Arts & Culture

Robert Coover: ‘Where it takes me, I have to go’

Award-winning author and visiting professor emeritus discusses modified fairy tales, metaphors in writing

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Robert Coover, visiting professor emeritus of literary arts and author of numerous novels and short stories, will read from his soon-to-be-published “The Brunist Day of Wrath” tonight at 7 p.m. in the McCormack Family Theater. “The Brunist Day of Wrath” is a sequel to his novel “The Origin of the Brunists,” which won the 1966 William Faulkner Award. During his time at Brown, Coover spearheaded the first-ever hypertext fiction workshop, co-founded the Electronic Literature Organization and created the International Writers Project. He sat down with The Herald to talk about Melville, Pynchon and Pinocchio.

 

Herald: What were some of the challenges of writing a sequel after such an expansive time gap?

Coover: Well, it was difficult, and it wasn’t what I intended to do initially. When I wanted to do a sequel, it was still in the ’60s, when all of my ideas were fresh. The idea I had was to have it fairly soon after “Origin” simply because I wanted most of the characters to reappear. I didn’t have a clear way to do that, so I set it aside because, basically, I was working on more innovative stuff and that was a fairly conventional book.

Yet still I thought there was something sort of worthwhile about that sequel idea, so through the years I kept adding to the notes, getting ideas, thinking of a character, thinking of what a character might do differently, and slowly evolved a kind of book-length idea, which I took with me on a trip to Europe. I was heading to Venice and I checked out a bunch of books from the library and sent three or four big sacks of books over.

I arrived in Italy in the winter, just after Christmas, and there was a snowstorm. It was gorgeous. I went out and photographed it and had a great time trekking about in the snow in Venice. I decided to find out some way to use my walkabouts in Venice. So I invented an art historian, an old fellow, retired, who comes back and reconsiders his earlier years. But I didn’t have a story until I happened to come across in the snow an exhibition called “Pinocchio in Venice.” Pinocchio was a character I always wanted to write about, so I went inside, and it was fascinating. So I rushed back and started writing about Pinocchio in Venice, and those big bagged books just never got opened.

Then a young Bush got elected president. By this time, I was already feeling the surge of evangelical religion, and with him as a candidate, it rose to the surface like creatures rising from the swamp or something. We had some sort of the arrival into the mainstream of this sort of mad, apocalyptic vision. So I thought, ‘If this (sequel) is what I’m going to do, I should do it now.’ “Origin” is about an emotional evangelical type that grows up around old miners, survives a disaster. And his small bedside cult suddenly blows up into international proportions thanks to the local newspaper guy.

His prophecy fails, of course. But that’s how religions get started. That’s how Christianity got started. So what about imagining then what it would be like if this little gathering around a bedside became a major religion? And that’s what the notes were all about through the years, trying to define this thing and trying to see where it might go.

And I had a kind of inspiration at one point. I found the opportunity to have everybody from the first book back in contact with each other because suddenly, on the fringes of town, those come back who brought disaster while they were there. This brings a great agitation within the community against the newcomers.

So I could see then how all this was coming together, and I decided I’d have to put other work aside and sit down and begin it. I was around 70 then, and to think of starting a book of that size, at an age when I could write five or six books in the time it would take me to do this one, was a hard thing to do.

And it did prove very difficult. For one thing, it’s historical in the sense that it’s specific to an era. This means that my first book was written as something I was experiencing, more or less. And the second book was something like a costume drama. I was putting people back into clothes and ideas and fashions and houses and equipment of the early ’60s. And so that was hard work, because you’ve got to be careful not to write in a cellphone or a laptop, which I would have loved to be able to do from time to time.

 

How has your growth as a writer and thinker over the years impacted the way you approached these challenges?

Well, I had been through a lot of difficult times writing. Always you hit these snags or humps you’ve got to get over that sometimes are terrific challenges. Because I wanted to be writing the more imaginative work, I was impatient. Several times I wanted to just dump it, or end it quickly somehow. And two kind of interesting experiences of reading I had corrected that impatience.

One was “Moby-Dick,” which I hadn’t read as a kid. And of course the terrible intransigence of that book — if there’s a metaphor, he sees it through to the last possible idea of it. And it had to be admired. It was very moving to see how the writer behind the text was working. So I found that helpful in the sense that I stopped being so impatient. I said, ‘Look now, you’re into this now, you have time for everything, just stay with it.’

But then I finally bogged down. I just reached a point in that book when I just got bored. I was bored stiff. And a friend sent me a copy of (Thomas) Pynchon’s “V,” which was his first book. And so I shoved my book under the bed and I took to reading and studying French, writing stories, and I picked up that book and found myself enjoying it. It was written and takes place roughly in a period of time when I was in the area Pynchon was describing. And I realized I’d lost my sense of humor. I’d pushed it down with this Melvillian intransigence. I was just hammering out sentence after sentence that lacked life. So I tore up about two, three hundred pages and started out again right at the second part of the book. And I wrote a chapter that just totally liberated me from all the constraints I’d been under before, and in about 60 or 80 days I had the book done.

But that overcoming of hurdles when your idea just hits this kind of impossible moment — it happens from to time, and it certainly happened in other books. And as I’ve overcome those, I’ve found them easier to overcome. That is, easier to take the attitude you have to take in order to make it happen.

So, obviously, a book that takes me 10 years is going to have lots of moments like that. And it was helpful that I had all that previous experience. Nevertheless, the book, what it was about, was really stringed out of that first one almost 50 years before. The first book did generate this one. Maybe I found over the years a little bit more what people call experimentation isn’t for me anymore. But there still are some very imaginative moments, and that alleviated for me the difficulties of going back 50 years.

 

I’m interested in something you said earlier about developing a “book-length idea,” since you’ve also written prolifically in the short story form. What distinguishes a “book-length” from a “story-length” idea?

Well, I don’t have any definition of them. But I only know as I write that when I sit down to write, I want everything to be a page long. That’s enough. And then of course you can write that pretty fast and you can have a hundred things in your bibliography after that. But I listen to the metaphor that I’ve invented, and where it takes me I have to go. So if the metaphor is something like “The Frog Prince,” which was in the New Yorker recently, it’s fairly limited. You’re not going to go too far with a one-off joke. But often the more difficult length is when it plays out perfectly, just the right length, (but) it’s not a short story and not a novel. You can’t get them published easily in the magazines because they have their word limits, and they’re too short to be published as a book, so they have a kind of half-life.

But I don’t try to extend them or try to shorten them to satisfy anyone. I just try to make it totally complete in itself. So in a way, the stories and novels are sort of the same thing to me. They are an expansion of a metaphor, letting it take me where it must, and then stop. And that’s the same thing for a one-pager as for a thousand-pager.

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.