Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.
Recently, we interviewed author L. Andrew Cooper, the author of Crazy Time: A Bizarre Battle with Darkness and the Divine, a gritty supernatural thriller.(Read the review here.) After studying literature and film at Harvard and Princeton, he used his Ph.D. to teach about favorite topics from coast to coast in the United States and now focuses solely on writing.
L. Andrew Cooper specializes in the provocative, scary, and strange. His other published works include novels Burning the Middle Ground and Descending Lines; short story collections Leaping at Thorns and Peritoneum; poetry collection The Great Sonnet Plot of Anton Tick; non-fiction Gothic Realities and Dario Argento; co-edited fiction anthologies Imagination Reimagined and Reel Dark; and the co-edited textbook Monsters. He has also written more than 30 award-winning screenplays. After studying literature and film at Harvard and Princeton, he used his Ph.D. to teach about favorite topics from coast to coast in the United States. He now focuses solely on writing and lives in North Hollywood, California.
Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
I try to write for readers who want originality. That might seem like an easy answer, hedging my bets, but it’s not as simple as it seems, especially since I write mostly in the horror genre. I have a PhD focused on Gothic and horror literature, so I can say with confidence that since the very first Gothic/horror novels—in the late eighteenth century—horror writing has been full of predictable conventions. Readers learned early on to expect formulaic forms of satisfaction. Today even the most celebrated authors in the genre don’t often dare stray from the basic outline: a monster or other threatening phenomenon arises in the community or life/lives of one or more underdog protagonists who must overcome obstacles and grow in order to face the threat and achieve victory (often an incomplete victory). Anything that goes too far beyond that pattern risks alienating or boring horror’s constant readers. Well, I take that risk in Crazy Time. From a certain perspective, my novel doesn’t break the mold, but it deals with a broad spectrum of mind-bending questions and psychedelic effects along a storyline that becomes increasingly difficult to describe as it moves further and further from familiar horror territory and deeper into dark fantasy. I want readers in unfamiliar, uncomfortable places. I want them to want to be there. They should be glad they came.
Do you read your book reviews? Do they please you or annoy you? Do you think you can learn a lot from reading criticism about your work?
I can’t say I’ve read ALL my book reviews, but I’ve read a great many of them. My reactions usually follow a five-step process. STEP ONE: Delight! Somebody has read my work! Regardless of what the review says, the evidence that someone has read my work and cared enough to comment brings some pleasure. Naturally, there’s much more pleasure if the review is glowing. STEP TWO: Whining. I want more! Why didn’t the reviewers explain why they liked or didn’t like things? Surely these reviews could have given some examples? This unhappy reviewer simply wanted a different book! STEP THREE: Denial. The reviewer couldn’t have liked it that much. The person was just being nice. Alternately, the reviewer couldn’t have hated it that much. The person just gets off on being nasty. Maybe they were all reading another book. STEP FOUR: Acceptance. They’re talking about my book, and these reviews accurately reflect how real readers are responding to my work, which leads to… STEP FIVE: Gladness. Because I can learn from reviews. They give me at least a glimpse of what’s effective and what’s not, and they tell me how I might give readers more of what they want, which can include originality (reader-pleasing must be a serious business even when waving the originality flag). I’ll mention as a quick example an editorial review of my novel Descending Lines that complains that the novel “largely eschews… obvious parallels to the debates regarding abortion, stem cell research and cloning.” I whined and denied: I wrote those parallels on purpose! I made them “obvious!” Eventually I accepted and was glad, having learned that if I want such parallels to satisfy readers, I should probably be even more obvious with them, treating them more extensively.
Do you find writing therapeutic?
This question is especially good for Crazy Time, which deals extensively with mental illness and, although it exaggerates them significantly, it reflects on my own experiences with PTSD, depression, anxiety, paranoia, etc. Figuring out how to describe and narrate these experiences on the page also helped me to figure them out for myself. The novel doesn’t have anything directly autobiographical in it (a good thing), but seeds of its overgrown tangle of emotions did come from me, and being able to cultivate those seeds in the safety of a fictional world that I created helped me gain some control over them. So yes, projecting some of my mental garbage onto my main character (sorry, Lily) was therapeutic. Is writing in general therapeutic? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. At times getting into the groove and letting my brain flow onto the page feels marvelous, and I am a lighter, freer person afterward. At other times it stirs up the inner nasties and leaves me feeling ravaged. Depends on my mood and what I’m writing. Mostly, though, it’s good therapy.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
Someone who doesn’t feel emotions strongly can be a writer, a very good one, but such a person should probably avoid writing about strong emotions. When people ask why I write so much horror, my quick answer is usually that I’m scared of everything. Horror, like romance, is a genre defined by emotion. Horror centers on fear and abjection; romance centers on love and desire. If you don’t know those feelings, you probably can’t write about them very well and therefore probably won’t produce work that serves the genres devoted to them. There’s nothing to stop you from writing spy thrillers in which the characters tend to be cold and calculating (although knowing what being thrilled feels like might make your thrilling sequences more… thrilling). To a point, a good writer can simulate emotion and skip the “write what you know” adage… but such a writer’s skills would probably shine more brightly in less emotional contexts.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I was in the third grade. I wrote a short story about a little girl—I think her name was Cynthia, and the story might have been called “Cynthia”—who dies in a car accident with her parents. Surviving family members go back to her house to discover that she’s haunting it. I don’t remember details. I think a refrigerator falls on someone. I’m pretty sure the eyes in the girl’s portrait glow at one point. And of course it turns out the girl was always evil and caused the car accident in the first place. Anyway, I shared the story with my class, and they seemed to enjoy it. That was my first hint at success, but the real win came the next day when a classmate told me that my story had given her nightmares. My story! A lasting effect! Nightmares! Like what scary movies did to me! That… was… AWESOME!!! There had to be something to this writing thing…
Tell us a little about how Crazy Time first came to be. Did it start with an image, a voice, a concept, a dilemma, or something else?
Several things fell into my mental blender and became Crazy Time. I’ve already mentioned PTSD, which is a central issue in the novel. When I was first drafting it, I was trying to figure out how to cope with PTSD and a recent long series of traumatic events. At some point I wondered, self-indulgently, what would happen if someone suffered the afflictions of Job but lacked Job’s proverbial patience. What if a Job-like figure wanted to fight back? My main character, Lily Henshaw, began to be born. She had to experience a rather outrageous series of traumas, and an article I read about people deliberately sideswiping other cars on the road so that they’d pull over, where the sideswiped victims could be robbed, sparked a rather scary scenario to start Lily off. I also read about “suicide clusters” and “suicidal contagion,” so those phenomena fell into place, and suddenly I had this strong but stressed female character surrounded by death and destruction but on a quest to fight back against whatever forces are aligned against her… and on her way to a surreal urban setting I’d been imagining for a while but missing a home for…
How crucial is it to have a working title before you begin a project?
I am a big-time outliner, and I don’t think I’ve ever made it from the outlining stage of a novel or screenplay without a working title. I’ve got to have the surface story pretty well mapped out because I’m addicted to building in multiple meanings as I construct a narrative, like those “parallels” that came up earlier. My best titles capture some of that multiplicity. Descending Lines deals with horror related to having children (descendants, lines of descent) and also charts several characters’ descending paths into darkness (chapter names are all geometrically related to lines, their pathways down). Crazy Time is even more over-determined because “crazy time” exists on the level of plot. When two men attack Lily and her friends in the first chapter, the men declare that it’s “crazy time” before the violence begins. The phrase haunts Lily, and she thinks of it again and again as the novel unfolds. The phrase eventually evolves into something else, but it is always relevant to Lily’s experiences. Beyond its role in the plot, “crazy time” also names at least two of the novel’s obsessions. One, mental illness, gets tagged by “crazy,” though the term isn’t flattering for those of us dealing with mental illness. Reading the novel should be a little bit crazy, if for no other reason than that, like Lily, after a while you won’t be able to tell what’s real and what isn’t. As for “time,” the novel plays with time throughout, speeding up and slowing down in odd ways, repeating and skipping, etc. The temporal issues tagged by “time” are largely inextricable from the perceptual issues tagged by “crazy.” In other words, time goes a bit crazy. Nevertheless, “crazy” and “time” ask both separate and connected questions. Bottom line, the title is crucial to the book, so I had to have it before I drafted. That’s the way I work. Other, less obsessive writers might not need a title beforehand… that’s fine for them.
What sort of a relationship exists between you and the characters you created in this book?
I’m on fairly firm ground with most of them. Young Torrents, a significant presence in the book’s second half, still talks to me and thinks he might get to appear in another work sometime. Tobias Centurion and Alva, who show up near the end of the novel’s first half, probably think I’m reasonably interesting and would have my husband and me over for whiskey sours and good conversation. Gunther Azazel spins a good yarn and believes he deserves to be in more of the book, but he doesn’t hold a grudge. Likewise, Rev Orf wants more page time, but he’s glad we have the time we do.
Lily’s family—Ethel, Rose, Doris, David—doesn’t give me much thought but exists in my head now in a place more of resignation than anger. If I needed something from them, they wouldn’t turn their backs.
Burt Wells, Lily’s companion for much of her adventure, resents me a bit, but he’s very protective of Lily, so I don’t blame him.
When I finished writing the novel, I realized Lily would never speak to me again. I put her through way too much trauma, and she weathered it all, but enough was enough. She’s gone now.
None of these comments reflect on who lives and who dies in the book. In my head, I often interact with major characters as if they were real people with fully developed psyches and feelings. Their existence in my head usually continues whether or not they survive the stories that spawn them.
What makes this book important right now?
We’re living in crazy times. Lily’s sense that the world is out of control and may be ending, supported by a wealth of apocalyptic imagery, is a sense shared by many who watch the daily news. More and more people feel like Lily feels, which is to say that many of us feel as if we’re living through one trauma after another without relief, and our anger and resentment keep growing and growing, and we need somewhere to direct it. The old fallbacks—conventional good and evil, God and Satan—aren’t working for us anymore. Lily won’t settle for conventional wisdom and goes on a quest for new perspective. A lot of us could use a quest like that. Things that stand in Lily’s way, like not knowing what is and isn’t real, block a lot of us now, in a historical moment when what does or doesn’t qualify as a “fact” is up for daily debate. Crazy Time doesn’t offer solutions to the world’s problems, but it confronts them, even when it can only show them reflected in a funhouse mirror. Just like writing the book helped me face some of my problems in the relative safety of a fictional world, reading the book could become a safe way to confront our problematic world, too.
What’s next for you?
All the effort I’ve put into getting the word out about Crazy Time lately has me yearning to write a companion piece for it. A true sequel is not only unlikely (like I said, Lily wants nothing to do with me), but I don’t think it would be any good. I do think, however, that another novel in a similar style with some overlapping elements (I hear you, Young Torrents) would be fun to explore. Whether that happens likely depends on whether Crazy Time finds an enthusiastic readership. The more immediate future probably revolves around screenwriting, which has been my primary focus for the last few years. I’ve written quite a lot of horror—including an award-winning adaptation of Crazy Time, two years before I decided to publish the novel, which came first—but I’ve also written thrillers, comedies, dramas, and sci-fi. Part of me thinks horror should simply be my “brand,” but the truth is that I love storytelling, plain and simple. A screenplay doesn’t allow for the same intricacy as a novel, but playing within the confines of what a moviegoer can see and hear has its own rewards. Networking is not my greatest strength; I haven’t found the right producers/investors to bring my scripts to screens yet. I have been in serious talks that came close, though, and since all the scripts I’ve sent to festivals and competitions have brought home laurels, I am optimistic that a break is coming soon. So… look for me on your bookshelves, and look for me on your screens! More strange and provocative stories are coming soon!
Categories: BookView Review Interview