I have the questionable impulse to start my interview with T Cooper by telling him that my working headline is: “Will the Real T Cooper Please Stand Up.”
In his 2006 novel, Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes, one of Cooper’s characters is an Eminem impersonator named T Cooper, who inherits the mysterious archives of his ancestors, the Lipshitzes. Character T Cooper’s grandmother, Esther, had been convinced that aviator Charles Lindbergh was actually her son Reuven, who disappeared when the family landed at Ellis Island. Author T Cooper’s brilliant novel thematically mines the individual search for identity and, like most heroes’ journeys, it includes its share of dangers, false suitors, and red herrings. In other words, it inhabits, to some degree, terrain also covered in Cooper’s new work, Real Man Adventures, which explores the author’s own transgendered experience, as well as larger questions about identity, society and perception.
While I admire Cooper simply enough for his precision prose, I have become, with each of his books, increasingly enamored with the liminal risks he takes with form. Starting with his first novel, Some of the Parts, Cooper’s structural gambits stretch the reader beyond the usual confines of narrative storytelling.
I first met Cooper in 2006 when he visited Santa Fe—where I live and he has family—for a book event for Lipshitz. At the time, I was the editor of the weekly newspaper and was writing a short preview of the event. As I wrote up the piece, I hesitated when I reached the inevitable need for a gendered pronoun. Her book? His book? I didn’t know. Eventually, I sighed heavily and called T Cooper and asked, apologetically, for guidance.
In Real Man, Cooper addresses this issue directly in the chapter, “A Few Words About Pronouns.” Specifically, Cooper draws two pyramids “to represent who has it ‘hardest’ with respect to the subject of me and pronouns.” “Most difficult” is situated at the top, and “not really difficult at all” is placed at the bottom. In the first pyramid, I placed myself in the category of “people I met during transition,” located fairly near the bottom and then, in his second pyramid, in the category of “everyone else.” That second pyramid relocates Cooper right to the top. The revision is an important arc in the book—the moment when the protagonist identifies himself as such in his own story.
Cooper is also the author of the graphic novel The Beaufort Diaries, as well as the writer and producer of the animated short based on the book, starring David Duchovny. Cooper’s fiction and nonfiction work has appeared in numerous magazines and publications, and he is the co-editor of A Fictional History of the United States (with Huge Chunks Missing).
I interviewed Cooper face-to-face (well, via Skype) and then, for follow-up, by e-mail. The following is an edited version of our conversation. Real Man Adventures was published by McSweeney’s; a limited edition CD is available, featuring songs by more than a dozen musicians. Free downloads of several of the songs are also available here on The Rumpus.
The Rumpus: Author Salvatore Scibona came to talk to my writing students last spring, and he shared a writing diagram of sorts that Frank Conroy had showed him when Salvatore was at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Basically, it shows the writer at one side and the reader at the other, and the diagram is about how much the author works to meet the writer, and visa versa. If the reader has to go all the way over to where the writer is, it’s basically a “fuck you” from the writer. When the writer goes all the way to the other side to meet the reader, then it’s basically, well, genre.
I was thinking about that diagram as I read your new book, because one of the elements I love about your work is the kind of work I have to do as a reader. I don’t have to read your books with a dictionary by my side to look up the word “Scheherazade,” but you use form in a way that breaks traditional rules of narrative. So I have a story, which I love, but I also have work to do to put together the pieces. I have to ask, How does this letter fit with this picture? I have to think about the chapters that are six words long and the chapters that are lists. And that, to me, makes perfect sense thematically, because the way you use form to fracture narrative coincides with the fractured narratives of your stories. So I’m wondering, because I think of you as a very deliberate writer who takes a lot of care with craft, how much of that is, truly, deliberate on your part.
T Cooper: That’s an interesting way of putting it with the diagram of meeting—really, of meeting at many different points along the way. I don’t want to go way over to one side, and certainly not the genre side in the Eat, Pray, Love vein. I’m not trying to have a warm embrace with my readers. I don’t think you can learn anything from that, and then I’m not challenging them and I’m not challenging me. And, yes, I think you need to do a little work. Sometimes I might have been assuming it would take less work than I think it does.
I think it’s ninety percent intentional, and then there’s that ten percent that’s magic in all projects. If you think they are successful and they come to fruition and you’ve worked and learned and grown, that’s all I want. And that’s how this project came about. It began as a smaller piece for The Believer, and then I really looked at that long and hard and asked, Did I do everything? Did I learn? Did I ask all the questions of the reader that I wanted to ask? And I hadn’t. So, it was a deliberate choice to continue in that vein that you’re describing. I don’t think I could say it any better: it’s not, “Take my hand and I’m going to take you from Point A to Point B because my life was a straight line.” It never occurred to me to write this book in that kind of linear way.
Rumpus: Along those same lines, the book, in places, is rife with ambivalence about telling the story at all, and the book, at times, openly challenges the reader about the missing pieces of the story. How are people reacting to that at events and what kinds of questions are they asking you? For example, are there any obnoxious questions in which they want you to be more specific about your surgery, or are they letting that go?
Cooper: Only having had a few events thus far and one book club discussion [for The Rumpus], I think, for the most part, readers are trying to understand why the choices were made rather than buck up against them. And, you know, I think that was the beauty of this project’s organic genesis. It wasn’t: “I’m going to write about this and find a publisher who’s going to publish it for me.” The publisher was very open to letting me discover what this really was or maybe wasn’t; I didn’t know. I had to get more into it. That freedom really allowed me to take some risks and not go to certain places. I think a different publisher would have said, “No, we need you to spell this out; readers are going to be disappointed or close the book with questions and we don’t want that.” McSweeney’s was open to handing their readers a book without the promise of, “You’re going to learn everything you ever wanted to know about this freakish thing.” That’s not how we were approaching it, and that’s not how I approached it. I think if you’re a smart reader, you’re going to be able to figure out what is really going on, but I think you have to do work to figure it out.
Rumpus: What about the ambivalence in telling the story in the first place? You leave that ambivalence in the book; there’s no pretense that you are one hundred percent psyched to be writing about yourself. Which I appreciate—I’m a fan of humility or whatever.
Cooper: Whether I referenced it or not, it would come up. The ambivalence is as much a part of the story as anything else. It would be weird not to be honest and say, “Hey, not only am I amazed this is even coming out of me, but it’s a little terrifying.”
Rumpus: So I was thinking about when you came to Santa Fe six years ago, and I was writing a short preview of your event, and I came to the point when I needed to use a gender pronoun. I was looking at your materials, and all over the Internet, and I eventually had to call you to ask which gender pronoun to use. And then, for some reason, I ended up in this black hole of Internet research about alternative gender pronouns. I couldn’t help but think that alternative pronouns didn’t seem like much of a solution in terms of not drawing attention to otherness; you don’t want people calling you zed or ne or whatever.
Cooper: I have to say, I bet you know more about that right now than I do. It’s not something that’s an active pursuit in my life. Even during the time you reference, I don’t think I spent a ton of time thinking about it then, other than to recognize how hugely inconvenient it is to have a conventional way of doing things. Again, that shouldn’t take anyone’s energy. All I knew was that it made me feel bad to hear it—so I knew I had to confront it and talk about it and do something about it.
You know, it’s interesting: I did this event in Miami. I was on a panel, and I don’t know why, but I was stuck with Susie Bright the Sexpert—I guess they just assumed: freaky sex and then, freaky tranny. (Kate Bornstein was supposed to be on the panel, but she was ill, and she’s a good friend and I would have loved to do that with Kate). There was a lady at the panel who asked a question—I don’t know if it was really a question, but it was one of those kind of things—but she said, “I remember being on a panel with you,” and then she insisted there hadn’t been a pronoun on my material. She said she looked everywhere; she looked on the Internet. And I said, “What book was it?” She said it was the one with the polar bear [The Beaufort Diaries], and I said, “Yep, it was definitely he; you can look on the back on the book.” And she just wouldn’t let it go. And it was crazy because I was on the panel; I’m the authority. But she was insisting that she knew that it had been entirely confusing, and that she hadn’t known what to call me back then.
It’s funny, because this is a very personal decision and choice and life journey for a lot of people: some people never make it to the “other” side; some people stay in the middle. Yet, other people really feel a lot of ownership because for them it’s their experience of looking at you, experiencing you, seeing you, hearing you.
Rumpus: I mostly felt like I was a complete moron that I had to call and ask, so I was glad when I read your book and found out I wasn’t the…only complete moron.
Cooper: As I said in the book, I don’t want anyone to feel shitty about it. My preference is for me to feel comfortable. For instance, Susie Bright called me she on that panel. I’ve never met her in my life; she didn’t know my work, she didn’t know anything about me. She just met me and saw me. She didn’t even know I was trans until I started talking about my book, and she she’d me in public on a panel. And I was like, Wow, it’s mind-blowing to me that I would have to then say, “Here’s why that feels bad.” It just does. Yes, maybe I should feel over it, but she didn’t have me: she’s not my mom; she’s not my cousin; she didn’t go to high school with me as me. It’s like I’m telling you, “Hey my name is John; don’t call me Mike, or, you know, Julie.”
Rumpus: What is that? What do you think people are invested in? Just their own perceptions?
Cooper: It must be this incredibly primitive thing we have in us—even the most radical thinkers among us. You know, it’s the first question when someone’s having a baby: is it a boy or a girl? It’s very primitive. I just did another event and there were some trans guy friends who showed up, and they were talking about how they will be introduced to someone as a he; everyone has known them for years as a he, but the minute people find out that they’re trans, the she pops up. It’s the biggest fear of someone in that situation, I think, to say she, and I think it’s when you’re that afraid of saying it, you inevitably end up saying it.
It happened on stage the other night and I was like, Wow, going into the third event and I’m batting 1,000 for being she’d at my own events talking about gender. So, I don’t know…I’m sure I’ll get to a better place with it in life where I don’t feel bad. Maybe I need to be a bigger person. It’s a personal respect kind of thing and there are a couple of chapters in the book when I talk about it.
Rumpus: The book also references the general misunderstanding people have when it comes to distinguishing sexual orientation and gender identification. I feel like that is the source of intolerance; people freak out about sex—not even just sexual orientation, but just sex. When I was editor of The Santa Fe Reporter, and we started running Dan Savage, it was like I was burning kittens in the town square. People freaked out. And in the book, when you talk to your brother and other people about what it means to be a man or a woman, it seemed as though what it means to a lot of people is who you have sex with.
Cooper: It’s definitely a source of education. A lot of people I know who go around to colleges and do Trans 101 presentations—which I’ve never done; I don’t think I’d be very good at it—they spend a lot of time explaining that concept to people.
I just think gender is so deeply ingrained that people don’t have space for anything besides, “There was a mistake—God made a mistake, or biology made a mistake; something was broken and needed to be fixed.” I think that’s why a lot of trans people do the “born in the wrong body” thing, because people can understand that more; it’s more palatable. I think that’s why a lot of the early gay movement thing was, “We’re just like you: we want to have kids and be married and go on cruises.” I don’t know what it is except that it’s of difference, and it’s about body parts, which is gross to people. No matter how far we go, the concept of a guy without a dick, or a female with one, is just mind-boggling. And it’s inspired violence and rancor and all sorts of craziness. I think that’s about sexuality, as well. It’s hard to pull them apart. Some trans people would say they aren’t that different. Someone like Kate Bornstein spends a lot of time talking about how her gender is specifically linked to her sexuality. I don’t think I’m on the theory side as much as other folk; this is more about the art for me. At least this book is.
Rumpus: I wrote a long profile in the late 1990s about a man who had been a woman, and he had been a straight woman and then came out as a gay man. When we talked about those experiences, it seemed, to me, that they had been very different: coming out about sexual orientation versus coming out about transgender.
Cooper: I think a lot of trans men who start off being more attracted to women, once they transition, find themselves more attracted to men and wanting to be around men, men’s bodies, men’s spaces, which often become homosexual spaces. I think everyone’s journeys or experiences just are what they are. But I do think there’s something about the homosocial experience and, also, testosterone, to be honest. Because I think that in male—especially in gay male—worlds, guys are pretty much having more sex than I think men and women are. That’s not a radical crazy statement. And I think testosterone has something to do with it. So, obviously, when you’re putting two men together, there’s going to be more opportunity for that.
Rumpus: Do you think our generation occupies a particularly weird space when it comes to gender issues? I have students now who are eighteen, and they could just not give less of a shit; they are so open. They’ve dealt with the bullying issues. They’re not saying, “La la la, it’s a wonderful world,” but they don’t seem internally tormented. I don’t mean to generalize, but at least the ones I’ve met.
Cooper: Is it because of MTV? I don’t know. Sure, I think media has a lot to do with how chill some parts of the youth population are about sexuality and to a lesser extent, gender. I mean, turn on the TV and pretty much in every realm, from reality, to scripted comedy and drama, to news, gay dudes are running the shit: creating characters and cultures and cooking food and sewing clothing and spinning worlds we all care deeply about and want to spend time with for a few hours a week. My friend Josh and his boyfriend just won the freaking Amazing Race! I mean, ten million people are tuning in, and these guys spontaneously kiss at the finish line, and the monster trucker dude they beat is like, “Wow, I used to judge gays and their lifestyle, but now I’m more understanding because of these guys…” Which is why I get so confused about all the virulent homophobia hold-outs. I don’t know, sometimes when I’m surrounded by my friends and colleagues and family and fellow creative types (I don’t even mean trans or gay people, just people in my world), I feel like, Yeah, of course, gender’s no big deal and people totally get it. But then there are these moments that poke through where I realize, Wow, this is one of the most confounding of all human experiences, and the resulting confusion and fear really does blow most people’s minds (not to mention can inspire intolerance), to be raised one gender and then grow up into another.
Rumpus: So…is the cover a little gay, or am I just being a jerk?
Cooper: It’s the gayest thing ever. All those pulps were. It’s like, “Your marriage is failing: read this,” and then it’s all these guys wrestling in the locker room, and fighting Nazis and giant weasels. So when we started talking about covers, I sent them these pulp covers. I just think it’s funny: the book isn’t gay, but it’s a totally gay cover. Again, it speaks to the issue you were talking about—it’s not about sexuality; there’s nothing about my sexuality in this book.
Rumpus: This is a bad segue, but after I read your chapter on height [“40 Successful Men of My Stature Or Shorter”], I spent hours on the Internet trying to find out how tall Tom Cruise is. It’s impossible to find out how tall he actually is.
Cooper: I know, seriously! I didn’t put him on there because of it.
Rumpus: I got hung up on that chapter because…well, I’m super short, but also thinking about it in the context of the book—this idea that becoming a man is a choice about physicality; it’s not theoretical.
Cooper: Yeah. I think for me—for a lot of people who are on this “journey”—there are places in between. I tried to live in that place in between because I felt like, for whatever reason, I wasn’t at the place where I wanted to completely transition. It didn’t work for me—not that I was miserably unhappy or I wanted to kill myself, or anything like that. Overall, I’m incredibly lucky and blessed to be who I am, to live in the country that I’m in. It’s even a luxury to have these questions, or even to say, “I want to live in this other type of body,” to have the technology accessible to me. I’m luckier than ninety-nine percent of the world. That being said, once I took advantage of that stuff, I realized, “Hey you know what? This makes me feel better in my body.” And that is the physical part of it: embodying the kind of presence that just felt right.
I’m not going to go so far as to say, “I should have been born that way.” I don’t think there was a mistake. We have the [“Born in the Wrong Body”] chapter of the book, too…I do know I feel better physically this way. A lot of trans people would tell you it’s all in the brain and they don’t have to have a body that matches. But for me, for whatever reason, I’m comfortable on this side of the binary—knowing full well I’ll never be one hundred percent, because I don’t think anyone is. I don’t think anyone is all anything. But, you know, I’m more comfortable in this kind of body, and I think that’s why being on the shorter side of the spectrum—I joke about it, but I’d love to have three more inches.
Rumpus: You and me both; that’s not a male thing.
Cooper: For me, it’s about going through the world and having power. My wife is tall: she’s 5’10” or something, and she loves that. She loves being in heels and being taller, because there’s a physicality in the space you take up; people treat you differently.
Rumpus: I’m the person in the store where the cut-through space will always happen; wherever I am, people know they can get through.
Cooper: I have to say, being short bugged me more when I was more androgynous. But now there’s been years when no one questions what I am, and people just assume I am what they see in front of them, so it doesn’t bug me as much. But there are times that it feels diminishing. It’s funny that so many celebrities are so much shorter than you think. I’m sure there is someone doing a thesis somewhere about the psychology involved with being short and then going on to be larger than life.
Rumpus: One of your most impassioned footnotes is when your brother talks about your parents thinking you want them to dismiss their memories of your childhood. You say in response that you don’t want anyone to do anything except respect you. It feels like anyone who isn’t atrociously self-adjusted has trouble looking back on his or her younger selves. I could sit here cringing for hours thinking about my younger self. I wonder how—if at all—you feel like that’s a different experience for you.
Cooper: I think it’s a version of what everyone has. I think where it changes is because of that very first question of, “Is it a boy or girl baby?” I think that is what acts upon it. There are folks who, for whatever reason, are glued to this image. It’s very hard to accept change. There is an extra element for me with old photographs, but I think I would be cringing just as much if I were male-born male, and I was who I am today. There’s, you know, “I can’t believe I wore and said and thought and did that.” I can’t think of a single person who doesn’t think that.
Rumpus: How have your parents reacted to the book?
Cooper: They are very supportive of my career as a writer and always have been, and supportive of me as a creative person, as my father has made his living as a musical artist. I suppose they didn’t end up in the book a ton. I certainly felt like I should include some stuff about my childhood, especially in consideration of the story arc, the usual concerns about dramatic rise and fall of action. But on the other hand, I left out the lion’s share of it—mostly stuff that wasn’t really serving the story or project as a whole.
Rumpus: I was fascinated by the chapters with your brother and Dexter Ward from the Los Angeles Police Department. Both of them seemed completely un-baitable on the topic of transgender. They were like, “No. We deal with that every day. Nobody cares.” I thought, Wow, am I just this jerk who thinks that all cops beat up on anybody that they can? Was it reassuring to hear their perspective? Was it disconcerting?
Cooper: I’m a little circumspect about that. I think the LAPD has some particular challenges, as we all know. Like you—having been arrested and literally trampled on by police horses over the years in New York—I have healthy fear and lack of respect for the [New York Police Department] and, by extension, LAPD. And, yet, when my brother became a police officer, he took me to the Academy. He had been a weapons instructor, and he showed me these scenarios, and I actually went through the scenarios with the guns. There are people’s lives in front of you, and some of them are shooting guns at you and some of them are holding ice cream cones and it’s fucking terrifying. It’s the most harrowing job I can even imagine. When I saw that I was like, “Wow, I guess they’re not as big of assholes as I thought; maybe that wallet did deserve forty-one bullets.” That being said, I don’t know if I believe that my brother’s friends are all cool about some trans lady they pick up. I don’t know. I’m sure there is protocol and I’m sure they follow it.
What was reassuring is that even when the most intolerant people face a human in front of them who they completely relate to for a million reasons and have no beef with and no problem with, those people tend to act right. They do in front of me, and I think in front of a guy like Dexter.
Rumpus: That’s why the Internet sucks so much.
Cooper: It’s true, because you can hide behind a whole world. You can throw a world of shit up there. That’s one of the things that’s bracing about this book being out in the world.
Rumpus: I think of your writing—not just this book, but all of your books—as addressing sort of the emotional diaspora, if that’s actually something. I’m just thinking about this idea of the quest. In my mind, it’s as much a writer’s quest as it is an issue of transgender.
Cooper: The quest part or the desire to be something else has always fascinated me and taken up my time creatively, whether it’s the immigrant experience, the Charles Lindbergh obsession, wanting to be white and WASP-y and on top of the world…the trans experience of all sorts is fascinating to me. I’m a student of history. I love people fighting, leaving, doing everything to be something they’re not. And I guess in this book, I had to think about myself as a character, or at least a protagonist, and I had to think about what to put myself, as a protagonist, through.
Rumpus: I was also thinking about the other T Cooper from Lipshitz Six, Or Two Angry Blondes, because he gets all this ephemera from the history of this family, and he’s trying so hard to figure out what to do with it. There’s a very rock-hard American theme in that book, and in all your work, with the idea that in America, we get to reinvent ourselves, yet in some ways we never can because there’s always someone out there to say, “No, actually, you’re from Flatbush,” or whatever.
Cooper: Totally. There’s that chapter in the book, too, that talks about that for me, the image is like Jay-Z looking over his shoulder all the time [“Born in the Wrong Body”]. Even in the polar bear book, the Beaufort book: he couldn’t stay; his home was disappearing and it was going to kill him and he had to go. That is a fascinating tale—whether it’s a human, an animal, a Jew, a trans person—it’s certainly that theme of reinvention.
And yet, you know, I’m just a little shy and suspicious of extremes and extreme binaries. That’s why it would be crazy for me to think I could just live my life as a man and not have any of that stuff brought forward into my life. I actually think sometimes I would love if it I could. But even if I didn’t write this book, even if I didn’t write my first book, I don’t think I would have that luxury.
Rumpus: Does anyone have the luxury of not remaining connected to who they were? What man would you be without your past? You’d be a completely different person without what comes before.
Cooper: Exactly, and I think everyone would. Some histories are fraught; some are less fraught. There’s that interview with one of my friend’s moms where she said it so simply: “If you’re lucky, your family accepts you. And if you’re not, you’re not.” It’s pretty simple in some ways…you’re always going to fall off the path that you were set on because you were set on it. It wasn’t your choice to be brought into the world. Two people (ideally, consensually) chose to make that decision, and then it’s up to you what to do with the life you’ve been given.
I think about it with my kids all the time. I don’t know if it’s because of my unique experience, but while I’m curious to see what kind of people they’re going to be, I’m not wrapped up in what that is. I want them to be healthy. I don’t want anyone to hurt them. But I don’t have a single vision for them. And, yet, I do know parents who have some pretty specific ideas for how they’d like their kids’ lives to go.
Rumpus: Just to talk about the interviews in the book for a minute. You also use the interview format in A Fictional History of the United States for the “Gay Aviation” interview with Charles Lindbergh and his longtime friend Donald Smith. It’s a very funny piece, and also just an excellent conceit, because it creates tension between this nonfiction format—the interview—and the fictional content it houses. So reading Real Man Adventures, which also includes numerous interviews, it drew my attention to that line between fiction and nonfiction. Was it difficult for you to adhere to the idea of telling a “real” story versus a fictional one?
Cooper: I definitely did not set out to tell my “for real” story because I think it’s impossible to do. I never approach people’s lives, stories they’ve written themselves, and expect to actually get the real thing. I hope for a good story. I hope for a look into a unique life, and I hope their life is unique enough to be writing a fucking book in the first place. And so that’s why I am adamant about not calling it a memoir, even though that seems dickish. It’s not just being dickish—I just don’t think of it as such. Just like history in the book you mention, just like with a million things, everything is changed the second after it happens. Things are changed by people’s different lenses, by history, by time, by mental illness. There are so many things that act upon experience.
That’s why I really wanted to hear a lot of the stuff literally coming out of other people’s mouths. So the space between what comes out of my mouth and what comes out of their mouths—there’s stuff happening there too. That’s a whole fictional world in some ways. That’s a conversation that literally lifts off the page—and I don’t mean to say that in a pretentious way—I just mean magical stuff can happen when you crash up these two worlds against each other. Like the ReDICKulous guy [stage name for a male stripper Cooper interviewed for the book], there’s so much going on in between the conversation than what he’s actually saying.
Rumpus: That’s such a great interview because it doesn’t require explication— his tone is so palpable. It’s just: “What? I get paid.”
Cooper: I love when he tells me to hold on and I’m sitting there forever while he’s talking to his mom. And he comes back and I’m like, “Does your mom know what you do?” and he’s laughing at me like, “You stupid fucking asshole—of course she knows what I do and likes what I do: I get paid.” To me, that’s my job as a writer: to carefully assemble all that and put it together and create a structure and stick stuff onto the scaffolding. My choice was to leave parts of the scaffolding bare to show it to the audience, too. That’s as much of the story as the stuff that fills in, the meat.
Rumpus: So then what do you think of the whole Lifespan of a Fact controversy—the John D’Agata “fact versus fiction” issue, wherein people go crazy if they feel like they’ve been lied to in a memoir or a true story?
Cooper: I was touring with one of my books—I guess it must have been Lipshitz—when all that James Frey stuff was happening. Everyone was so heartbroken and so betrayed. I remember, on tour, talking a lot about that. Because there’s a T Cooper character in Lipshitz, people always want to know, “Is this you? Did your parents really immigrate this way? Was your grandmother really obsessed with Lindbergh?” After a while, I would answer those questions with something like, “Hey, you know what actually happened, was that my grandmother’s brother was lost on Ellis Island never to be heard from again, and that’s the only thing I know that happened for sure, and the entire book unspooled from that one supposed fact.” And I don’t even know if that for sure happened now, because after the book came out, I had lunch with a newly-discovered relative who heard that same story and told me, “Oh no, we heard he just wandered off after a guy with bananas, and was gone for a day.”
For me, the question when I told that story was: why does it matter? Does it make this a better book if you know one hundred percent that it’s true? Why is your experience enriched? I have no clue, and I still don’t have an answer. I don’t approach literature that way. I’ve always said, and still believe, that some of the most complex truths are found in fiction. That’s why I pray and hope that fiction will never die. Because there’s stuff you get there that you’ll never get in real life. Even perfectly reconstructing a life into the perfect memoir is still going to be a fiction, because it’s a story.
Rumpus: I laughed for like twenty minutes over the letter in Real Man you wrote to [celebrity gossip editor] Bonnie Fuller from Shiloh Jolie-Pitt Julie. I love that all your books have this splattering of pop culture—Eminem, Leonardo Dicaprio—and yet, it always takes me by surprise a little bit, because without it I wouldn’t necessarily pin your work to a particular time and place. How do you see your interaction with the pop culture world as writer?
Cooper: I think it’s kind of my job to know what’s going on in the world. I am not ashamed to say I love Sister Wives, and Real Housewives—not the ones in Miami and DC, or really Jersey—but most of them. I’m not snooty about the fact that I like sitting down with a People Magazine and reading it cover-to-cover. It feels like my job, in a way. I don’t mean that I do it so I can put it in my work, but it would never occur to me to not have that kind of reference point. Where we are, no matter how depressing or upsetting, is where we are.
Rumpus: In the beginning of the book, you discuss writing about your thing so it doesn’t become a thing. Did it accomplish what you wanted it to accomplish?
Cooper: Unknown at this point, except that I feel like I did everything I could creatively with it. As with each project, I just want to feel like I’ve grown and learned something. I feel like I did with this, but I have no clue if it will be, “Okay, I’m done, I’m good, move onto the next project.”
Rumpus: What is the next project?
Cooper: I’m working on a YA series—actually my wife and I are collaborating on a four-book series with Akashik [Books], and also some film and TV. I’m still doing a lot of short fiction; I try to write a short story every six months or so. So, all that’s still happening, but I haven’t jumped into a new typical literary novel. I don’t even know what typical is for me.
Rumpus: All of your books have been very distinctive. I actually really love The Beaufort Diaries; it’s just the sweetest book.
Cooper: Thank you. I loved it, too. And working on the film really opened up a whole world.
Rumpus: In the chapter about fear, you mention one of your own fears is worrying you’ll be known solely for the thing you don’t want to be known for. What would you want to be known for: just as a writer? As a good husband and father?
Cooper: I guess I would have been known for it whether I wrote this book or not, whether I talked about this stuff or not. You don’t get to choose what you’re known for. I just don’t want that first thought to be, “He was the this writer, or the Jewish one, or the gay one, or the trans one, or the Asian one.” But I might not have that luxury. I feel like writing is my job, and it’s just something I want to get better at every time. That’s why I want to keep looking at film and at TV, because it’s a new realm. So creatively and professionally, I want to be known as a good writer who got better with everything.
But as a human—which is totally separate, obviously, since writers aren’t human—I want to be known as a good husband, a good father, and someone who is kind to friends and pitbulls. I just want to feel like there’s kindness and try to remember that and put that first. Even though that sounds really hippie and ridiculous, I think it gets lost a lot. Not that you can’t be a dick; I’m a dick all the time. And not that you can’t be angry; I’m angry all the time
Rumpus: Are you? I didn’t think the book seemed that angry. There are places where it seems appropriately angry, I guess.
Cooper: Yeah. There’s a lot to be angry about…but there are so many people who are like, “Wow this book is so angry.” “Oh there’s so much misogyny in this book.” Okay: is there? Because, you know, a lot of it is story: it’s performance; it’s character. I think at the heart of it, I want to try to be a good man for my family and that’s going to be remembered and go farther than anything.
The Rumpus is releasing half the songs from T Cooper’s musical album, a collection of (mostly) original songs by (entirely) original artists—all inspired by specific chapters in his new book, REAL MAN ADVENTURES. You can listen to these tracks here.