A Robert Coover interview/profile, done way back in 1998 on the occasion of (a) a new novel, Ghost Town, and (b) an appearance at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. (For some stupid reason or other, I ended up missing Coover’s IFOA appearance.) This is the long version, which ran in my friend Dave’s fanzine Filler; a shorter one ran in eye weekly.
Grand success stories like David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest may have sparked a minor resurgence in form-stretching fiction, but that hasn’t much changed life for old-school postmodernist Robert Coover. Ghost Town, Coover’s most recent novel, was published last September to little of the fanfare that accompanied, say, Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, and Coover’s first visit to Toronto — he read at the annual International Festival of Authors in October — was likely unremarked by many of the same readers who had lined up for, say, Don DeLillo the year before.
With or without a sizable audience, though, Coover has been pushing fictional boundaries for over thirty years. His first novel, 1966’s The Origin of the Brunists (about a weird religious cult in a small mining town), won the William Faulkner Award, and since then he’s produced a savagely satiric body of work — sometimes dense and confrontational, sometimes compulsively readable. Coover is probably best known for the oft-anthologized short “The Babysitter,” with its dizzying twists in chronology, and the lit-course mainstay The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop., which lends new creepiness to the term “fantasy league.” Those who delve further into his career, though, will find everything from eroticized odes to power politics (Spanking the Maid) to fresh takes on old fairy tales (Pinocchio in Venice, Briar Rose) to mammoth political epics that marry historical fact and ludicrous fantasy (The Public Burning).
An Iowa native, Coover attended university at Southern Illinois and Indiana before heading to Chicago for graduate work. He reports that although he’d been interested in writing all his life, he didn’t consider it a vocation until the summer after he got out of the Navy, when he “holed up in a cabin, out on an island near the border of Canada and the U.S.” Here he hit on what would be a career-long interest in “all the stories we get from early childhood on: fairy tales, religious stories, patriotic stories, family stories.” Asserting that “stories and language and how we tell a story are all significant,” Coover confesses to a fondness for “disturbing the waters” of various narrative archetypes — “whichever one catches my fancy from time to time.”
This willingness to “stir things up” has occasionally produced brief flashes of controversy. Spanking the Maid, the cyclical, dreamy tale of a man who begins each day by, well, spanking his maid, sparked feminist protests in New York upon its 1982 publication. And the release of The Public Burning (1977) — a cartoonish reimagination of the 1953 execution of alleged Communist spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, complete with “narration” from then vice-president Richard Nixon — was delayed, in circumstances that are still obscure; it is believed that publishers feared legal action from the Nixon camp. (The experience was clearly nightmarish for Coover, though he notes happily that a similar book written in 1999 would likely not encounter such problems. “I wrote The Public Burning before Saturday Night Live,” he says, “and there’s been so much opening up of political satire since then.”)
Spanking the Maid and The Public Burning represent two extremes in fictional scope: the former is short and compressed (more of a novella, really), the latter long and epic. Since Coover’s books have varied greatly in length throughout his career, one wonders at the writing process: Are the shorter books products of extensive cutting? Does Coover know, when he sets out, whether he’ll be running a sprint or a marathon? No to both, as it turns out. “I think my preferred length,” says Coover, “the one that I’m happiest with, is that of Spanking the Maid or Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears — that sort of novella-length work.”
However, once he starts writing, Coover often finds that he has little control over the matter. “I often think I’m writing a one-pager, or something very short, and it’s only when I sort of open up the story, and see what’s inside it, that I see what it’s trying to tell me.” His works in progress, Coover claims, inevitably follow surprising directions. “I may do a lot of structuring — I write out outlines, how it’s going to move, what all’s going to be in it — but those things get overwritten quickly enough as the text begins to take off on its own. And sometimes I think I’m going to have a big piece and it just suddenly finds a way to come to a natural end much sooner than I thought — that’s rare, but it’s fun. The more natural tendency is to keep going, becoming massive and challenging.”
Whether or not Coover is being disingenuous when he describes his projects taking on wills of their own, this, er, organic view of the composition process would seem to resist extensive editorial collaboration — a suspicion Coover confirms. His best editors, in Coover’s view, have been the ones “who’ve known how to just do the best for the book once they’ve decided they want to do it.” Changes made during the publishing process have been limited to “very minor copyediting alterations,” with more structural or substantive revisions unheard of. “I spend a lot of time going over and over these texts,” Coover says, “and I haven’t found anybody in the industry sharp enough, or literarily-minded enough, to make judgments like that.”
Not surprisingly, Coover’s penchant for demanding prose has occasionally run him into trouble with the accounting departments of publishing houses. “My work has never been best-seller stuff,” he says, which makes for a career of small advances and limited financial recompense. (Coover reports that even the income from The Universal Baseball Association, arguably his most popular book, has been minimal.) Not that he’s complaining. “I count on a continuity of readers, rather than a broad base of readership at any given time. A best-seller is a book that gets to a lot of people who just aren’t readers. That’s certainly the case with Cold Mountain [Charles Frazier’s wildly successful 1997 novel] — although I think it will have a lasting life, I know it’s being read by a lot of people who haven’t read a book in years. That’s a remunerative readership, but it’s not a very rewarding one.” With his current publisher Henry Holt, Coover has at least found some measure of stability: Ghost Town is the first of a contracted three books.
Perhaps Coover’s future royalty statements will benefit from the recent renewal of interest in experimental fiction. Big, attention-grabbing books like Wallace’s, Pynchon’s and DeLillo’s seem to have reawakened the reading public’s appetite for fictional worlds unlike the quotidian ones of, say, Raymond Carver or Richard Ford. “I never really saw it go away,” Coover says of the apparent revival of the postmodern impulse, “but then I was close to young writers, and I could see a continuous interest in disruption of form. Minimalism and dirty realism got big press because they were easy to read, easy to review, and easy to sell, but I could see that all along that there were people like Wallace.” Still, Coover’s own recent work, like that of his contemporary John Barth, remains largely ignored by the mainstream media.
However, financial pressures must be eased by Coover’s full-time gig: for 20 years he has taught creative writing at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Coover specializes in hypertext, the study of computer-driven reading and writing, in which narrative flow is nonlinear and interactive — indeed, often controlled by the reader, not the author. “It’s an essential creative difference in form,” says Coover. “You can move any book into the computer, but you can’t move just any text out.” Coover’s interest in new technologies and their application to storytelling dates back to the ’60s, when he made a short documentary film “just to understand the process.” He also embraced word processing very early, one of the first in the Brown community to do so: “I used to sit and work in a room next to the mainframe itself.” (Interestingly, though, Coover says computer composition did nothing to actually influence the way he wrote, conceding only that “it made a lot of things I wanted to do easier” in terms of cutting and pasting text.)
As for the technology that has wrought hypertext, Coover felt early on that those who ignored it would end up “disenfranchised, illiterate, disempowered.” Still, he does acknowledge the validity of some concerns, both practical and aesthetic. (Chief among these, at least to my mind, is the lack of evidence that most readers actually want to usurp the author.) And the rise of the Internet seems to have even Coover fearing for fiction’s future; he sounds almost nostalgic recalling the days when hypertext meant “dealing with diskettes and CD-ROMs,” and admits that “text’s future is not as clear as it was to me three or four years ago — what looked very promising looks less so now.” Still, says Coover, “you do worry about the loss of the reading experience, but I think it’s wrong to put your head in the sand.” Accordingly, he is helping to organize a conference at Brown — slated, he says, for sometime in the spring of 1999 — with the objective of arriving at “some sense of how words of how words are going to survive.” Besides international poets and writers, Coover hopes to also attract attendees from the technological industry — say, represntatives of Intel or Microsoft.
For now, Coover still publishes in the old-fashioned way, and Ghost Town, his third novel in two years (following John’s Wife and Briar Rose, both in 1996), is a compact, compressed sendup of the conventions of the western genre. Beginning with a lone drifter atop a horse, the novel charts a haphazard narrative course through a hallucinatory, anarchic world of cattle rustlers and lynch-happy posses, rowdy barrooms and deserted banks, stern schoolmarms and scheming whores. Distinguished by non-sequitur plot turns and Coover’s demanding virtuoso prose, Ghost Town is not for the faint of heart. Indeed, the stock settings, the splashy cartoon violence (including surprise resurrections), and the protagonist’s ever-shifting goals often produce a disconcerting literary-video-game effect. “That’s the metaphor of the ghost town,” says Coover. “Things are never as they appear.”
Coover’s work within the western format dates back to his 1972 play The Kid (which he cites as Ghost Town’s direct antecedent). Driven since then to produce “a massive epic” containing “all the various characters in the west,” Coover began only after conceiving the book’s central image: the ghost town gliding past the lone rider on the desert plain, overtaking him from behind. “As I followed the impulses of this visual image,” he says, “everything got crushed into this quite short narrative.” He was still driven, though, “to make sure every element of the western was tucked in there somewhere, even if only a mention.”
Coover’s perennial interest in genre will also inform his future work. He describes his next book as “a collection of short fiction dealing with children’s themes,” and he’s also working on a long novel premised on yet another cultural institution: the porn film. Centering on a character dubbed Lucky Pierre (Coover won’t divulge the working title, but he does give me that much), the book will comprise nine novella-length sections, “representing nine reels, and nine filmmakers.”
While we’re on the subject of titillation, I have to ask the author of The Public Burning — in which Richard Nixon trysts on the death-house floor with condemned spy Ethel Rosenberg, before being sodomized by the ghostly national mascot Uncle Sam — what he makes of Washington’s annus horribilis. Not surprisingly, Coover considers the situation more ludicrous than anything in his own fiction. “It’s pathetic, a case of Congress dropping its pants in front of the public, in front of the world. It’s silly, it’s funny.” Coover doesn’t rule out the possibility that the events in question may one day engage his own imaginative impulse, but not in the foreseeable future. “I think you have to let these things settle into the context of the time before you can manage them.”