Bill Cotter’s darkly comic stories are powered by his delightfully strange and sometimes disturbing imagination, his empathetic character, and his graceful way with words.
Cotter is the author of Fever Chart, and has published stories in McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, and the 2014 Pushcart Prize anthology. His second novel, The Parallel Apartments, concerns Justine Moppet, a young woman born into a five-generation matriarchy who is struggling to become independent and find out who she is. Justine’s story is gritty, funny, and dark. The novel shines because Cotter writes his characters with such sympathy and style.
Cotter himself is charming, unreserved, and easy-going. We talked about his new novel, the joy of discovering writing a bit later in life, and the dangers of accidental self-plagiarism. He got the jump on me early by asking what I thought of his new novel…
The Rumpus: I’ve been enjoying it! I’ve been feeling propelled from once sentence to the next because something new and wonderfully strange is always happening in them.
Bill Cotter: That that was my hope, to be honest, just to keep people interested from sentence to sentence. I never had a real grip on the plot. It was more the sentences and the words I was interested in. I know that’s not right for a fiction writer, but that’s how I felt about it. I mean, this book is not for everyone.
Rumpus: How so?
Cotter: There’s a lot of sex in it, and people have been focusing on that. There are a couple of reviews out, that have focused on the sex, and how much there is. But there’s really not that much of it, in my view. Right now on the New York Times bestseller list, there are three books of erotica. So I don’t know, really, comparatively, how bad it is.
Rumpus: People don’t seem to like the sex?
Cotter: Yeah, maybe. And then there’s a variety of it. And a lot of questions about sexual identity, gender identity, and sexuality. Maybe that’s what put off some of the reviewers.
Here’s another reason I don’t think it’s for everybody: my mother said she would not share it with any of her friends.
Rumpus: Did she say why?
Cotter: She was just embarrassed by the sex in it, I believe.
Rumpus: Was there a point in the writing process when you realized people might not like it?
Cotter: I’m not sure there was. I had planned from the beginning for my tone to be black comic, and to be funny, hopefully. But something happens at the end of the book that’s violent and disturbing, and runs counter to black comic. I knew that was going to happen, from pretty early on, but I was not sure how it was going to be received, and I’m still not sure.
Rumpus: What made you keep going with it?
Cotter: I don’t know if I can put that into words. It’s supposed to be the journey of a woman who is indecisive, and that runs counter to, I guess, what fiction is supposed to be. You’re supposed to have a protagonist who acts, who does things. But I wanted to have a character to whom things happened. And then, towards the end, something disturbing and violent happens to her, and… How to describe this? Just that she is changed.
To be honest, there are a lot of things I don’t understand about this book, that just happened along the way. I said there is a central character, but there’s really a central family, a five-generation matriarchy. There is a mutual estrangement between three of the five members of this matriarchy, and the basic story is how that estrangement came to be and how is it going to be resolved, if at all.
But I do know, when I started, I wanted to see if I could write this passive character.
Rumpus: Did something draw you to the idea of writing about a passive character?
Cotter: I just don’t know where it came from. The character herself just came to me fairly quickly, and I thought, Okay, this is the character I want to write about. And then I developed a world around her.
Rumpus: Do you have any favorite characters from that world?
Cotter: There’s a character who believes that his destiny in life is to be a serial killer. But he fails to kill anyone. He tries, and tries, and tries, but cannot do it. I really like that character. It was a lot of fun to write him.
There’s another character who is in tremendous credit card debt. She’s the only character based on a real person. I sort of based her on myself. I was trying to build a business once, based entirely on credit cards, and it went okay for several years, but ultimately collapsed in a really big way and ended in bankruptcy. This character keeps trying different entrepreneurial things, and failing, and I’m a little bit like that. I wrote that part for my dad, who is an accountant, and helped me through the bankruptcy.
Rumpus: What was going through your mind as you wrote that part?
Cotter: I just wanted to entertain him. The character has $400,000 in credit card debt, and suddenly inherits just enough money to pay it off. But instead, she spends $400,000 on a male sex robot and opens a brothel. And this male sex robot, named Rance, becomes the star of the brothel. People pay for encounters with Rance, and she actually starts to make money. It’s such an absurd idea that I thought it would entertain my dad. And it did. He liked that part.
Rumpus: This may be the first Rumpus author interview to mention male sex robots.
Cotter: Why, thank you! He’s advanced, Rance. He’s absolutely the top-of-the-line sex robot. Of course, it’s an absurd idea. There’s absolutely nothing in the world like that, that I know of.
Rumpus: Not yet.
Cotter: There will be, I’m sure.
Rumpus: I think those are both wonderful, darkly comic ideas.
Cotter: That’s my goal! That’s my goal.
Rumpus: I think you’ve said elsewhere that you started writing a bit later in life, in your mid-thirties.
Cotter: Yes, that’s right.
Rumpus: What got you going?
Cotter: I was reading Grimm’s fairy tales. And they are so strange. The characters are absolutely bizarre, they do the weirdest, most unpredictable things, and the endings make no sense whatsoever. And they’re filled with blood. They’re just so bloody, these stories.
I was fascinated by them, and I thought it might be fun to send one up. So I wrote a story called “The Cork Maker’s Tale.” It was about a cork maker who has a terrible neck goiter that can tell the future, and it’s very large, so he has to carry it around in a wheelbarrow. So I gave this story as a Valentine’s Day present to my girlfriend, and she loved it, and encouraged me to write more. So I did. And came up with a bunch of these fairy tales. I’ve still got them and hope to publish them some day.
Rumpus: Did you know right away that you loved writing?
Cotter: I did! That came pretty quickly. I thought, Oh my god, what have I been missing? I’ve wasted twenty years of my life by not doing this. And I wanted, of course, to have success, and to publish and everything, but it was also something that seemed to have a purpose of some kind. I really did want to do this more than I had wanted to do anything else.
And that just happened to come along in my thirties, rather than in my teens, as it does with most writers. But I guess there have been writers who started late. José Saramago didn’t start writing until his fifties, I think? Is that right?
Rumpus: I don’t know, exactly, but yes, I think he started late. 
Cotter: Yeah, and that gives me confidence, that there are writers who started later in life, and had some success.
Rumpus: Can I ask what you are working on now?
Cotter: I’m working on two things. One is a collection of short stories, and the other is the beginning of a new novel. But I’ve had a setback with that. The story is set in a small Texas town in the 1970s, and there’s a man in the town—a huge, a Nero-like character, who has his hands in every single bit of business in the town. He’s a terror, and a terrible force in this town, and people hate him, but they can do very little about it. The story tells how the townspeople get together, conspire to kill him, and do so, and how the town is changed, before and after.
But here’s the thing: I told someone this, and they said, “Oh, that sounds just like . . .” and then they told me about an event very much like this, in a small town, that happened in the 1980s. So, basically, I mirrored something that had already happened.
Cotter: And it wasn’t like this was obscure. They made a couple of TV movies out of this story. And it really was the same story, right down to the details. The townspeople murdered this guy, and no one came forward. No one was ever prosecuted for it because the town kept it quiet. And that was what I was going to write in my novel.
So I’m really kind of stuck, and I’m trying to figure out what the hell I can do with this. I don’t know whether to continue on or try something new. I’m in a bit of a quandary about it right now, novel-wise anyway.
Rumpus: Do you think you might have heard about that incident, forgotten it, and then unconsciously repeated it?
Cotter: Yes, that’s my guess. And it kind of terrifies me. How much have I read, how much have I seen, that I’ve buried subconsciously, and that is now bubbling up as my own ideas? That’s really terrifying.
You know, I actually read about one of the famous mystery or western writers from the ‘40s or ‘50s—I don’t remember who it was, like a Zane Grey-type—who had two full-time assistants reading his work, just to make sure he hadn’t accidentally plagiarized himself. Because he would forget what he had written, and would write things over and over again.
So, yeah, isn’t that crazy? I don’t know what I’m going to do.
Rumpus: Maybe you’ll think of a way to salvage it?
Cotter: My current thinking is, if I don’t abandon it completely, maybe I’ll change the gender of the main character. Make the Nero character a woman.
Rumpus: Problem solved!
Cotter: Yes, problem solved! I don’t really know how that’s going to change things, but maybe it will. I think it would be an interesting twist on the story. But I don’t know. It’s archetypal, that story, so maybe it can be told again.
Rumpus: It’s a lot like a myth, right? A larger-than-life character controlling a town, the town rising up…
Cotter: Maybe all is not lost.
Rumpus: I have no idea, of course, but I want to say, “Go forward!”
Cotter: I know, I know!
Rumpus: Bill, best of luck to you, and thank you very much.
Cotter: Thank you, Sean.
 According to Miguel Gonçalves Mendes, the director of José and Pilar, Saramago started writing novels when he turned sixty.