run that was all right. Nick’s publisher, Riverhead, ended up telling me no thanks, but they took a while to do it, and in the meantime I was scrambling to put together what I thought was a complete work. That’s when I started really looking closely at how my stories talked to each other, and the total statement they made. So even when Riverhead said no, I had a book ready. Then my adviser/mentor (the very fine writer Michelle Herman) had me send that manuscript on to her agent—who is now my agent, and who got me an offer from Harcourt. Without Nick’s kick in the rear I may have meandered for a long while. I was fortunate not only that he gave me that kick, but that I’d gathered my wits sufficiently by then to respond with good work.
Which of the stories in the book is your favorite, and why?
I’m proudest of “Cross Country,” because it was the most technically difficult piece to write—it’s more or less two stories told simultaneously, using the exact same words. As a craftsman, that’s the piece that I can look at now and see as nearly perfect. It’s odd to say, because I know it’s the most difficult story in the collection to parse, but I love it anyway.
“All Through the House” has been my biggest success—it made it into Best American Mystery Stories 2004, and was shortlisted for Best American Short Stories that same year. It’s the story that I think is probably most pleasurable for readers, too, in terms of suspense.
“Solos” was hard, too, because of the distance between me and Ani, the narrator. It took the longest to compose, and I think it does just about what I wanted it to.
That’s not to say I don’t like the others, though—I do!
Was it painful to cull each intimate tale, to reach into the truth of each small drama?
Sometimes. When I tell people my history, they assume that the stories were painful, but they weren’t always. The word-by-word work required to put the stories on paper sometimes supercedes the pain inherent in the words. I don’t want to be cynical or disingenuous about the process—I find these stories deeply emotional. But all the same, when I write, I go into something a lot like a trance—the “I” who feels these emotions so strongly takes a back seat to the writer, who’s taking those emotions and trying to shape them, order them. It’s a complicated thing to describe, but that’s about as close as I’m going to get.
The pain sometimes surfaced when I lost control—take, for instance, the case of “Abandon.” I first wrote a draft of that story five years ago, with different characters in the little cabin in Michigan. But they weren’t the right characters—nobody I showed the story to believed them. So I sat on the story for years. When Harcourt wanted a new story for the book I had a brainstorm as to how to fix it. But even then I wanted to use my original ending—which was the main character walking away, at the end. But in the new version, with these new characters, I realized that couldn’t happen. Brad—the new Brad—wouldn’t. And letting him do what he wanted to do was very painful, because it revealed to me how different my own thinking had become in the five years since I first wrote about this situation. But it was a good kind of pain.
Are people ever really prepared for death, save those faced with imminent demise through illness? Isn’t it human nature to avoid this kind of pain?
I don’t know. I could make a good case that--even given what I’ve been though—I myself am not prepared for death. If anything I fear it more, and lead my life more cautiously.
Everyone experiences the death of people close to them. We lose our grandparents, and then we lose our parents. We lose friends. When I was a boy a friend of my mother’s died of cancer, and that affected me strongly. A friend of mine in high school died in a plane crash. I lost all my grandparents by the time I was twenty-two. But when I learned Joellen was sick I was still blindsided.
So I think it’s human nature to experience death, and also to avoid understanding it, all at once. If I was to be diagnosed with cancer tomorrow I don’t think I’d be able to take the news calmly. If someone, say, reads and loves my book, I don’t know that they’re going to be able to handle the same news any better.
But maybe I’m wrong. I think the way I do about the world because of the books I’ve read, because of the stories—both real and imagined—that have passed by my eyes. Everyone does, and that’s why I think it’s the duty of writers and artists to point out the hard stuff—to hold up to the light what most people, in the course of their lives, would ordinarily ignore. We do have a tendency to sugarcoat in this country, this culture, maybe as human beings. To make complicated and dark situations fit into easily-swallowed narratives of redemption. Whether people are troubled or inspired by my stories, that’s fine—so long as they’re thinking and imagining, asking themselves what they’d do, if the situations in these stories happened to them. That’s what I do, when I read a book that grabs me, and that’s all I’d wish of anyone reading mine.
Although the stories are emotionally challenging, I found myself reading We’re in Trouble like a novel. It was impossible to put down until I was finished. Yet I felt uplifted afterward, like I had touched something important and essential. Is this the kind of response you have gotten from readers?
First of all: thank you!
To answer the question: Yes, in a lot of cases. I have had a few people express doubt over its darkness, but for the most part the response has been positive. Then again, how many people would make a point of coming up to me and telling me they hate the book? I have no statistical evidence, except reviews, which have almost all been positive, so far. And what this tells me is that people are taking what I want them to from the book—which is everything we’ve been discussing already.
It’s interesting to me that tragedy in art can sometimes be exhilarating. My favorite movie, for instance, is Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter—which, for those who don’t know it, is a film about a small town in Canada which has suffered the loss of most of its children in a school bus accident. It’s a very smart film, told with obvious care and respect for grief, and it’s never ghoulish. I saw it with Joellen, and after it was over we sat together at a bar and talked about it for hours. I was almost hyperactive; to this day I feel protective, and even possessive, toward the film. Like by watching it I had some part in making it.
I think people who are used to art—to the idea that its purpose is to question and to shape the unshapable—there’s a certain joy in seeing it done well. On the other hand, I know a lot of folks who can’t handle that aspect of art—they want entertainment, they want closure, they want simple uplift—and though I respect that urge (and indulge in it—I get mad like anyone else when someone gets away with murder on Law and Order), I save my greatest respect for works that open up my worldview, that expose me to what I hadn’t previously considered, that shows me what I’ve never seen. A good episode of Law and Order might satisfy me, but it will never change me, because ultimately it can’t surprise me. I’d contrast that show with Crime and Punishment, or The Silence of the Lambs, or even books by smart mystery writers like Chandler or James Lee Burke, where no door is ever shut tightly; where mysteries solved by the characters cannot answer the more fundamental questions of morality and human evil that the authors have raised. Those books shock me because of their underlying art.
What is your response to readers who thought the book too negative?
Well, readers have a right to respond to the book in whatever way they wish, or must. My wife, for instance—who is a very smart and committed reader—finds it too dark, and that’s fine. We’re still speaking with each other. If someone spends money on my book and doesn’t like it, I’d tell them thanks for giving it a shot. I’ve read plenty of books I don’t like, for plenty of reasons—and sometimes my worldview gets in the way of me enjoying something a lot of other people can enjoy, or be moved by. It happens. I think of the book as a statement in a long and civil conversation; the last thing I want to be is some screaming Angel of Death, insisting everyone see it my way. I don’t like that behavior from others, so why would I indulge it myself?
I’d only take issue with people who wouldn’t try the book because they heard it was too negative—people who’d be too afraid to expose themselves or their opinions. But that’s more a problem with small-minded folks in general. I have to wonder how many of them go to the bookstore in the first place.
Does a person have to be intimate with death and its consequences to write about it? Why or why not?
Yes and no. On the one hand, I think writers have to reserve the right to try anything, to write about any topic or character or worldview. For instance, I’m not a Slovenian woman married to a Himalayan mountaineer, but I got curious as to what it would be like to be one, and so now I have “Solos.” On the other hand, what human being isn’t intimate with death? I might have a particular kind of experience with it, but we’re all human, and the mortality rate for that disease is 100%. If we’re not thinking about it, we’re building walls to keep it distant, or philosophies to make it apprehendable—I think it affects our worldviews regardless. By that reasoning, I think all writing is suffused with death.
Given a sudden, immutable tragedy, do you believe the most common response is likely altruistic or cowardly? (I’m thinking Danny in “In the Event.”)
I’m hesitant to give some overarching answer there. In fact, I’ve tried to answer that question a number of different ways in the book. Danny’s got to fight a lot of selfishness. But Brian in “A Single Awe” is an immediate altruist, when faced with danger. I think people behave differently. But—at least based on my own experience—I don’t think there’s such a thing as pure altruism or nobility. My private thoughts after Joellen died, and even while she died, were often disgusting to me. I’m not the first person to say this, but it deserves to be said again: What sort of people we are is based not on the thoughts we have, but the actions we take after having those thoughts. Danny’s ultimately a good person—and not only despite his imperfections, but because of them. I think he’ll be all right.
Only one story really disturbed me, and that was “Abandon,” because Mel is so unremittingly nihilistic. How difficult was Mel’s character to write?
Not that difficult, apart from the larger problems I had with that story I’ve already mentioned. I’ve known people like Mel. I knew someone a few years ago who had been suicidal before, and he was sure that, when he died, it would be at his own hand. But he had a sense of humor; he was smart and functional and had friends. He contained, however, an urge toward self-destruction, and was matter-of-fact about it. So I didn’t feel I was inventing Mel out of whole cloth.
Keep in mind, too, that I’m remarkably cruel to Mel and Brad. Mel is more than willing to live for as long as she can, once she’s in love (and even before then, she was trying hard). This story is, in a way, about a perfect trap for Mel. And even after it’s sprung, I think Brad realizes there’s love in her actions. Without giving anything away, I think Mel’s actions at the end of the story are a form of change for her, given her past. It’s sad, yes—kind of like “The Gift of the Magi” taken to brutal extremes—but for me the characters do their best, both of them.
Was this book as redemptive for you to write as it is to read?
I don’t know. To say yes feels as though I’m reducing a long and complicated experience to something very simple: suffer a loss, write a book, feel better. And that ignores all the other stuff that’s been a positive force in my life since Joellen died. I don’t see writing as simple catharsis, the single key to everything else. When I called my wife to ask her out on our first date, I wasn’t thinking about my writing. Maybe the writing I did gave me confidence, but ultimately that was a different battle, fought with different tools—I didn’t have the opportunity to edit or revise that call, for instance. Or the date that followed. And certainly I can’t say that writing the book erases or “fixes” whatever was broken in me when Joellen died. That’s an experience I will carry with me for the rest of my life, and which has changed me utterly, and will continue to change me.
But that said: yes, it was redemptive in a way, and I’d be foolish to say otherwise. Writing the book did bring me innumerable rewards. I’ve changed from a sad and bewildered widower to a guy with a book he’s proud of and a job he likes, in a place he likes. (I’m a brand-new professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno; there are mountains outside my window; I teach writing, which almost never feels like work to me.) And I’m married to a woman I love. The writing is intermixed with all of my successes. But—there’s always another side of it—I can just as easily say that all these things are here in front of me because of tragedy. I’m not sorry—I’ve done the best I can with events I didn’t cause—but I can never free them from my past. I am what I am because I was what I was, if that makes sense.
The first suite of stories sets the tone of the collection, preparing us, as it were, for the emotional journey ahead. Is that your intention, to pull the reader directly into the heart of the matter?
Yes. That suite does sum up the book’s thematics succinctly, and it was the natural choice for the lead-off story. But, that said, I didn’t plan it that way. It was one of many stories I had at the time that passed muster; I ordered them after the fact. The book is getting released in England soon, and my editors there (at Penguin UK) worried that the suite, coming first, would be too emotional, too soon, for their readership. So I think we’re starting with “In the Event.” It’s hard to find a mild piece out of this bunch.
What authors have influenced your work?
Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried was a huge influence. I read that when I was getting my MA in fiction, and the book changed everything for me. I had no idea fiction could do what that book does—which is to offer up groundbreaking formal experiment and deep intellectual material while at the same time keeping a reader turning pages. Just a brilliant book.
Alice Munro is big light in my sky, too. Her stories are novelistic in the way I want mine to be. And she’s capable of great invention, but never forgets to tell the story, too.
Others—and this list is incomplete—are David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, Richard Powers, Joyce Carol Oates. And genre people too—I started off writing genre. I learned to write by trying to copy Stephen King and Peter Straub. And when I was a teenager no book meant more to me than The Lord of the Rings. I still geek out over it.
On a very literal level, my professors of writing have had the most influence, and they’re all fine writers: Steven Bauer, Eric Goodman, Kay Sloan, Constance Pierce, Michelle Herman, Lee Martin, Lee K. Abbott, and Erin McGraw. If your readers could pick up a book by any of these folks, I’d be eternally grateful.
Are you working on a new project? Can you share something about it with us?
I’m working on a novel, set in a place very much like a town in Colorado where I used to live as a boy. The novel’s going to deal with a lot of different stories, which take place at varying times in the last century and a half. I want to tell a lot of ghost stories—but in such a way that a guy like me, who doesn’t believe in ghosts, can find satisfying. It’s going to be a love story, too—I can say that much. It’s still a year away from being finished, unfortunately. I’m doing my best!
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Write, and write a lot. Don’t let anything happen to you without trying to put it in words. And then revise what you’ve written, over and over again, even when you’re sick of it.
Also: there a thousand reasons not to write, and only a few reasons, particular to each writer, to keep going. The world (and your city, and the weather, and your relationship, and your pet) will always provide you with an excuse not to do the work. It’s unrealistic to tell people to write every day, but writers should always try to make a little bit of daily space to, if not write, then to read, or keep a journal, or think about writing and stories. Sometimes writing programs can give you this space and time, and sometimes they’re not feasible (but I recommend that any writer who’s serious should check into them). But people don’t stop writing because someone tells them to; they stop writing because they run out of steam, because they give up, because they decide it’s easier and more fun to watch Survivor than it is to isolate themselves and do the work. If you truly want to write you’ll find the time and the energy.
Keep trusted, honest readers close; treat them as the treasures they are. These people are your truest friends.
I guess in the end every aspiring writer should remember that this is a marathon. Whatever expectations you have for success are unrealistic. It takes a long time. It takes a lot of life happening to you. When I was fourteen, hammering out the world’s worst fantasy novel on a manual typewriter in my bedroom, I was sure success was just around the corner. It was sixteen years before I heard that my book had sold, and I’m in a field where a thirty-year-old is considered suspiciously young. Put your head down and write the best story you can, and when it’s done, put your head down and write the next. And the one after that. And when you’re tired, go be with the people you love.
That’s the best advice I can give. Writing is a solitary art, but—paradoxically enough—no one can do it alone.
Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines
conducted her interview with Christopher Coake via email for curledup.com.
Click here to read her review of We're in Trouble.