A Slantwise Approach: A Conversation with Martha Cooley

By Dinah LenneyAugust 1, 2021

A Slantwise Approach: A Conversation with Martha Cooley
This is not a spoiler, I promise it isn’t, only just consider for a moment: Say you buy a lottery ticket — have you ever? — say you do, just one time. Say the jackpot is $100 million, and you win! You’re holding a ticket worth a hundred million dollars! What would you do? How would you be? That’s the premise of Buy Me Love, a new novel from Martha Cooley yes, yes, that Martha Cooley — acclaimed author of two previous works of fiction, The Archivist and Thirty-Three Swoons, and Guesswork, a collection of linked essays, subtitled “A Reckoning With Loss,” which figures in this time, too. Buy Me Love is a reckoning with loss; and a character study; and a love story; and a thriller, besides, a bona fide page-turner, truly, I couldn’t put it down.

But what was it (besides all of the above) that had me riveted? The alternating points of view, for one thing: two women, two voices, both artists, both struggling, both living in Brooklyn, itself a character in the story. Which brings to mind Cooley’s startling evocation of place: a longtime resident of New York, she compellingly brings the city to life — its streets, subways, restaurants, parks — oh, but who am I kidding, it was money that hooked me from the start. Whom of us hasn’t wondered how they’d be if they had all the money in the world? And who isn’t curious about the other guy’s money? But we’re not about to ask out loud, are we? So I figured that’d be a good place to start.


DINAH LENNEY: Martha, can we talk about money, please? Because we usually don’t, not even among friends. How’d you know you wanted to write about money?

MARTHA COOLEY: Hah! It’s interesting how much more readily people will talk about, say, their sex lives or their familial or romantic relationships than about money. Wanna freeze the conversation at a social gathering? Ask everyone to say how much they earn annually. Or what they’ve got in savings. Or whether or not they currently get or expect to receive funds from parents or other relatives. Or how much debt they’re carrying. Money — having it, not having it — gives rise to such primal emotions: fear, shame, anger, insecurity. There’s a huge silence around it.

I wanted to write a story in which without warning, someone’s financial prospects might change drastically. And I imagined that winning a gigantic lottery jackpot would force a major rearrangement of the winner’s mental furniture. Hence the basic plot: on a whim, a freelancer/poet buys a ticket; a few days later, she learns she’s hit the jackpot. She has 30 days to redeem the ticket — a month during which she feels her life is about to veer toward preposterousness. But of course other things, non-money-related, must be happening in/to her at the same time. And those things can’t just be set aside. Life doesn’t stop for jackpot winners any more than it stops for abject losers.

So: At the outset, a spell of good fortune is cast. Yet there are obstacles to be confronted, and opportunities too. Thus the jackpot winner must gaze afresh at whole swathes of experience she’s been dodging for a while — realms of longing, fear, hope, regret … The story really isn’t about winning the jackpot; it’s about asking new what-ifs.

Ah ha, yes. Like, what if, the morning you buy the winning ticket, you meet a man you could love — a kind, generous, sexy guy — but what if he comes with his own bunch of baggage, right? Say more about that? 

Early in the story the jackpot winner, Ellen, meets a man who teaches tumbling classes at her local gym. She embarks on a romantic adventure with him, quite unexpected and, for her, revelatory — particularly because this guy has a young boy. (Well, “has” is a slippery verb here … It leads to the question of fatherhood, another realm of complication in the novel.) This romance is really discombobulating for someone built like Ellen — alone a long while, and accustomed to that. Her experiences with Roy and his kid raise a lot more what-ifs for her.

Seems like with any story, what-ifs are a way of coming up with plot. But do you also outline ahead of time? How do you know when you’ve got enough going on? And, once you do, how do you keep all those balls (plot lines) in the air?

I don’t outline. I start with a character and a small(ish) dilemma, and see where it goes. For a while, I’m just meandering or lurching along. Then at certain moments, some instinct tells me to step back and look at what I’ve got, with an eye toward what’s truly generating heat or tension versus what’s distraction or filler. I like to imagine I’m holding a Geiger counter in my hand as I reread what I’ve drafted; when it beeps, I know there’s something significant I need to attend to — either to amplify or to strip out. Once I have a fair number of new pages, I make a kind of inventory of what I’ve got, scene-wise. This helps me decide what weighs more and why — and when. I add to and mess with the inventory, which by the end has gone through a lot of switching around of bits and pieces. Not to mention a lot of cutting.

Do you ever get stuck?

You bet! When I do, I’ll either take a break and write something else altogether, or try another scene with another character, or in a different setting in the novel. Anything that might jar me loose, even if it’s no good.

In Buy Me Love, I wanted a lot of coincidences and chance. And I wanted the reader to buy in. To say, “Oh yeah, I get it, this really is how it goes” — coincidences really are sprinkled like salt over our lives. Because, in fact, they are! But in fiction, the sprinkling has to be paced right, otherwise it all comes across as a concoction.

Speaking of which — fiction, I mean — this is your third novel. Do you see it as a departure from the two that came before?

The first, The Archivist, began as a character sketch and evolved into a story about poetry, madness, and religious identity. And, too, about a set of sequestered letters written (this is true!) by T. S. Eliot to a woman named Emily Hale. The main protagonist of the novel serves as those letters’ custodian. Within the narrative is a journal kept by the archivist-narrator’s deceased wife, herself a poet — hence the story-within-a-story structure.

I conceived of my second novel, Thirty-Three Swoons, while living in Moscow during the mid-1990s. Theater tickets were cheap back then, and I saw some terrific productions. By chance, I learned about Vsevolod Meyerhold, a director who revolutionized Russian theater a century ago. From my fascination with him grew a novel with a peculiar pair of narrators, one of whom is Meyerhold’s doppelgänger — a character actually created and deployed by the director himself, as a means of pulling off certain sneaky art projects. I reprised this eccentric double for my own storytelling purposes. Structurally, the novel alternates between the doppelgänger’s viewpoint (and Meyerhold’s tragic story) and that of the second narrator, a middle-aged woman living in New York City.

Buy Me Love seemed unrelated to the first two novels while I was writing it, but I now see that it’s not far afield in its preoccupations. Unintentionally, all three novels deal with art — poetry, theater, music, visual art — and the complications of making it. And all three books poke around in the darker precincts of family, where secrets and traumas and untruths arise and spawn. What’s more, what happens in all three is contextualized by specific political events — World War II, Stalin’s reign of terror, the Iraq War — although I don’t go at those matters directly. All fiction has a political stance, deliberate or not; art and politics aren’t separable. But I prefer a slantwise approach.

Me too. And this book (like the others) takes on the cultural moment in a way that feels entirely organic and, at the same time, entirely informed. But the first two books feature a sustained first-person narrative. Not so with this one —

Yes, Buy Me Love departs in its structure. I took a different approach to bringing the reader quite close to the thoughts and feelings of its protagonists — a poet who cobbles together a modest living as a freelancer, and a visual artist who devises sly art projects in public places. Though these two women differ greatly, their lives share a chronic precariousness. Neither is stably established in her art realm; both lack financial security; neither has a partner; each has a brother who’s essential but troubling to her (for very different reasons). The novel toggles between the actions and viewpoints of these two characters. It’s got titled sections with brief numbered portions that are in turn broken by white space. Words and numbers … Perhaps the structure I ended up with was my way of tipping my hat to poets and composers. Their control over shifts in rhythm, variation of cadences, and repetition of beats lets them work their special magic.

Makes sense as part and parcel of a slantwise approach. And you want to allow yourself to be surprised, right? Who surprised you in this story? And which character gave you the most trouble?

I knew the novel needed a counterweight to Ellen. Someone also an artist, also broke, but otherwise very unlike her. It took time to figure out who that person, Blair, should actually be: what age, what gender, what general predispositions … And, too, how she might affect not just the plot but the nature of the stakes — and not only for herself but for others. From the start, I knew Blair would be committed to a solitary existence, willing to take big risks, and scornful of rules. What I didn’t grasp till quite a bit later were the effects on her outlook and behavior of a childhood spent in a deeply dysfunctional family environment. Finally, I realized that her brother’s disappearance is central to who Blair is. Once that lightbulb went on for me, a lot of other things fell into place, particularly in terms of Blair’s actions and their possible consequences.

Blair is not a naturally “sympathetic” character. Much of her behavior might be called antisocial. Yet she’s been dealt a bad hand, and she’s got no one on her side. I wanted her to be a character the reader could empathize with, even if the reader wouldn’t choose Blair’s ways and means.

That brings me back to your idea about art and politics as inextricable. Some things an artist can intuit and imagine — but what about artistic responsibility? With Blair specifically, how much psychological research was involved?

I was mindful, conjuring Blair, that the kinds of conversations being had (or not being had) about gender in 2005 were very different from today’s. Words, gestures, stances — performances of political positions — all of it was not, then, what it is now. Blair was operating in a space that was less noisy, less chaotic. And perhaps less predetermined. It’s hard now to have a non-predetermined conversation about all this — hard to avoid being labeled before one starts labeling …

Making Blair come alive for myself, I was mindful, too, that some readers would take me to task for presenting her as a function of trauma, no matter how I actually presented her. She became for me increasingly interesting, darkly comic, frustrating, pitiable, and moving as I continued to question/live with her. I didn’t think of her in terms of labels — gay, not-gay, trans, not-trans, something else … I thought of her as Blair. I saw her body in my mind’s eye, and I thought of her as a smart, damaged, creative, very alone person. Her aloneness fascinated me, perhaps because some part of me envies it. That sort of radical commitment to an invisibility that’s a wound the wounded person puts to use.

Given the nature of her brother’s behaviors (and the silences around them), Blair’s relationship with him was likely to result in trauma of some kind for her. (But I’m not a child psychologist, or interested in pretending to be one.) And I soon realized the brother himself would’ve had to have been traumatized for this particular sibling relationship to result. (I imagined he was ambushed continually by parents who simply couldn’t stand the boy he actually was.) So I pictured the two of them as having been quite close, emotionally, in their own strange way — as having had each other’s back … at least in Blair’s construction of it.

But I didn’t want to get deeply into all of this in the narrative itself. I wanted Blair to be profoundly marked by what she hadn’t confronted or processed, and unaware of how much her artistic independence was tied up with her emotional alienation. I trusted the sense that her art came from the same place that her woundedness did. Doesn’t it always?

It does. And so … As much as art and artists, this is a book is about original trauma and unmanageable grief. Did you know these were your subjects from the start?

I didn’t, nor would I have wanted to. That would’ve taken the fun out of it, if I may use the word “fun” in the same sentence as trauma and grief. Too often, notions about those things — even incisive notions — put the brakes on the writer’s imagination. If, early in the making of a narrative, the writer slaps a character with too many descriptors and labels and “this is why they do X or Y” analyses, it’s difficult later on for the writer to break that character free of what has already become a caged existence.

At the start, I had no idea Blair would devise the art projects she does. Yet although I’ve no skills or experience in the arenas of street or performance art, I found myself able to develop Blair’s projects quickly and naturally. Not by reading up on contemporary street art, but rather by following the threads of her alienated thinking and feeling. And by visualizing her body — her hands, in particular. Dexterous hands; a wiry, agile body. A liking for certain kinds of materials, a draw to certain settings. Blair became for me a kind of gamine creature, without the charm and whimsy implied by that adjective. Something of a trickster … She ended up making my heart ache for her.

And for the reader, too. But Ellen, the poet, is no less affecting (so thoughtful, hopeful, hard on herself — and so close to getting everything she wants and needs), though I’m guessing she was easier to conjure. Would you say that each of your books in some way reflects your state of mind/heart/career at the time?

Well, like Ellen, and like the female protagonist in Thirty-Three Swoons, I found myself in my early 50s divorced, broke, and totally uncertain about my prospects as a writer. In fact, when I landed a job as a full-time, tenure-track professor, I had nearly exhausted my funds — I guess you could say I’d been looking the other way where money was concerned. And like the younger woman in The Archivist who seeks access to the sequestered letters, I’d long been obsessed with T. S. Eliot’s poetry, which my paternal grandmother had read to me when I was a kid. I’ve also always been wowed by the act of musical composition. (My paternal grandfather was a professional musician and composer.) During my adolescence and early adulthood, I was a pawn in a game of emotional chess played by my father and his parents — a fact that probably bears on the roles of fathers and fatherhood in all three novels. Not that I spend time analyzing such things while writing … I’ve always sensed that doing so would let the air out of the tires, so to speak.

And even so these preoccupations — art, money, family — have evidently shifted and deepened for you over time. I’m wondering, now that you’ve retired from teaching and left New York (for Italy), what might be next.

Scarfing down a ton of great Italian food, of course! And getting our gardens in order. We were away for nine months; the weeds won. But I’ve got a draft of a new novel, which I haven’t worked on since I left Italy last summer for my final year of teaching in the States. The novel is set here in Lunigiana, my region, in the northernmost tip of Tuscany. This book too has a middle-aged female protagonist, but it’s also got several Italian teenagers. And a dog. An ice-house. A trip to Verona. Climate and gender, big issues on the minds of the teens … At present, the draft is a large loose baggy monster, as Henry James would say (shaking his head in despair). But that’s all right; I’ve got more time on my hands now. Come to think of it, time is the real subject of my novels — what’s been spent of it, how much is left, how to make it count … It’s our only gold, after all.


Dinah Lenney is most recently the author of Coffee, part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons Series.

LARB Contributor

Dinah Lenney is the author of The Object Parade (2014) and Bigger than Life: A Murder, a Memoir (2007), and co-editor of Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction (co-editor, 2015). She serves as core faculty in the Bennington Writing Seminars, and as an editor-at-large for LARB. Her latest book is Coffee (Bloomsbury, 2020).


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!