Interview with K. L. Cook • Fiction Writer

SM: Please recommend a phrase to mutter under one’s breath, moments after running out of bullets, crouched behind a rock, hearing the approaching footsteps of a rival.

KLC: Sucken-rusen-rusen-frat!

SM: How would you recommend we recognize you in the land of sleep and dreaming?

KLC: I’m a friendly, smiling soul, but I’m also the size of an NFL fullback with a dark beard and glasses, so in the land of sleep and dreaming I could very well be mistaken for Emmit Smith’s lead blocker or the bouncer at Lyzzard’s Lounge who is either going to toss you in the street or read you a Rilke poem.

SM: What do you think would be a good opening line for a romance novel?

KLC: Here’s the opening line from the first chapter of my forthcoming novel, The Girl from Charnelle, which has plenty of romance in it: “She’d only tasted beer before, never champagne; it was sweet and sharp and stung high in her head.”

SM: What is the first thing you want to know on arriving in a strange city?

KLC: Where’s the nearest bathroom because I always drink too many liquids on planes, and airplane bathrooms are woefully small for a man my size!

SM: Please tell us a brief anecdote to enliven our evening/afternoon/morning.

KLC: Last fall, my family and I embarked on a 9-week book tour—a self-funded affair, what I called “The Great Futon Tour” since we depended on the hospitality of friends and family. At the end of October, we stayed in Nashville with my sister-in-law, who was 9 ½ months pregnant. I was driving back there late from a gig in Memphis. Within minutes of my arrival, my sister-in-law’s water broke. My wife and I went to the hospital the next morning, kissed the new baby, and then I caught a ride, minutes later, with a colleague to Kentucky, where I would be teaching at another university. That night my wife phoned to tell me that a friend and colleague of ours from Arizona had just been killed in a bicycling accident. The next day, I flew to Austin for a book festival. Two high school friends took me out on the town—Halloween Eve. Within a 48-hour period, I had traveled to four different cities in three states, my niece was born, my friend had been tragically killed, I met about 250 writers, and I sleeplessly wandered, with the friends of my youth, down the streets of a strange city cram-packed with drunken vampires, monsters, ghouls, and Disney characters. It was the most surreal 48 hours of my life.

SM: Please invent an imaginary friend and an imaginary enemy, set them to dueling, and let us know who wins.

KLC: Creating imaginary friends and enemies at odds with one another is my job. When I’m stumped for a story idea, I give myself this task: create a character who wants something from another character (e. g., gold, love, a buffalo head nickel) that the other character doesn’t want to give up. In my story, “Knock Down, Drag Out,” an oil-rigger, motivated by sun-induced hallucinations, returns from his offshore rig to rescue his estranged wife, who he believes is being seduced by their landlord. She doesn’t appreciate his brand of chivalry, but determined to save her, the oil-rigger ties her up, puts her in the back of his pick-up truck, and drives away. Of course he only thinks he won until he hears her in the truck bed, “squirming, rocking slightly from side to side, crying, calling to him in what now seemed like a song he’d heard long ago, a lament or hymn.”

SM: What aspect of your work are you proudest of?

KLC: Several years ago my writing seemed dead to me. I went to the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire and was housed in this amazing chateau where Leonard Bernstein had written his requiem mass for John F. Kennedy. None of the projects I brought with me—an unfinished book of stories and the beginning of a novel—seemed any good. I walked around the snowy acres for a week, expecting the fraud police to boot me out of the colony for impersonating a writer. About a week and a half in, I began a long, sentimental love letter to my wife. I couldn’t stop. I laughed and wept for hours as I wrote. By the end of my stay, it was 135 pages. I titled it Private Magic, bound it, and gave to my wife as an anniversary present. Writing that letter reminded me that writing is supposed to be a gift—for others and for yourself—not a job to be dreaded. After that, I was able to finish both the collection and the novel. But Private Magic—a deeply embarrassing, sentimental book that no one but my wife will ever read—is what I’m proudest of.

SM: When was the last time you drank to excess?

KLC: I could report a shameful and harrowing story, but my wife tells me that this is just the sort of thing that would pop up first on Google and Yahoo.

SM: What was your last good deed?

KLC: Last November I visited my mother and grandmother in Childress, Texas as part of my book tour. They set me up with non-paying gigs at a high school, an assisted-living center, and a prison: all captive audiences with no money to buy books. I was nervous about the prison. I’d never been inside one before, much less addressed a large group of inmates. The other two events were okay, but those inmates were great, eager for stories, eager to have someone there who didn’t condescend to them. Laughing with them about the way stories can clarify, lighten, and even save our lives was one of the best moments of my professional life.

SM: Please compose a brief poem or haiku on the subject of your choosing.

KLC: I’m not a good poet, but my good friend Joe Schuster (who is actually a fiction writer as well) wrote this series of wonderful haikus that he encouraged me to give to my students or to myself (depending on my mood):

Work moved me to tears
Not of joy but something else:
Pinprick in raw skin

Such a waste of paper,
Impossible writer:
Brazil deforest’d

Think of something else:
Sewer cleaning, plumbing, crime.
But write no more. Please.