Interview with Patty Yumi Cottrell

Photo Credit: Hanly Banks Callahan

Bearded Book Boys (BBB): Your first novel, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, releases soon. Prior to that you have been quite the prolific short fiction writer. Do you prefer that form or was Disrupt just the first novel length project that felt worthy to you?

Patty Yumi Cottrell (PYC): All of those publications have been spread out over the course of several years. I don’t write very often. This novel felt worthy to me in the sense that it came from an emotional place. I wanted to know more about where the narrator was coming from, her unique angle on things.

Some days, I felt like I had this problem or question in my head and I needed an answer. Writing a book can be like solving a problem, or walking a great distance, and when you’re done, you’re in a new place mentally and physically. Or maybe it wasn’t a problem or question, maybe it was that brutal space in my heart. Basically, I was trying to write my way through and out of that.

My short stories are thought experiments. I write them quickly, then let them go and never think about them again. A book is different, because it takes over everything in my life. I disappear when I’m writing a book.

BBB: Why do you think Helen is so quick to obsess with the idea that her brother couldn’t have chosen suicide, given that she immediately nominates herself to investigate his death?

PYC: She’s an obsessive person who is adrift. I don’t think a rational response is part of the equation. Suicide is shocking. It upends everything. The impulse to investigate seems natural to me. It’s a distraction of sorts from looking too clearly and closely into her brother’s death as well as her horrific grief-state. If she were to actually look at those things lucidly, she’d turn into dust.

BBB: Tell me about the cover design.

PYC: There are many great things about working with McSweeney’s; I appreciated having final approval over the cover. Sunra Thompson, the designer, came up with it. The waterfall image is upsetting and dramatic. The image of the cover looks gray and kind of drab on the internet, but in person, it’s cool. Also, I like that song “Waterfalls” by TLC.

BBB: In Disrupt you don’t really characterize the other characters besides Helen and her brother. Was this deliberate or did you just find that those two were always the immediate focus?

PYC: I never learned how to write a traditional story. I learned how to write by reading poetry, and stories by Jane Bowles, Robert Walser, Thomas Bernhard, Jesse Ball, etc. I wasn’t concerned with characterization. That’s not something I set out to develop intentionally. My primary concern was the narrator’s voice and how she apprehends the world.

If the other characters seem under-developed or weakly characterized, I would argue that’s because Helen doesn’t have much capacity to think about or consider them. It’s all about her. She’s self-absorbed.

BBB: Your short stories are all short enough that having read them I find myself going back for multiple takes, particularly to “Young Robert” and “The Parable of the Terrible Girls”. Can you shed any light on the inspiration for those two?

PYC: I used to take the train from Milwaukee to Chicago many years ago. I wrote “The Parable of the Terrible Girls”, on the train, longhand, in a notebook. It’s about childhood and lies. I used to fall asleep on the train a lot, and I wrote that story after waking up from a dream about walking through the sand dunes in Provincetown.

“Young Robert” I wrote a few years ago. I lived in New York City then. I was in a foul mood, and super depressed with my life, and I think that comes across clearly. It makes me laugh now because it’s so repulsive and gross. I’m amazed it was published. Nipple scabs? What was I thinking? Sheila Heti liked it though. I’ll always admire Sheila Heti, because she’s brilliant and generous. How many geniuses are generous? Not that many. Anyway, that story came quickly to me, like a poem. The characters are disgusting and horrible. They suck. That one is autobiographical. Just kidding.

BBB: Now that you have your debut novel under your belt, so to speak, what are you working on currently?

PYC: It’s a good time to pay attention to what’s happening in the world. So that’s what I’m working on. I’m also writing a new book. It has a title, Ugly in America. I was thrilled to have the title first for once. I’m horrible with titles, but I like this one. I can’t tell you what it’s about though.

BBB: What are your most anticipated reads for 2017?

PYC: Kristen Iskandrian’s Motherest, Sarah Gerard’s Sunshine State, and Catherine Lacey’s The Answers.

BBB: Do you have anything to say to would-be readers of your first book that read this interview?

PYC: I would say that the world is absurd, so it seems fair to counter that with more absurdity. Good luck!

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