An Interview with Robert Coover
A few days before I was set to interview Robert Coover, his new novel arrived in the mail—The Brunist Day of Wrath, a thousand-page doorstop. I knew I wouldn’t get through it before we met, but I didn’t realize how guilty I felt about this until the first thing I heard myself say after our introduction was “Your publicist sent me the new book, but I wasn’t able to finish it.” Coover looked at me with a severe expression and, in his gentle growl, he said, “You should’ve read it.” Then he smiled.
The post–World War II era was a transformative time for American literature. It brought, among many other things, postmodernism, metafiction, and maximalism. Most often grouped with other muscular male writers like Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, William H. Gass, and John Barth, Robert Coover was one of the prominent practitioners of this period, publishing the wildly controversial The Public Burning (a Cold War phantasmagoria that includes Richard Nixon masturbating to Ethel Rosenberg) as well as countless other ecstatically weird, daring books.
As luck would have it, I got to spend a large part of a day with Coover. After a reading he gave at USC, we went to a lunch where I chatted with his wife, Pilar, a Spanish tapestry artist whom he met in the days of Franco. After lunch I drove the couple to their bed-and-breakfast. Coover was in a melancholy mood and told me so; he had just gotten news that a close friend was very ill. (Coover is in his eighties and so are most of his peers.) But as we sat down in the drawing room, he was good-humored and eager to discuss his life and work.
I. UNCLE SAM IS THE MASTER OF CEREMONIES
THE BELIEVER: The Brunist Day of Wrath just came out, the sequel to your first novel, The Origin of the Brunists, published forty-eight years ago. How did that happen?
ROBERT COOVER: It’s a kind of pattern of my writing that I’ve tended to jot down notes or outline a little something and set it aside and not come back to it till years later. That pattern of letting things hibernate for a while has been a long one. In the case of The Brunists, it was more difficult, because I had left behind that kind of writing. In fact, I left it behind before I began the first book, and had to kind of fight off the desire to get into the writing (that became difficult for everyone) to complete it. So as I was doing that, I just naturally thought of other possible books that might spring from it—some of them not at all part of what’s happened since, some of them are close to what has happened. I had a character, for example, in the first book, that was one of the maybe two or three most important characters in the book, and I took him out. But before I took him out, I had in mind what role he would play in the sequel. And then I thought, Maybe he has his own book, and I’d do that as a separate book. So I had lots of ideas like that. Never did that.
But finally I did kind of settle on this notion of the cult becoming a full-fledged religion and kept notes about that. And those notes I just gathered over the decades. And the further I got away from the original, the less likely it seemed I would actually do it, probably just because the nature of the times was receding. We were into a new kind of era. And it didn’t seem kind of worthwhile to go back and revisit all that.
It kind of happened then, at the turn the millennium, when all these evangelicals turned out to support Bush and the country was talking, as a country, in these strange terms. Quite crazy, actually. They were actually talking as if this was the natural way to talk. They would be interviewed on the morning shows or the evening news or whatever, CNN, reporters, all day long. They would tend to treat the way they were speaking as a quite reasonable way to talk. So I thought if I was ever going to do it, I should do it now.
I was much happier writing things like Pinocchio in Venice and John’s Wife and Ghost Town and books like that, Lucky Pierre, than I was writing this sequel. But I found enough things that weren’t only useful and proper and should be discussed and important, but amusing and entertaining to me as a writer. I found I could get enough juices up each day that I could go ahead and keep writing.
BLVR: A through-line of your work is a sort of exuberant randiness. What’s the role of sex in your fiction?
RC: John’s Wife is dedicated to a woman who was a wonderful writer and one of my very best friends, Angela Carter, and to Ovid. Ovid is, to me, the great exemplar of a believer in eros as a driving force in the universe. It’s like it’s what makes the gods do anything that they do. So that impulse has been there from the very first things I wrote. In the very first, clumsy little stories was this notion of the centrality of eros. It seems to be about one thing, but in actuality you’re getting something else. You’re getting politics or history or something else out of it.
It was really a motivating factor for writing a book like The Adventures of Lucky Pierre. I started that at the end of the ’60s. I just kind of fled from the United States. It was the worst of the Vietnam protest time, which I was very involved in. It was eating up all my time. But it was also the moment, as we got over there, that I couldn’t sleep and I was very depressed. It was a bad regime and bad politics throughout the nation. I thought of it as a kind of walking in winter. So I had this simple image of a man walking in winter. It was a very non-ebullient notion. But then as soon as I thought he might be walking with his penis hard and sticking out in front of him, then it had a different possibility.
BLVR: Nixon was a big character in your imaginarium. Have there been any other politicians or public figures who’ve fired your imagination the same way Nixon did?
RC: No, thank heavens. Mostly they’re a relatively unappetizing, unappealing lot.
BLVR: What was it that so fascinated you about him?
RC: It wasn’t that I chose to write about Nixon. It really was the other way around. I started The Public Burning as a theater piece, meant to be protest theater. I was going to go down to Times Square and block traffic and set up a stage to execute the Rosenbergs, see how far we could get. And I had in mind that Uncle Sam would be my master of ceremonies, the guy who gets up and tells jokes and pulls the switch in the end and all that kind of activity. Mainly, it was meant to protest the current frame of mind.
But I didn’t know anybody in New York. I didn’t know how to get a theater piece going. I didn’t know who I’d hire as actors. So it was a little bit like an idea in the abstract. And I decided to make it more concrete by imagining it as a narrative piece. Uncle Sam is the master of ceremonies; Rosenbergs are executed in the middle of Times Square, et cetera. So I did that. I found the piece was very loud, full of comedy, but it didn’t have any kind of anchor. And what I decided I needed was—if this was kind of like a series of circus acts—something that anchored and brought it down to the ground, and that would be the clown’s role. I thought of different possible clownish characters who might provide me that link between the more circusy parts. It was just when Nixon was being inaugurated. And as we’re approaching inauguration day, I thought he might work because he had an insider’s information on everything going on. So I could expose everything from the inside out. And at the same time, he was so much an outsider. Eisenhower just brushed him aside. He thought Nixon was a vulgar man and didn’t want anything to do with him.
I did a lot of research about Nixon, and so I learned about how he broke in to the dean’s office to steal exam results, stuff like that. I knew all that. I thought, That’s clever. I’m going to have that as kind of big surprises for everybody. And then along came Watergate. And with Watergate everybody was discovering this stuff.
BLVR: So you were already well into exploring Nixon even before Watergate broke?
RC: Yeah. I was deep into it, and that was the problem, that everything I had seemed to know suddenly became common knowledge. I wasn’t surprising anybody with the remarks I was making. So I had to reconsider him, and he deepened a lot. He got much more interesting, and his paragraphs—which were short, clownish episodes—became longer, and I got him in contact with many more people than before, and dealing with issues that I hadn’t worried about before. As a consequence of his being in trouble in public, it helped me explore more deeply who he was in private.
BLVR: You revisited Nixon years later, in Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears? So even then you still couldn’t get him out of your head?
RC: A magazine that I had no respect for wrote to ask me (based on the baseball book) if I had a sports story I could send them, or if I could write one for them. And I kind of blew them off in a not very friendly way. And after I’d done that, I go, Wait a minute. Two things I didn’t succeed at getting really deep into were, one, his ambition, his desire to be a great football player. That was so much part of his growing up. And, two, how he failed to make out with girls. He truly had difficulty with girls. He didn’t know what to say. And so I thought, I’ll take these two things that I’ve not got into The Public Burning very well and write a little book about him. And that’s how Gloomy Gus got going. But I wasn’t really, truly obsessed with him. He just had a certain all-American instinct, which was what I was looking for.
BLVR: With Nixon and The Public Burning you’re credited with being the first person, at least in twentieth-century literature, to use a still-living person as a character in a novel. When you did that, did you have a sense that it was groundbreaking?
RC: The problem at that time was that it was, in effect, against the law to do that. And I not only had Nixon in there, but there are several hundred living people who are part of that story. So when it came time to start submitting it, there was nothing anybody could count—legal precedents, especially. There was no certainty that the book would not be sued or blocked from being published.
So it went to a lot of publishers who were quite excited by the book but who were afraid to try to publish it. The whole Nixon family, the Eisenhower family, everybody that might be… and most people then were still alive from ’53. So all the judges, the prosecutors, they can all sue. Who they were really afraid of was Roy Cohn, because he had already been suing NBC for I don’t know how much—millions—for what they said about him in [the TV movie] Tail Gunner Joe, which is about McCarthy.
So there was a genuine amount of fear about what was possible, and I hadn’t considered this fear—not very seriously—while writing it, because I just had to get the book done and I didn’t think too much about how difficult it might be. But it was very difficult. What happened was the publishers took the book—they wanted it. They all wanted it. But the first thing they had to do was vet it with their legal staff. And so almost every lawyer in New York City knew about this book and knew who was in it, so they could go to that person and say, “I’ll represent you if this book comes out”—that kind of thing. So with each submission, we felt we were increasing the risk of someone getting sued if it was published—or, more likely, of not finding a publisher for it.
So that was the circumstance, and we had run out of possibilities, except for a couple who were still looking at it. And so I decided to come back to the States—I was living in Europe—and meet with some of these people personally, to see if I could convince them that we’re OK. The two houses still interested were Farrar, Straus and Viking via Dick Seaver. I took a gig up at Goddard College just as a way to go somewhere. But we were following closely what was happening in New York. And I reached a friend’s place in Vermont and New Hampshire, and got a phone call from my agent saying, “Good news. I have been hesitant to call until I knew it was 100 percent sure, because I know how easy it is to be disappointed. But now Roger Straus says it’s 100 percent. So we’re drawing up contracts today.” And so my friend said, “Well, let’s break out the champagne. We’ll talk about it at last.” After two years of looking, we had a publisher. And then the phone rang almost instantly. It was my agent going, “I can’t believe this, but Roger Straus just called saying he can’t do it.” Some lawyer friend had come in and told him, “Don’t do it or you’re a dead duck.”
So it left me with Dick. And the rumor was that Knopf, who had bought the book away from Dutton and then turned it down, somehow had been threatened with a suit or something. And that’s why they didn’t do it. Whatever it was, they turned the book down after having accepted to pay a lot of money for it.
And with that, the rumors started to spread. So Seaver and I got on a phone conversation and I explained everything that had happened. And he understood everything and he said, “All right, I’m going for it.” But it was a hard road. It took a lot of kind of manipulating. Like one thing Dick did was get the books printed about five months or so before the pub date and got them out to all the bookstores, so to recover them, calling them all back in, would be very difficult. He did a lot of things like that.
I went to the Viking lawyer. He said, “I’ve got just a few things I want you to do.” I think there were, like, eight hundred requests for changes. And the first request was to take out all living persons. That was the first request. So we had to get lawyers and fight it out with their house lawyers. In the end, we knuckled under to two or three minor things that were not important to the book. They really weren’t significant; a couple of characters like Cohn, for example. He’s still there, he’s still a fool, but I tempered it. It’s not like I had originally written. But he was so unimportant, I didn’t care.
And the book did break through. It was the first of its kind, and it did have a couple of legal actions against it, but they were settled. And it set a precedent that everybody followed thereafter. So there were a lot of books like that that followed. The ones before had mainly dealt with dead persons, and then not long after—it must have been within a few years, I can’t remember—Saturday Night Live began. Well, that completely opened up everything. And in many ways, my book opened it up for them.
II. BECKETT, MY PRIMARY INSPIRER
BLVR: You and the contemporaries you usually get clumped with have produced a great deal of fiction, yet very little in terms of personal essays or memoirs. It seems like fiction writers working today publish more often in both genres. What is it about your generation that shied away from the autobiographical?
RC: I’m not sure, because in all of them there were certainly biographical elements. But I think the idea that launched this kind of meta-literary tradition among a group, it meant that all things had to be transposed, had to be translated into something else. So, let’s say, Hawkes’s Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade follows very closely in some ways his own boyhood, except it’s a girl. He borrows very much from his own personal experience to do it.
We all do that. We all find something that we can really honestly talk about. For one thing, there was not much egoism in that way among this generation, the idea that you craft a character called your name and write a fiction called your biography, because most of those are pretty much fictions anyway.
Instead, anything that’s your experience gets fed into larger metaphors. The metaphor is more important than the author’s selfhood. I’m not sure that’s true with everybody—I’m thinking through them—but it’s certainly true with DeLillo, certainly true with Gass. Gass has a different kind of outlook, which is very useful in that he’s an essay writer. There’s a real blurred distinction between his essays and his fiction. When you read something like Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife or On Being Blue, you don’t really know where you are in terms of form. And that’s part of his great gift, to be able to establish that confusion between these fundamental forms, like essay-fiction.
Jack Barth used personal anecdote a lot, but kind of covered it with the more-imaginative storytelling. But all the time he’s on a boat in Chesapeake, you think of him and his wife, Shelly. And the extent that people called them love stories or love letters has to do with the fact that it’s sort of written from him to her, no matter how imaginative or fanciful the narrative that’s being related is.
Elkin only wrote about himself, but you couldn’t call it autobiographical, what he did. It was very wildly funny stuff, and nothing to do with his own life, although there’s a couple of stories. There’s a very funny story he wrote near the end, when he was suffering from MS and totally dependent on his wife, just totally, for health reasons alone. And he imagines her leaving him one day. So he’s looking out the window, and she’s driving off. He’s all alone. He’s got a bunch of students coming for a party that he’s organized, and nobody to help him with it except the students themselves. And it’s a wild story. But you hear Stanley all the time. It’s Stanley dealing with an issue and making a real comic piece out of what was kind of a tragic circumstance. But she never left him.
BLVR: It seems like we’ve become a much more confessional culture in the last twenty years.
RC: Yeah, maybe. Of course, you have the internet phenomenon, where people are constantly posting pictures of themselves and relating anecdotes about themselves. That can be satisfying, perhaps. I mean, that stuff, even when it’s fascinating now, is going to die. It has no long-range future, that’s all, because there’ll be others like it. It will be followed by a vast array of more and more and more and they will simply… the old ones will fade into the background as the new ones take over. So that particular format is—I wouldn’t, as a writer, want to risk my longevity on that kind of writing.
BLVR: How do you feel these days about the term postmodernism, which you were prominently associated with?
RC: Well, none of us liked any terms, because to be categorized is a punishment, not a gift. And whatever the term was, even the most flattering one, it still leaves you feeling like you belong to an abstract notion, not what you’re doing yourself.
At one of my Unspeakable Practices [literary conferences], all the critics had to get into a panel position. It was, I think, the first one, because Gass was there and Elkin. They all came to it. And they were supposed to provide a final definition of postmodernism. Of course, that was a joke. There was no chance that would happen. But it allowed them to try to formalize what they claimed were characteristics. And all the writers and the audience were laughing it off, because they themselves did not fit any of the categories that were being invented. So, that said, some ways of naming a generation are fruitful and some are not. Postmodernism is not. It doesn’t really say anything. It says something about architecture, but it doesn’t say much about writing.
BLVR: And metafiction?
RC: Metafiction says something. It has to do with taking a large fiction itself and writing within it; that kind of self-reflecting writing that emerges from it can be thought of as metafictional. I didn’t much like surfiction or… but that idea was that there was something surrealistic about it, and it was fiction that was beyond fiction, a little bit like metafiction. Maximalism is another. I mean, I’d like to think of Beckett as being my primary inspirer, as a person, anyway, a minimalist if there ever was one. So it’s like we’re on opposite sides of that bench and whatnot. It doesn’t describe a lot. It does describe ambition, sometimes, and the breadth of one’s creative undertakings. I think in that way DeLillo has always been maximalist—he takes on large topics and pushes through them all, to some extent. It’s a term that doesn’t really define anything. It just says you’re ambitious or you’re not, or you use a lot of words or you don’t.
III. THE INTRANSIGENT PURSUIT OF THE METAPHOR
BLVR: You were a real early adopter or advocate of electronic writing. Considering what your hopes or expectations were in, say, the early ’90s, how do you feel about how things have turned out now?
RC: I didn’t actually have a lot of hopes. What I saw quite clearly in the ’80s, before the internet, was that the whole world was shifting toward digital formats, and that didn’t matter whether it’s movies or writing or whatever. It was something that was coming. And with the invention of the World Wide Web in the early ’90s, when we were teaching our first courses, or the arrival of the internet by way of the browser, which opened up the internet to everybody—soon it was just revolutionary.
It was just like kind of proof positive that what we’d been saying in the late ’80s was so: that this was a form, a means that was going to take over all others. We weren’t going to use celluloid anymore. We weren’t going to use needles on wax and we weren’t going to use printed words on paper. We might use all those things and they might be very interesting, hobbyist things—and the book in particular, there’s sort of no easy way to replace the book. So that has lived on and may continue to live on.
But what was clear was that people, whatever they were going to do, they were going to do it eventually digitally somehow. And that’s proven to be true. Whether we’re satisfied or what the results are is irrelevant in terms of the way things have moved into that arena. So if we don’t like Twitter and Facebook and so on, nevertheless, that’s where right now things can possibly happen.
I think that we’re in such early stages we can’t see what’s going to happen. We have to remember that it was nearly 150 years after the Gutenberg printing revolution that we finally get Don Quixote and we finally get the first novelists at work. It took that long for people to feel so comfortable, so natural, so, in fact, oppressed by, in some cases, books, that the printing press was there and nobody questioned it anymore.
I think right now we’re in the early phase when we’re still in the romance novel, the sentimental novel, picaresque novel, et cetera. We’ve got these little examples of what might happen but hasn’t happened to a satisfying extent. So it will take a Joyce or a Cervantes or somebody to come along and say, “Right, I know what I’m going to do with this.” And they do it for you and you follow along and say, “Whoa, I had no idea!”
I think it will be multidisciplinary. I think there will be imagery and maybe moving imagery and there will be sound and so on. I don’t see any point in holding back in what the options are for our creative artists. So it’s not therefore going to look like a book or sound like a book, one might say. The problem is that we haven’t found anything that works better than a book for a sustained narrative. And for that reason alone, the book continues. It may continue in Kindle form, but that’s just covering the fact that we’re still into this page-turning mechanism.
BLVR: It’s just digital ink versus actual ink.
RC: Yeah. It doesn’t change the original product, at least at this point. I think it will. When we started talking about digitizing my work, I wanted to expand on them, but the people doing it said, “No, no, we just… we don’t want to mess around with it, just scan the books and send them out as Kindle.”
If you start thinking about the kids being born now, for them the computer is ancient history. So one imagines that when children think of it as the only place to be, because there isn’t anywhere else, then the geniuses of those generations will find their way into doing something that is impressive and as good as a Shakespeare or a Cervantes. Right now, we can’t see that. We’re not close enough to it yet. But I anticipate it, and I would say, yes, I’m disappointed in what’s happened so far. A lot of it is too banal, too quickly accomplished, and lacks a kind of thoroughness of approach that might speak of the intransigent pursuit of the metaphor that would include the metaphor hidden in the technology. To be able to understand that at its fullest—still not many people can. And so they take a quick route and they may learn how to do links, may learn how to stick a movie in, but they don’t really know how to integrate all this, because of the way they think.
BLVR: You just published a thousand-page novel, but do you think you’ll have a Philip Roth retirement moment anytime soon?
RC: I see no reason to stop. But the reason isn’t always one of your own. The mind is not invulnerable, and it can lose some of its powers. Right now, I still feel I can do everything, and I was past seventy when I decided to take on this huge book that I knew was going to take me a decade. So that was a terrible challenge to take on at that age, knowing I might not be around to finish it. But I still would do it again if I hit a book that I really liked and it was another ten-year book and I was ninety-five. I’d still assume I’d get to it somehow.
But I’ve had many friends who are going on trying to write, and it’s very clear that their abilities are weakening. And I hope I can see that well enough when it happens, and I can stop, because there’s no need to inundate the world with books and language. It’s just too full already. There’s so much rubbish hiding in the world. But as long as I think I can do something inventive and insightful, then I’ll keep doing it.
BLVR: What’s next for you, work-wise? Are there any genres you want to revisit, or any new genres you want to conquer, or others you want to go back to?
RC: I won’t name them. I’m too early along, but I have several. I have several projects that I’m working on that move into other genres, move into other types of narrative, even use a different structural language style. These are ideas often I’ve had for forty years. I just keep logging all that stuff, and they rise to the surface from time to time. But mainly I’m consciously looking for what might be thought of as sequels to, or at least follow-ons to, books like Gerald’s Party and John’s Wife or Ghost Town and Noir or A Night at the Movies. These all open up new possibilities. I hope to get to all of them.