John Madera Interviews Thomas Cooper about Phantasmagoria

Madera: “The Lady in the Closet” seems to me to be a kind of tribute to Kafka. One of the things I liked about that story, besides the play off the “skeleton in the closet” theme, is how the wife and the woman with the “delicately boned face,” the so-called “closet lady,” are symbiotically linked. What was the genesis of that story?

Cooper: The genesis of that story, like many of my stories, was equal parts circuitous, serendipitous, and strange. Initially, the story was based on a news article I’d read about a woman who’d been living undetected in a man’s closet. We’re talking months. Maybe even a year. Can you imagine? Either that was one big-ass closet or the man was more than a little bit out of it.

Or maybe the woman was just extraordinarily considerate?

At first, it was a very literal spin on that story, but it didn’t turn out right. I filed it away for a while. After a few months I approached the idea more obliquely.

Madera: When I read “The Old-Fashioned Way” I thought of the kinds of yarns that Mark Twain would spin. I also thought of Faulkner especially when I came to this sentence: “I settle this the old-fashioned way, shooting out a big calloused fist that hits him square in the face, because when you get to be my age, history is the only thing that you have left, and I’ll be goddamned if anybody’s going to take that away from me.” I also turned back to find that in the previous story, I’d found you ended it as well with a cascading cumulative sentence: “Just when I thought she couldn’t get smaller, she would shrink more, and then more, until she was pin-sized, until she was smaller than that, and then so small I couldn’t tell if I was looking at someone real or imaginary, or just the size of a memory?” This approach, that is, ending your stories with some kind of compound sentence, happens again at the end of “Bounty,” “Lost and Found,” “Postcard from Mykonos,” “Dunking Booth Man,” “The Other Kind,” and “The House at the End of the Street.” What is it about this kind of sentence that you find attractive?

Cooper: This is a good question. I wasn’t aware that I ended so many stories this way. Jeez, now I feel like an automaton or something. Maybe I’ve found a formula? That would make things a hell of a lot easier.

At any rate, I work hard on my ending sentences. I try to make them musical and resonant. Of course, not all of them turn out that way. Far from it. Some of them end up being Bronx cheers.

I think your description of their being “cascading” is apt. I do hear a kind of winding-down rhythm, a final breath trying to squeeze in as much as possible. I suppose this is a tic of mine. I dislike endings that seem to fall off a cliff. I remember that old John Keats description of how he knew when he’d found the proper ending of a poem, likening it to the neat click of a jewelry box snapping shut. I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.

Madera: Death and grieving are primary themes in these stories, most explicitly in the first four stories. And it’s threaded within “Who’s Who in America,” where the narrator recalls how his wife died and recounts: “I put seven dogs to sleep. There comes a point in your life when you start measuring your life not in years but dogs. And the one day you realize: this is the last, and he will probably outlive me.” It’s imminent in the comical “House Tornado,” implied, perhaps, in “Postcard from Mykonos,” hurled as an insult in “Dunking Booth Man,” and rears its ugly head again in “Tricks” and “The House at the End of the Street.” Why this obsession with death?

To me, it’s irrational that more people aren’t obsessed with death. I wish I weren’t, but I am.

I think the preoccupation owes to a confluence of factors, probably quotidian. Some scary Catholic schooling when I was a kid. Lots of Old Testament stuff, fire and brimstone. Childhood health problems. A few doctors telling me that I might have a serious heart condition. Hypochondria. Accidentally watching Faces of Death that one time in friend’s basement so many years ago.

So, that stuff left an impression.

Hopefully this doesn’t sound too sophomoric, but it’s a large part of our culture. North America has a strange relationship with death, doesn’t it? We’re told to ignore it, not to talk about it, to shove it in the corner of our minds until later, but it’s omnipresent. Take this pill because you might die. Is Mrs. Celebrity dying? Why did Mr. Celebrity die? Make sure to wash your hands after touching anything, even yourself, because there’s this strange new virus floating around and, well, you might die.

Madera: After reading “The Lady in the Closet,” I was surprised that none of the other stories (although “House Tornado” and “Lost and Found” flirt with it) are fantasies. Are you writing any other speculative fiction?

Cooper: I hear that term a lot these days, speculative, and it seems to mean different things to different people. As pretentious as it sounds, I’m not sure I want to classify anything I write. But you’re right. Some of my stories do flirt with the surreal and fantastic, or depart from traditional realism.

Right now, I’m drafting a novel that’s probably weirder than anything in Phantasmagoria. Forget probably. Definitely weirder. It’s too early yet to tell if it’s going to work, but I have a feeling that it will.

Madera: I’d like to back up and ask about your influences, but before I do that, I’d like to ask what were some significant events/circumstances that first inspired you to write?

Cooper: I don’t think there was any big bang moment. Or at very least I don’t remember it. I recall always wanting to write.

For me, a significant and encouraging moment was receiving a first writing check, from Stephen King’s Castle Rock publications, when I was fourteen years old. A year after that I wrote book and movie reviews for a few magazines until they caught on and realized I was just some clueless kid trying to convince people that he knew what he was talking about.

Aside from a short stint as a music journalist in my twenties, nothing else followed for many years, because I did much more talking and worrying about writing than actual writing. In retrospect, I realize that this was probably for the best, because it spared me a lot of embarrassment, and most importantly spared a lot of people from  some atrocious stories.

Madera: Who were some of your favorite writers in your youth? And then, what
writers helped to shape you as a writer now?

Cooper: I grew up reading a lot of horror and fantasy stuff, beginning when I was twelve or thirteen. Stephen King, of course. H.P. Lovecraft. Ray Bradbury. August Derelith. Joe R. Lansdale. Richard Matheson.  Harlan Ellison. Jonathan Carroll.  Philip K. Dick. Things like that.

Then I read Catcher in the Rye when I was in ninth or tenth grade, and that broadened my horizons. I started reading John Updike, Charles Bukowski, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth, Italo Calvino, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. My reading habits were all over the place. I didn’t know many kids who read, so I sought out stuff on my own. Maybe this worked to my advantage.

These days, I try to read as much as I can, but it always ends up being less than I’d like. But there’s so much great stuff out there, and I think I end up learning a little bit from everything I read.
Madera: Do you have a writing routine/rhythm/ritual? A mantra?

Cooper: Sometimes, because of my teaching schedule, I have to take long breaks, which always turns out disastrous. It’s very hard recapturing voice and rhythm and energy. My writing muscles atrophy almost immediately.  After a month passes I turn into some kind of verbal invalid, reduced to groaning and grunting and beating on hard objects with sticks.

I find the time when I can find it. Writing is still a luxury for me. An avocation and not a vocation, though I approach it in a very workmanlike way if given a deadline.  I wish I had more deadlines. That helps.

In the last few years, I’ve done more writing than in the previous ten, and I like to think it’s because I’m approaching the craft in a more disciplined way. I tend to either chip away slowly, say a page a day, or work in manic bursts, working fifteen or sixteen hours at a stretch. I’m trying to find a happy compromise between the two. Trying.

As for motivation, sometimes I’ll think, Well, if you don’t finish this page today, then you won’t be able to watch Dexter or Mad Men tonight, or you won’t be able to have that beer. Then, of course, I’ll end up watching the shows no matter what, feeling like a bum, drinking not one but two or three beers to console myself.

Madera: As a teacher, what are some strategies you use? Do you use writing
prompts? What stories do you assign?

Cooper: I try to assign the things I think they might like, rather than the old chestnuts. Don’t get me wrong, I think reading all of those is important, essential, but I always assume a kind of base knowledge from the outset, so we’re free to explore stories that might be a little unfamiliar to writers just starting out. They seem to love George Saunders, Thom Jones, Barry Hannah, Junot Diaz, Lorrie Moore, Joy Williams, and Dan Chaon, just to name several. Or I give the impression that they are supposed to love these stories, so they pretend to love them, laughing and nodding and so on, almost always at the appropriate times.

I use a few writing prompts, but I think the most important thing is fostering an atmosphere in which a student feels safe to be him or herself freely, exploring and pursuing idiosyncrasy, but not just for its own sake. They’re so used to writing essays about My Satanic Prom Night or Who Died During My Summer Vacation or Drugs: My Side of the Story that they come in reflexively writing that kind of thing. So, you try to steer them away from the sensational and encourage them to chase after small personal truths in a more subtle and metaphorical way.


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