CONTRIBUTOR SPOTLIGHT: INTERVIEW WITH THOMAS COOK
Rappahannock Review Nonfiction Editors: What particularly strikes us with your work is how you navigate through space and time so fluidly. What was your approach towards setting while writing these flash essays?
Thomas Cook: I like to travel. Specifically, I like to be on the road, driving, entering and exiting new places on the ground. These pieces were written on a cross-country driving trip, from Illinois back to California, stops along the way in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Oklahoma. Nebraska, too, on the way back. These pieces were written in those states, mainly in the mornings and before dinner, in public places where I could look around and feel the people and atmosphere. I think there is something about being in a place and moving through time that is part of the thought in each of them. It’s not necessarily a conscious part, but I can see how it comes out when trying to write about the subjective experience of traveling or being in a place one doesn’t live.
RR: Each of these pieces revolves around a connection to place and feeling of movement. How has travel impacted your writing?
TC: When I moved to California from Massachusetts a few years ago, I woke up every morning confronted with a seventy-foot tall Moreton Bay fig tree in the courtyard outside my apartment. Most mornings, I went to a table under the tree to write. My intention wasn’t necessarily to write about the tree, but it happened many days. In one sense, I wasn’t traveling anymore. I had moved to California to live. But at the same time I was taking everything in, the feeling of the air, the sounds of the birds, the light, definitely the light in California. This happens whenever I travel, wherever I travel, which is pretty much my entire adult life it feels like. I’ve lived in many places. Sometimes it takes years to get settled in a place, so things still feel new. When things feel that way, fresh and strange, they kind of call to be written about. It can actually happen, that feeling, almost any morning looking out the window, but travel heightens it.
RR: Given the incredibly condensed nature of “State of Beef,” “The Rio Grande,” and “Peacock,” how did you decide which images were crucial?
TC: Almost everything I write in short forms comes out in a first draft even shorter than it actually ends up. Typically a second draft involves looking at the sentences closely and seeing what else it there, as in looking at the place where the writing is set in my mind and trying to visualize what else I saw there or can see there when I try to remember it. It’s looking closer to find the images that are there but weren’t there in the first draft.
RR: In addition to nonfiction, you’ve also published poetry and prose. Is there one genre you gravitate towards the most?
TC: I try to write something short every morning. I have a couple of novels in drawers that only maybe would someone want to read, and those obviously required longer periods of composition, just like short stories, but I like to start the day with something very short, flash or prose poem or micro essay length whenever I can. Today I wrote something called “Decent Friday.” When I sit down to write, I follow my voice or an image or a phrase or what I see out my window, and then I see where it goes. When I look back and start to revise, I kind of push the sentences in the direction they seem to want to go. After I’m done, I don’t look at the writing for awhile, and then when I come back to it and think about sending it out into the world I try and assess where it best fits. How literal or figurative, narrative or fragmented something feels helps me decide what it is, but I don’t typically know what the shape is going to turn out to be when I get started. I began as a poet. I also have a strong impulse to document the world around me.
RR: Your work blurs the lines between nonfiction, fiction, and poetry through its narrative, imagery, and form. Do you think genre labels are necessary for your writing or contemporary writing in general?
TC: Genre labels are only necessary when you think about taking your writing into the marketplace, but they can also be useful when you’re trying to learn how to write something. I remember when I was first learning how to write short stories, like traditional length short stories. At that time, I was working with Lydia Davis, whose work of course it rather genre-bending, and I read and studied and thought about short stories quite bit, had to really consciously focus on the genre in all its permutations. Same thing teaching myself how to write a novel, which I’ve done outside of the academic world or the world of writing mentors. As far as day-to-day writing, though, generating pages in the morning or writing the short pieces I enjoy, genre labels aren’t necessary to get the writing done. They come into play during revision, editing, sending the work to you. At least sometimes. This is a really good question. Didn’t Dostoevsky claim that his novels were actually poetry?
Thomas Cook’s work in Issue 6.2: