Great fiction makes me squirm. I fidget over Lady Bret Ashley, I bounce a knee when reading Joyce Carol Oates, and Portnoy’s Complaint probably makes me look like I suffer from hemorrhoids.
From page one of Bill Cotter’s The Parallel Apartments, I was pacing. I was squatting, like a catcher, on my couch. I was greasing my hair with my sweaty palms, setting down the manuscript after a chapter, and saying to an empty room at 2 AM: holy shit.
Bill and I emailed the following over a couple days in January.
— Adam Krefman
McSWEENEY’S: The central focus of your book is a five-generation, single-mother matriarchy, the Durants. Did this idea come to you all at once, or did it start with one character and slowly build?
BILL COTTER: It started with the invention of the main character, Justine, the granddaughter and second youngest of the clan. I was driving through my neighborhood in Austin with my mother five or six years ago when she slowed down in front of a tired-looking duplex with weeds in the yard and artisanal chickens pecking at them, gestured toward it, and said something like (I forget her exact words), “Billy, that’s where you were conceived.” My mother grew up in a strict, conservative Amarillo matriarchy, and things like this—things that force the imagining of the sexual act—were not spoken of, ever, so this revelation shocked me. But I immediately got the idea for a character who revisits not her birthplace but her conception-place, looking for solutions to old mysteries.
McS: Forgive me, but the way you describe your mom, she sounds like a lite version of the hilarious elderly Durant women, Charlotte and Mere. Did you draw on the Amarillo matriarchy?
BC: I tried to avoid using any living family members as character bases—although every last one of them, especially the women, is unique and enchanting enough to be profitably fictionalized—but Charlotte and Mere share a few traits with my deceased grandmothers, Pretty Mama and Mamaw. But, as much as I tried not to think about her, images of McMurtry’s Aurora Greenway (not the movie version of the character) crept by degrees into both Charlotte and Mere. Generally speaking, though, both are inventions.
McS: We never counted, but there are probably close to twenty semi-important characters in this book. On my first round of edits, I had to make an outline, to make sure I didn’t make a change that fucked up the rest of the narrative. How do you keep it all together? A post-it collage? Beautiful Mind-style strings and pushpins? A spreadsheet?
BC: What is this Beautiful Mind thing with strings and pushpins?
McS: A Beautiful Mind was a movie starring Russell Crowe as a would-be genius. It was classic neurotic genius stuff: newspaper clippings with random bits circled in red pen, the aforementioned pins and strings, etc.
BC: Sounds pretty neat. And probably more practicable than my method, which was to just try keeping them straight in my head. I kept changing characters’ names, which complicated matters. And since the novel’s chronology isn’t progressive (I jump from 1969 to 2005 to 1984 to whatever), it was harder to keep track of how old everyone was at any given time. At one point logic forced a chapter where a character needed to be both 18 and 22 at the same time. I couldn’t fix it. Finally I plucked that character out like a thistle root.
McS: How long did this novel take, start to finish?
BC: About five years, but I’m counting an uninvited two-year writing oblivion that opened up in the middle of it, during which time I did nothing but Sudoku puzzles. They say that when you’re unable to write, the author-ly lobe of the brain is still working hard, subconsciously hatching ideas, creating new characters, and slicing through story knots, the fruit of which will surface, ready for use, when the gods allow you the energy and motivation to return to the interrupted project, but I think that’s all bumf—when I climbed out of the two-year hole, no fresh notions forthcame; I was met with the same old problems that compelled me to chuck the book into a drawer in the first place.
McS: So you threw it in a drawer for two years, but what made you take it out?
BC: I’m pretty sure it was because I started taking a new medication. (Like everybody, I have a problem with depression.) I’ve forgotten what the drug was, but it brightened things up a bit, and I felt like writing something. The first experiment was with poetry, and I came close to penning a sonnet about war, but I foundered on the ninth line. So I gave up on that, retrieved the novel, decided that I didn’t hate it, and so spent the next couple years finishing it up.
McS: Can you send your nine-line sonnet? (Is this a joke?)
BC: No, there really is a sonnet on war wanting five lines, but I can’t share it—it’s not even good enough to make fun of.
McS: Did you have specific influences while working on this novel?
BC: I was mostly influenced by the image of myself lying on my deathbed, a bunch of blipping machines piping stuff in and out of me, and being asked by some visitor whether I’d finished writing this book, and my having to say no, and their responding, “And now it’s too late, innit. Hahaha!” I was also influenced by wine and the essays of H. L. Mencken.
McS: Mencken! This blind-sided me. I had to write the marketing copy for your book, and I went straight for John Kennedy Toole, and García-Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Was I way off? Why didn’t you stop me?
BC: I love the comparisons to those guys, as unworthy as I am! I’ve read Toole, but never Márquez. (Yes, I am embarrassed by this fact.) But I like to read Mencken (keeping all his faults and wonts out of mind) for his humor and syntactical pyrotechnics. I like Martin Amis for those things, too, but he defies emulation, at least my attempts at it.
McS: I’ve never been to Austin, but I feel the old and new Austins in your writing. How did the setting—your hometown, right?—fit into your conception of the novel?
BC: Actually, I was born in Dallas, but I’ve been in Austin for seventeen years—much longer than anywhere else I’ve lived—and I consider it my hometown. The first forty pages of the book are set in New York, though it could have been any city—I just needed a place suitably distant from and foreign to Austin—but the rest of the book, set from the late ’60s to the late ’80s, needed a geography I’m intimately familiar with in order to shuttle the characters around, though I admit I did play fast and loose with it.
McS: But you did manage to stick a BookPeople (Austin’s legendary indie bookstore) cameo in there…
BC: The novel’s fictional bookstore, Crammed Shelf, was inspired in small part by the real BookPeople, where I worked for a few years in the late ’90s.
McS: McSweeney’s has now used Ron Regé for both of your books’ covers, and Lucky Peach used him for spot illustrations in a short story of yours recently. What do you think about having him as a sort of graphic running mate for your fiction?
BC: I think it’s great—I feel honored to have a place in his corpus! I’ve always loved his work. I think I first saw it in Kramer’s Ergot. He obviously does close readings of the material, and has the extraordinary ability to press both a large work’s holistic scope and its thematic minutiae into the small compass of a book cover. He’s a sorcerer. You people should check out his Cartoon Utopia.
McS: Final book plug: You were telling me about a crazy tour you’re about to embark on. Mind sharing the idea with our dear readers?
BC: Yes, there will be a book tour in February and March. I won’t be alone, though—the dynamite storytelling-duo Annie La Ganga and Rebecca Beegle, AKA The Grownup Lady Story Company, will be coming along. We’ll be stopping at indie bookstores and other venues in nine cities in the Pacific Northwest and the South. At each venue I will read from The Parallel Apartments, and the Grownup Ladies will tell raucous, ribald, raunchy, true stories. We have a Kickstarter campaign to partially fund the tour.
While I’ve got the floor, I’d like to thank you, Mr. Adam Krefman, for the fantastic job you did editing the lion’s share of The Parallel Apartments—it would have been nothing without your ideas and insights!
McS: I would say something like “Billy, that’s how a novel is conceived,” but this book is Bill Cotter to the core—which is to say it’s unlike anything being written today—and I feel lucky to have helped bring it to life in some small way.
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