PAUL CODY IS AN AN AMAZING HUMAN BEING, a gifted author and an oustanding professor. He has gone into the depths of hell and come back alive. He'll admit as much. He is often caught saying that writing saved his life, and in fact, you'll come to believe it when you read the following interview. Currently a professor at Ithaca College he spends half the year teaching and the other half hammering away at his latest project. The following interview will give you some insight into the life of a novelist, a novelist who goes there in his writing, takes risks and comes out alive on the other end, with grace as his guide.
So, what's been going on lately in the world of Paul Cody?
Reading lots--student stuff (I teach in the fall)--manuscripts of friends--novels, poetry, history, Buddhist stuff. Chasing my ten and 13 yr-old boys; trying to be a good friend, husband, father; staying balanced; waiting to hear from my agent who has my most recent novel with 18 editors who've had the novel months; listening to tons of music--lots of jazz, Philip Glass, Dylan, the Stones, Johnny Cash, just about anything and everything; thinking about thinking what my next project will be, which I hope to start in a few months. The usual quotidian stuff.
Tell us a bit about what's sitting on your desk?
Tons of stuff. My computer. My little stereo. A phone. And books surround my desk on tables on both sides. Reference books, plus at the moment: The Essential Haiku, Exterminate the Brutes, The Ongoing Moment, about photography, The Knife Man, a history of this pioneering surgeon, Messud's The Last Life. Also have about 2,000 books in my attic office, and stacks next to my bed. Also have several little notebooks where I keep what I call threads--lines, words, images, things that've struck me that excite my ear and heart and eye and soul. Possible writing material. Plus tons of pens, pencils, knives, a Rolodex, and the line from William Carlos Williams taped to my computer--"No ideas but in things."
Any good book recommendations that you'd like to get out there?
Anything by DeLillo. Contemprory stuff: Coetzee's Disgrace; Eliza Minot's The Tiny One; Cormac's The Road; Proust; Joyce; Shakespeace again and again. Also just reread Anna Karenina for about the fourth time, and it astonished me again. There's so much that's so good. Wonderful little book by Alain de Botton, How Proust Can Change Your Life. Could go on and on.
You're the author of four novels, all of which, to steal the title of your last novel, shoot the heart so-to-speak, what makes you want to go there?
I don't know. I had a rough childhood. Sexual abuse. Fucked-up family. Drug addiction and alcoholism from the age of 15 or so. Institutionalization. The whole shot. Also am very drawn to marginality--every one from Macbeth to Flem Snopes and the Judge in Blood Meridian. Also grew up in the insane 60's; in the most violent century in human history; am deeply interested in people in extremis, and the notion or possibility of redemption and grace for even the worst of us.
Tell us about this latest work that you've been working on? Any word as to when the latest novel will hit the shelves?
Just finished a novel called Who He Was, kind of about fathers and sons, death, birth. 300 pp, 626 chapters or pieces. Virtually everyone who's read it says it's my best; big departure for me; no psycho killers, etc.. I like the book tons, and it's the one that's been with all these editors forever. My agent thinks that's a good sign, that we're getting second, third, fourth reads. Have had virtually no dings yet. I'm trying not to think about it, but hope it will appear in book form in a year or two--given schedule and production stuff.
Do you still write short stories?
No. I read them. Love the form. But when I wrote my first novel after finishing grad school I felt, Ah. This is what I was built for. Like the space and amplitude.
Can you tell us a little bit about what made you the writer that you are today? How did you start on this road?
I've known since fourth grade I was gonna be a writer. Just loved it. Was always fluid on the page; read tons, and wanted to do for other people what fine books did for me. Rearranged my vision, made me grateful to the writer, grateful to be human.
Tell us a little bit about how you picked your MFA program, I know you wanted to go to Syracuse's MFA program, but you went to Cornell's - was that because of the better weather in Ithaca?
I got in to most of the places I applied to, but wanted Syracuse because Carver was there, and Toby Wolff. They gave me some big fellowship, but then I learned that neither would be there. Toby called and was lovely, and Ray wrote me this letter about my work that I cherish to this day. But the reasons I applied were gone. I waited a year; heard great things about Cornell; very small; everyone got funding; Ithaca was beautiful; and it had both a high-powered English and writing program. So when Stephanie Vaughn called and said they wanted me, were paying for everything, I jumped.
Here's an out of this world question, gaze into your crystal ball, if Raymond Carver was still around today, what do you think he'd be working on?
Great question. Love his work; he was a huge influence on mine. After he escaped Lish and that severe minimalism, his work starting expanding, grew so much less constrained, somehow more generous. I wonder if he'd have tried a novel. Hard to figure, but he was only what, 50? And in his last five years his work changed so much, so who knows. But what a sad Carver irony that this guy who struggled so long in so many ways reaches the peak, and then fuck---he dies. So sad, so fitting.
This month in my letter from the editor I talk a little bit about the "audacity to write a story" I, as editor, kind of believe that we all -as writers- have to believe in that audacity to get someplace and believe that our story needs to be told, and that the sooner you believe in yourself that you are audacious enough, the easier it will be for you to put something down on the page, do you have any thoughts about what that's about?
You're right. We as writers need the pride of Lucifer to think that we can write stuff on paper and that the world should pay attention and actually give a shit. On the other hand, the writers' life is so lonely and brutal and punishing, and if you have that faith or delusion to stick it out and bleed and write, then maybe the world should pay attention. Funny thing, this writing. We have such huge egos, and we get so humiliated again and again---and even when it happens, when you get books published and such, it's never enough. But I guess as I think Faulkner said, If you can not do it, then you shouldn't.
Our Stories is committed to giving writers back something for everything they submit. What advice helped you in your development as a writer, was it a professor, a friend, a colleague?
Advice? I can't think of any particular words. Someone once talked about a writer needing "fixity of gaze," and I like that. And I've had great, amazing English teachers going back to grade school--teachers who encouraged my reading and writing, told me I was smart. In college I worked closely with the poet Martha Collins, and she was very tough and deeply generous. We're good pals 20 years later; she still reads my manuscripts, and she took me up three levels. Lamar Herrin at Cornell was also immensely generous and sharp-eyed. Three people I count on now are my wife Liz Holmes, who's a poet, writes young adult novels, and is an editor by profession. And the novelists Stewart O'Nan and Brian Hall have been long-time readers and friends--and they're scary-smart and honest. Best advice: Pay attention. Look closely and carefully.
What do you think are some of the more common mistakes that beginning writers make?
They're afraid to be simple, try to impress, are reluctant to go small and normal and natural on the page. They tend to sound written, and I'm always telling them to get simple, use their own material, their lives to start, and write as they speak. Start there, and they'll eventually go anywhere they want.
"Write to make it real" I've heard you mention that before, can you speak on that for a bit?
Yeah, it's kind of a no ideas but in things thing. I love Forster's line, Only connect. I tell my students often, I don't care what you write about as long as you care deeply about it. If you care deeply, and get that onto the page in a simple, honest, authentic way, we the reader will likely care. Good writers and readers have great bullshit detectors, and it's amazing how transparent we often are when we write, especially when we're starting out. Just be real----or forgive the phrase, be yourself, and you'll be fine. Don't try to do Proust or Ulysses at 22; you'll only end up looking pretentious, awkward and silly.
Finally, last question, I promised I'd keep this short and I've gone and made this a real long interview. Would you say something about what "grace" means to you?
I guess in a spiritual sense it means being attuned to God. But I don't believe in God, so I take it in so many other ways. I guess the closest thing I can come up with to define it is to say it's anything from Cary Grant onscreen, to a sentence by DeLillo, to Miles on the horn, to human decency and generosity. In a writerly sense I think of Stephen Daedalus defining a work of art according to a Aquinas--that it must have the qualities of wholeness, harmony and radiance. But grace too is giving your seat up on a bus to someone else. Grace for me is up there with love and compassion. It's what lifts us, makes us decent human beings, and that's a damn sight harder to be than any of us tend to think.
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