American Small-Business Picaresque: A Conversation with Anna Cox

IN ANNA COX’S DEBUT NOVEL, I Keep My Worries in My Teeth (published by Little A in June), life in a small Ohio town in 1979 stalls out after an explosion in a pencil factory. Three women tell the story of the aftermath: Ruth, a widow who owns the town’s photo labs; Esther, the factory’s “mouthfeel tester,” who channels her oral fixation into quality control; and Frankie, a teenager caught in the middle of the disaster — which, like an explosion at a fireworks factory or a bourbon distillery, sounds fun until you consider the details. It’s a very funny book, often quietly so — but it’s the quiet of an airplane when the engines cut out; the three narrators spend their time wondering if, and how, their town will start up again. The story is not afraid to put us in a giant camera obscura and force us to see things as they are — that is, upside down. 

I talked with Anna Cox — me in Los Angeles, she in Ontario, where she teaches photography at the University of Guelph — about grief, soap operas, and the social logic of disaster. The waves of national unrest hadn’t happened when we talked; at the time, the worst thing going on was only a global pandemic. How young we were.


BRANDON R. REYNOLDS: How are you spending your time in self-quarantine in Canada?

ANNA COX: I took a socially distant walk with a girlfriend. That was great. We had a really interesting conversation about, “Is this the end of the one-night stand?” No, obviously — yeah, people can go back to fucking once the vaccine comes.

Whatever my level of productivity pre-pandemic is certainly not what I or anyone has during the pandemic, nor should it be. So sometimes I’m like, “Oh look, I crossed all the things off my list.” Even if half those things are just bullshit stuff to make me feel good about being able to cross things off a list, like, “I went to the toilet when I needed to.” Like I’m winning the day, you know? “Yay, Anna, you can drink and pee.”

This is your first book, and it’s coming out when there’s no chance of touring. What’s the plan for promoting the thing?

I’ve got a few essays to write. One is about how everything I know about writing I learned from teaching photography. I learned a lot of stuff by thinking about how to see.

I did have a really interesting thing occur where the publicist I’m working with said, “Hey, I think we should pitch something about grief.” This was sort of in the beginning of the pandemic. And I got the email and I thought, “What the hell do I have to say at a time when grief is being defined so differently than I think it would have defined it in the past?” And then I flipped open the book and realized that a big chunk of it is about grief. But I had forgotten about that, or I hadn’t attached it to what is going on currently.

Though you focus on these three characters, the public is also a character. The way the collective reacts to the disaster is so familiar, which is weird since the cause of the grief is so ridiculous.

I certainly wasn’t thinking about a pandemic when I wrote about people and their behavior at the grocery store. It’s just them trying to make it through the day. If your normal routine is removed, how do we make a new normal?

I can remember the mindset I was in when I wrote the book and the sort of grief I was experiencing. It’s very different from the lack of normality in terms of where we are globally — we’ve gotten rid of normal — whereas in the book it is sparked by one event and how it impacts these three characters differently. Ruth was grieving before the triggering event in the book occurred. I resolved the event in the book as a way to solve her grief — like she got lucky that, by solving one thing that’s external to her life, it solves something internal for her.

I think for anybody who’s experienced significant grief, it can be liberating. But I say that very carefully because it doesn’t feel that way for a long time. Grief is in charge of the timeline and you just have to go along for the ride. Grief’s a motherfucker. It doesn’t let you know when it’s going to show up, and you can go months and feel fine and then suddenly you’re like, “Wait, what? Why am I crying at Target again?”

Your book illuminated for me a whole subgenre of what might be called the American small-business picaresque. It’s like magical realism, but instead of folk tales, the underlying reality is commerce pushed to absurd limits. It connects up with George Saunders’s CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!. Your world features a bunch of weirdos who exist in relation to this industry at the center of town, like a mouthfeel tester for pencils who just test-chews the product all day. The story has a very conflicted relationship with good-old capitalism.

Yes, especially if you have a one-industry town, it worms its way into everything. But what happens when that goes away? Blowing up the factory was a bit, um, hyperbolic, but I was interested in how we remake ourselves — or if we can remake ourselves — when the thing that gives us solidity goes away.

After the disaster, your characters get drunk to sort of get it out of the way and then think, “What now?” And they’re kind of stuck because they depend on this foundation of stability and normality that’s now absent.

I often look at the internet during this pandemic and think, “Bake all the sourdough bread you want; it’s not going to save you.” It’s not solving what actually needs to be solved, which is a total cultural overhaul of how we work, how we live, how we address racism, all that stuff.

So, the book is about grief and disaster in a small town. But it’s funny! It moves so seamlessly between tragedy and absurdity.

Some of that is just inherently how I look at the world. But I also didn’t want the book to be a drag. So, if something got too heavy, I’d think, “I can’t write this. I want to make myself laugh.”

If you even just hear about a pencil factory exploding, that should be suggestive enough that it’s a comedy. I mean, I can’t write a melodrama about a pencil factory exploding because it’s just too rife with nonsense. You know, flying pencils. I mean, it’s terrifying and hilarious at the same time.

I think the best comedy is one split second away from being tragic and sad. That’s the kind of comedy that sticks with me. The kind of comedy where there’s that very thin line, and you think, “I could actually cry about this or I could laugh,” and it’s just a matter of timing. Also, to be really honest, I don’t think I’m the kind of writer who could have made an actual tragedy, because I give away the thing that the whole book is based on in — what? — like the third page or something. I don’t need you to know how the town was before the pencil factory exploded. I just need the thing to explode — get it out of the way and then deal with it. Really, I thought, can I just on the first page say, “Bad shit happened and here’s how everybody dealt with it”?

So, why Ohio, and why 1979?

I partly grew up in Ohio and I knew that the book had to have a Great Lake in it. I knew I wanted this really deceptive landscape of the Midwest with what seems like this weird unsalty ocean. I wanted that trickery because to me it’s a lot like photography — it seems like one thing and it’s actually something very different.

I was born and partly raised in Tennessee, but I didn’t think this book could be set in the South. I wanted the kind of practical, shove-your-suffering-down of the Midwest that the South does really differently. These characters don’t make sense in the South.

One other, practical reason was: I didn’t want to deal with the internet. The pace of life was different pre-internet. That’s an obvious thing to say, but I didn’t want people texting. I wanted a teenager to have that experience of holding a heavy phone to her face and feeling the phone get hot and pulling the cord. That seems more rooted, in a way.

And then the late ’70s were so interesting in terms of feminism and the things that were being achieved and the conversations that were happening. When I was growing up, it was just expected that things were going to go a certain way, but look: the ERA still isn’t ratified in my home state of Tennessee. But a character like Frankie’s mom — a businesswoman, a single mom — those were the moms that I knew growing up. Most of my friends’ moms were single and were hustling. And also — disco.

You have all these interesting touchstones from the time — the relatively new phenomenon of punk, and that recurring commercial about tampons and white pants. You really emphasize how those commercials are always read with a male voice.

Because it always was a male voice! At that time, it was a male voice telling you that you can feel fresh, you can run through the fucking daisies in white pants. That promise has yet to be fulfilled in my adult life.

There’s also a soap opera called Woeful Valley — with twins, husbands in disguise; it’s great. That show and the commercials, they both pander to Frankie in different ways. The commercial is obviously shit, but Frankie loves Woeful Valley. Which seems counterintuitive to her character.

Why did I shove a soap opera in there? I was really invested in Frankie as a character who seemed to me the way a lot of people I knew at that age are — none of us are one-dimensional. Just because she’s really into The Stooges, it doesn’t also mean that she won’t watch these very tropey, high-heeled-shoes, lingerie-during-the-day, screw-the-pool-boy versions of contemporary womanhood and masculinity.

It’s hard to make a life, and it’s especially hard to make a life if you’re a creative person and you want all these seemingly conflicting influences, which to me are not conflicting at all. Like, I think, well of course she can be in essentially a boy-scout troop as a girl, and she can love punk music, but also want to watch these soap operas and not even fully understand why she is compelled by them. Don’t you remember being at a certain age where you felt like you really could embody all these contradictory influences and that was totally okay? Whereas I feel like now people squash that out of themselves and they think they have to only be one sort of thing, which, you know — it makes for a boring conversation and boring art and boring people.

As with political polarization, maybe there’s a fear of being in the middle.

That’s it. There’s an interesting thing I deal with with my students, who will often be so deflated because they look at art on the internet, which makes everything seem like it should be easy and it should be fast, and they think, “Oh, well everything’s been done before. And so, what on Earth can I do?” I say, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no.” Creativity is not coming up with something new. It’s putting two things together or 10 things together that haven’t been smashed together before. And then seeing what comes out of that. Like, you can be a punk and you can like soap operas and why do these have to be contradictory forces?


Brandon R. Reynolds is a Los Angeles–based writer.


Banner image: “Dixon-Ticondergoa-Assorted-Pencils” by Scaredpoet is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. Image has been cropped.



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