The PEN Ten with T Cooper
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s biweekly interview series curated by Lauren Cerand. This week Lauren talks to T Cooper, author of six books, including the recently published young adult novel Changers, the nonfiction book Real Man Adventures, recently released in paperback from McSweeney’s, Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes, and the graphic novel The Beaufort Diaries. He also edited the politically-minded anthology of original stories entitled A Fictional History Of The United States With Huge Chunks Missing.
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
I would normally say sometime after I published my second novel, but I was at dinner with my folks the other night, and my dad was telling me about a time I was about five, and we were in another country, and I was gazing up at a giant old building with a checkerboard of lit-up apartments, and how I kept wondering aloud what was happening behind the windows . . . were they cooking on stoves, was there a radio playing, whether the people living there had kids and how many, did they have bunk beds, wood floors or carpet, a dog, and so on. So I guess the answer to this question falls sometime between then and publishing my second novel.
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
Joan Didion, Flannery O’Conner, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Philip Roth, Virginia Woolf, Ralph Ellison, George Saunders, hell, Chaucer—if I’m sinking so low as to steal, might as well really go for it.
Where is your favorite place to write?
I’m not too picky, so long as I have access to an espresso-based drink, and nowhere to be for three hours. No, five. No phone calls to make. No carpool to drive. One of the most fruitful places of late has been beside the fire at The Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, TN, where the president Miss Elaine, and queen of the kitchen Miss Kristy have been plying me (and my wife, with whom I co-wrote much of my most recent novel Changers there) with the best sweet tea—not to mention deviled eggs, fried green tomatoes and peach cobbler—on the planet.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
Yes. Matthew Shepard political funeral/march in NYC in 1998. Released!
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
In no particular order: Pit bull advocacy, M*A*S*H, vintage airplanes, eggs any style but poached, my wife, my kids, my dogs, The Wiz, old stuff, Rehab Addict and Property Brothers on HGTV, serial killers, cults, The First 48, Penang curry tofu, Vietnamese bun, my signed first edition book collection, whale sharks, long medical stories in The New Yorker, Sister Wives, my old Redwing boots, art, museums, traveling anywhere (else), music, table tennis, New York City, the ocean, long walks on the beach . . .
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
Written: My last book Real Man Adventures, which was ostensibly “true,” and thus opened me up to talking about things I don’t talk about in my day-to-day life—nor do I want to talk about in my day-to-day life.
Spoken: My wedding vows.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
All art is about telling the truth.
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
Canaries in the coal mines.
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
Is Kiss of the Spider Woman too on-the-nose? I love that book and Manuel Puig so much, and there’s so much in there about power and struggle, love and loyalty, torture, prejudice, resistance, exile, beauty, the transformative potential of storytelling.
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
All around us.