John Cottle is the 2003 recipient of the George Garrett Fiction Prize (Texas Review Press) for his book of short stories The Blessings of Hard-Used Angels. His work can be read online and in print in the following publications Climbing Mt. Chelsea( Livingston Press) a collection of stories by emerging Alabama writers, Working Hard For the Money: Stories and Poems of America’s Working Poor, The Texas Review, Inkpot, Amaryllis, and Gulf Streaming. He was a finalist in the short story category of the Faulkner Pirates Alley Creative writing Competition and has won three Hackney Awards ( Birmingham Southern College)for short fiction. He lives with his family in central Alabama where he is a practicing attorney.
“ These stories are exhilarating to read; some are breathtaking and achingly beautiful. When I finished The Blessings of Hard-Used Angels, I walked around for days seeing the world through its light.” John Dufresne, author of Deep in the Shade of Paradise.
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Elizabeth Glixman: Where did you grow up?
John Cottle: I was born in Atlanta, but in 1954, when I was two, my family moved back to the small Alabama town where my mother and father grew up. It was a mill town, meaning the only industry there (up until the early seventies) was a textile mill. It was certainly not a wealthy community, but it was a place full of prideful people with a strong work ethic and a healthy sense of community. Up until the forties or fifties, the mill owned pretty near everything there – the utility systems, the houses, the movie theater, even a retail businesses which is called, even today, the Company Store, though the mill hasn’t owned it in many years. I grew up in the sixties when things were slowly changing and the mill had sold off most of its holdings, other than the plant itself. It was an insular little world in a lot of ways, but it was a safe place to live and there was much good about growing up in a place with such a strong sense of community. Except for going off to school, I’ve lived in the same area ever since. We raised our son there, that is what my wife and I wanted, and probably the reason we never left. It’s a place where people look out for each other and help each other. There’s a sense of security for a parent raising a child in a place like that.
I have not traveled nearly enough outside the south. Spent a week in Paris once. Been up and down the eastern seaboard. Been to Alaska. Been to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean. I hope, one day, to see a lot more of this wonderful world we live in.
EG: When did your start writing?
JC: I’d wanted to try writing fiction since law school but I put it off. I never seemed to have the time. About five years ago, it began to dawn on me that time is a finite commodity, and that if I wanted to take a shot at writing, it was time to get going. Our son was on his own by that time, so while I still had a busy work schedule, I was able to write before and after work. I found the morning to be my best time for writing. I usually get up around five-thirty and write until seven or so. That gets me to my office around eight-thirty. The weekends can be productive too, if we’ve got nothing planned. But then, it’s no fun to never make plans for the weekend.
EG: What came to mind reading your stories was this line from Flannery O’ Connor’s Essay On writing, “A Story always involves, in a dramatic way, the mystery of personality.” Aggie Bingo, her lawyer, the honorable Judge J. Cavandar Prickle in the story Playing Bingo For Money, the tormented Arceneaux in Nocturnal Birds, and the determined Mother and daughter in A Christian Burial are some of the unforgettable characters in your stories. How did you “ write” these characters holographically?
JC: I seldom have a plot in mind when I begin a story. Almost always I start with the image of a character and then try to throw that character into some sort of conflict and let nature run its course. I try to get to know the person from the inside out: what makes them happy, what are their politics, what are their desires, what are their vulnerabilities, what foods do they like, what’s their favorite color, and so on. I’ll use only a little of that information in the actual story, but I think you’ve got to know the character intimately before you begin to tell his or her story. Then you give the character some trouble – you start to squeeze him or her and see how they react. When you really get it right, the story just takes off, as if it were writing itself. It’s a truly euphoric sensation.
EG: Here is another quote from the same O’Connor essay. Does this quote ring true to you?
“Fiction is an art that calls for the strictest attention to the real— whether the writer is writing a naturalistic story or a fantasy, I mean that we always begin with what is or with what has an eminent possibility of truth about it. Even when one writes a fantasy, reality is the proper basis of it.”
JC: The O’Connor quote about fiction calling for the strictest attention to the real underscores the paradox an author of fiction must negotiate: you are making up a story, telling a lie in essence, and yet you are trying, with that lie, to convey some essential truth about the human condition. So where do you start? First, you must ground the reader to some point of reference and that point of reference has got to call to mind some universal truth. There are lots of ways you might do this. You could start off describing a physical setting, giving the details of a room, for example, the furnishings, the weave in the doilies on the piecrust table, the way dust motes rise in the slants of sunlight through the Venetian blinds. Or you could begin by exploring human emotions: a troubled relationship that reveals all the pain and mistrust and anger that go along with it. There’s no limit to the ways you can do it. You can even put your character in a bed and have him wake up as an insect, so long as you’ve got that point of reference – that ring of truth that you want your reader to latch on to. A character becoming an insect is a fictional invention – a lie – but there can nevertheless be a truth about that character that the reader can tap into and see in himself or herself. To identify those truths about the human condition that a reader can latch on to, I think you have to look inward as well as outward. It’s easy enough to observe other people and identify characteristics and behaviors that are interesting and warrant writing about, but to instill those characteristics and behaviors in your characters in a way that rings true, you have to look into yourself and ask, “what would ever cause me to do that?” or “what sort of different life experience might cause me to think and act that way?” I think when you do that, you approach the threshold of truth. Now you’re in a position to begin to create, with your fictional lie, a truth that transcends the lie and that tells something significant and valuable about humanity. Which is, if you think about it, the real job of the author.
EG: Your dialogues add to the believability of the characters. Here is an excerpt from 29Year, 7 Months, and 18 Days.
“Come on in and shut the door,” said Staffordly.
“Yes sir,” I said and took a seat next to Coot.
“All right, Skaddens, do you want to tell me where you were the last two days?” Staffordly asked.
Coot couldn’t look him directly in the eyes. “Went to mah brother’s funeral. It uz in Mobile.”“Well hell, Coot, I thought we talked about you going to that funeral.” Then he looked at me and asked, “ Didn’t we talk about Coot going to that funeral? I sure do believe we talked about that very thing and as I recall we decided we couldn’t spare any more man-hours for such as that. Am I remembering right, Redmond?”
“That’s what I remember you saying,” I said.
“Well, Coot do you remember something different?”
“Mista, he uz my onliest kin. I ain’t got no other. No other brother ner sister ner wife ner nobody. I just hadta go mista.”
“But we discussed this Coot. Don’t you remember that we discussed it?’
“ I ain’t got nobody else mista. I had ta go.”
“ You had to go? Well I had cloth that needed to get made. That’s why I am here. To see that cloth gets made. I’m not here to run a funeral parlor. And I remember we had a clear understanding that you would be at work and not in Montgomery or Mobile or wherever your funeral was. Hell, Coot, you already missed a whole bunch of time with your surgery and all. A man can’t be taking off from here whenever he wants for any reason he comes up with.”
“ Mista , I been at this here mill fer twenty-nine years, seven months an eighteen days. I been here eva bit o’ that time mista and I worked hard eva day I uz here.”
JC: Growing up, I worked summers on what we all called the “experimental farm” and what Auburn University called its “Plant Breeding Unit.” It was pretty hard work that mostly involved doing something out in a cotton field – maybe putting bags over the cotton blooms so that they would self pollinate, or moving around irrigation pipes, something like that. Among the laborers that did the full time farming work – that drove the tractors and such – there was a richness in their language that was truly remarkable. Forget the frilly niceties of grammar, these folks had their own way of talking, and it was art in its own right. The words they chose to describe something, the metaphors they used (and they wouldn’t have known what the word “metaphor” meant) were stunning, and far more interesting than the speech patterns of my own docile world. Emerson talked about this – about how people who live and work close to nature have a clearer notion of the origins of language and a closer connection to the symbols that words represent. And this closeness gives them a truer sense of which word or which metaphor describes a thing with the most force and clarity. I hope that I absorbed a small measure of that wonderful way they had of describing the world and that I’ve been able to put a little of that language into the mouths of my characters. I try to.
EG: Do you think the distinction of character driven or plot driven has merit?
JC: It’s a useful tool for reviewing or critiquing a story, so long as one understands that there is no bright line distinction between the two. It’s more of a continuum. On one end, you have, for example, The DeVinci Code, where the plot plainly predominates and the characters get smothered by the intrigues of the plot. At the other end, you have something like, say, The Sound and the Fury, which is surely a character driven story. The trouble with getting too hung up on this distinction, though, is that it can lead you to dismiss the importance of plot. You cannot build your characters except by showing how they react physically and emotionally to trouble and conflict. Plot is the device that provides the trouble and conflict, so the two – plot and character – are intertwined. If you want to create compelling characters, you have to pay attention to plot. If you throw your characters into a situation where their reactions lead the story down a dead-end alley, then you’ve got to realize that and back them out of that alley and send them off in another direction. You can’t create a character like Captain Ahab without giving him a whale to chase and reason to chase it.
EG: What do you think about novelist John Grisham?
JC: I’ve read The Rainmaker and The Chamber. I admire Grisham’s ability to tell a story. I know he gets a lot of flack from the literary community for his plot driven novels (there’s that phrase again) and characters that lack the depth of those in greater literary works, but his storytelling skills are unsurpassed.
EG: Your writing often is the story of characters whose minds are close to the edge of normalcy and are people who go over the edge from fears and obsessions and rage. As a writer you have been compared to Poe and Faulkner.
JC: Poe and Faulkner are two of my favorites. I began reading Poe at an early age and have always loved the eerie madness in both the voice and the plots of his stories. What is it about these bizarre stories that intrigues us so? It’s as if there’s a place bubbling below the floor of our conscious minds that craves this weird debauchery. We don’t want to look and yet we can’t walk away without looking.
There’s no writer who moves me more than Faulkner. The language simply surrounds you, the rhythm and cadence of the prose, and it eats its way into your head, slowly, because that’s the way Faulkner works it, and when he’s through, you feel like you’ve not just seen the things he’s told you, but that you’ve somehow lived them, that you’ve been there in that very room with Quinton Compson, sitting in the “coffin-smelling gloom” with sparrows fluttering outside in the wisteria while old Rosa Coldfield sits in her oversized chair like “a crucified child” and tells the story of Thomas Sutpin. There’s no writer I admire more.
EG: Do your stories take place in the present day south?
JC: The Girl at the Fountain is set in the early sixties. The rest I think you could say are set in the present day, though some are not really all that time specific; they could take place anytime from the seventies to the present.
EG: Do you see yourself as a regional writer?
JC: I guess I’d say yes to that. I use primarily southern characters and settings to tell my stories, and I hope there are echoes of the South in my writing style. So I don’t mind being classified as a Southern writer. That said, I hope that the truths imbedded in my fiction cut across culture and region. I’m trying, in any story, to get to the universal attributes kindness, cruelty, love, grief, joy, surrender, redemption –these are the essentials elements of fiction.
EG: BTW Congratulations on winning the 2003 George Garret Fiction Award. Were you surprised?
JC: Thank you. Yes, it was a surprise. I’d earlier gotten an email from the Texas Review Press who runs the contest, telling me that I had been selected as a finalist, but I had no idea what that meant – whether there were five finalists or fifty-five. So I had hopes after hearing that bit of news, but I’d been named a finalist in a national short story contest before, and that didn’t pan out, so, trying to be realistic, I kept telling myself, it’s still a long shot. Then the good news came and the party started. It was quite a thrill.
EG: What do you think readers relate to in “Southern stories”?
JC: This is something that gets talked about a lot, and it’s hard to pin it down. You can say that Southern fiction is fiction where a significant event of the plot takes place in the south, but that’s not really getting at the heart of the question. I recently heard someone describe southern fiction as possessing a sense of fatalism coupled with a curious optimism, and that, to me, is a strikingly insightful observation. There seems to be this thread of optimism in much of Southern literature suggesting not that the individual will prevail, but that the culture will. Sort of a subjugation of the individual to the traditions and mores of the society, so that what is of primary importance is those things (both values and material property) that can be handed down to the next generation or, on the other hand, received from the preceding one. The individual becomes secondary to the environment, to the land, to the ghosts of ancestors, to the past. This might explain the Southern preoccupation with genealogy and the apparent difficulty of Southern lit in dealing with an individual ego outside the fabric of a concrete society with its all connections and interdependencies. It’s hard to imagine that a Southerner would ever write something like “The Trial” or “Metamorphosis” because there seems to be this unspoken disdain (or fear?) for examining human consciousness and experience outside of the social context within which they function.
EG: Why did you become a lawyer?
JC: I want to fight for the underdog. I want to go up against someone bigger and more powerful than me and stand by my client and fight like hell for what they deserve. Now that sounds noble, but there’s a good deal of ego wrapped up in that kind of thinking. You first have to recognize and accept that a part of the desire to be a champion for the underdog is nothing but your own raw ego. If you deny it, you’re being dishonest. Once you recognize and identify it, you can harness it and keep it in balance with what is in your client’s best interest. In other words, the fight is always going to be, in some degree, about you. You have too much of yourself invested in it for it to be otherwise. You just have to realize it and keep it in perspective. If you let the fight become more about you than your client’s cause, you’re going to lose your way.
EG: What type of law do you practice?
JC: Primarily, it’s plaintiff’s law – representing people who have been injured or cheated. I also represent the local school board, a textile mill, and a bank, so it’s an interesting mix of clients
EG: Know any good lawyer jokes?
JC: I’m terrible at remembering jokes. In fact, I’m terrible at remembering anything. My wife once bought me some pills that were supposed to improve my memory. Problem was, I couldn’t remember to take them.
EG: Does your family support your writing as well as improving your memory function?
JC: My family is very supportive of my writing. My wife is a voracious reader and a wonderful editor. We don’t always agree about all of her suggested edits – that is to say, she is sometimes wrong – but we’ve worked out a system for resolving cases where we don’t see eye to eye. I do it my way and she rains hell on me until I change it. Now … what was the second part of your question?
EG: I imagine your work as a lawyer has allowed you to see into the intentions of people whose motives otherwise may have remained hidden.
JC: The practice of law forces you into situations where you have to weigh people’s motives and intentions, but this can be a tricky thing. People often act without realizing themselves what their real motives and intentions are. Or often, they convince themselves that they are acting for one reason, when, if they could look at themselves honestly, they’d see they were acting for another reason entirely. I think there is a great gray area between motivations and actions, and that gray area is a place well worth exploring in fiction. The way I try to get at it is to just tell the story, giving enough background for the reader to draw a bead on the character, and then stay away from describing a character’s motivation. I want to put the reader to work sorting out the character’s intentions and motivations. I don’t always get it right, but that’s my goal.
EG: Have you been witness to stories of injustice outside of the courtroom in relation to class and race?
JC: I grew up in the South at a time when a black man couldn’t even piss in the same urinal as a white man. I remember separate school systems, separate drinking fountains, Wallace in the schoolhouse door, the Selma to Montgomery march, and on and on. I was only a kid at the time, and really had no perspective on what it all meant or where we, as a nation, or we, as Southerners, were headed. Thank God we stumbled forward – slowly, yes, but still we kept moving forward – until we got to where we are today, which isn’t perfect but it’s a whole lot better place than where we came from. So yes, I’ve been witness to injustice, but I’m not sure I ever testified loudly enough to what I witnessed at a time when it really counted. Injustice is a hell of a lot easier for most people to see when looking backward at it through the lens of time. The people I admire the most are those who can spot injustice in real time and take a stand against it while it still matters, even though it seems the rest of the world is against them and there’s a great cost to be paid by them for speaking out. Atticus Finch, a fictional character, represented such a person, but there were many real people who had the courage to speak up during that time, many of them in their own small ways, many whose names and faces are long forgotten, but we know they were there, and the spirit and courage of those people ought to inspire us all.
EG: Do you ever think while in the courtroom, this case could make a great story?
JC: I don’t write about any specific clients or cases, but I definitely take little pieces from this client or that case and sprinkle them liberally into my fiction. As a lawyer, I see a lot of people in the midst of great personal conflicts – people under enormous stress being pressed from all sides, sometimes unjustly, sometimes due to problems of their making. Some will react with unimaginable grace and composure, others with cravenness and self-pity. Some are honorable, others will lie when the truth would do better. I try to look at it all and absorb it in a nonjudgmental way. It’s essential in writing fiction that you describe life nonjudgmentally.
EG: Many of the lawyers you portrayed seemed like crooks or drunks or opportunists . Do these characters reflect your opinions about lawyers and the capabilities of the judicial system to be fair and just? Is there a lawyer in any of the stories that is John Cottle?
JC: Most of the lawyers I know – and I know a lot – are honorable, ethical people. I think people who love to win is a pretty accurate description of most lawyers, me included. If I portray a lawyer in a story as dishonest or unethical, it is because I want that character to serve as the origin of trouble and conflict for the story and not because I think such conduct is generally representative of the legal profession. I like to write about lawyers and the legal system because I believe lawyers, as a group, are some of the most interesting and intriguing people to be around, and the legal system often serves as a stage on which real human drama gets played out. Now we all know that lawyers are far from perfect people and that the legal system doesn’t always produce perfect results. Prejudices and biases constantly come in to play and cloud the truth and hide the path to justice. I think that gap between how the system actually resolves a particular case and the ideal of true justice is place that fiction can and ought to explore. This is what Harper Lee did with To Kill a Mockingbird.
Is there a lawyer in any of the stories that is me? Good question. It frightens me to consider how close Aggie Bingo’s lawyer may be to the real me.
EG: You have referred to To Kill A Mocking Bird several times in this interview. Was it an important book in your development as a writer?
JC: It was an important book in terms of how it shaped my development as a person. It was one of the more important factors that led me to become a lawyer, and to practice in a small town. To me, Atticus Finch is one of the most compelling characters in all of literature. He exhibits those noble qualities that, as we were talking about earlier, cut across cultures and regions. To Kill a Mockingbirdmay be a southern novel, but what is says about the human condition holds true anywhere and at any time.
EG: How do your colleagues view your stories and do your clients know you are a writer?
JC: A few are very supportive, some have a passing curiosity, a hand-full think I’m crazy as hell, and most just don’t react one way or the other.
EG: Are you crazy as hell?
JC: Oh absolutely. And I work hard to stay that way.
EG: What is the wildest thing you have ever done?
JC: I once spent about four weeks camping with three other fools in the mountains of Tennessee during the coldest damn winter you can imagine. We were going to build a small log cabin – going to use just axes to cut the trees and hew the notches. We gave up on that soon enough and broke out the chainsaws. Even with that touch of modern technology, the final result looked like something a colony of deranged forest-trolls might have built while in a drunken stupor – a wretched dilapidation that wild dogs wouldn’t have slept in. I acquired a magnificent respect for the pioneers from that experience.
EG: The land echoes human turmoil in your stories. It seems you have an affinity for the land.
JC: Yes, definitely. A strong sense of setting is important to me. And the connection of the characters to the land is something I like to explore. It’s often a subtle thing, not always easy to explain, but I think people who feel connected with the land exhibit differences in outlook and philosophy, depending upon the strength of the connection they feel. I think a strong connection gives one the understanding that there is something larger and more enduring and maybe even more important than the self – an understanding that the earth does not belong to man, but man to the earth. This idea is so beautifully and compellingly unpacked by Faulkner in The Bear when Ike McCaslin repudiates his inheritance because he cannot abide the idea of his beloved wilderness being owned or bought or conveyed or bequeathed because it is “bigger and older than any recorded deed.” Now Ike McCaslin’s extreme view may not be a practical philosophy for doing business in the modern world, but that connection of people to the land is something important to try to understand. It’s something worthwhile to talk about and write about and to try to get our minds around, especially in a day when we are ravaging our environment and valuing our publicly held lands in nothing but the strictest economic terms. There is more to a forest than the sum of all its trees and the price they bring on the open market. There is more to the Arctic wilderness than the value of the oil that lies beneath its surface.
EG: How do you think like minded people should deal with Bush’s desire to open the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling?
JC: I don’t think we should be drilling for oil up there. Instead, we ought to be investing in technologies that would reduce and eventually eliminate our need for oil. Oil is a finite resource, and someday we aren’t going to have any more of it. We’re going to have to develop technologies that will allow us to run our cars and airplanes and power plants without it. In the long run, whatever oil is under the ground in ANWR is not going to change that. In my mind, the costs of drilling in, and possible irrevocable spoiling that part of the world, are greater than the benefits of securing an additional, marginal amount of a resource that we are going to have to one day learn to live without anyway.
EG: If you could choose another line of work beside being a lawyer, what would that be?
JC: In order of preference: a novelist, an investigative journalist, and the world’s premier expert on quantum physics.
EG: What interests you about quantum physics?
JC: I think it’s the idea that by observing something, you change it, at least at the quantum level. A particle can apparently exist in a number of superimposed states at the same time, but when you measure or observe that particle, you then commit it to a certain definite position. That idea has some rather bizarre implications. Is reality made up of a near infinite set of superimposed states, only one of which becomes truly “real”, depending upon how it is observed? I’ve heard it said that quantum physics is where consciousness and the physical world intersect. What a strange notion. Anyway, I find the whole subject fascinating, and far, far beyond my ability to comprehend.
EG: Any plans for a novel?
JC: I have a completed novel that I sent around to various agents and a few small publishing houses and got no takers. I think it’s flawed in its current form and I believe I can fix it whenever I can get back to it. At the moment, I’m working on another novel that I’m about three-fourths of the way through with. I hope to have it completed by spring.
EG: Is a just world possible and if it is, what would a just world look like to John Cottle?
JC: Whew! Big question. If you view justice as more of a process than an end result, which is a constructive, though not wholly accurate, way to look at justice, then I think we can get close to a just world. By a just process, I’m taking about a social order where everyone, no matter their station or financial status, can contribute in fixing policy and making decisions. Along with this goes universal access to information, knowledge, and the arts – free speech and a free press. And it requires a vigilant populace to protect these freedoms. In Alabama right now, we have a sanctimonious demagogue in the legislature who wants to remove the works of Tennessee Williams and Alice Walker from the shelves of public libraries and throw them in a hole in the ground. Right thinking people have got to confront this sort of nonsense head-on, or we risk losing any chance for building a just society. But I have faith that right-minded people will prevail over the likes of those who would burn or bury books, at least here in America, and someday maybe, in the world at large. Now if you take a broader view of justice – if you view justice as an ideal result and not just the means or process of getting to an end – then no, we’re never going to get there. Just because you have the trappings of a democratic society doesn’t ensure you’re going to enact just laws. Justice has proven to be too elusive for societies to spot in real time. We in this country can look back into history and recognize how unfairly we treated Native Americans. We can understand now, to some degree, the horrors of slavery and the injustice of denying fundamental rights to African Americans. But it’s proven to be a tricky thing to spot injustice as it unfolds. There are people who can do it and have done it, but their voices are too often drowned out by the majority and by political “leaders” who are more interested in pandering to the baser instincts of their constituents than actually leading.
EG: What is the artist’s job in relationship to creating justice?
JC: One job of the artist, as I see it, is to observe and depict injustice in a detached and nonjudgmental way so that people will come to their own conclusions about where justice lies. And truth, as opposed to polemics and rhetoric, are the artist’s tools. The artist, whatever his/her medium, must strip away the veneer of common rhetoric and pandering and lay the truth bare for society to look at. Maybe it won’t be noticed. Maybe it will be too ugly for most people to take in. Maybe it will be suppressed by fascist demagogues and repressive political regimes. But none of this is an excuse to compromise the truth by diluting it with pandering and political rhetoric. And none of this is an excuse to give up. If you’re not up to the struggle, don’t bother trying to write fiction. But if you have some truth to tell, and you’re persistent and passionate about wanting to express it, then pick up a pen or a keyboard and go for it. The world needs you. We may never achieve a completely just world, but there’s honor and integrity in taking up the struggle.
EG: Is there room for a sense of humor in your world?
JC: Yes, I think one of the most self-destructive things a person can do is to take themselves too seriously. Humor protects us from the pitfalls. It is essential.
EG: Tell us something you think is funny.
JC: Many years ago when I had even less sense than I do now, I ran for a political office. Now that in itself is pretty funny, but there’s more. And this is a true story, by the way. I was asking one of the political kingpins in a certain county – an old sheriff with a thick accent – who were the movers and shakers I needed to try to enlist. He told me about one man I needed to see who ran a “cheer factory.” “A cheer factory?” I asked him. “Yeah,” he said. “A cheer factory.” I had no idea what in hell’s back forty he was talking about (though it sounded like a nice place to visit). “What do they make at this cheer factory?” I asked. “They make cheers,” he said. “All kinds. Rocking cheers, straight back cheers, all kinds of cheers.” “Ahh,” I said. “I’ll go see him. Where is his factory?” “Right down that road beyond the fir station,” he replied. Now I knew what a fir station was, so I didn’t have to ask him to explain that, thank goodness.