We're back with the newest installment of 5 (or so) questions. I had the chance to talk with Whit Coppedge, author of "Paint" via email about, among other things, his influences, the problems of 2D meeting 3D, and the beauty of cooling towers.
9L: Descriptions of Paint's thinness walk a very cool line where they could be interpreted as metaphor or as magic realism. The story opens with him being told he'll blow away. At one point he hides behind a tree and "he turns sideways to be as invisible as he thinks possible," which actually seems to work. I loved that the story makes both options viable. What inspired that choice?
Whit Coppedge: Laziness, maybe. It may not be inspired so much as just what I could keep consistent in the story. I started out trying to write a story about a truly two-dimensional boy, but I found it difficult to follow that idea strictly as I went along. Punching him might produce paper cuts but I couldn't decide if he was like a walking paper doll or if his feet were perpendicular to the rest of him so he could stand. Same problems deciding how sex would work, 2-D meets 3-D. And then I thought I'd have to deal with his visibility too much. So he's just "thin" and I'm fortunate that I could keep that up in the story and stay a little mysterious in a consistent way. I definitely avoided words like "skinny" or "bony," since they'd produce a specific image.
I think there's some Southern-ness involved, too. I was really skinny when I was a kid, like "Cliff" in Sixteen Candles, so I'm playing with the things I always heard then, like "You'll blow away." But the word "sail" takes it a little beyond that.
9L: How much does your own history factor into your work? Do you set out to include some of the Southern-ness or does it seep in as your writing?
WC: Specific life events haven't yet shown up in my work, at least not in anything that's readable, but my history is definitely a factor. If my work were autobiographical, it would end up being really dull, so I try to take the parts I think are interesting and go from there. I'm enjoying how your current issue is so interested in fudged boundaries between genres, but I'm afraid I don't fudge the fiction line much. As far as "Paint" goes, I was a skinny kid and hunted crawdads in a creek in our backyard but I wasn't bullied by other kids or seduced by a neighbor. I had a short story called "Drought" in The Tusculum Review (2007) that was seeded by my house's foundation problems but I've never been involved with a married woman -- the affair just made it a story. I work on data networks and, consequently, tech-y stuff sometimes ends up in my stories, but the results have been mixed.
A lot of what I put down on paper ends up involving humiliation and nuclear reactors, often at the same time. My first jobs out of engineering school were in nuclear reactor construction for the TVA and then in data networks for a Department of Energy contractor ( "as seen on 60 minutes"). Those aren't jobs I'd want to go back to, but the sites themselves still fascinate me. I find cooling towers and fuel pools beautiful and the sites have such mystery and menace for the general public. They fit right in with the kind of grotesque I'm drawn to. Or maybe they started it. I once saw a Terry Gilliam interview where he said cooling towers were the most religious structures in the world and I can't put it any better than that. If you ever get the chance to stand inside one and yell, take it.
One thing that concerns me in regards to the nukes is that they are so prominently obvious subjects for me that I may have tried to tackle them before I could do them justice. We'll just have to see how that ends up.
My history affects more than just content. My engineering career seems to baffle a lot of people when they hear I also write. The conventional thinking is that the two activities are diametrically opposed but I think they dovetail in a great way. There may not be a lot of engineering grads that are interested in anything creative beyond a Rush concert, but I think all art and science and engineering with any staying power comes from someone playing around, asking "What happens if I do this?" I see stories as little widgets -- a story "works" more literally with me than I think it does for other writers. That might sound cold and calculating but I don't mean it to be. And, at the risk of sounding like Tom Peters, I've found the MFA/writing experience to be helpful on the tech side -- it's easier to hold conflicting ideas, mistakes are seen to have real value and addressing them is less personal, and problems don't have only one answer.
The Southern-ness is inescapable. I don't think I write what's generally thought of as archetypal Southern Fiction, but the speech and metaphor and just story-telling in general comes from my being Southern, and I'd argue it's pretty much the same for everyone else down here whether there's any kudzu or biscuits and gravy or dead mules in the stories or not. It may not always be overt, but I think there's a shared experience that Southerners sense and identify with in others' work. If someone thought that "Paint" was a ripoff of Mark Richard or "Jolo" by Ann Pancake, I wouldn't argue.
9L: So do you think of yourself more as an engineer who writes or a writer who works as an engineer?
WC: I don't know -- I guess it depends on how you look at it. I see them more as complementary equals. Vermont/New Hampshire. I've been an engineer longer and it's how I make a living. The idea of relying on writing for money scares the shit out of me although I could see where that kind of terror could be valuable. So many friends rely on teaching, and they often have an evangelical love for it, but I don't know how I'd fare as a teacher. As much as I talk about engineering and writing dovetailing, each can be a nice break from the other. Part of me thinks I would have a hard time writing for myself after a day of dealing with students or working as a journalist or editor, chasing down grants and such, but another part sees the value in not having to switch gears so often and waste a lot of time building up a head of word steam. I feel lucky that I've scrapped my way into a paying job that I enjoy and for which I seem to have an aptitude -- I don't know whether engineer/writers like Stewart O'Nan or George Saunders hated engineering, but I get the impression from interviews and other pieces that they were happy to leave those jobs for a more writing-immersed life. I write despite not making a living from it (like I imagine all writers I read would) and I don't know that I would be an engineer the same way if things were flipped. I might bug and hover over repairmen and techs a lot, but that's not quite the same. So, it depends. I don't think there's a wrong answer.
9L: Absolutely. I agree, no wrong answer there. Let me back up a minute. You mentioned Mark Richard as an influence on "Paint." Who/what else would you count as an influence on "Paint" and/or just your work in general?
WC: I've always enjoyed stories that had dreamy but simple language and incorporated the fantastic but I haven't been able to pull it off myself too often. I always loved Judy Budnitz's work, stories like "Hershel" -- her fascination with babies and how she gives them a mythical, fairy tale standing without getting sentimental. She and David Foster Wallace got a lot of my attention when I was first trying to write. That was the nineties, and I remember me and everyone else reciting pieces from Jesus' Son. The whole world of Elevator Theory that Colson Whitehead produced in The Intuitionist still amazes me. Jonathan Swift. I bet Edisto by Padgett Powell has some influence on "Paint." In general, Amy Hempel has been a tremendous influence on me, both as a teacher and writer, and I'm pretty sure I'm not the first to proclaim that. I'm going to miss Barry Hannah a great deal. I remember reading George Saunders' "The 400lb CEO" in Harper's and that story's probably as responsible as any for getting me to write. And, in homage to your current genre-bending issue, I'd love to point our how much I love "The Unknown Solider" by Luc Sante -- to me, it's not fully prose poem or conventional story, but it has a narrative, and I think it's just gorgeous and remarkable.
9L: Last question. What are you working on now? Any chance there are/will be more stories featuring Paint?
WC: I don't think there'll be more Paint, although I think my characters are likely to end up drinking together or starting some kind of support group. Right now I'm trying to finish a longer DOE-related novel-ish thing that I've been working on, on and off, for a while. I spent too much time polishing what I had and made no progress so now I've got to finish it. It could end up being a practice novel but that's all the more reason. Either fix it or get it out of the way of the other stuff.
Thanks to Whit Coppedge for taking the time to speak to me! To read "Paint," pick up a copy of Ninth Letter (vol. 7, no. 1) in our webstore.