I’m really only interested in the damaged and mishandled: An interview with Bill Cotter

By Christine P. Horn

Bill Cotter’s new book, The Parallel Apartments, is a fascinating, harrowing, charming, and mortifying novel that spans decades and tracks a cast of nearly a dozen primary characters through wandering, interwoven escapades in Austin, Texas, where the author has lived and worked as a bookbinder and book dealer since 1997. The novel’s Altman-esque mesh involves sex workers, sex offenders, debtors, alcoholics, booksellers, robot peddlers, chronic masturbators, the formerly incarcerated, pinochle players, and, at its core, a grandmother, mother, and daughter. It is a large, enthusiastic follow-up to his 2009 debut, Fever Chart, which also features a magnificent ensemble cast and a wildly inventive display of vocabulary that never gets in the way. It is also one of the best contemporary novels set in New Orleans.

Cotter lived some years in New Orleans. Sometime around the May Flood of 1995, his sister Karen, who had been insisting that he and I should meet, introduced us. Both he and I were of the impression that when someone tells a person “you’re really going to hit it off” with another, it is never, ever the case. We were delighted to be wrong. Our early adventures included buying q-tips and cleaning our ears, whiskey drinking, and blindfolded chess.

I will be happy to see Mr. Cotter for the first time in 17 years when he comes to town for an appearance on a panel at the Tennessee Williams Festival at 1 p.m. on Sunday, March 23, at the Hotel Monteleone (214 Royal St.). He will weigh in on the topic of literary misadventures along with fellow panelists Mat Johnson and Valerie Martin and moderator Brett Martin.

But until then, here is an exchange we conducted via email and telephone about his new book:

Room 220: Raymond Queneau wrote We Always Treat Women Too Well about the Easter Sunday Uprising without ever having been to Dublin. He based his geography on Ulysses. Have you ever been to Austin?

Bill Cotter: I have; in fact it’s been my home for almost seventeen years, give or take. (I believe I arrived in Austin—after an ugly, lonesome year or two in Las Vegas—on the day Diana was killed.) However, I’ve never been to Texas City, the setting for a chapter or two in the novel—I just prowled the streets with Google Earth. The era of remote surveillance has taken some of the truth out of Thoreau’s 1851 remark about the vainness of sitting down to write when one hasn’t yet stood up to live. I feel I can sit down and write about whatever as long as I’ve got a wall of good books and the internet. Having a first-rate research library right down the street doesn’t hurt either. (That would be the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas.)

Rm220: Without revealing any of the women you may have consulted, you must have gotten a whole lotta women to talk to you about sex and their personal regimens while researching this book. I’m somewhat prudish asking this kind of question, so just go ahead and offer up what inspired the quite detailed and imaginative sex bits throughout the book.

BC: I don’t recall conducting any direct interviews with women about sex and sexuality and the consequences of—most of my information comes from observation within the relationships I’ve had with women. (However, I did participate in an anonymous online discussion with several women who had suffered miscarriages.) I am quite worried that I will be seen as baldly arrogant for attempting to write sex scenes from the points of view of women and other non-male genders, and I have no defense against that, except to say that individual sexuality is such a manifold and various business that it defies any blanket truths—viz, in the bedroom, anything goes, regardless of sexuality. In the book I wanted to make those anythings funny, and possibly hot.

Rm220: Four mothers in the story abandon their children, three mothers lose their children, one sleeps with hundreds of men to become impregnated, another pregnant character worries she will resent and hate her child, and another is so terrified of having a child she only has intercourse with her dog and a robot. Grandmothers care for children in the absence of mothers. Can you elaborate on these themes?

BC: You’ve hit on the central theme of the book. In fact, the title, up until the last minute, was The Instant of the Mothers. (It was scrapped because the “instant” referred to became “instants” in later drafts, which can be heard as “instance,” an unfitting title for one thing, plus the homophone could mislead someone trying to look up the book on Amazon or wherever, and a sale could be lost. Or so thought the editor.) But I have evaded your question—I don’t really know how to elaborate on the theme of motherhood in short form—a longish novel was the only way I knew how.

Rm220: Is bookbinding really only for “compulsive simpletons”? Why are book folk given such short shrift?

BC: No, not really for compulsive simpletons—just poking fun at my own profession. However, in bibliopoly and librarianship, contempt and loathing has long shadowed the bookbinder. In William Blades’s The Enemies of Books (London: Elliot Stock, 1888 [2nd ed.]), Chapter VIII is devoted solely to the injury and terrors historically visited on books by bookbinders. “Muttonthumper” is bygone slang for a bookbinder, probably coined for both their reputed hamfistedness and habit of using inferior sheepskin. I agree that I have maligned book folk in the novel, but you’ll notice that all malignees are booksellers, which is direct commentary on my highly cynical attitude toward the vocation. Though I know a couple dealers who comport with the highest probity, and whom I consider good friends, I find that most dealers (in antiquarian books) to be one or more of the following: unethical, disagreeable, odious, venal, condescending, biggity, and criminal. The real enemies of books. I’m getting out of the goddamn bookselling business as soon as I possibly can.

Drawings by Brad Benischek published alongside an early excerpt of Fever Chart in the New Orleans Review.

Rm220: The bulk of your major characters are unhinged to varying degrees. In your first book, Fever Chart, overt mental illness is a major theme. In The Parallel Apartments, many of the characters also endure breakdowns and hospitalizations. Tell us more.

BC: I’m really only interested in the damaged and mishandled, the abused and victimized. I don’t think of myself as any of those things, but I will say that the defining theme of my adult life has been a struggle with major depressive disorder, both the endurance and treatment of which has featured some ugly moments that I can only understand and learn to live with by examining them in characters navigating the republic of fiction.

Rm220: One character is a retired prostitute. One is a former attempted prostitute. Another was whored out by her parents as a child, and yet another runs a brothel of sorts. Please comment.

BC: I’d never noticed that there are four threads dealing with prostitution! I suppose it is my interest in the voices of the victimized—especially those that defeat their victimizers, like Justine and Rose—though of course not all sex workers are victims. In fact, one of the major characters in the book, Dot Disfarmer, is reputed to have entered the profession because she liked it, and another is a madam who runs a brothel whose single “girl” is a four-hundred-thousand-dollar male sex robot. The former is hardly a victim, and the latter hardly victimizable.

Rm220: Almost all of the male characters in The Parallel Apartments are either terrible, despicable grotesques or ineffectual, helpless failures. And some are a little of both. Why? Was this a necessary convention in a book about women? In a book about these particular women?

BC: I agree that some of the male characters are just antic monsters—Franklin, Justine’s mate in New York who takes sex classes and experiments what he’s learned on Cypriote nightclub girls, and Murphy, the serial killer who queases at the sight of blood—but to classify all the others as ineffectual and helpless and failures is maybe an oversimplification. There is Troy, who agrees to accompany Justine to vanquish Sherpa, the malevolent mountebank; there is Scaro, whose only crime was to fall in love with the wrong woman; there is Casey, Marcia’s friend and oracle of reason. Justine herself might be the only helpless and ineffectual failure in the book—the world acts upon her, rather than she upon it.

Rm220: Beds ‘ptoing,’ cards ‘ftch,’ bottles ‘kck.’ When will Bill Cotter’s Lexicon of Sounds be released?

BC: I love sounds! English, even though as rich and expressive as any language (with the probable exceptions of German and Chinese), its lexicon of onomatopoeia is inexcusably measly. I love to dissect a complex sound. Say, tearing open the wrapper on a Three Musketeers bar—-there’s an initial qls when you get the rip going, a slst as the tear splits long the length, then the wrcl as you fold the wrapper back on itself. Now you have a nice compound word, for use with any candy-bar opening that might happen along in your fiction!

Rm220: The name of the HoBots technician is Mr. C.P. Horn, which is incredibly close to my name. Do you torture all your friends and family in this way? If I put down “HoBots technician” on my resume will you cover for me?

BC: Nope, you’re the only one. And yes, I will cover for you!