If you haven’t heard of Douglas Cowie, that might be because you don’t live in Germany. Or France. Or England. All are places where Doug’s debut novel “Owen Noone and the Marauder” blossomed with success, even spawning a rock band. But that’s really no excuse (and I don’t say that just because Doug and I were colleagues of sorts while I was studying creative writing at UEA in Norwich) for not checking out this American expatriate’s fiction, or at least after reading my interview below, the books he reads—if only to be inspired to care about something beyond oneself.
What are you reading, Douglas Cowie?
Author of “Owen Noone and the Marauder”; Creative Writing Lecturer, Royal Holloway, University of London
Q&A with Christine Thomas
Q. What are you reading these days, Doug?
A. Because I teach, and because it’s term-time, mostly what I’ve been reading these days is fiction written by my students. But I have managed to sneak in some shorter novels and stories in the past couple weeks: Fabian by Erich Kästner, Life And Times Of Michael K. by J.M. Coetzee, and today I read Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville. I’ve also been making my way through an essay collection by Luc Sante called Kill All Your Darlings. The title is kind of off-putting (it’s from a quotation attributed to William Faulkner), but the essays are terrific.
Q. Were these just waiting on your shelves for the right time to dive in?
A: Kind of, I suppose. The Coetzee I had intended to read during Christmas holidays, but I got sidetracked by a couple other novels. The Kästner novel I read during a recent trip to Berlin (I usually read German books when I visit Berlin, which I do frequently, because I used to live there). The Melville collection is one I pick up now and again when I have a stretch of a few hours free to read carefully, and Luc Sante lives in my bag, and I’ve read most of it on trains or in my local pizzeria. I do have a somewhat large pile of “books to be read for no particular purpose” (as opposed to those I’m reading for research, teaching or whatever) on my bookshelf. It seems to grow constantly.
Q. What about Sante’s essays makes you keep them handy?
A. For one thing (for one superficial thing) it’s nice to read essays on the train because I can read one or two in the short-ish journey (during the autumn term I was rereading David Foster Wallace’s essays, mostly on the train). But what I actually like about Luc Sante is that he writes very intelligently and very clearly, without using jargon or cliché, and he writes with great knowledge about a variety of subjects: literature, visual arts, music, cities, and so on. He’s one of a very small number of writers who in writing essays, whether they’re reviews or personal narratives or whatever, writes works of literature, or in other words, works of art. Essay writing is a really difficult skill to develop, and its also a talent that few people have, and I’m always a little in awe and a little envious when I read something like “The Injection Mold,” a short essay about working in a factory that does everything that literature should do, which is to say, make me care about things beyond myself and my experiences. It’s the last day of term today, so I’m getting a bit high-faltuin’ about literature, I guess.
Q. How do you teach your writing students to make readers care about things beyond themselves? Did Sante give you any pearls to impart?
A. Actually, I don’t. I tend to steer students away from worrying about what readers will and won’t care about, since it’s impossible to control readers’ various responses, thoughts, prejudices, etc., anyway. Of course, this isn’t to say that one doesn’t think about readers or audience when writing, but I think that worrying or focusing on “a reader” or “readers” is more or less pointless–because readers will do whatever they want to with your fiction anyway, once they (if they) get their hands on it. Actually, far more important, in writing, and therefore in teaching writing, is for the writer to care about things beyond herself.
So I think the real challenge is to teach writing students to think of their own interests and stories from positions outside of their own. There are a number of ways, probably, in which a teacher can direct students towards caring about things beyond themselves (making them read a variety of different types of fiction; recommending novels or stories or poems or plays that approach similar themes, problems or styles in interesting and/or different ways to what the student is doing; pointing out in workshops places where writing is self-indulgently distracting; having them read and comment their peers’ work…I’m sure the list goes on). But ultimately the student/writer has to want to care about things beyond herself, and the only thing a teacher can do in that respect is to point it out. If the writer cares about things beyond herself, and writes her fiction—which might be really personal, might be really autobiographical, might be something that she cares about deeply and inwardly—with an eye on those myriad things beyond herself, then a reader is more likely to care about things beyond himself, too.
My students–particularly in their first year–often object to this idea, in the various ways in which it is presented to them, as something that is difficult. They’re right that it’s difficult, but wrong to object. Because to engage with that difficulty is the reason for writing, or attempting to write, literature, and it is also the reason for reading literature—or not the reason, but probably the first and foremost reason, from which all other reasons descend. My students also often object (again, in the first year in particular) to what they call “grand sweeping statements” about literature, and what I’ve just said probably qualifies. But grand sweeping statements are also part of that stretching for something outside, of risking imbecility for the sake of understanding. Which probably qualifies, too, so I think I’ll stop there on this question.
Except wait; insofar as I do think about “a reader” when I’m writing (which is not very much, to be honest), I guess I usually think of the audience for whatever I’m writing as some person who is probably smarter than me, who shares my curiosity in a general way, who is willing to think while s/he is reading, but who doesn’t know exactly the things that I know, and who doesn’t know them in the exact way that I’m going to try to write them. I think that pretty much sets the bar as high as possible, and forces me to work hard to be good. Or at least to try to be.
Q. What did reading Sante’s essays leave you caring about?
A: All kinds of things. It would be hard to pin down even a couple. It made me care about the beginnings of blues music, and the idea that someone composed the first blues song, which even though I have a huge interest in music, wasn’t something I’d quite thought about in exactly that way before. It made me care about Bob Dylan’s autobiography, although I don’t really have any intention of reading it; Sante used a review of the autobiography as an excuse to write a thoughtful essay on Bob Dylan, and even though plenty has been said, written, filmed and sung about Dylan, it still seemed fresh to me. It made me care about Robert Mapplethorpe, or better: it made me think of Mapplethorpe’s photography in a different way. It made me care about injection-mold machines, and the factories in which they operate. It made me care about storytelling, and it made me care about essay writing, and it reinforced my viewpoint that placing words absolutely correctly is of utmost importance when writing, whether one is writing an essay or a story or a poem or anything else.
Q. That reminds me that in a past short story, you focused (at least visually) on a factory, and in your precisely worded debut novel Owen Noone and the Marauder, music was central. In the next story you tell—and what will that be?—will we see anything about photography or injection-mold machines?
A. Well, you never know, but I somehow doubt it. I suspect that the first and last literary word on injection molding was written by Luc Sante. I don’t usually read in order to look for subject matter to write about (I realize that’s not what you were implying in your question), but rather, to expose myself to things I haven’t thought about, or to re-engage with things that interest me. In terms of my own writing, the biggest thing I get from reading other writers is aesthetic; I find that reading writers who write well, and who write differently from the way I do, makes me think about how I go about my own practice as a writer, and makes me (hopefully) a better writer.
Q. True, I wasn’t implying that, but I was trying to get you to talk about your next book, though I know you’re usually reticent about what you’re writing. Any hints?
A. My second novel, which I’m still trying to sell, is set in Berlin about ten years from now, and concerns a group of terrorists who are blowing up public buildings and historical monuments; its primary thematic concerns deal with the way people evaluate history and contemporary politics, among other things. I’ve also just finished the first draft of another novel, which again deals with music, although in somewhat different ways to my first novel. It’s more or less a picaresque that follows its protagonist as he journeys first to New York City (from the Midwest), then, following a mental breakdown, his gradual recovery (with the help of a lot of different encounters with music and musicians) as he journeys from the top of the Mississippi River southwards. Although he travels by road, and only a little by water, and I won’t say how far he gets. Maybe a long way. Maybe not.