Paige Cooper is having an exciting year. She has been longlisted for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize, and is a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction for her collection of absurdist and emotionally vivid short stories: Zolitude (Biblioasis, 2018). Sruti Islam sat down with Paige over coffee to discuss the news and her work.
What are your feelings on being longlisted for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize, as well as in being a finalist for the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction?
It’s crazy. It’s life changing, right? I already felt insanely lucky to have a book of short fiction published and then to have it, like, basically win the lottery twice is completely insane. I don’t think I’ve gotten used to the idea, and I’m still in a little bit of shock.
When you were working on this—given that it’s your debut—were you thinking about this kind of reception at all?
No! I spent most of the time when I was writing it trying to place stories in little literary magazines that don’t have a wide readership.
I’m hesitant to ask this question because I know writers are focused on their own work, and it’s never meant to be anything other than their own vision, but I do always love hearing what their literary influences are. Can you name some of yours?
I read a ton of fantasy and science fiction when I was a kid. In my undergrad I met Alex Leslie and we took our first fiction workshop together. She has a book coming out in November with Book*hug, and we’re reading together at Drawn & Quarterly on November 3rd.
Anyway, I remember sitting at the sushi place on campus at UBC, and she was like “Oh, have you read Peter Carey? He has a story where every time they fuck a horse dies.” And I was like, “What?” and went out and got it. And that was a book of short stories from the seventies, so it was like Raymond Carver minimalist with magical realism shit going on. That was probably the book that made me think, “Oh ok, this is what cool short fiction is.”
And around that time another professor gave me Mary Gaitskill, who I think is pushed on every young woman writer because Bad Behaviour just blew open the way we could think about women’s minds and sex…
It’s so interesting to hear you say this, because a very late realization I’ve made in 2018 is that women are better short story writers.
I don’t read that many men.
Consciously and unconsciously. I love Annie Proulx’s short fiction, like the Wyoming stories specifically. I find them really dark and intricate and dirty, and I love them. But they’re also pretty masculine in a way, like in their interests.
Claire Vaye Watkins who wrote Battleborn had that essay, “On Pandering,” where she talks about realizing that old white men loved her book because she specifically wrote it for them. I definitely related to that.
I feel like one of the few things I can do is closely examine masculinity and its influence on me and my own internalized misogyny. And that’s the angle of feminism that I’m working with, especially in this book. How this internalized misogyny affects people, how they react to it, and you know, asking myself: Why am I so complicit? What satisfaction does it give me?
I feel sympathy for these women writers that came up having nothing to read but men. Like I bet Annie Proulx writes the way she writes because of that. But then the people I’m reading as the fiction editor at Cosmonauts Avenue are not coming from that same place at all. And it’s such a relief to be reading all these voices that are in conversation with each other and not just with the old canon. I like that the room has changed.
Your treatment of empathy is really appealing to me in terms of my own interest in literature. Though I wonder if the literary culture ought to come up with a new term, as empathy seems too forgiving a tool in our current climate of #MeToo and #TimesUp. But I’m definitely fascinated by choices and what drives them. Especially in relation to gender.
In “Ryan & Irene, Irene & Ryan,” you write, “Irene told me everything evil about him. The good was untranslatable. A separate stream.” And in “The Emperor,” Lucette asks, “Do women let you get away with this?” “Yet she hadn’t made him use the condom.”
Both of those phrases point to issues that are very problematic in gender dynamics, but they don’t accuse anyone of any lack of morality. They ask who a person is. Was this my own special reading or your particular intent?
So, I’ll have like eight drafts of a story. I will definitely have drafts where I am trying to avoid being moralistic or didactic, then drafts where I’m as angry as I am. There’s a process of attempting to see it from multiple angles in order to have a well-rounded story. Or else it’s just a morality tale or, an expression of pain. You have to evoke emotion in readers, not just express your own, and that means dissecting and depicting based on details rather than reaching for conclusions. So every draft is going to have a different internalized feeling that kind of cumulatively layers in the couple of years it takes to write a story. And then hopefully those layers intersect at weird and unpredictable angles that then intersect with the reader’s context or experience, and maybe all of it achieves some kind of unity or surprise or just, like, a moment. If I’m lucky.
I have my personal politics and those are sharp. But the point of fiction is to work through the question, not provide the answer.
I want to talk to you about form. Do you like close readers? Is your ideal reader for the book close readers? I ask because The Toronto Star described your sentences as “unexpected and bizarre and like poetry demand lingering consideration.” In fact, this is something that comes up repeatedly. Quill & Quire also noted that your “work is entertaining, but it also demands our full attention.” And Kirkus Reviews: “these are not stories whose meanings unfold cleanly.”
Is this reception baffling to you?
It is baffling! I didn’t mean to write a “difficult” book. I ended up writing a difficult book in some ways, and I get that some of the stories are more hostile than others.
I went to see Eileen Myles read at Concordia this past week, as well as their conversation with Gail Scott beforehand. Gail Scott argues for difficult texts, for many reasons but also because leaving gaps can be a fruitful and generative place for readers. It’s asking them to do some work themselves, which is important not in a pretentious or elitist way but in a political, democratic way. I don’t want to tell anyone how to think about or imagine anything.
But also, I see the argument that accessibility and clean thinking is harder in a lot of ways. Because you can’t hide. You have to say this is my thought and this is as well developed as it gets. So I think at times I was also trying to do that. The newer stories are a little more direct. “La Folie” is the youngest story and in that there’s a lot of movement in terms of plot and perception, less so in language. So I can see it both ways.
You say the word movement with excitement as though it’s something you really enjoy?
Yeah! I had just read an Ottessa Moshfegh story, the one where a guy spends all his money on an ottoman and then his house burns down. And it’s just this downward spiral of a structure, emotionally and logistically. After I thought, I wanted to write a downward spiral structure. And sometimes experimenting with plot and structure means that I’m not experimenting with language.
Right, so it seems clear movement is exciting to you as a writer. Is it exciting to you as a reader as well?
Yes, of course. Movement is thinking it through, the mission and the quest. That’s what a lot of genre fiction is. That feeling of inevitability where you can’t avoid what’s coming. The choices narrow. Creating a sense of dread or experiencing a sense of dread is one of my favourite things in literature.
Just in literature, to clarify?
Yes, in literature. Not in life.
I mean, with writers you never know!
It’s interesting to me that this translates as something difficult—what’s left unsaid.
What’s unsaid is very difficult! I usually have to go back into drafts to add in missing information.
Do you do that for yourself?
No, because I feel like I know. I tend to write from a pretty close POV so there’s not a lot of omniscient information floating around. I try to stick close to the narrator. So if I’m walking down the street, I’m not gonna be like, “I’m this tall and this is my hair colour…” you know? I’m going to be thinking, “I’m hungry and I don’t wanna cook dinner and I’m going to yell at my sister later.” Or, if I’m being realistic, “Are skinny jeans out? I’m the only one wearing skinny jeans here, shit, oh no.”
But that also applies to insane worlds where the narrator is a nuclear physicist. I try not to withhold information in a way that creates false tension. Readers shouldn’t be reading on just because they don’t know what’s going on. I’ve had limited success in giving enough information, but I do honestly try to give more information than I’m inclined to.
I’m not deliberately withholding! I just can’t work it in realistically, unless the narrator’s some kinda mansplainer.
In “Spiderhole” you write, “Don’t ask your woman if she loves you. If there’s a difference between science and mythology it’s not perceptible within the scan of human sense. Don’t wonder.”
Isn’t that a funny way of describing your stories themselves, “If there’s a difference between science and mythology it’s not perceptible within the scan of human sense. Don’t wonder.”
I don’t know that much about science. I get a lot of ideas from reading what scientists are doing and what Silicon Valley is doing. Maybe because I’ve read a lot of science fiction, at some point the future becomes as good for the imagination as mythology is. Both are things that we can’t really know. There are a lot of gaps in both. For me, anyways. Not being a scientist. And both things are exciting to me. I try to pay attention when I get excited about something, examine what’s going on there, why I’m excited. So yeah, maybe there isn’t a big difference between the two for me. I’m sure a lot of people would disagree.
I’ve never been asked that question before!
I hope not!
The characters in these stories seem very much to exist in relationship to their environment, and with that I wonder if the book as a whole is a kind of love letter to your own small-town upbringing?
I don’t know who I would be if I hadn’t grown up in the mountains, which are so dramatic and melodramatic. So much bad art has been made about beautiful sunsets over large rocks, but along with the sublime comes a sense of danger or deadliness, as well.
Yeah, that’s very apparent in your book.
Yeah, I need it! I have no patience for the bucolic or the pastoral. But then at the same time, on a less philosophical level, I grew up in a tourist town, thinking that tourists are the worst people in the world. Which of course means that I’m self-conscious everywhere I go. That’s actually why I like living in Montreal, because I know exactly what I’m doing wrong. As opposed to Toronto, where the problem is just that I don’t have enough money, I’m sorry, please don’t eat me alive.
So yeah, growing up in a place where the landscape really doesn’t care about you, and is also potentially deadly, and also attracts a lot of people to it, definitely informs my aesthetic. And a lot of the stories do have mountains in them, even if they don’t take place in the mountains. A good chunk of the Montreal story takes place on Mont Royal. I don’t know, I just like high places. I just need to climb up to the top of things.
Why the disinterest in autofiction?
I love reading autofiction. I just don’t know how to write it.
It’s deceptively simple. You’re supposed to just sit down and write down everything that’s happened to you and to make it interesting. But I find it completely overwhelming because reality has way too many details, and you have to do way more selecting than when you’re using your imagination. Because your imagination is only so powerful and can only create so many details, so you just write down those.
I find that super-realistic, contemporary stories, about thinking through and fine-tuning different emotional experiences is so satisfying to read, but it’s pretty much beyond me to write it. I need to defamiliarize things before I can approach them. I need them to be worked through a lens in some way. I mean, I’m speaking retroactively here but that seems to have been the experience.
What is speculative fiction, for you?
I feel like there are two good arguments for fiction. And I always have to summon them up in order to convince myself that I’m not wasting my life. One is increasing empathy—very crucial these days. The other is expanding our collective imagination.
Speculative fiction is pushing that farther than realist fiction does, in a way. It includes a broader range of experience than reality, but it still feels like realism to me.
I like that answer!
You recently published a non-fictional meditation on football over at Popula. I won’t get into the details of the piece, but it does note that you were driven to write non-fiction because you were incapable of writing fiction as of late. Why’s that?
I would accuse you of autofiction with that piece, by the way!
It was simultaneously a political and artistic crisis, if you wanna call it that. CanLit got lit on fire and #MeToo was happening. So I spent a year not writing fiction and watching and reading about American football instead. That was because it felt like anything I wrote would simultaneously not be enough and be too much, too dangerous. Narrative was freaking me out. But I guess it’s all kind of normal though, from what I’m told.
Definitely, I think so. And it didn’t really last forever—it produced this piece.
Yes, I wrote one essay in a year. Which is fine. I’m not a capitalist, I don’t need to justify my production.
You also wrote an entire book that is now one of the most talked about works in all of CanLit, so I think you’ve done your share of work.
I know you to be a funny person so—is the absurdity of these stories funny?
I hope so.
Interview by Sruti Islam. Photo credit: Adam Michiels