All Lit Up: Zolitude features badass women doing badass things. Where do you find inspiration for your characters? How do you go about fleshing them out?
Paige Cooper: Mostly I steal details from people’s lives. Preferably from people I don’t know, because I feel less bad about that, but sometimes someone will tell me something and I’ll use it and then I have to apologetically send them a draft, or just hope they never read the story (the second option is stressful.) Fleshing characters out is also kind of embarrassing: I mean, they’re all just variations of my own worst (or second-worst) self. Empathy—which is obviously fundamental—when used for art is still a form of narcissism. I can’t understand anyone without filtering them through my own ego first.
ALU: “The size of it bombs his brain twice.” “Audrey heads back up the street, rain weeping down her neck, spine curdled against it.” “Wet eggs and stale bread every morning, coffee sick with sweetener.” These are just some instances of striking, unique images that give life to abstract ideas, to non-living things. What is your process of creating an image like this?
PC: An aversion to bloat, first. Then boredom, I think? Especially when it comes to sensory detail: the fun of writing prose is that embodiment is impossible to translate. Plus, almost always a physical sensation is filtered through emotion. It’s true enough that the coffee is sick if it sickens you. Why not. The best way to deflate a thing is by twisting it up. Sponges, air mattresses, sentences, etc. I re-type every draft because it’s easier to change the grain, that way. The goal isn’t actually concision itself, but the process of becoming concise makes sentences more interesting. Anyway, I probably like writing sentences more than stories.
ALU: When writing each of the stories in Zolitude, did you consider them to be in conversation with one another or isolated stories?
PC: I thought they were all isolated, but eventually I realized there was inevitable repetition (or insistence, as Gertrude Stein would have it). I’m not a big believer in linked short stories, because I don’t have the mathy puzzle-brain required, and I have that speculative streak: what if the world was like this. There are so many worlds to write. If the stories are having a conversation, they’ve been friends for a while and they’re a few drinks in. Way past "what are you reading right now?" and getting into "I lied when I said my ex’s dick was big."
ALU: What does the title Zolitude mean to you?
PC: I bought a one-way ticket to Latvia one winter. I’d told the arts organization who was hosting me that I was interested in isolation tourism. Like, voluntary loneliness. Why else do you travel except to be constructively alienated? Kate, the woman who was in charge of making sure I didn’t go crazy by myself, told me about an exurb outside of Riga constructed by the Soviets, called Zolitūde. Giant brutalist concrete apartment blocks. I thought it was the most beautiful word. I looked at pictures on the internet. A utopian fortress at the end of the world. But I never went there, because I was a shut-in.
ALU: Do you have any writing tips to share with aspiring short story writers?
PC: Write a lot of stories so you can teach yourself which ideas aren’t actually stories. Often you don’t know till you’ve written a draft and sent it to a friend or a magazine, and then you realize, oh wait, I am a self-indulgent fool. I’ve written so many of these. Just because you can engineer a thing that looks and sounds like a story doesn’t mean it is a story. There has to be some kind of possession or infection. The sentences are just the host. And since readers are reading your subconscious alongside your text, they will know if you’re not thinking incisively and morally, and they will be annoyed you wasted their time just to say, for instance, (this is a personal example) "grandmas aren’t always nice!" Abandon bad work. There will always be more.
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Paige Cooper’s stories have appeared in magazines like The Fiddlehead, West Branch, Michigan Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast Online, and have been anthologized in The Journey Prize Stories and Best Canadian Stories. She's a fiction editor at Cosmonauts Avenue. Zolitude is her first book.
Photo credit: Adam Michiels
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Thanks so much to Paige Cooper for answering our questions and to Biblioasis for connecting us. Catch up on the introduction to our book club and staff discussion, and pick up your own copy of Zolitude for 15% off!