Every Word the Right Word
|Edited by Adam Sukhia|
The author of three award winning books of short stories, the Canadian fiction writer Hugh Cook took some time from teaching at Redeemer College to speak at Houghton College’s writer’s festival in April 2005. Cook read a selection from his book of short stories Home In Alfalfa and is currently working on a novel. In an interview with Professor and author John Leax, Cook talks about writer’s block, subject matter, and the struggles and joys of writing out of a Christian community.
Leax- Faulkner once quipped that all novelists are failed poets. I have always been fond of that, because I started out to be a novelist and failed into poetry. Faulkner lets me say I failed into the better thing. I bring this up because I know you started as a poet and made a transition to being a fiction writer. Can you talk about that transition and what was involved?
Cook- As a youth, for me poetry was a way in which I could express certain feelings when guys were not supposed to have feelings. When I was 27 years old and had been writing poetry since I’d graduated from college I hit a writer’s block that lasted five years. That was a very frustrating time for me.
I think I had the writer’s block because I had not found my true medium or subject matter yet. I happened to begin reading Flannery O’ Connor at the time, and the way that she dealt with her community in the south as a Christian writer proved to be an example for me, and I began to think fiction rather than poetry. I realized I could write about my own Dutch-Canadian immigrant community.
At the same time, if I look back on my writing of poetry, I see it was a very strategic thing for me. First of all it taught me verbal economy. By writing poetry I really learned there had to be a reason for every word and every word had to be the right word.
I also began to value the importance of the concrete image. That is why I have always admired a writer like Alice Munro. When she places you in a room, you know what pictures are on the wall, and what is stitched on the cushion on the couch, and what the linoleum and carpet look like. Not piling needless detail on needless detail, but every detail there for a purpose.
I’ve always believed in the old mantra of creative writing classes: tell me and I forget, show me and I remember. To that I would add, involve me and I understand. And I think you involve the reader by communicating through concrete imagery. So that was very important for me; an apprenticeship as a poet was very strategic. Then I began writing fiction and applying these very basic literary principles to my writing of stories.
Leax- Yesterday, describing your writing process, you said that working all morning on a paragraph is not unusual for you. You have to get each sentence right. Is that partly connected with having been a poet first?
Cook- It’s partly personality and it’s partly your upbringing. Maybe my personality is not essentially lyrical but narrative. I just want to progress very deliberately.
Leax- So you would not be at all responsive to William Stafford’s suggestions that when you run into difficulty, you simply lower your standards, forgive yourself in advance, and just to keep things flowing.
Cook- It would be hard for me to do that. I would probably try to muddle my way through that writer’s block. One thing that does work for me is to do a lot of reading. I discover as I am reading other people’s books, memories or ideas will come up that are totally unrelated to what I’m reading. I always write those ideas down.
I also keep a notebook by my bed with a light. The times of falling asleep and waking up are times when your subconscious is very active. Writing down what comes to you then is one thing that can help break writer’s block.
Leax- I think that those moments before sleep or waking up are also the moments when your censors are turned off. You don’t think those ideas are necessarily bad ideas. Everything looks good. I think that is what Stafford is talking about. Don’t be afraid of an idea. Judge it later.
Cook- I have a lot of stories now, especially in Home in Alfalfa that I had no idea when I started the story where it was going to take me. You just trust the process and trust the writer in you to take over with whatever you’re working with and just start writing. Sometimes you discard the material and it will be a dead end. But other times you’ll discover that where you thought the story was going to go is nowhere near where the story itself wanted to go.
Leax- In an essay that refers to the writing of “Good Country People,” Flannery O’ Connor claims that she did not know that the young man was going to steal the woman’s wooden leg until just before he did it. I find that hard to believe.
Cook- Me too, but I can see how that happens. God’s creation is too multiple and rich to be accounted for ahead of time by the human imagination. The human imagination is probably one of God’s deepest gifts to us, yet our imaginations are incapable of accounting ahead of time for all the possibilities inherent in any given situation. Often you do not know what the right action will be for that moment in the story. So, theoretically I agree with O’ Connor, but whether she was right about the wooden leg I don’t know.
Leax- You often write about the middle class and trades people. How do you stay in touch with those characters when you’re spending a great deal of time as a professor in the academy?
Cook- I do a lot of research and visit the places where I set my fiction. I had some characters in mind for the novel I’m writing now, and decided to visit small towns. The first town, south of Hamilton, was very picturesque with a river running through it, a nice stone bridge and a flower mill. Sitting there on a beautiful May morning, I suddenly realized that this is where my characters wanted to live. This is where my novel will take place. I spent a lot of time in that town going to the barbershop and talking to people who live there. That is how I stay away from writing the cerebral story.
Another experience came when I was writing a story about pig farmers and having a hard time with it. The story just wasn’t coming even though I knew what had to happen. Then I realized I was breaking the cardinal rule of knowing what you’re writing about. I didn’t know the first thing about pigs.
I called someone in my church congregation who is a pig farmer and asked if I could come and spend a day at his farm just looking at pigs. Before I left for the farm, I wrote down all the questions I wanted to ask him. He told me what it was like to be a pig farmer in detail, and I observed and made a lot of notes. After that I had the concrete detail necessary to finish the story. That is how I avoid writing academic fiction that becomes too consciously literary. I just keep grounding it in reality and pigs.
Leax- I want to pursue this aspect of research for the fiction writer. How do you approach strangers? You said you actually go sit in barbershops without getting your hair cut. Do you just start talking? Or do you tell them you are a writer?
Cook- I generally don’t tell people I’m a writer because that makes them too self- conscious and feel that they have to live up to something. They need to be as much themselves as possible. But in approaching people, you just need to be extroverted and outgoing. My experience is that when you ask people about something they do, they’re quite flattered. I’ve gone to a butcher shop, barbershops, and a greenhouse and just asked people if they mind that I come and observe for a while. You really just need to get out there.
Leax- Can you talk a little bit about what it has meant to teach for as long as you have at a Christian college?
Cook- It has meant the world to me. I think I would have felt more lonely and isolated spiritually at a secular college. Being part of a community of faith and teaching in such an environment has totally nourished my faith journey. It has made all the difference for me to have taught 35 years in a Christian college setting. To talk about books with students who share a basic faith commitment with me is very special and I thank God for being in a Christian environment.
Leax- You said you would have felt more spiritually isolated if you had not been in a Christian college. Have you felt that in relation to being a writer?
Cook- I think any Christian college is a little bit like a greenhouse. On the back of the sign welcoming guests to campus our students at Redeemer once painted an arrow pointing straight ahead and the words “The big bad world” so that it was visible to people who were leaving campus. But at an evangelical campus you tend not to have very divergent worldviews or people who are virulently anti-faith like at a major university. I’m a firm believer of Christian education at all levels. We sent our children to Christian schools and some times I run into parents who tell me I am an isolationist for making that decision. I think you are an isolationist either way. Either you isolate yourself from the world or you isolate yourself from God’s truth. A system of Christian education allows you to keep in touch with God’s truth. So you’re going to be isolated one way or the other. It is just a matter of what you want to be isolated from and I’d rather not be isolated from God’s truth.
Leax- Several years ago, on a panel at Calvin College, you made the pronouncement that if you walked into a Christian bookstore and found your book there you would be embarrassed. You did not want to be associated with the other books. At that time my novel had just been published by a Christian publisher and was being pulled from the shelves because one of my characters cursed. But it seems there is something more involved here because there is a sense when I walk into a Borders now there is a lot I don’t want to be associated with. That is part of what you’re talking about I think. There is isolation either way.
I resonate with that, about the embarrassment in the Christian bookstore and Christian literature. There is a certain kind of badness that we experience, but also a certain kind of richness within the Christian community that as a writer I have been trying to get in touch with. How does one maintain a membership within the two communities? That Christian community and the literary one that you also value. So how does one work in these two communities?
Cook- I consciously chose not to send my stories to Christian magazines but to literary journals and was fortunate enough to have them accepted. I didn’t want to have to choose between the literary community and my Christian community. I assumed if I wrote first to the literary community and was published there and took the strategy of obtaining a secular publisher, my writing would filter down to my Christian community anyway. That is what happened and in a sense that strategy has been vindicated.
In regard to the bookstore, that was no doubt a bit of hyperbole. But it’s true that when I walk into a Christian bookstore I basically realize looking at those books and the cover designs that those books all present an idealized reality. They’re not dealing with life as it is. I don’t believe in idealized characters. I don’t think that the purpose of fiction is to make people feel good. One of the functions of literature, rather than to affirm our already too easily held opinions, is instead to challenge them. I see most of the novels in Christian bookstores providing a sort of comfort and idealized reality and I just disagree with that.
I think early in your life as a writer you decide whether you’re going to write books like that or be honest. I feel as a Christian I can only try to be as honest as possible. That’s part of the difficulty I have with Christian romances. I just don’t find them honest and that troubles me.
There is also the fact that Christian writers whom I admire are not in the Christian bookstores. You will not find Christian literary writers like Flannery O’ Connor, Graham Greene, Kathleen Norris, or Anne Lamott in Christian bookstores. And I’d rather be with those people.
Leax- You seem to be very conscious at a certain point in your career where you want to go. What happened to me working out of Houghton was that I got waylaid by the Christian community. At the age of 25 if someone told me I would spend 37 years at Houghton College and be published by Christian publishers I would have just laughed. It was not my dream and my early publishing was all in literary journals.
But out of the consequence of working within the community, I started to be asked by Christian publishers for work. Suddenly I was a Christian writer. I never felt very Christian in my writing and so what has happened for me is extraordinary. I have managed within my Christian community to write literary work.
When I was in my 50’s I had to deliberately go back to the journals to prove to myself that this work was real. That leads me to my last question. What could you say at this point in your career about the stewardship of your gifts?
Cook- I think every writer has to work that out in the sanctity of his or her writing room. What works for one writer doesn’t necessarily work for another. I believe too that there are different types of Christian publishers. When a publisher says my characters have to be a certain way and that there may not be certain type of language, immediately I know that publisher is not for me.
You really have to ascertain what God’s will for your life as a writer is. What it meant for Flannery O’ Connor it did not mean for Frederick Buechner or for Kathleen Norris or for Jack Leax. We’re all individual and look at the world in our own way, we all have our own subject matter that we write about. I think in your heart you have to try to search what God’s will for you as a writer is in terms of what you write about, where you publish and who your audience is. What I have tried to achieve in my life is not necessarily what someone else should aim for. I think here too we have freedom in Christ. That freedom is there for a purpose and we have to work that out with fear and trembling.
Leax- Fear and trembling and struggle. And it’s never easy. Thank you.