Back at the turn of the century when she was still living in the Bostin area, I dialogued with Elizabeth Cox* whose fiction I had chanced to come across and take pleasure in reading. Betsy’ has since moved to South Carolina and her new novel A Question of Mercy has recently been published: Here’s the publisher’s synopsis
Adam Finney, a young man who is mentally disabled, faces sterilization and lobotomy in a state-supported asylum. When he is found dead in the French Broad River of rural North Carolina, his teenaged stepsister, Jess, is sought for questioning by their family and the police. Jess’s odyssey of escape across four states leads into dark territories of life-and-death moral choices where compassion and grace offer faint illumination but few answers. A Question of Mercy, set in a vivid landscape of the mid-twentieth-century South, … challenges notions of individual freedom and responsibility against a backdrop of questionable practices governing treatment of the mentally disabled,… also stretches the breadth and limitations of the human heart to love and to forgive.
Jess Booker, on the run and alone, leaves the comfort of her home near Asheville, recklessly trekking through woods and hitchhiking her way to a boarding house in tiny Lula, Alabama, a perceived safe haven she once visited with her late mother. Pursued by a mysterious car with a faded “I Like Ike” sticker, Jess is also haunted by memories of her mother’s early death, her father’s distressing marriage to Adam’s mother, the loving bond she was able to form with Adam despite her initial resistance, and her boyfriend Sam’s troubling letters from the thick of combat in the Korean War. In Lula, Jess finds, if only briefly, a respite among a curious surrogate family of fellow displaced outsiders banded together under one roof, and there she finds the strength to heed the call homeward to face the questions she cannot answer about her stepbrother’s death.
Elizabeth Cox was born and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee and is a professor at Duke University. She has taught creative writing at Boston University, Tufts University, Bennington College, The University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina (at Chapel Hill).
Robert Birnbaum: What do you want to talk about?
Elizabeth Cox: Talk about what I read instead of what I write?
RB: We have to talk about what you write, but not a lot.
EC: You can ask me anything you want…
RB: Okay. Are you a Southern writer?
EC: I’m a Southerner and I’m a writer. I write about the South because I grew up there. The setting includes the fauna, the gestures, and idiosyncratic habits of southern culture, but I hope the subject matter is universal. I don’t mind being called a southern writer, but I don’t want it to limit my readership. I’ve tried to create a setting in New England but can’t do it yet. I haven’t lived here long enough, I guess.
RB: It is a loaded question. Calling someone a ‘Southern’ writer seems to have a ghettoizing effect.
EC: Or sometimes it helps. People say, “Oh I like to read southern writers.” I mean there is a strong backload of writers behind me that are very good.
RB: Seemingly every subdivision of human activity has its own politics and its own hierarchy. In publishing in the USA, who gets relegated to the forefront and who gets the attention and who gets the support of their publisher and the publicity engines seem not to be southern writers…I think of Reynolds Price, who has written many many wonderful books, and I see no reason why he is not as well known as John Updike or Philip Roth. I mention him to my acquaintances that are readers and they go, “Who?”
EC: Those must be people that read the potboilers. The ones that read literary writing know him, I think. He’s a colleague of mine, you know. I have great admiration for him as a writer and a person. He is someone who is read by both literary and popular culture. Years ago, the publishing houses would use books that made money to support and bring in the literary writers. I don’t know if that’s done so much anymore. Now, everyone needs to bring in money in order to stay viable.
RB: Maybe we can come back to talking about ‘Southern’ writing… I found it charming that you dedicated Bargains in the Real World to your students.
EC: I do love teaching. If someone asks me what I do, I usually answer, “I teach.” Or rather I say, “I’m a teacher.” I hardly ever say, “I’m a writer.” I’m not sure why. I spend much of my physical time writing, but still I define myself as a “teacher.” Everyone in my family was a teacher.
RB: …you grew up in Tennessee?
EC: Uh huh. I grew up in Chattanooga where my father was the headmaster of a boy’s private school. Baylor School. I have two brothers. Both have written books of poetry. When their books came out, I thought: Maybe I can do that. One brother, Coleman Barks, is a poet. He translates the 13th century Persian poet, Rumi. My other brother was a minister, but now he is the head master of a school. When I began writing poetry I was in my early thirties, My children were already in school. I published a few poems in small magazines and decided to go back to school to earn an MFA. During that time in graduate school, I decided I would try writing a story. I worked with Robert Watson and Fred Chapell.
RB: After you got your MFA did you look to teach? Or start your first novel? Or did you join the Merchant Marine? What did you do?
EC: (laughs) During that time in graduate school I decided I would try writing a story. My first story was “Land of Goshen,” which is in this collection. When I wrote it, I felt that I had moved into a slot. I immediately felt more comfortable with story than with poetry.
RB: That’s one of your first stories?
EC: That was my first story. It received some attention. I began writing stories and then I met E.L. Doctorow and he read “Land of Goshen” and he encouraged me, along with a man named Charles Simmons and they suggested I try a novel. I had no idea how to write a novel, but that kind of thing had never stopped me before. That didn’t seem to hurt anything. I knew myself well enough to know I would not read books on “how to write a novel.” I wouldn’t read Wayne Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction or something like that. I came home — I lived in Durham, N.C., so, I enrolled in a course at Duke in the Sonata and the Symphony. I listened to and studied the form of sonata–noticing the statement, development and reiteration as well as the reminding phrases that kept coming back. I listened to a lot of Dvorak and Beethoven. Just listened. I didn’t try to deliberately apply anything I was learning. I was just trying to hear something about form and then use it in my own way. I didn’t care if anybody knew that I had listened to sonatas and symphonies, I was just learning something.
I took a course in astronomy. I read a lot of physics, which was hard…very hard. I learned something about form by reading that material. I can’t tell exactly how this method teaches me, but it does. I look at one thing in order to learn another. The third book, Night Talk, I read a lot of biology and nature writing, and much of that material was incorporated into the novel. The short stories–I wrote them all along. I’ve been writing these short stories for twenty years. That’s all of them. That’s all of them, here in this book. I don’t have them somewhere in a drawer. That’s it. The novels, that’s it. That’s all I’ve done! And I’ve written some essays, and then, of course, the poetry.
RB: What do you teach?
EC: I teach fiction writing.
RB: When you teach, do you suggest the same methodology to your students?
EC: Sometimes after I see a student’s work I ask, “Do you like jazz?” And usually, it’s yes. Or they’ll say, “No, but I like blues.” I urge the student to listen and learn something from the music. And they know what I mean. I don’t explain it. If the student doesn’t get it, they won’t know what I mean anyway. In one class I had where I told them to bring in some principle of physics or biology… something… photosynthesis, the uncertainty principle, and explain it. And they all did. And then I said, “Okay now, write a story that has that plot.” I didn’t explain it anymore. There is no right or wrong way — just a way of noticing the way things happen in the world that is natural and organic. Plot can come pretty easily out of this exercise.
RB: When you started you didn’t have a theory or a methodology, but twenty years later as you teach you have refined a point of view. Is it that you don’t want your students to focus on “writing the story”?
EC: Right. Or to focus on “being a writer.” That kind of self-consciousness is death to the story. Fred Chappell once said, “writing can’t be taught, but it can be learned.” I think what’s learned is a kind of waking up. I try to teach them to observe the world more intensely. I ask, “Does it matter to you the way light comes into a room? Does it matter a lot? And do you notice and can you describe it different times of day?” I try to make them be aware of people around, of gestures, of the way someone’s face looks when they are embarrassed or when they’ve told a lie or when they are angry…to know all those little moments and to get these details on a page. I teach how to read differently. The way a writer reads instead of the way a critic reads. Even if they are reading stories they’ve read before — sometimes I give Flannery O’Connor’s story, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” — and they say, “Oh, I’ve read that.” And I’ll say, “No, you have not read that the way we are going to talk about it.” And I warn the students that it is not that you have to talk about the story, you have to write one. You have to do this. First they have to read it and enjoy it and check the places where something visceral was felt, something sad, where they laughed or where they were afraid. Then to go back and look at how that was accomplished. Was it a description of place and followed by dialogue? What is the author doing there? The student has to be aware of craft until craft becomes part of their day. Every student processes differently. My job is to listen — most of teaching is listening.
RB: Do you use the same core readings and, can I say, exercises?
EC: Yeah, they are. I start with an exercise that emphasizes dramatization of characters. Otherwise — at least as undergraduates — they will just write “what I did this summer” or it’s a therapeutic thing. It’s not from the imagination. Sometimes I use an exercise that involves two people having an argument… it can be father-son, it can be lovers, it can be brother-sister. And there’s been a betrayal and during that argument they may not be talking about what actually happened. They may be talking about what they had for dinner. But I want to feel the betrayal. Then I suggest let someone come in and interrupt and then see how it changes the emotions. That’s an exercise I give because it forces them to dramatize immediately right off the bat. I just want to get immediately into the imagination. But I do love teaching, and I do love watching them wake up.
RB: It’s a powerful gesture for you to dedicate your book to your students. Imagine what your students must think…if they see it…they must see the book…
EC: I hope they do. I don’t know if the dedication will mean anything to them. I hope it does. I’ve been teaching at Duke for seventeen years. Mainly, I teach the short story, but in almost every class I tell at least one student that what they’ve started is a novel more than a story. I don’t want the work to be turned into a story. I just want him to know the difference between the development of a longer and shorter work. Mostly though, we focus on stories.
RB: How much are your students preoccupied with being a writer and having a career?
EC: I try to discourage that so much. I don’t even let them talk about it. (laughs) The writing suffers under that kind of self consciousness, I think. I failed one student a Duke. His mother called me and said, “He doesn’t usually fail. He’s a good student, and he wants to be a writer.” I said, “Yes he wants to be a writer, but he doesn’t want to do the hard work of writing. And he doesn’t want to revise, and if we tell him anything he doesn’t like to hear, he doesn’t come back.” She was real quiet and finally said, “I think he needs to work at McDonald’s.”
RB: How much does teaching affect your writing?
EC: It hurts my writing. I lose my writing energy by giving it away to my students. I can write at the beginning of the semester, but when they start turning in their work, I don’t get writing done.
RB: You are forced to write seasonally?
EC: I can write down ideas, I can work on characters and images. I can work on images. I take notes all the time. But when I get into the place of a story I have to be inside it. And live there. Teaching takes me out of that. Now that I’m back from Duke, I’ll begin again…this summer I’ll go back to revise a novel I’m working on.
RB: Have you been doing this trip between Massachusetts and North Carolina…
EC: Since I married my husband seven years ago, almost eight now. I kept my job at Duke but come back only one semester a year. They were very accommodating to me and I’m grateful.
RB: How much does Duke University affect North Carolina’s culture?
RB: Why is that? Is it the water?
EC: When I arrived with my first novel in New York, publishers and agents said, “We will look at anything from North Carolina. If it has North Carolina post mark we will look at it.” And Reynolds Price has been there a long time…
RB: Why did you decide to publish a collection of short stories now?
EC: I wrote short stories over the years, and I noticed that I had thirteen, most had been published. I had a collection. I was starting a novel and I thought, “Well, why not put this together, the stories first?” A few of them had to be reworked, and I did that and sent it out. I thought maybe it might be very difficult to publish a book of short stories and found it wasn’t. Random House gave me a two-book contract.
RB: The conventional wisdom is that publishers want a novel and will take a short-story collection to get a novel…
EC: Yes, right.
RB: But they still publish short stories.
EC: I was glad to bring together years of work in one book.
RB: I am curious about the reworking and also how you decided the order of the stories.
EC: I first thought of putting the stories in chronologically.
RB: In the order they were written?
EC: But I didn’t want to do that. I arranged them by subject matter and sometimes by the style of writing. In some of them the language is very dense. In a couple, there is a lot more dialogue, and some of them have a little humor. I wanted to put those throughout. I don’t think anyone reads stories in order, do they? I don’t. I like to pick and choose.
RB: There’s a story that takes place around the Gulf War, one shortly after the Civil War…one in 1949. I am surprised that they all seem contemporary…wherever they are set…the historical time doesn’t mean that much.
EC: Right. That’s what I hoped to do, though often the time or place is dictated to me…it’s just what I see. I hope that the relationships are always recognizable — mother-son, father-daughter, family.
RB: In an essay you wrote about Richard Yates, you recall apologizing to him because all you wrote about was family.
EC: Yes, and he said, “That’s all there is to write about.”
RB: The stories are all mature, there is no way I can tell that this early Cox or later Cox…
EC: I don’t know either…My approach to every story (and to every novel) is that I come to it with a kind of ignorance. Ignorance rather than “knowing.” I have no idea how to write this story or this novel. And I’ve learned some things about character and place and dialogue but each task presents new demands. And the main thing I learned in the last story is that I learned how to write that particular story. And I trust that way of working.
RB: So you are not the writer bellying up to your writing desk going, “Okay!” with the arrogance that because you have written in the past that…
EC: No, no. I like to come to new work with freshness. I like to come to it with a freshness of, “Okay, how do I do this? What do I look at, what do I read?” Right now I’m reading a lot (sighs) of Van Gogh’s letters. I’ve been reading them for about year, a few each day. The other day Van Gogh mentioned how he was always seeking the color blue. So I started the day looking for blue. And sometimes seeing a blue truck, something that was actually blue. But sometimes actually seeing it in the way Van Gogh might have seen it, in the aspect of blue…in a cornfield, and a red barn. So that he teaches me (as Anne Dillard teaches me) a way of looking at the world. Which is what I teach students, too.
RB: A madman.
EC: Oh, he’s not mad. Everyone else might be, but… (both laugh)…he is the sanest person I have ever seen except that moment when he cut off his ear and took it to a prostitute. He comes across as kind and compassionate and he is not worried what other painters think of him.
EC: It pains him but in his letters to his brother…it’s not that he doesn’t get depressed about it, but in those letters you see how it doesn’t stop him. It doesn’t stop his vision that he wants. The world told him not to paint the peasants, he doesn’t stop painting peasants. It saddens him that no one sees what he is doing, but his vision stayed clear.
RB: Why did you start reading Van Gogh?
EC: Well, I saw his exhibit. I read Delacroix’s journals, he’s a wonderful writer, you know. I like discovering the way artists look at the world. I like to experience the way scientists talk about…forces. I read physics. I bought Richard Feynman’s lectures and I’m listening to them though I don’t understand everything he says, but what I love is his way of acknowledging his ignorance. He will be explaining some principle of quantum physics and he will say, “So you would think that this is true but — this isn’t true.” And so that as he creates this arc of understanding, of logic, then he changes the arc or rearranges or breaks it down. He lectures on how little we know and unsure we are of that. I love the excitement of a process that opens the door for anything, really.
RB: You place a high value on originality. You are not reading biographies, you are reading the original works. Difficult, but at least unmediated by someone else’s interpretation.
EC: That’s right. In fiction, you can’t explain. The subtlety of the imagination is different from the subtlety of the intellect, it gives an experience to create understanding. Music does this best, maybe, but I have to try to make it happen in the only way I know how — with words.
RB: Your stories are moving and compelling, and I want to go back and see how you did it. What words you used to get to get under the rational radar…
EC: Sometimes it’s a matter of getting lost in the moment. There’s a story called “Old Court,” a boy shoots a horse. I did not plan that moment. When I wrote that moment, nothing was changed in that paragraph. I just saw it and wrote it. That’s the best part of writing discovering the moment and then to let the writing be part of what is seen. This sounds very mystical — it isn’t.
RB: There was one word you used in this book that didn’t work for me.
RB: In the story “Biology” you have the character — a young girl — remarking on the ‘timbre’ of the preacher’s voice. Her use of that word didn’t sound right to me. Do you remember that?
EC: Yes. That story came from my novel, Night Talk. Though I made it into a story. The book is first person, but she is an adult, and the word fits more into her adult mode, and that might have slipped in that story. I do like that word though.
RB: What’s it like to reread stories you wrote twenty years ago?
EC: Oh, well it’s odd. I did rework some of “Land of Goshen” and took out places that felt cluttered. But it was what I was writing then and it seems right for that story. There were some I was reworking because they weren’t finished. “The Last Fourth Grade” is a new story.
RB: Would you say there was something of a bittersweet tone that runs through these stories?
EC: Yeah. And dark.
RB: I don’t know about dark. Not what comes to mind though there is tragedy and sadness. Is that dark? Dostoyevsky is dark…Jim Crace is dark…
EC: Cormac McCarthy is dark. I find that telling the truth brings in darkness. I try to present something that is true. A difficult thing to do. A writer once gave me some good advice: “Don’t worry whether or not it’s good: worry whether or not it’s true.” People experience pain and they usually come out of it. It’s hard for me not to get them out of it. I see the human spirit as very resilient.
RB: I see these stories as distinctly southern because there is a unique sense of community and human interaction…there isn’t a lot of American narrative, outside the South, allowing for decent and thoughtful interaction between human beings…
EC: I guess, if there is anything I long for it might be, a strong sense of community. I’m working on a novel now that struggles with the violence of kids toward other kids. But at the end the community comes together in a way that is different. It isn’t the answer and it probably won’t change anything — the boys are still going to jail — but there is something…it’s the only hope I can think of. Hearing people lament video game, violence on TV and movies, latch-key kids and divorce, though they are legitimate concerns I wanted to look further. When I did, I saw something about a change in community. I don’t know if that’s southern…I think it could be anywhere. It’s certainly Jewish, isn’t it?
RB: Yeah, sure. It could be anywhere other than the Northeast. And the West Coast. (both laugh)
EC: When I first moved up here I asked my husband, “Where is everybody with the pies?” He informed me, “They’re not coming with the pies.” I said, “Well, I’ll invite everybody over.” So I put invitations in mailboxes of people — I had no idea who they were or how many were in their family. I asked them to RSVP, how many. My husband came home and said, “Oh Betsey, they’re not going to understand this.” They did, of course. Everybody came and we had a great time. We had fried chicken and lasagna. Wonderful neighbors, I love them.
RB: That reminds me of Mark Twain’s notion of a secret kindness in everyone…
EC: I keep wondering why everyone is in such a hurry and the competitiveness is fierce. Who cares who wins? I don’t care who wins…you can win. What’s the big deal Winning never lasts very long. What does last long is the friendships. But there is a loyalty to the friendships. If you have a friend here, you have them forever.
RB: Are you traveling to publicize your book?
EC: I’m not touring this summer, but I’ ve given readings in North Carolina, Georgia and Massachusetts. This fall I go to Tennessee and Indiana. I love to read, though! I’m such a ham! I love to get up in front of an audience. I’m a ham. I love it. I just love to read a story. I doesn’t have to be mine. It could be anybody’s.
RB: Do you read to your students?
EC: Yes, I usually read a couple of stories just to get the language of fiction into their heads.
RB: What do you read to them?
EC: I read one by Fred Chapell and I read one by Max Steele because he wrote it when he was nineteen and it’s full of humor. A German writer Borchardt has a story I’m beginning to incorporate called “The Clock.” At Bennington Seminars I require students to memorize something that they love. I don’t tell them what to memorize, but I give poetry to read or… and they have to memorize it for me. I think if they get language that they love and admire into their bodies, it will change their writing.
RB: How much do you think of your writing career?
EC: It distracts me to think career. I just want to write the next thing. I want to finish this next novel and then begin some stories — stories I’ve already begun. I have ideas for stories, for another novel, I’ve got ideas for a book of essays. I’m trying to get a book of poems published. I would like some time and money to write. I would like to make some money on my work so I wouldn’t have to teach so much.
RB: You could get one of those wonderful Lannan or MacArthur grants…
EC: I don’t ever expect that, but it would be nice.
RB: Those people who have blurbed your work are an impressive choir of writers who may get some foundation’s attention. If Bargains in the Real World became a runaway best seller would you stop teaching?
EC: Oh gosh I said I wanted that but that would be hard…I couldn’t stop. I’d miss teaching.
RB: Do you have a timetable for your next novel?
EC: Yes, I never had a deadline before. It’s taken me five years to write each novel. This one was written in a year. And I thought, “Oh, I can do it faster than that.” It’s finished but I’m probably going to work on it another year. I like to go back and handle every word, again. I want the language, the sound of it, the rhythm that hits the gut, I want that to be right. It takes a lot of work. Not only the story, but the way the language sings.
RB: Is there a title?
EC: No, I don’t know the title yet.
RB: Is that normal for you?
EC: No, I usually know a title. I had about ten titles for this and none of them seemed to be working.
RB: You want to take the same amount of time it took you to write it to now…
EC: Well, I have the summer then I’ll be teaching. I hope to get a big chunk of revision behind me this summer. I may get it ready because I have a lot of stories that I want to write and another novel…the title is The Jealous Wife. I wanted to write that one, but I don’t know if it’s a novel or a novella. Feels like a novella, but I don’t know yet. But I want to get on to new work. That usually helps me to finish, to get the other thing behind me.
RB: Does it seem as if you have a greater backlog of stories now…
EC: More than ever, right.
RB: Any idea why?
EC: I have no idea. I’m just getting ideas like crazy. I’m even dreaming stories, getting up in the middle of the night and writing them down. And one story, I dreamed “whole”: a boy in a wheel chair and a man in prison. And I got the whole story. And right before I woke up a voice in the dream said, “This is from Chekhov.” Now is that pretentious or what? But I’m gonna need a little more help from Anton in order to finish it. (laughs) Actually it’s finished. The whole thing is there, but there are some transitions that need improvement. I’m not sure yet what it’s about. I can’t revise it until I’m sure of that last piece. That’s how I write though — discovering all the way. I resist any kind of agenda. It’s none of my business.
RB: Alan Lightman says that readers complete stories. And Jim Crace says that the writer doesn’t experience the writing the way readers do.
EC: I know. Well, I don’t really know how readers experience my writing. I only know how I experience the writing of others and how I experience putting down on the page my own stories. I know this though: I like fiction that disturbs more than entertains…though it’s nice when both can happen — as in Shakespeare. I like characters who struggle and stumble toward something larger than themselves even if they don’t know they are doing so. In writing or in reading I like to discover something honest. That’s all.
*Eizabeth Cox’s website