The first time Cottrell and I met, we accidentally went to a bar that was closed. We waited and talked for a very long time, alone in a cavernous room that was clearly meant for crowds of drunken people, until the deafening hum of vacuum cleaners overhead halted our conversation and we moved outside into the Los Angeles Chinatown heat. This interview was conducted over email.
RITA BULLWINKEL: What was your timeline for writing Sorry to Disrupt the Peace?
PATTY YUMI COTTRELL: The book came to me quickly, but I took long breaks from it, too. I began with the narrator’s voice and I wrote five or six chapters in New York City in 2014. It was snowing out and I was listening to the orchestral version of the theme song from Murder, She Wrote over and over. I’ve probably listened to that song hundreds of thousands of times. Then I took a long break because I moved to Los Angeles and began a job at a charter school. I wrote the rest of the book, probably 50,000 words or so, over a two-week spring vacation in March 2016. Working on the book over those two weeks was stressful because, in the back of my mind, I knew that I would have to go back to teaching at the charter school. Also, I had Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel Eileen on my desk. I was really excited to read it because I loved McGlue, but I told myself I wasn’t allowed to start reading Eileen until I finished my own book. Reading Eileen was my little reward to myself.
How has your reading life changed over time?
Twenty years ago, I read a lot of American fiction: Flannery O’Connor, James Baldwin, Joy Williams, Michael Chabon, David Gates, Dave Eggers, Lorrie Moore. I wasn’t writing anything then. I was just a fan. The role of fiction for me used to be a form of amusement or diversion from my sort-of-miserable life in the suburbs of Milwaukee. When I went to grad school, more than five years ago, I became very arrogant. I stopped reading those American writers. At that point, fiction was no longer amusing for me. Something else was at stake. But I was very arrogant then. I’m amazed I still have friends from grad school because I was insufferable. Today, I don’t know what the role of fiction is or what it should be. Who am I to say? The best fiction is like a handful of white stones you drop to mark your path through a monstrous and confusing forest.
What are your favorite books that have also been published by McSweeney’s?
I love Sheila Heti’s The Middle Stories, which is a book of sharp and precise little gems. The stories seem funny at first, but they are all super dark. For people who love language, I would recommend Diane Williams’s Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty. In one story, a yellow pastry filling is described as grandmother’s cough-up. That nauseating image has stayed with me for years. What a perfect description for those nasty, absolutely disgusting pastries at 7-Eleven! I had Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty on my desk for a couple months by accident. I ended up with over $50 in library overdue fines from the Park Slope library. It was worth it.
What is your experience of being an author in Los Angeles?
I think living in Los Angeles influences my work only because I began writing stories and my novel in New York City. And I don’t consider myself an author. An author sounds very old-fashioned to me. Like my mom would call me an author. But I’m not. I’m a writer. And today everyone is a writer. I think that’s really nice, that everyone can be a writer.
I have to say, New York City was for me a terrible place to write a novel. I love the city and think it’s exciting, but I was distracted and exhausted so I never enjoyed the things it had to offer. There are such limited resources and you’re in such close proximity with others, you’re always highly aware of all of the things other people have, the things you want and lack. For example, in Brooklyn none of my friends had a dishwasher. Well, one friend had a dishwasher, and all of my friends and I, we were incredibly envious of that one dishwasher-owning person. Living in Los Angeles, a lot of people have dishwashers. It’s not a special thing. I don’t mean to make Los Angeles sound like some kind of Communist utopia. What I’m trying to say is that you’re not as aware of what other people are doing or what they have. It feels like things are more spread out. You can get space away from people who call themselves writers if you want. You don’t have to interact with them if you don’t want to. In this way, I feel more freedom in Los Angeles and that obviously affects what I’m writing and how and when I write.
So when we moved to Los Angeles, I felt better, physically and mentally. I can do the things I want to do. I can be lazy. I can go months without writing. No one cares. I can go to a reading or not. It doesn’t matter. And my dear friend Brandi Wells lives a few minutes away. She’s an incredible writer. I get to talk to her every day. That’s a huge advantage. Living in Los Angeles, with the threat of an earthquake, you feel yourself every day on the precipice of a real disaster, and yet the surroundings are so beautiful, it’s hard for me to imagine living anywhere else.
Sorry To Disrupt the Peace is a book that sits almost solely in the interior. How do you understand the narrative effect of long passages of interiority? What was the experience of writing a novel that sits so heavily in the interior?
Long passages of interiority accumulate effect; they are monstrous, they can overwhelm and repulse the reader. When I see a dense block of text, I tend to become very anxious or I don’t want to look at it. I had a friend who used to send me emails that were giant blocks of text with no paragraph breaks. I asked her to stop or to use some paragraph breaks, because while I enjoyed being in contact with her, the giant blocks of text stressed me out.
Writing a book set heavily within the mind of a single narrator was joyful and scary. My first intention was to write a book that could be summed up in five words: woman investigates her brother’s suicide. I’ve always had trouble writing a story, but I’ve never had trouble writing sentences. If you’re working on a voice-driven project, you follow the voice. The story becomes kind of secondary. I knew I wanted the structure of the book to be compressed into the space of a few days. I had no idea what was going to happen next, story-wise. For many chapters nothing is happening, the narrator walks around the house and remembers things and talks to herself. I tried to sit back and see where the narrator’s mind would take me and I hoped it would at least be somewhere interesting.
When I was in graduate school, I fell in love with Robert Walser’s writing. If I could describe his work in one word, I would say it’s artless. His sentences spiral and digress, and I never feel like I’m reading something masterful. He’s a really generous writer. His work will last forever, because it imparts a feeling of joy and surprise for the reader. I love him for that and his lack of “artistry.” Some days I was appalled by what was happening in my own book. But the most joyful moments occurred when I stopped trying to exert control over my own writing, when I allowed myself to be surprised or disgusted. For example, there’s a paragraph in my novel that I’m very embarrassed by, but it felt so right for the narrator in that moment, to cut it would have been to commit a form of violence against her.
What are some other books that have also devoted themselves to interior prose that you admire?
Interior books are the books I prefer to spend my time with. I would venture that Thomas Bernhard is the master of interior prose. I remember sitting with Jesse Ball, who is a genius, at The School of the Art Institute in 2010 and he had Correction on the table. That moment of reading Correction and then going on to The Loser, Extinction, Concrete, Woodcutters, Frost, Gargoyles, Wittgenstein’s Nephew, all of those books changed things for me. In the opening 20 pages or so in The Loser, the narrator is standing in a doorway or in the process of entering an inn. There’s no description of his physical movement, it’s simply stated, which was exciting to me.
I admire Thomas Bernhard and the writers he has inspired, W. G. Sebald and Javier Marías for example. The rhythm of Bernhard’s sentences is something I want to study for the rest of my life. His narrators are repellent and misogynistic, and yet, there’s very little artifice or decoration, and in that way, they seem really pure. I dislike artificial books, books that have nice manners, books that are designed to show off the writer’s ease with developing characters, settings, et cetera. Those books work well as doorstoppers, I think, or you can use them to press flowers or whatever. I have a list of voice-driven novels that I turn to when I forget how to write. Some of the books on that list: Nobody is Ever Missing, By Night in Chile, Fra Keeler, The Face of Another, The Rings of Saturn. My favorite interior novels are written from a feeling of desperation and urgency.
In the early pages of the novel, Helen fantasizes about how grieving the suicide of her brother with her parents will feel. She says, “I saw us setting aside our various issues and presenting to the world a unified front, I saw us braiding our grief into a rope, a strong and shiny rope we would take out and show people who asked us what it was like to lose someone to suicide.” This idea of grief as an object you take out to show to people is one of the most beautiful descriptions of loss I have ever read. Do you experience grief like this in your own life? Does it ever assume the form of an object? Does your grief for the death of different people assume different or similar forms? If so, what do these objects look like?
Helen has a very elevated sense of herself and her own world; she has such high hopes for her grieving experience. It seems like the rope is a valuable and special object that no one else could possibly understand or see properly, except Helen and her adoptive parents, perhaps. I think everyone fantasizes like this when something unimaginable happens. We become the most important people in the world when something traumatic occurs, and we have the sense that no one else could understand our suffering. In this way, I think Helen is an incredibly flawed and human character.
My own experiences with loss have never assumed the shape of an object; I wish they had. I really do. Maybe certain events in my life would have been easier to deal with. My ideal grief object would be a cheap plastic umbrella with a curved bird-beak handle, like the five-dollar umbrellas that the bodegas in Brooklyn set out when it rains, except a little fancier. I would simply throw the umbrella away or give it to someone or drop it down an abyss. What I’m straining to say is grief has taken me down some paths that I wish I had never gone down, especially in my 20s, there were paths of various trouble, all of which unfortunately only led to more loss. I don’t go down those paths anymore. I’ve always been a lucky person. It’s true. I’ve always been lucky and bleak.
Once Helen arrives at her childhood home, she begins to see a “bald European man” that she believes to be a ghost. Later, in her brother’s suicide note, we learn that her brother thought Helen might be an undiagnosed schizophrenic. Is Helen ill? Or is she the sanest character in the entire book?
I thought a lot about cutting that line because I was worried people would diagnose or pathologize Helen.
I’m not sure if Helen is ill or not. I think she and her brother are the most resourceful people in the book. And that’s always been a question for me. What resources do we have for coping with, as Elena Ferrante writes, the insupportable horror of our living nature? For me, it’s not a question of sanity or insanity. Those terms are constructions. And I have to admit my thinking is influenced because I live with someone who studies and loves Foucault. So I think it’s more of a question of how to see the world, and how to live (or not) with what’s right in front of us, whether it’s a death or a ghost or a car accident. And how do we bear, as we get older and older, our accumulation of losses? Some people find life intolerable and they choose not to live anymore. Some retreat to the inside of their imaginations. Robert Walser went to a sanatorium and stopped writing. It’s something, as I get older, I continue to figure out for myself.
Rita Bullwinkel is the author of the story collection Belly Up (forthcoming from A Strange Object in May of 2018). Read more about her at ritabullwinkel.com.