"Hand-over-hand out of the unconscious"

An interview with John Cotter, author of Under the Small Lights

Over a couple nights of emails and instant messages, John was kind enough to answer some of my questions about his novel. We spoke about book lengths, gravitating back to familiar poets, writing about writers, and much more. Our conversation is below, condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Your career has spanned many genres — essay, poetry, critiques, comics, and fiction (of course). How does the process or experience of writing and publishing a novel compare to other forms?

Writing a novel is trickier because you’re pulling it hand-over-hand out of the unconscious. You take more risks, or at least I do. It’s more fragile. Sometimes you never really have a handle on one character, and it’s a key character, so that’s the ballgame. Then again, nothing made me feel as good as finishing that first one has. I’m writing a nonfiction book now, but by this time next year I expect to be writing fiction again. There’s another novel I want to write.

Do you have a favorite to write or read?

I try to vary my reading diet as much as possible. When I was younger I read shelves of poetry, spent all night at poetry readings—I showered to a cassette tape of Yeats outloud. But when I quit writing in the genre my reading there dropped off precipitously. Or maybe it was the other way around. No I have a bad habit of going back to the same poets again and again rather than looking for new voices. 

I've always read essays and always will, particularly criticism (I was weaned on Gore Vidal's essays on microfiche at the Otis Library—I don't write anything like him but that's to my detriment).

As I look to my coffee table now, there's a stack of four books: two non-fiction (one on the way brains hear music, one on fanatical religiosity), a book of short stories (Mary Gaitskill's Don't Cry) and a novel (Carmen Boullosa's Texas: The Great Theft). Add a poetry collection every once in awhile (Twelve Stations by Tomasz Różycki was the last one I loved) and that's pretty representative of my diet.

Jack, the narrator, seems to think (or wish) he was a Beat writer. Indeed, the protagonists all have a Beat-like quality to them: young, heavy-drinking, seize-the-moment artist-types. How did those works influence Under the Small Lights, if at all?

As a kid, the beat writers—but William Burroughs particularly—were my bridge into a whole world, and with Under the Small Lights I wound up trying to bottle some of that energy, probably because I wasn’t living it any longer. I knew there was some gorgeous illusion I’d lost by growing out of that stuff, and that just reading the Beats themselves couldn’t give it back to me.

These days Allen Ginsberg is the only one I can still read without going green in the face. Parts of Naked Lunch are still striking or funny, but you have to enjoy them the way you do Houellebecq or either Amis: amusement absent endorsement.

In writing courses, two bits of advice I've heard are "Write what you know" and "Don't write what you know" (from different profs, of course). Since you share a profession with a couple of characters from the novel, what are your thoughts on these bits of advice?

Writer characters make good narrators: they’re like emotionally sensitive detectives. To the larger question, everything a writer writes is something she knows about—the only twist is that sometimes she knows it by writing it.

I love the length of this book — long enough to savor, but short enough to stay focused on the story. Was your intention for this story always a “novella”? Or did it go through other iterations, longer or shorter?

I love Miami University Press’s series but I admit that I’m not crazy about the word “novella.” Katherine Anne Porter put it well enough for me when she said she wasn’t interested in that descriptor because "we have four that cover every division: short stories, long stories, short novels, novels." I think that’s right. I always thought of Small Lights as a short novel and I still do. There was too much I wanted to explore to do it in a brief story, and I didn’t even consider writing a massive doorstop about a bunch of 20-year-olds. I’m not William Gaddis, nor was meant to be.

Describe your writing process in three words.

Find the music.

Could you expand on that?

I pay way too much attention to prose rhythms when I write. If I change a word at the end of a sentence, I usually have to change one at the beginning of it too. And I look for this as a reader. 

I don't mean to look for it. I don't mean to do it! I think it's a holdover from my handful of years writing poetry, something about cadence. 

What's strange about that is I can't write poetry anymore. I never became convinced by my own lyric "I" and that became a problem after a while. When I try to write a poem now it feels like a lie.

Is the "I" in your prose is another character? Or does it feel more authentically you?

Fiction feels most honest, because I'm a natural actor, "do the voices" in conversation, etc. When I write nonfiction I sort of have to settle on an "I" character to tell it, but it's easier than in poetry, yeah.

If you could meet one of the characters from your novel, who would it be and why?

Star, because she’d call me out. I drift toward pretentiousness unless there’s someone there to constantly check me, so I’ve always tried to surround myself with grounded people. I dread most entering a room full of pretentious people with no one to regulate them. The things that happen in rooms like that … I always leave needing a shower.

Writers can be superstitious about their process — do you have any superstitions around your

For over a decade I felt like I did my best work in white text on a blue background but I don’t seem to need that anymore. Now I tend to have this idea that I have to be alone to write, but best is being alone in a crowd. I think Denver’s Bardo Coffee House on South Broadway is basically magic.

Is there a novel or author you love that you feel hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves?

Yes, most of them, because the marketplace is winner-take- all. Hype begets big-outlet reviews begets awards begets readers repeat cycle. Mark Wallace’s The Quarry and the Lot is as good as it is neglected—I’m excited to read his new one, Crab. I never heard of the essayist Howard Mansfield before this summer and that’s upsetting to me because Bones of the Earth is a near-perfect exercise in writing landscape. Sarah Goldstein is a revelatory poet and I hope she’s still writing. But this comes back to the root cause of such things: a few big books suck up all the oxygen in a given year. Literally no one is going to be talking about George SaundersLincoln in the Bardo five years from now, no one; but it was George Saunders’ first novel and so it got all the pampering. I want Tiphanie Yanique and Carolyn Cooke to have more of that. Lastly, one that’s found some readers, which is wonderful, Vanessa Veselka’s Zazen, is the best novel I’ve read in the last five years.