A Conversation with Bernard Cooper
By Kimbel Westerson
Many words describe Bernard Cooper's writing: exquisitely crafted, resonant, melancholy, open-hearted. Reading his memoirs is a bit like sitting next to a friend who is telling you the story of his life – a really interesting friend. His work addresses topics such as growing up gay in the 1950s and 60s in Los Angeles, dealing with mortality, AIDS. A guide on the landscape of memory, he recalls details and situations from more than one perspective, always offering wisdom that might instruct the way we look at our own lives.
Cooper has published prose poetry, memoir, short stories and a novel. His work has appeared in numerous publications, among them The New York Times, Harper's, The Paris Review. His work has also won awards, such as the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Award, an O. Henry Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship – the list goes on.
After a few delays for 'flu and house guests, we were able to speak about his background in the visual arts (a subject about which he's currently writing), teaching, his most recent book, "The Bill from My Father," and upcoming works.
You were a visual artist but abandoned that for writing. Tell me about your visual art, and how that informs your writing – if it does.
Actually, I go my BA and MA in visual art from Cal Arts and at the time it was the most avant garde art school in the country with a emphasis on conceptual art which was my area of interest. Even though I painted and was interested in more conventional forms of art, I got very swept up in to the spirit of conceptual art. That was my area of practice for many years. But I had also been an avid reader of poetry ever since high school. I had a high school teacher who really changed my life by assigning as a textbook "Contemporary American Poetry," edited by Donald Hall. That was the first time I had read Sylvia Plath and (Allen) Ginsberg and it was just completely eye opening experience. I had always been interested in writing poetry in particular. And by the time I graduated I was much more interested in writing than in conceptual art. Most of my conceptual art included language.
It was a little strange switching gears. It seemed a little frightening. It seemed discontinuous at first. But then I realized that anything I was interested in visually could find a form in language. So my interest in visual art was very much integral to the act of writing.
At first it seemed like such a different endeavor, but I don't think it really is. The writer Flannery O'Connor said that the sense of sight is probably the most important sense for a writer. I'm often drawn to write about things because they have an image that's provocative and intriguing.
You were also an art critic for Los Angeles Magazine for a time.
Yes, there was a period of six years when I was the art critic for Los Angeles Magazine. The editor at the time had worked with me on some of my memoirs for publication. He knew I had a background in art, but he wanted someone who could write essays. He wanted someone who could write in an engaging way. He didn't want an art historian.
He wanted someone who could actually make art criticism pleasurable to read.
Yeah, like they would pick up a work of fiction, that wouldn't exclude people who didn't come to it with an arcane knowledge of modern art. And as someone who struggled through years of art theory, that was okay with me.
MFA programs have been both vilified and praised. What about teaching in an MFA program?
I'm on core faculty at Bennington College, and I also teach at USC. You know, my MFA was in visual art. So I never really got a degree in writing. I thought about it. I considered going back to school to get a master's in writing. But it seemed like I had already spent plenty of time in school. One of the things I learned at Cal Arts, because it was such a progressive school … it taught me a sort of self-reliance. I started to write with the sort of blind faith that I would learn how to do it. The reason I got a master's degree in art, I felt that there was more to learn, that there was more to produce and more peers that would come into the school into the graduate program that I could talk to and learn from.
As far as MFA programs in writing, there's that great Flannery O'Connor quote. She was asked if writing programs ruined writers, and she responded, "not enough of them." It's very complicated. In all the arts at this point, it helps to have a degree because the fields are fiercely competitive. It certainly helps if you want to teach. But I absolutely believe that a person can arrive at their sensibility in their bodies of work without the assistance of a masters program. But there are many advantages. There's exposure to many ideas. There's the incredible pleasure of hearing guests lecture and read. There's even the chance that even a couple people can become your readers and allies. I don't really believe that writing programs (contrary to Flannery O'Connor) do ruin young writers. I do think it can ruin a writer who is writing only to get the approval of their peers. But if you're set on your own path, even in a program where the teacher's methodology is quite different than your own, I don't think writing programs homogenize or weaken writers.
What about teaching? Do your students inspire you? In one part of The Bill from My Father, you mention having to deal with "foggy" essays and I had to laugh, because it was such a concise description.
You know, I think it can be both draining and inspiring, sometimes at the same time. It's always really heartening and wonderful not just when a student is innately talented, but when they bring something that might not initially have potential or will require a lot of work and then they work on it and present it again and it's absolutely transformed and not only is it good, but you understand that there were certain things about everything from sentence structure to tone that they suddenly understand. To see work vastly improved, which certainly happens. The answer to the question whether teaching becomes wearying really depends upon how much of a teaching load you have and how long you've been teaching. Recently, I took a one semester leave from teaching and it was great. I am so glad I did it. It was a way to renew myself and read things that I wanted to and I wasn't responsible for explaining to students how they might improve their work. There are ways to renew and refresh yourself but sure; teaching can become tough.
Do you find a difference between teaching something like freshman comp and graduate level courses?
My initial teaching experience was about six or seven years of freshman comp and I haven't done that in many, many years. You know, also, it's not necessarily more draining than working with graduate students. When you have a room full of people who are very serious about becoming writers and are eager to have answers, or to figure out why people are reacting the way they are to their work (whether good or bad) there's another burden of responsibility. I think teaching at any level can be stressful in many ways.
I was just curious if you perceived a difference between the two.
It cuts both ways. There have been freshman classes where, not only was the work difficult to read, but they were not excited about short stories and poems. Then there were the classes of freshman who are not excited and think this is just another stupid course, but then they get really excited about the work.
I want to address the years between memoirs. You started with "Maps to Anywhere," then went on to "Truth Serum" …
Actually, the second book was a very autobiographical novel called "The Year of Rhymes." Apart from that novel is a collection of short stories called "Guess Again."
One of my first interests in poetry was when I started to read prose poetry and way back when I was sort of getting my chops, the editor of The Paris Review was a poet named Michael Benedikt and he really was a champion of prose poetry. Eventually, he came out with an incredible anthology of prose poetry, international, but he also had American poets in it that I was already interested in, who had ventured into the territory of prose poems. It was a real revelation to me because I was interested in both prose and poetry. … I think my first book is really allied with prose poetry.
Then I had this desire to, instead of doing the quick take, I liked the idea of continuing to go over something, and investigating and deepening the range of material. I think my work also goes from fairly short pieces to longer book-length narrative. And as far as the switch from nonfiction to fiction, I think especially when I did the book of short stories, one or two of those stories are somewhat autobiographical but what I'd been doing all along was accumulating anecdotes or stories that had nothing to do with me. It was an incredible pleasure to tackle third person. The short story is one of the most amazing and difficult forms. I read short stories all the time. It was a great relief to make things up out of whole cloth to a greater extent than I had before. It was a relief from the fear of the personal.
You mention in "The Bill from My Father" that you hesitated to write it?
I started writing about my father before that book. At one point, an editor at a publishing house (that shall remain nameless) had read some of the pieces and called me out of the blue. It was basically my version of "This Boys Life" (Tobias Wolff). I thought I had to write my own version. I was nervous, because she had very specific expectations. Tobias Wolff is one of my favorite writers, and I didn't feel like I could just sit down and write a Tobias Wolff. But I kept writing about my father, and eventually had enough for a book about my father.
Can you speak to the struggle that nonfiction writers have with writing about those who are still living and a part of the writer's life?
Well, at that point, my father was still alive and you know, I have to say I think with my father in particular – and people in general – for a long time the idea that the people I wrote about would actually read the work was a little far-fetched. … But I was a little self-conscious about it at that point. I was really much more concerned about trying to weigh the editor's proposition and decide what I wanted to do. It was kind of like a made-to-order request which was why I eventually backed out of it. I think it's difficult to write about people who are alive that you have some sort of relationship with. There are ways to keep things private and assure that you're not writing out of a desire for revenge. I think,in a sense, other people's reactions are so unpredictable that it sometimes does a writer a disservice if they worry about how people are going to react. There are people who would be totally flattered to appear in a memoir in some form, and there are people who would be angry if they haven't appeared. I think the thing to do is be true to the piece of writing, to convey your own experience and somehow acknowledge that the people you're talking about would have different ideas about what you're writing about. There are friends who I've written about who are really understanding and understand that the way I'd written about them was really one version of them.
Being true to the writing and what you're trying not revenge on someone. Do you think that if a writer does that, it becomes pretty transparent?
I do. I think that it's kind of easy to tell if a writer's being unfair or condescending to a character in fiction or someone real in a memoir. And it's kind of repellent. It alienates you from the writer. One has to be really careful that their tone is honest but not cruel and I think it's very important that a writer subject him or herself to the same scrutiny and present themselves as being fallible.
Within the work?
Yes. I think it's clear when a writer is writing a memoir, and their intent – whether conscious or unconscious – is to make themselves heroic, where they're the hero and everyone around them is sort of deluded. That's not very appealing either.
Obviously, you have a rich life from which to mine material. Do you think that the advice of "write what you know" works or perhaps doesn't work for writers?
You know, it's funny. I mean, thanks for the vote of confidence. But I don't think I have a rich life. I think I have an ordinary life. What I have is a very specific way of looking at things that I have cultivated through writing. Christopher Isherwood said that even a mouse that had spent his entire life in a wall could write an incredible novel. It wasn't the breadth or the depth of experience that could make the writing, but a unique take on the world that can make even ordinary things seem exceptional.
One of the things that I found particularly fascinating in "Truth Serum" was the whole essay "Against Gravity" which dealt with your entre into gay culture, dating, living with men – essentially claiming your sexuality. It also dealt with the fitness and body building culture of 1980s. Have you considered writing more about that?
Unbelievably, I'm going to the same gym still which has changed hands many times and has had all sorts of reincarnations. I have not, at least at the moment, had the impulse to go back to that, but who knows.
Is there something that you feel has defined you as a writer, for instance, growing up gay in the 1950s and 60s?
It's hard to see one's body of work clearly. It's as difficult to do that as it is to look in the mirror and be entirely objective about how you look. I think there's definitely a way in which I derive great satisfaction out of combining humor and absurdity with a sense of the elegiac, the sense that everything is temporary, everything is fleeting which is a frightening and melancholic aspect. I like to weave those two things together, and that might seem an abstract thing, but those are two tones that I like to explore. I'm also really interested in language. I'm not interested in a density of language that calls attention to itself. But I love it when I'm reading and engrossed, but also aware of the sensuality of the language. It's the little interesting figures of speech, novel ways of saying things that are refreshing and wake you up and sharpen your senses. Felicitous use of language can really make the world seem new.
It seems that in your writing you retrace the same incident more than once from different angles – is that a conscious technique or just where you are led?
It is conscious. Here's the thing. One doesn't want to repeat oneself. But one doesn't want to not use an incident that maybe belongs in two pieces of writing just because they're the same. I think there's a way to look at the same incident from entirely different angles that can really make it new. I wrote a very short piece in my first book about my father's film about the Miracle Chicken. I couldn't write a book and not write about his pride in it and the strangeness of seeing that when I was young. I was nervous about going over that material again, but I think it had been 15 or maybe 20 year since I had written about it. It turned out to be fun and interesting to revisit that experience. Those things do happen, when you know you're repeating something, but are trying to give it a new fresh angle.
Wasn't there supposed to be a film made based on "The Bill from My Father"?
There was. The option had been renewed for about two and a half years, and then, Warner Brothers, although they had gotten very far, they started dropping certain projects that were family centered films or interpersonal dramas in favor, unfortunately, of giant science fiction blockbuster movies. It was after the economic downturn and I think everybody was making different decision.
At this point it's been picked up again by a group of screenwriters who are still looking to get the film produced.
Tell me about that Hollywood process.
I don't really understand the way it works, and it would be great if something happens, but I don't count on it. I'm glad that people are interested, but I'm not going to count my chickens before they hatch.
You said that you didn't write the screenplay – and hadn't seen it?
Actually, someone else had started writing it, it turned out. The rights to the book were sold right as I was finishing the book and my goal was to finish the book. I hope this doesn't sound condescending, but I don't know if I could write a screenplay. It's not my forte. I wasn't interested in working for years on this book and then starting work on a different version of the book.
Are you disappointed that the film wasn't made – or is there still a possibility?
You know, I was disappointed because there was money involved with the option. So that was disappointing. But it's so out of my control What happens with that book as far as being made into a movie is just – I am at the mercy of the movie industry, the agent who's handling it, the market place – so many different things. This is obvious, but so many different things have to come together before a movie is ever made so it seems pointless for me to invest too much in whether that happens. The writing is first and foremost. If something happens, it will happen without me because other people are handling it.
Also, the first movie option absolutely came out of the blue. I never expected anything like that. I don't know people in the industry and I don't really know how it works, so there's really no point in getting something like this to happen. It's in other people's hands.
Tell me about what are you working on now.
Incredibly, I'm working on two things right now. I have – well let's see. How can I explain this? For a long time, I've been working on a book about my partner's death in 2006. Bits and pieces of that have been published. One came out in Los Angeles Magazine and was chosen for "Best American Essays 2009." And one was in the New York Times. It's very difficult to write, and it's very dark material, but as with everything I write, I like to think it's leavened with humor. I've worked on it for years.
Right now I've put it aside and picked up a book that I put aside about five years ago about going to Cal Arts and about that experience at a time in the art world where anything went. The emotional weight of writing about my partner – it had its price. In order to stay lively, I wanted to switch to something that could be more fun. Certain projects have a certain time. I'm feeling more like it's okay to set something aside. That's what happened with the art book. Now I've come back to it with renewed enthusiasm.