Bill Cotter's new novel, The Parallel Apartments, should come with one of those Government Warning Labels.
Not because it contains what the quail-livered might call Strong Language – although it does contain that, in delightfully copious amounts – nor because any Violent Acts are depicted – although they are depicted, with delicious frequency – nor because there's anything Sexual going on – although there is much that's sexual going on, too, in act and fantasy as varied as some mad-genius libertine's potpourri of perversion.
No, there should be a cautionary herald to the book because, by the time you're finished with The Parallel Apartments – even moreso than when you finish Cotter's first novel, Fever Chart – you're going to want the author to accompany you everywhere for the rest of your life and describe the world to you in his unique, often hilarious, always erudite and laser-precise style.
Especially if you live in Austin, Texas.
Because the novel is set in Austin, Texas.
And if you can imagine the neighborhoods of this city as depicted by Hieronymus Bosch and transmediated into prose that might've been conjured by a more scholarly Tom Robbins with most of his abscessed twee-ness gland removed, you're still only halfway toward grokking what Cotter accomplishes with this new novel. And we've not even considered what the book is about yet.
It's about four generations of women in one spectacularly dysfunctional family in Austin. It's also about the various people, no more neurotypical, that the family's lives become entangled with. It's about all these characters who are as achingly real as their situations are absurd, and those situations are absurd in a way that you know is simply the city of Austin keeping itself weird via the most effective method available: By harboring within its borders ever more of humanity's vice-riddled, virtue-spiked, fucked-up billions.
Right now, let me tell you three things.
1. The Parallel Apartments has been released by its publisher – McSweeney's – and is available everywhere you can find good books.
2. Bill Cotter will be presenting The Parallel Apartments at BookPeople tomorrow night, where he'll sign whatever copy you buy there.
Brenner: In your first book, Fever Chart, you do for New Orleans what John Kennedy Toole almost did for New Orleans. But he didn't, I daresay, succeed as well as you. And now, with this new one, you're giving Austin the business.
Cotter: New Orleans was an important place for me. I was only there for a few years, but it represented a transition in my life. And so did Austin. I was living in Las Vegas 17 years ago or so, playing poker, and it was one of the worst experiences of my life. It was the loneliest, angriest city I've ever been to. My job was to play poker, and you sit there with nine people at your table, every one of them hating you and wanting your money, and that vibe gets into you – it gives you acid reflux and that sort of thing. The second-hand smoke also killed me. It was just too much. So those two things, together, drove me away – I needed to get out of there after a while. And I decided I would come to Austin, where I have some family. I have a couple of aunts here, and cousins, and they put me up immediately, and I felt warm and welcome, and I felt, "OK, this is gonna be my home." And it has been for, uh, 17 years now. And I kind of wanted to make a tribute to that in this novel, yes, but I also needed a geography that I was familiar with, in order to work this novel. And I played fast and loose with that geography a little bit, too. But, yeah, it was kind of a tribute to this city. It's not something I could've set anywhere else: The geography and the city of Austin are entwined together with the story; I don't think I could separate them.
Brenner: How much of The Parallel Apartments is taken from your own life?
Cotter: Well, with the first one, Fever Chart, quite a few things in that story were based on my life. But with this one I tried to avoid that as much as I could. It still crept in, of course. I have a scene in The Parallel Apartments that was inspired by a drive with my mother. We were heading down Avenue B, I think it was, and we turned on 43rd Street and went past Avenue G. And on the corner of Avenue G and 43rd Street is a little duplex – weeds in the yard, artisanal chickens – it was a little decrepit – and my mother pointed to this place and said, "Son, that's where you were conceived." And I thought, "Whaaaa?" Because my mother doesn't talk about things like that. Anything that will conjure an image of the sexual act, my mother doesn't talk about that kind of thing. But she did, and I was kind of flabbergasted, and I thought, "Wow, that's an interesting idea: A character that is not so concerned with her place of birth but her place of conception, and she returns to her place of conception, once she finds out where it is, in order to look for answers to big questions from her life." That was the main thing that was inspired by something from my life. And the rest was pretty much invented.
Brenner: When Fever Chart came out, the reason I picked it up in the first place was because of that Ron Rege cover. And, even though it's out years later, this second book of yours also has a Ron Rege cover.
Cotter: Yes, I don't know how that happened. But somehow, now, I'm collocated with Ron Rege – and he with me. And I think that's, I'm really honored – plain flattered. He also did some spot illustrations for a short story that I did in Lucky Peach, which is McSweeney's culinary magazine. But I love Ron Rege's work, and anybody who gets a chance to see his Cartoon Utopia, that's a tour-de-force of comic expertise. And I'm happy that he consented to work on a book of mine again – very happy about that.
Brenner: How do you feel about reading your own work to crowds? Like, say, at BookPeople?
Cotter: Uhhhhh, I don't like that at all. It's always cringeworthy. Once I've done it a few times, it becomes rote and I don't have to pay attention to what I'm reading to make sure there's no hiccups and I don't stumble over any words; but in the beginning I just can't stand it. I never re-read my work – ever. I haven't read Fever Chart since the day it was finally edited. And this new one I plan never to read again, except for some passage I can tolerate, in front of bookstore patrons.
Brenner: Is not re-reading your work … is that because you see yourself improving from book to book and you don't wanna go back to this thing you consider lesser now?
Cotter: That might be true. I feel like I'm growing more mature, and I do crack open Fever Chart sometimes – because a lot of times I have to go back and make sure I have't used a word twice? That I haven't used a word that I like, that I've used a lot in the first book, I don't want to use it in the second one. I don't like to do that, so I have to go back and look, and it – it just makes a nausea bubble up.
Brenner: Who are your influences as writers?
Cotter: Principally, Nadine Gordimer. Even though I don't write like her – I don't try to emulate her style – but her precision and economy with words, and her perfect syntax inspires me. And the stories themselves that she comes up with, they're so moving and so inimitable. I try to do things like that. Not that have anything to do with the subject matter, but I want to make things that haven't been seen before. I don't know if I've succeeded in that, but that's what I try to do. And whenever I think about writing, I think about her work; and whenever I'm stuck writing, I go and read her work. So she might be my greatest influence. Second, I think, is Montaigne – whose essays I read for the first time in my thirties. And I'd never thought of an essay in any other context than a high-school classroom – where you're taught to loathe the essay, because every time you try to do it, you get a C-minus on it and have to revise it. But Montaigne opened up the door for me to write non-fiction in a creative way. He gave me permission, in a way, to write at least non-fiction, and some fiction also. So those are my main – and, of course, David Foster Wallace. I know every young, male – I know I'm not young anymore, but – male writer, so many, who've been so influenced by him and were devastated by his death. The way that he could construct a sentence, add these sentences together and come up with something unique – a lot like Nadine Gordimer – really inspired me. And also in a way gave me permission to do things that I never would've thought to've done before.
Brenner: How old were you when you started writing stories?
Cotter: I was in my thirties. I didn't really care so much about writing. I think it was the same high-school class that ruined the essay for me ruined pretty much all writing for me, so I didn't like it. Even though I had a lot of stories in my head, I didn't know what to do with them. I tried to draw them for a while, but I didn't have any, I can't do that, to hell with that. And it was in my thirties that I wrote a short fairytale for my girlfriend Annie, about a man who had a goiter that could tell the future. And it was based on a Grimm's fairytale. They often have an ending that makes no sense at all, so I had this story do that, and just tried to emulate as many Grimm's fairytale tropes as I could. And I think it came out pretty well: She loved it. And so I wrote another one, and she liked that also, and I thought, "OK, maybe I've got something here." I don't know how that turned into writing different stories – because the fairytales are a lot of fun to write – I've got several of them right now that I hope to do something with one day. So I got started late. Most people seem to know that they want to write early in their life – most people that I've know, that are writers, are like, "Oh this started early, when I was four years old I was writing stories about the solar system." But that didn't happen with me.
Brenner: Was there something else at that age? Did you want to be a fireman?
Cotter: Not that I can remember. I wanted to be a tiger.
Brenner: You wanted to be a tiger?
Cotter: Yes, I was really into tigers, and that's what I really wanted to be. And I spent a lot of time, even before and after Halloween, wearing my tiger costume. With a tail and – I don't know if I should, ah, I can't believe I just revealed that.
Brenner: Yeah, but you're not exactly alone, right? I mean, there's those pictures of Chris Ware when he was a little kid: Running around with a cape on.
Cotter: Oh, right, that's true! But, yeah, that's all I wanted to be: A tiger. When I got older I wanted to be an architect, but I couldn't draw. And maybe that's why I wanted it – because I couldn't have it.
Brenner: Where's your next novel set?
Cotter: It's set in a small town. It might be in Texas, but I'm not sure yet, but it's somewhere other than the Northeast. I'm not very far into it yet. I have a rough outline of the story, and it's set in a small town in 1972, and it's about someone that controls this town. It's a remote place, and there's one gigantic personality that simply controls the place. He gets people to do things that he wants – a lot of those things are illegal – and he intimidates everyone in the town. Now this idea came from – well, I don't know where it came from – but someone told me, later, that there's an actual story, a news story, about a man who was like this in a small town. And apparently movies were even made about it. So I'm discouraged that the idea has been taken. Probably what happened is that I read about this guy, suppressed the memory of it, and then pulled it up subconsciously and thought it was my own story. So I may abandon it entirely, but that's what I've got going right now.
Brenner: That's not all, though, right?
Cotter: Well, I wrote a children's book, which I submitted to a couple of publishers. But I haven't heard anything yet, so I figure I've struck out there. But I liked writing that, and I may do another one.
Brenner: And short stories?
Cotter: Yeah, I'm about to finish a manuscript of those. With hopes of publishing it as a collection with McSweeney's, but they're gonna wait and see how well – or how badly – The Parallel Apartments does before they do anything. Some of the stories are decent, I think.
Brenner: And you're gonna keep living here – with the grackles and the old hippies and the students and the kind of people in The Parallel Apartments and everything?
Cotter: Austin is a very important place. My life changed when I came here, and it changed for the better, so I have not left. And I don't plan to.
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