Prior to my interview with Robert Coover, his latest novel The Brunist Day of Wrath had come in the mail, a hefty tome of a thousand pages.
I knew I wouldn’t have time to read it before our meeting, and this fact became more prominent when the first thing I uttered upon our introduction was an apology for not having done so.
Coover looked at me with a stern expression and then, in his soft voice, said “You should have read it.” He then smiled.
The period following the conclusion of World War II saw significant changes occurring in American literature. This included the emergence of postmodernism, metafiction, and maximalism.
Robert Coover was among the prominent authors associated with this time, and he produced works such as the contentious The Public Burning, which featured a bizarre Cold War narrative involving Richard Nixon and Ethel Rosenberg, as well as numerous other quirky and daring books.
He was considered to be a part of a group of muscular male writers that included Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, William H. Gass, and John Barth.
It was my good fortune to be able to spend a lengthy period of time with Coover. After he had delivered a reading at the University of Southern California, we went to lunch, where I conversed with his wife, Pilar, a Spanish tapestry artist they met during the Franco era.
Later, I drove the couple to their bed-and-breakfast. Coover was in a somewhat despondent state and let me know; he had just been informed that a close friend of his was very ill.
(Coover is in his eighties, as are most of his peers.) But when we settled in the drawing-room, he was cheerful and eager to talk about his life and work.
— Aaron Shulman
It has been asserted by Mr. Shulman that
The Brunist Day of Wrath , the follow-up to The Origin of the Brunists , has recently been released, which was published 48 years ago. How did this come to fruition?
Robert Coover has a habit of jotting down notes and leaving them aside, often for years, before coming back to them.
This was the case with The Brunists, where he had to fight off the urge to start writing and instead thought of other possible books that could come from it.
These ideas included a character that was initially one of the most important in the first book, and Coover thought about the role this character could have in a sequel, or even having a book of their own.
Although he never pursued these ideas, the pattern of allowing ideas to “hibernate” for a while has been a long-standing one for Coover.
I eventually came to the idea of the cult turning into an authentic religion, and I documented these ideas that I had accumulated through the years.
As I moved further away from the starting point, it seemed less and less likely that I would actually make it happen, likely due to the changing era. Going back and looking more into the matter felt unnecessary.
Right around the turn of the millennium, it seemed like a lot of Evangelicals were backing Bush and the public discourse was shifting to this odd, unfamiliar language.
It was almost as if they were convincing everyone that this was the normal way of speaking. You’d see them on the morning news or CNN, being interviewed and seeming to accept the way they were talking as the right way.
That’s when I decided that if I was ever going to take part, I should join in now.
Composing books such as Pinocchio in Venice, John’s Wife, Ghost Town and Lucky Pierre was much more enjoyable for me than crafting this sequel.
Nonetheless, I discovered there were sufficient topics that were not just necessary, practical and noteworthy, but additionally amusing and enjoyable for me as an author. Consequently, I managed to generate enough energy to keep on writing every day.
In your writing, an exuberant cheekiness is often present. What is the part that sex plays in your stories?
RC: John’s Wife is a tribute to both the accomplished author and my dear friend Angela Carter, as well as to Ovid. To me, the latter is a beacon of belief in the power of eros in the cosmos.
This concept has been present in my writing since the beginning, even in my first modest stories. Even if a story appears to be about one thing, it can actually be about something different – politics, history, or something else entirely.
The motivation to write The Adventures of Lucky Pierre came to me at the end of the ’60s when I left the United States, due to the Vietnam protests taking up much of my time and leaving me feeling depressed.
Everywhere I looked, it seemed as though it was a bleak and dismal winter, and this inspired me to come up with an image of a man walking in winter.
Initially, the concept was rather dreary, but then I started to consider the idea of him walking with an erect penis, which gave the image a whole new meaning.
BLVR: Was Nixon the only influential public figure that you drew inspiration from or have there been others who have had a similar impact on your creative process?
RC: Thankfully not. Generally, they’re an unsavory and unappealing group.
BLVR: What was it that made you so intrigued by him?
RC: I didn’t opt to write about Nixon; it was quite the opposite. I began The Public Burning as a theatrical piece with the purpose of presenting a protest.
My plan was to travel to Times Square and cause disruption, setting up a stage to execute the Rosenbergs and see how it would go.
I intended Uncle Sam to function as the master of ceremonies, to tell jokes and be the one to pull the switch at the conclusion. Primarily, my goal was to challenge the prevailing attitude at the time.
When I had my idea for a theater piece set in New York, I didn’t know a soul. I didn’t know how to get things off the ground, and the actors I’d need. It seemed like a concept in the abstract, so I decided to make it more solid by creating a narrative.
Uncle Sam as a master of ceremonies, the Rosenbergs executed in Times Square, and so on. The piece was full of comedy, but it didn’t have a reliable anchor. I decided I needed a character like a clown to bring it down to earth.
As Inauguration Day neared, I thought Nixon might work in that role. He had insider info on current events, yet Eisenhower treated him with disdain and wanted nothing to do with him.
In my research of Nixon, I uncovered all of the details surrounding his breaking into the dean’s office in order to steal exam results, which I thought was rather clever. Little did I know that would be overshadowed by the Watergate scandal, which revealed all of the same information to the public.
BLVR asked if the individual had already started to look into Richard Nixon’s life before the Watergate scandal surfaced.
RC recalled that he was so immersed in the task that what he knew suddenly became widespread knowledge.
Therefore, he had to take another look at the character, and he ended up becoming much more intriguing. His short, comical episodes became longer, and RC was able to introduce him to more people and bring up matters that hadn’t been considered before.
As a result of the character not being able to keep his reputation intact in the public, this enabled RC to delve deeper into who he was in a private setting.
BLVR: Was Nixon still on your mind when you wrote Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears? even later on?
After receiving a request from a magazine that I had no respect for, based on my baseball book, to provide them with a sports story, I responded in a not very friendly manner.
Upon further thought, I realized I had not done justice to two aspects of the protagonist’s life in The Public Burning: his ambition to be a great football player, and his difficulties in connecting with girls.
It was this insight that led to the creation of Gloomy Gus, although I was not truly obsessed with the protagonist. Rather, I was simply looking for a character with an “all-American instinct”.
BLVR: What was your impression when you wrote The Public Burning and included Nixon as a character in your novel, making you the first twentieth-century author to do so? Did you sense that it was a revolutionary move?
During that period, it was virtually unlawful to take this action. Not only did it involve Nixon, but also a large number of people still living. Thus, when it was time to put the book out, there was no guarantee that it would not be taken to court or even prohibited from being published.
The novel garnered a lot of attention from publishers, but they were afraid to release it due to the potential legal ramifications.
The Nixon and Eisenhower families, as well as the judges and prosecutors from 1953, were all still alive and could sue. The biggest threat of all was Roy Cohn, who had sued NBC for millions due to their portrayal of him in the TV film Tail Gunner Joe, which was about McCarthy.
When I wrote the book I hadn’t taken into account how fearful people might be about what was possible in the book. But, it turned out to be quite a challenge. It was a success in that the publishers all wanted it.
Nevertheless, the first thing they had to do was to get the legal staff to vet it. Consequently, each legal representative in New York City were aware of the book and its contents.
As a result, we felt that we were increasing the risk of someone suing us if it was published, or more likely, not being able to find a publisher for it.
The outlook seemed bleak, with only a couple of companies looking at it. I decided to travel back to the States from Europe to try to persuade them that we were in the right. Farrar, Straus and Viking, through Dick Seaver, were still interested.
To gain some time, I took up a job at Goddard College, and kept an eye on the news from New York. When I arrived at a friend’s place in Vermont and New Hampshire, my agent contacted me. He said Roger Straus was certain that we had a contract in the works.
So, my friend and I celebrated the news, but it was short-lived. Almost immediately, my agent informed me that Roger Straus had backed out, as a lawyer had advised him against it. After two years of searching, our hopes were dashed.
Consequently, I was left with Dick. The gossip was that Knopf, who had taken the book away from Dutton and then declined it, had been intimidated with a legal action or something.
Whatever it was, Knopf declined the book even though they had agreed to pay a substantial amount for it.
So, the stories began to circulate. Seaver and I had a conversation to explain the situation, and Seaver realized the whole thing. He then said, “Okay, I’m in.” The journey was long and challenging.
For example, Dick got the books printed five months prior to the publication date, and spread them to the bookstores. He worked hard to make it hard to get them back. He did multiple other things as well.
I consulted a Viking lawyer and they had a lot of requests for alterations. Primarily, they wanted me to eliminate any living individuals.
My legal team had to battle it out with their house lawyers, yet we eventually complied with a couple of minor changes that were not relevant to the book.
One of these characters was Cohn, who I still depicted as a fool, though I had to soften my original description. It didn’t make a big difference to me as he wasn’t particularly important to the book.
The novel in question was revolutionary in its own right, and although it was met with a few legal issues, these were resolved.
This set a precedent for many books of similar topics that were released afterward. Prior to this, the focus was on the deceased, but soon after the beginning of Saturday Night Live, everything changed. It could be argued that my book in some way enabled this shift.
BLVR: Writers who are your contemporaries have created many pieces of fiction, yet not as many autobiographical works or memoirs. It appears that novelists in the present day tend to put out more stories in both genres. Can you explain why your generation avoided autobiographical writing?
RC stated that he was uncertain, as biographical components were included in each work. However, he believed the notion of initiating a meta-literary custom among a collective necessitated that everything would have to be re-shaped and converted into something else.
For instance, Hawkes’s Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade is quite similar to his own childhood, apart from the fact that in the story the protagonist is a female. He profoundly drew upon his own life to create it.
It’s a common occurrence; seeking out something that we can really have an honest discussion about. Interestingly enough, among this generation there was not much pride or vanity, the concept of creating a persona and writing a story of your life that is often embellished.
Instead of emphasizing the author’s individuality, DeLillo and Gass focus on larger metaphors. Gass has a unique perspective that is particularly beneficial in his writing of essays.
In fact, there is a blurred distinction between his essays and his fiction such as in the works of Willie Masters ‘ Lonesome Wife and On Being Blue , which creates confusion between the two fundamental forms of essay-fiction. This confusion is a great gift which Gass possesses.
Jack Barth was known for his frequent use of personal anecdote, yet it was often hidden beneath his more creative storytelling.
But whenever he was on a boat in Chesapeake, people were reminded of him and his wife, Shelly.
The reason why his stories were regarded as love stories or love letters is due to the fact that they were written as if they were from him to her, regardless of how imaginative or whimsical the narrative was.
Elkin’s writing was humorous and not related to his real life, except for a few stories. One that stands out is when he was battling MS and was helplessly relying on his wife, and he imagined a scenario of her leaving him.
In this story, he was observing her leave while also expecting students to arrive for a party he had planned, and he had to rely on the students to prepare for it.
Despite being a tragic situation, Elkin managed to craft a comic piece out of it. Fortunately, his wife never actually left him.
There is an increased tendency for people to be more open about their feelings and experiences in the last two decades.
RC: Well, it’s possible. People are very active when it comes to sharing photos and stories of themselves online.
That can be rewarding, to some extent. But, in the end, it’s all going to pass. That kind of writing won’t stick around, as it will be replaced by a large range of new trends. As a writer, I wouldn’t want to rely on that type of writing to make sure my work is remembered.
What is your opinion of postmodernism nowadays, which you were extensively associated with?
RC: None of us were keen on being labeled, because it is seen as a penalty, not a benefit. No matter what the term was, even if it was the most complimentary, you still felt like you were part of a theoretical concept, not something you were actively creating.
At one of the Unspeakable Practices [literary conferences], all the critics had to form a panel. It was, I believe, the first one, with Gass and Elkin as participants.
They were asked to provide a final definition of postmodernism, which was perceived as a joke by all the writers and the audience, as none of them fit into the categories that were being established.
It was shown that some terms of naming generations can be beneficial, while others, such as postmodernism, do not say much. It has some relevance to architecture, but does not provide much information regarding writing.
What about works of literature that present fictional elements in a way that draws attention to their status as art?
Metafiction can be defined as writing within a large fiction and reflecting on it. It is in contrast to the idea of Surfiction, which is a form of surrealistic fiction. Maximalism is another concept, with Beckett being a prime example of a minimalist.
The term maximalism is used to describe ambition and the breadth of one’s creative undertakings; someone like DeLillo is known for taking on large topics and pushing through them.
In the end, maximalism is a term that doesn’t define anything concrete, but rather can be used to describe someone who is ambitious and uses a lot of words.
BLVR: You have been a long-term advocate of electronic writing. How do you feel about the current state of affairs compared to what your outlook was in the early 1990s?
Back in the 1980s, I didn’t have much optimism for the future, because I could observe the world shifting towards digital formats in all areas–from films to literature.
However, with the invention of the WWW in the 90s and the introduction of the internet browser, the whole concept was revolutionized.
The late ’80s saw the dawning of a new era, where proof positive emerged that this certain form would eventually replace all the others. We knew we would no longer need celluloid, needles and wax, nor printed words on paper.
Those may still be there, but more in the form of a hobbyist interest. The book, however, is an irreplaceable source and will likely remain a part of our lives.
It was evident that people would eventually conduct their activities digitally in one way or the other.
That has proven to be true. The outcomes do not matter in this case as the activities have already moved online. Even if we are not entirely satisfied with Twitter and Facebook, it is still the current platform for things to happen.
It is too soon to predict what will come out of our current situation. We must recall that it was not until 150 years after Gutenberg’s printing revolution that Don Quixote and the first novelists appeared.
This was because people had become so accustomed to books that the printing press was no longer questioned.
Currently, it feels as though we have only dipped our toes into the waters of romance novels, the sentimental kind, the picaresque type and so on.
There are some small examples of what might transpire but it has yet to happen in a satisfactory way. It will take a Cervantes or Joyce to come along and say, “Ah, I know how to do this!” And then they execute it, leaving us all in awe, thinking, “I had no idea!”
I believe our creative artists should not limit themselves in terms of what they can produce; therefore it may not appear or sound like a book.
Nevertheless, nothing has proven to be better than a book for a sustained narrative, so it will stay – potentially in Kindle form – as we still rely on the page-turning mechanism.
BLVR: The difference between digital and physical ink is noticeable.
RC: Right. It hasn’t altered the initial work yet, but I assume it will. When we first discussed digitizing my pieces, I wanted to broaden them, however, the individuals in charge said, “Nope, we just want to preserve them as they are, just scan the books and distribute them as Kindle editions.”
When considering the kids born today, the computer is considered to be ancient history. It is thought that, as this is the only platform available, the people of this generation will create something of the same caliber as works from renowned writers, such as Shakespeare and Cervantes. Although this may not be seen yet, it can be anticipated.
There is also a sense of disappointment in what has been created so far, as it is often too shallow and does not capture the true potential of the technology.
Furthermore, not many people are able to understand the technology in its entirety and thus settle for the easy route. As a result, they may know the basics such as creating links and inserting movies, but lack the deeper understanding of the technology’s full capabilities.
BLVR: With the recent publication of your lengthy novel, do you anticipate a retirement akin to that of Philip Roth in the near future?
RC: I find no justification to cease. Nevertheless, the cause is not always in one’s own hands. The brain is not invincible, and it might forfeit some of its capabilities.
At the present, I still trust I can do everything, and when I was in my seventies I chose to start this extensive book, which I was aware was going to occupy me for a decade.
That was a daunting undertaking at that age, recognizing that I might not live to finish it. Nevertheless, if I encountered a book that I truly relished and it was another ten-year book and I was ninety-five, I would still believe I could manage to complete it.
I have seen plenty of acquaintances that have been writing and it is evident that their skills are diminishing. I wish I could discern this in its early stages and be able to cease as there is no need to contribute more books to an already oversaturated world.
There is a great deal of unnecessary material present already. Nevertheless, I will continue to compose, so long as I believe I can bring something imaginative and perspicacious to the table.
What are your plans moving forward in your career? Do you have any ideas to revisit some of your previous genres, or are you aiming to explore something new? Maybe you would like to go back to working on something you have done before?
RC mentioned that he has multiple projects he is currently working on that venture into different genres and use an alternate method of structuring language.
He has been logging these ideas for almost forty years and now they have finally come to the surface. His main focus is to come up with sequels and follow-ons to books such as Gerald ‘s Party, John ‘s Wife, Ghost Town, Noir, and A Night at the Movies which offer new opportunities. He hopes to be able to complete all of them.
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