Paige Cooper is one of the boldest and most original fiction writers I’ve encountered in years. I cannot think of another writer to compare her to—only to know that in reading her for the first time I had the same thrill, and the same sensation of being changed, as when I first read some of my favorite (and very different) writers as Angela Carter, J.G. Ballard, Vladimir Nabokov, and Deborah Levy, to name just a few.
Cooper’s debut collection Zolitude displays range, depth, and a rare ability to condense so much feeling and intellectual rigor into so few words that I’m still studying how she did it. She’s also versatile, in the sense of being both a “cold” and “hot” writer—some stories are distant and removed, others tight-in and full of exposed, raw emotion. The range is remarkable. Stories like the titular “Zolitude” contain beautifully rendered character observations in an almost classically formal sense, while the astonishing “Record of Working” abandons all the comforts of traditional form in a masterful and unique detailing of the aftermath of an attempt to build a nuclear plant. Almost every paragraph of Zolitude surprises or challenges the reader in interesting and wonderful ways.
Cooper’s collection was rightly long-listed for Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize. Her work has appeared in Fiddlehead, The New Quarterly, and Gulf Coast Online and been anthologized in The Journey Prize Stories and Best Canadian Stories. She lives in Montreal.
We spoke recently about the politics of the sentence, the reason behind when she isn’t writing, and the difficulty of writing a novel.
The Rumpus: I’ve never encountered a fiction writer with quite your particular style. I love this about the fiction—the prose itself has such clarity and yet also challenges. It feels dangerous in a non-word way. How do you think about stories? Has your approach changed over the years?
Paige Cooper: I feel like my focus has progressively microscoped down to the sentence, over the past couple of years. Maybe that’s just a function of late-stage editing versus early drafts, but since so many of the writers I know and admire are poets, I’ve probably been thinking about language a lot more, regardless. Everything the story is doing, the sentence is also doing, or is capable of doing. And I’m interested in de-familiarization—how far you can push until the reader stops opening up and just shuts down—and a tool for that could be as big as a plot point involving dinosaurs, but it might also just be a few non-sequiturs in a row, or a bizarre choice of adverb.
The sentence is also political: I mistrust invisible language, it’s naïve to act like any story’s effects are being transmitted into our bodies without interference or intention. That goes for the news and the latest Avengers movie as much as a chapbook of prose poetry from a micro-press. Our job as writers is to interfere, is to implant something that wasn’t there before. And that sounds like colonization, like power, to me. So even as I lull with escapist plots and settings, I also want to signal to the reader that I am using language to do something to them. The difficulty of the language is a way to remind the reader that they don’t have to consent to reading the story. They can stop.
All that said, cutting sentences down and twisting them up satisfies some math-y part of my brain. I love that part.
Rumpus: In a similar vein, how do you know what to leave out? These stories tend to contain multitudes, I think, by what is not on the page as well as what is.
Cooper: I have a hard time explaining things that I “know.” It feels condescending and false and vaguely manipulative and it bogs momentum. I’m more interested in what I don’t know. On a practical level I always pass drafts by writer friends who will tell me what questions they have, so that I can find a way to inconspicuously answer those questions as early as possible to avoid distracting the reader. Because I do agree that some light handholding is necessary, even as I distrust my own power over which details to put in and which to leave out.
But what I’m writing now works differently than these stories, in terms of information. I’ve never had to deal so directly with what the writer knows versus what the characters know versus what the reader knows.
Information’s slipperiness makes a piece of writing scale weird. You have to write something that’s smarter than you, but its intelligence doesn’t rely on what you can comprehend. Reading your Southern Reach trilogy is a relief to me on this front, because so much of it is cataloguing unknowability: ecological, bureaucratic, interpersonal, scientific, emotional. It makes so much sense that a spy and a biologist would have everything in common.
Rumpus: Do you think about what the reader will fill in when you write a story? It feels like you trust your readers a lot.
Cooper: The leaps that fill in the gaps between ideas are the best thing about reading. It’s epiphanic and creative. I mean, I see why it annoys some people, because it’s work. There are easier things to do with your brain than co-construct an imaginary world that only lasts for thirty minutes. If someone’s going to do that with me, I want to make it worth their while and leave them a lot of space to roll around in. I feel like it’s part of my job to trust people to pick up what’s relevant to them, and leave the rest.
Rumpus: What’s your process like?
Cooper: A story starts when I get excited about something and it helps me articulate a question. Hopefully the question is vital, but it’s not always; sometimes it’s banal, which means I have to dig deeper. And hopefully the exciting thing is not hackneyed or otherwise difficult to work with.
So then I’m wandering around thinking about this question for a while, and everything gets sucked in, seems related to it somehow. I’ll gather two, maybe three disparate things: an anecdote, another text, a landscape, a job. When I have enough, and I’m holding them all taut, they’ll rub against each other and produce weird energy.
Then I’ll write a first draft fast, in like a week or two at most. It’s not charted or planned, but there’s urgency that propels the writing forward. If I let it sag then I often lose the thread and don’t go back until I have something entirely new to add, at which point it becomes a different story anyway. But once I have a draft I’ll put it aside for a few months, and rewrite it. Send it to a friend, get feedback after a few months, rewrite. I’ll do eight or ten major rewrites before it starts to calcify and different elements stop being malleable because they’ve found their correct place.
I have no idea how to write a novel, though.
Rumpus: Can you share how you decided what stories would be in the collection?
Cooper: I used all the good ones. Is that a bad answer? My editor was fine with everything I sent him, but it took me a while to send him enough for a book. Self-censorship is my default state. There are dozens of stories that I abandoned half a draft in or six drafts in, over the years, and I kind of hate thinking about them. Like, they look and sound like stories but they are repulsively lacking something. It may just be my interest. If I’m still interested in a story after spending hundreds of hours with it, then, ok, fine, it’s outsmarted me, it can go out into the world.
Rumpus: When you don’t write, why don’t you write?
Cooper: Wow, so this is the question of my life. Whether I haven’t written in a week or a year, it’s always the worst. Fear of being seen is a big part of it. Maybe, for all of my theorizing above, that’s why my language and/or worlds can be so obscure. No matter how much inventing I do to get the subject matter away from me, my emotions and unconscious and obsessions are still on display. And I know that if I tried to flatter myself or cover my ass it would be so embarrassingly obvious. At the same time, there must be some toddler inside of me yearning for attention and communion and empathy, otherwise I wouldn’t have ever started writing. Not writing is a magnetized state, but I’m not sure if I’m being pushed or pulled.
Rumpus: “Record of Working” is one of my favorite stories of all time. What was the spark for it? Did you always know the ending was going to place the emphasis in an unexpected place?
Cooper: I always worried about that story: the structure, especially. That story was the product of several failed stories that never came together until I started reading about Jack Parsons and the intersection between the Jet Propulsion Lab and Aleister Crowley’s occultism in the 1940s. Around the same time a story in the New Yorker about the ITER tokamak blew my mind with its complexity of ambition, language, and thought. Mostly I wanted to write about the foolishness of the male scientific-rational/feminine occult binary, and the misogyny that festers there. I knew it had to start and end with the ego of the male genius/fraud, so I had to follow him wherever he went: i.e., running away from the consequences of his actions, but still inexorably himself.
Rumpus: Several of these stories verge on the horrific, or at least a kind of wonderful wrong-footing that descends into a deep unease. I’m curious in that context about how you view the world. Dangerous? Darkly magical?
Cooper: The answer is always both. I’m constantly in awe of how much I’ll never understand. So I write from and towards that place. And yeah, it’s entirely dangerous to proceed in ignorance, but at the same time there’s no choice but to move forward. I’m like, aiming for ethics in my fatalism, I guess. The delight of living and creating is that we have so little comprehension or control that what comes up can seem like magic.
Rumpus: “He deletes truth like weather deletes history, imperfectly.” “I thought the key prerequisite would be our psychological capacity to drink each other’s filtered urine.” Just a couple examples of wonderful sentences in the collection. They also suggest to me an underlying sense of humor?
Cooper: Ha, you found my secret jokes! I was one of those kids who was always accused of having no sense of humor. (If you want to wound me deeply, you can call me “serious” or “negative.”) I probably still fall on the ironic rather than the lighthearted side of the humor spectrum—my inept foray into my local comedy scene is a testament to my limited capacity for goofiness, for instance. I leave that to the professionals. That said, humor is only funny if it’s true, and if my job is just to write one true sentence after another, then some of them are inevitably going to be ridiculous. I hope.
Rumpus: Many of these stories are speculative and also intimate in terms of being inside a character’s head. Do you see pieces of the autobiographical here? How do they manifest or live with the speculative elements?
Cooper: This is a tough question, because I try to disguise the autobiographical because it embarrasses me. It’s a different cloth. That said, who has the horsepower to invent everything? I’m definitely more likely to read autofiction than a fantasy epic, because there’s something compelling for me as a reader about sorting out what’s true and what’s made up. Sometimes details present themselves for use. If they make the rest a little more thrilling—even just to me—then I use them.
Rumpus: Do you feel there are themes or situations you keep coming back to? For me, if so, they’re definitely disguised. The collection is coherent and focused by your voice and style, which at least on the surface allows you to roam widely.
Cooper: Oh, that’s a relief to hear! I feel like there’s definitely repetition on certain points—or, hopefully, insistence on them. I mean many of the characters are concerned with trust, lying, paranoia. And a writer friend recently pointed out that almost all of the stories are built around triads of people, which was a surprise to me—even though I knew I’d been turning to platonic love as an alternative god.
Rumpus: You’re working on a novel. Do you like to talk about it or do you hate to talk about it?
Cooper: It’s difficult! I don’t know what I’m writing, exactly. I hope it’s a novel. I only think it’s a novel because it keeps tendrilling out; it’s hard to hold the shape of it. Anyway, I was told last night by a source I definitely trust that if you can write a short story collection, then you can write a novel. It’s voice and style that pulls you through the three hundred pages. That gives me hope.
Photograph of Paige Cooper © Adam Michiels.