Carolyn Cooke, who won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham prize for fiction for her previous story collection, The Bostons, talks to PW about her new collection, Amor and Psycho.
Your two previous books were set in New England, whereas many of the stories in this collection are set in Northern California.
This is the first book that dared to travel further afield. But I’ve lived in San Francisco and Northern California for twenty years, so it’s about time. I was only really able to write about New England after I moved to California, and having lived in California for a long time I finally felt like I was full of the foliage and the sensibility and the people and the climate and the whole location. The coast of Northern California is a place where people go to hide away and live a wilder, more primal life; I was interested in writing about characters who felt kind of an imperative not to fit into the world they were given.
One of the coastal California stories is the title story, “Amor and Psycho,” a three-parter set in a “foggy little town” where “poetry is a blood sport.”
I had in mind kind of a tragedy that had a lot of moral resonance, so I came on the idea of writing a triptych that centered on three characters surrounding one event—the death of a young person by suicide and how that affects the whole eco-system. There are stories where you’re trying to create a structure that can hold something that’s too complicated to say.
In the story, Psycho is a slam poet who “adjusts facts for realistic effect,” but is nonetheless a truth teller. Does that relate to your sense of what writers do?
Yes. That’s what it feels like to read fiction and be influenced by it. In some sense, everything I know as true comes from literature—I have a great sense of what feels true. She’s able to do that for a whole town; people trust her with the moral truth of the community. I think that’s why people read, because they want to understand things they can’t articulate for themselves. I think that story is very much about authorship.
In a prior interview you said that ordinary life isn’t your subject—what is?
I don’t think ordinary life is for me the most interesting subject, because I don’t think life is ever really ordinary. I feel like there’s something false in fiction that presents life as if it were ordinary and explicable by where we shop and the kinds of houses we live in. For me, it’s more mysterious, and when I read, I believe the strangeness more than the ordinariness.
In fact, in one story, you’ve literally invented an entire culture, the Mezima-Wa.
That story is the freest, most invented story I ever wrote.
Is the order of the stories in the collection important?
The order was really important, but I don’t know exactly why. I think that there’s a sense of exploring other worlds, beginning with Manhattan and the last porn king before the Internet age, and ending with the Mezima-Wa, which is a parody of how we exoticize others. And in between it’s a pretty serious exploration of the strangeness of peoples’ lives and the psyche and what moves us. I think that’s what holds the stories together.