Interview by BRYNN SAITO, program coordinator for the Department of Writing, Consciousness and Creative Inquiry
Carolyn Cooke is an associate professor in the Department of Writing, Consciousness, and Creative Inquiry and author of "Daughters of the Revolution," a novel to be published by Knopf/Doubleday on June 7, 2011. Her short story collection, "The Bostons," was a winner of PEN/ Bingham Award for a first book and a runner-up for the PEN/Hemingway. Her fiction has appeared in AGNI, The Paris Review, Ploughshares and in two volumes each of "Best American Short Stories" and "Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards." For more information visit www.carolyncooke.com.
Your novel, Daughters of the Revolution, will be published on June 7. What is the novel about?
The novel begins with sexual revolutions in New England, the time of integration and busing and the beginning of co-education in previously all-male schools.
Yale became co-ed around 1969 and a huge collection of prestigious old prep schools in Boston began to admit girls around then. So many radical divides and challenges to the culture had surfaced—from the Vietnam War to the publication of Our Bodies, Ourselves by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective and the introduction of the speculum as a tool of consciousness! The gritty atmosphere and sexual politics of the time impressed me profoundly. Of course, I was a kid.
What comes first for you in the writing process—the characters, a scene, a political movement you want to engage? How does the writing begin?
I recently borrowed a copy of that immense, gorgeous edition of Carl Jung's Red Book and spent about a week reading it in bed. What an experience, to immobilize yourself before a big book – the record of a personal, psychotic process. Writing is always autobiographical in the sense that it comes from you and through you – but, as for Jung, it’s not necessarily autobiography. For me, story starts with language, sound; I start to hear something.
My first book came out exactly ten years ago. Ten years! And Daughters of the Revolution is a very slender book—it's like a haiku of a novel. I also wrote a collection of stories in that time, called Amor and Psycho, which is coming out next year. So I procrastinated from the novel by writing the stories, which are about sex and angst. I write slowly and cut much, more like a poet than a novelist, maybe - always trying to make the words say more than they want to. The novel takes place over the course of 40 years, so a lot of time passes even though it's very compressed.
To hear you say you write a like a poet makes a lot of sense to me. Your writing is so emotionally and linguistically precise, and lyrical at the same time.
I don't think anyone will confuse Daughters of the Revolution with poetry, but I did try to capture the tone of a period—from the early 1970s through the early years of the 21st century—and also how the tone changed, and how that shift was influenced by economic policies and social realities and changes in sexual politics. That’s really what interests me—the tonal feeling. Not plot so much.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Some people want to explore the psychic playpen; other people – artists and psychologists, for example – have to, they just can't not. One of our students was just telling me about a parent, gravely ill, who is devastated because she has so much in her mind, in her soul, that she feels is going to be lost when she dies. I agree that’s an intolerable situation – to feel that you haven’t been able to say something out loud to the world that only you can say.
I relate to that. There's the world in your mind and the urgency to get it out in order to be your most real self.
The world in your mind, exactly. It’s not fundamentally a matter of self-expression. It’s invention, creation – making something potentially better and stranger and more lasting than you are.
As an associate professor in the Institute’s Writing and Consciousness MFA program, what does “consciousness” mean to you?
Not every writer writes from an interest in consciousness; I'm not sure I think of myself that way. Some writers are more interested in storytelling, or plot, or pure abstraction, or ideas, or history. Many of our students have stories that they urgently want to tell that have some political or social dimension or point of view they feel hasn't been captured in language before.
Consciousness is who you are, but it’s not autobiography – it’s not factual, or even knowable. It’s not self-conscious; it’s open to larger currents. It reveals you in relation to other human beings, the knowledge we share that is beyond geography or culture. The more particular and precise you become in certain kinds of writing, the more other people are able to see something that you maybe didn’t even know or intend, and say, Wow, that's exactly how it is. My interest in consciousness isn’t really personal; it’s the way in which consciousness is shared.
That reminds me a line from a blog post of yours: “The job of the reporter is to give us facts and evidence, causes and effects. The job of the fiction writer is to refuse the simple story we thought we knew, to inscribe indelible marks on our soul.” So writing fiction is a different kind of truth-telling
Don't you think poetry is that, too?
I think that's a real comfort to people who are starting to write: you don't actually have to know much in advance. It's probably better if you don't. “Telling the truth” isn’t just saying what you think you already know, it’s when you’re writing with your hand as much as from your head and you start trying to corral the unsayable, and the words start to make patterns that you suddenly know how to read.
Do you have any rules and rituals as a writer?
The only rule is that I have to do it all the time. Within that, I’m free. I love what Julia Whitty said about living like a monk to keep the portal open. I don't live like a monk, I live like a maniac, but I try to keep the portal (as I understand it) open and get to my desk before I really wake up. I try to write something before I get out of bed, or open my eyes.