Name: John Cook
Age: Sixty seven.
Fiona: Where are you from?
I was born in 1948 at the Queen of Angels Hospital in Los Angeles. I lived most of my life in Claremont, California. Before that I lived in the high desert. I still remember Dwight Eisenhower as our President, “I like Ike,” and the breaking of the Sound Barrier, a project my Grandfather and Father worked on when they had jobs with the military at Edwards Air Force Base. We lived on a farm in Lancaster.
I remember standing in the alfalfa field out in front of our house and hearing that sharp cracking sound the jets made when they broke the Barrier. I would turn toward the little sound waves as they raced across the desert towards where I stood, coming through the alfalfa and rustling the leaves on the stalks as the waves came rippling through.
Fiona: Tell us a little about yourself:
I have an undergraduate degree in history. I hated history at the time. I should have switched to literature or journalism. But I was too strung out on mind bending substances to see that. So I stayed with History. I did very poorly. At the end of my studies, the Chairman of the History Department, Dr. Marti, made me promise never to teach it. Promise me, he said, or you won’t graduate. No problem, I said. I told Dr. Marti I would rather get a job picking up dog turds with my teeth for the rest of my life than teach history. It was the truth. He heard the sincerity in my voice. This satisfied him. I was allowed to graduate.
After graduation I put my diploma in a box and forgot about it. It had nothing to do with me anymore. I worked the next ten years in construction, drinking heavily the whole time. At the end of that period I got my contractor’s license. I started my own landscaping business. After that I could no longer be fired for drinking on the job. So I drank. Continuously. After several years of this unrestrained alcoholism I was almost dead. Luckily for me I had a keen desire to keep living. I was finally able to get sober. I continued working as a landscaping contractor for another ten years, on up into my forties. And then, one day, during a quiet moment on the job, I raised my head and read the writing on the walls. I was getting older. I didn’t have medical coverage. I didn’t have dental insurance. I didn’t have any kind of retirement. I was going from job to job, getting nowhere fast. In twenty more years I was going to be old, out of gas, scared to death, in all likelihood abandoned by my wife, and poor. I decided not to let that happen.
I made a change. It was a major one. I dug my diploma out of the box I had put it in twenty years before. I went back to school. The goal was to get my teaching credentials. It took me seven years. Since then I have completed approximately two hundred and fifty post-graduate credits. This is enough to equal eight Master’s Degrees. But I never got a Master’s Degree. Instead I did graduate work in Counseling and Education. I also studied a number of other subjects which interested me. I earned A’s in every class save two. One was a D. That was in statistics. The other was a B +, in practicum.
I acquired two Teaching Credentials. One was a General Secondary credential, the other credential was in Special Education. I was hired by the State of California. I taught Special Education in Behavior Programs in hospitals and, later, in prisons, with the incorrigibly violent. These were jobs I loved very much. I also completed UCLA’s graduate program in Creative Writing. I earned straight A’s and was nominated for the Kirkwood Prize. I have published one book, “Sally.”
I’ve been married to the same woman for forty years. We have four children and nine grandchildren.
Fiona: Tell us your latest news.
I’m currently revising an eight hundred page novel. I’ve been working on it for the past six years. I intend to break the novel into four installments. The contemporary reader has such a limited attention span. Beyond that I continue to write short stories, vignettes, and some free verse poetry. I am appalled at how much energy is required to write so little.
I recently started my landscaping business again. Because of the California drought, there is a new market for Desert Landscaping. This gives me lots of new design possibilities to work from, designs that were passed over in previous years. The results have been gratifying and we are learning a great deal. Landscaping, like writing, is an art. For myself, I think the practice of one of them strengthens my abilities in the other. After all, an artist is an artist, no matter what field of endeavor he may currently be involved in. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, to create is to create is to create.
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
I’ve always read voraciously. I have a good understanding of words and how best to use them. But I never would have thought of entering UCLA’s graduate program if it were not for the principal at the prison where I worked. It was he who brought the program to my attention. I was sitting across from him at his desk passing the time of day when he told me he was thinking about enrolling. He asked me if I thought I might also be interested.
“Maybe,” I said.
He handed the folded up newspaper to me over the top of his desk. It was a schedule of classes.
“Look into it,” he told me.
It was a bit like throwing down the gauntlet. The upshot was that I enrolled and he didn’t. I began writing with the first class I took. I have never stopped.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I knew I had the potential to become a writer from early on in life. I saw things in stories most other students didn’t see. I became especially convinced of my native skill after my first orientation at UCLA. I understood everything they spoke about. It all fit together, especially when they talked about a sense for the rhythms in sentences, something that can’t be taught. You were born with the ability to feel it or you didn’t have it.
Well, I had it. I’d always had it. I enrolled in my first class. I began to study the art of writing with discipline and focus. My mentor was Ernest Hemingway. Although he was dead, I never thought of him that way. When I thought of him he was alive. I referred to him in all things. The book I used as a text through the entire UCLA program was Ernest Hemingway’s collection of quotes, “Hemingway On Writing.” I never referred to any other text. They confused me. Hemingway gave me everything I needed. It was clear, clean, simple, concise, profound, and unmatched.
I began considering myself to be a real writer from my first class. The conviction increased with each class I took. One overwhelming reason was the fact that I always earned A’s. I wouldn’t be receiving A’s at UCLA unless my writing was good. It was that simple. I was a writer primarily because I wrote. The stories earned high marks and my teachers validated me.
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
The idea to write a book composed of short stories was my idea. But the idea of writing a full sized novel was suggested to me by my teachers. I remembered how Hemingway started with short stories as a way of training up to the full fight condition of a first novel. Since I am a trained, black belt Muay Thai kick boxer, the physical analogy of training up to a ten round fight made sense to me. You start by fighting three rounds, move up to five, then seven, eight, and finally ten, a full fight. The short stories are analogous to the fights with lesser rounds.
Hemingway’s first three books were collections of short stories. A masterful strategy, it paid off handsomely when it put him in the public eye. And then he wrote “The Sun Also Rises,” finishing the rough draft in a matter of several months. Once it was finished his celebrity was complete.
I wish I had been able to write my first novel in such a short time. But the damn thing just kept going and going. It was a bit like being on an old sailing ship out at sea looking for land and finding none. But then, finally, one day I climbed up into the crow’s nest and saw the object of my search, landfall. After six years the rough draft was completed, thank God.
The story is a good one. But the book is too long and it doesn’t sound right. I can solve the problem of length by converting it into a series. I am working at making it sound right by revising it while I continue to write and revise additional short stories. At this point in my development my first three books will be, like Hemingway, compilations of short stories. I’ve already published the first book, “Sally.” By the time the other two are written I’ll be ready to bring out the novel, I hope. This strategy follows the same pattern that Hemingway followed, except for the ridiculous amount of time I have invested in writing my excessively long novel.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style?
Yes. It’s hard to explain. But I’ll try. In an effort to arrive at a writing style that will make whatever I write unmistakably mine as distinguished from a host of generic others, I write most of my sentences in short, compact, terse cadences. From time to time I contrast them with lyrical sentences that are longer. The reason for doing this usually has something to do with rhythms, or with verses opening up into a chorus. Words can do the same thing as do notes. Readers do not experience them as such. But they are, nonetheless, experienced that way subliminally.
I also avoid using the words “and” or “but” as an interconnecting link. For example, look at the two sentences leading into this paragraph. “It’s hard to explain. But I’ll try.” I wrote it that way instead of, “It’s hard to explain but I’ll try.”
My reasoning for this is as follows; if a sentence has the word “and” or “but” in it, or some other word that connects both halves of the sentence, I take it out and convert the single, original sentence into two sentences. There’s more punch to it that way. My theory is that run-on sentences are unconsciously skimmed over by the reader. The sentence becomes something like an assignment. Life is made up of assignments. We all try to finish them in a timely manner. The whole world has been conditioned to behave like that. But the run-on sentence creates a reader who does not receive the full impact of the sentence’s message. If the words “and” or “but” are taken out, the run on sentence is converted into two separate parts. The reader reads them separately and considers their content, however briefly, one sentence at a time. The sentence does not become a glossed over or a hurried thing. I believe this kind of sentence structure has a far greater impact on the reader than does the more conventional, lyrical, run-on sentence. Most of the time the effect is subliminal. But still it is there. One effect attaches itself to all the others.
Also, like Hemingway, I revise, revise, revise; hunting down, isolating, and eliminating all unnecessary words. This tightens the prose. I guess you could call my style Hemingway minimalist, although my brother, a recently retired University Professor of Literature says, after reading my book, that I do not sound like Hemingway at all. This has wounded me most grievously. I console myself by thinking that perhaps he doesn’t know what to look for. Instead of sounding like Hemingway, he says I sound like Charles Bukowski, an author who, while alive, was always drunk, wrote prolifically, and put together books I love to read. And while it is true that he never sold many books, he did, in fact, change the face of the Modern American novel. Not bad for an unapologetic, unrepentant, whiskey swilling renegade, eh?
Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
I took the title, “Sally,” from the story I liked best out of all six stories in my little collection. Sally was a woman who helped me through a very bad patch in my life; something I literally would have not survived without her help. I often wonder what happened to her. I remember how she used to have these terrible migraines. I wanted to help her with them but of course I had no such skill. Wherever she is, I hope she is alive, healthy, happy, and living a different life than the one she was living when I knew her.
Fiona: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
Yes. I want to broaden their horizons. Hemingway began his writing when he and Hadley moved up into that little room above the saw mill in Paris. He decided that he would write one short story about everything he knew something about. His criterion for knowing something was that he had to have experienced it.
I have done precisely the same thing. Almost all of my stories are written from material I gained during my alcoholic past. The things I learned were acquired at great personal cost. They are interesting, entertaining, and instructive.
And, they were paid for in blood, my blood. So now they belong to me. I want to share them. People should know what it was like to live like that. Most people know nothing about it.
I also want them to know that alcoholics, while often barbarous and cruel when under the lash of their disease, are also thinking and feeling people, in both their active, drinking alcoholism, and later, if God is willing, in their sobriety. That is the message I want my readers to grasp.
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic?
All of it is realistic, except for one supernatural touch that came at the end of the story, “Dark Laughter.” Other than that one, perhaps lamentable, perhaps not, digression, everything is the literal truth.
All except for the last story in the book, a story I made up. Its name is Granville Henry. Part of the story came from my uncle’s dairy farm in Oklahoma, part of it was drawn from the stories the returning Vietnam War veterans I worked with at Arrowhead Water told me, and part of it was taken from my experiences as a forest fire fighter in the foothills of La Canada, where at least on one very near occasion I was almost burnt to a crisp along with the rest of my platoon.
The story is named after a real person, Granville Henry. He is an old man from Georgia. He gives the readings at the eleven o’clock mass on Sundays, his voice pealing out clearly across the congregation in cadences of true Southern classical oratory. When I sat down to write that story Granville Henry’s voice came on in my head like someone had switched on a radio in there. He told me the whole thing and I wrote it down as fast as I could, listening to the voice that was unmistakably his the whole time. When he stopped speaking I stopped writing. The story was done. That was the story they used when I was nominated for the Kirkwood Prize.
Fiona: Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
The experiences are based on past events in my own life. They involve people I knew back then. Some of them are nuts. Some of them are dead. Some of them are people I hope are dead. Some of them are people I would like to kill but have allowed to live. There are many who feel much the same about me.
Fiona: What books have influenced your life the most?
Ernest Hemingway: The Complete Short Stories, The Dangerous Summer, The Enduring Hemingway, The Nick Adams Stories, Islands in the Stream, The Fifth Column and Four Stories of the Spanish Civil War, By-Line: Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast, Three Novels, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories, The Hemingway Reader, The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, To Have and Have Not, Green Hills of Africa, Winner Take Nothing, Death in the Afternoon, In Our Time, A Farewell to Arms, Men Without Women, The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway On Writing.
Paul Hendrickson: Hemingway’s Boat.
John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath, Tortilla Flat, In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, The Wayward Bus, Travels With Charley, The Long Valley, Sweet Thursday.
Jerzy Kosinski: The Painted Bird.
Charles Bukowski: Love is a Dog From Hell, Post Office, Factotum, Women, Ham on Rye, Hot Water Music, Pulp, The Most Beautiful Woman in Town, Run With the Hunted, Tales of Ordinary Madness, Notes of a Dirty Old Man.
Robert Ruark: The Old Man and the Boy, Something of Value, Mau Mau.
Edward Bunker: Education of a Felon, Dog Eat Dog, Little Boy Blue.
John Fante: Ask the Dust, 1933 Was A Bad Year, The Big Hunger.
Rick Bragg: Ava’s Man, All Over but the Shoutin’, The Most They Ever Had, The Prince of Frogtown.
James Carlos Blake: The Friends of Pancho Villa, The Pistoleer, Red Grass River, Wildwood Boys, In the Rogue Blood, A World of Thieves, Under The Skin, Handsome Harry, Borderlands, The Killings of Stanley Ketchel.
Cormac McCarthy: Child of God, The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark, Suttree, All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain, No Country For Old Men, Blood Meridian.
James Lee Burke: Heaven’s Prisoners, Half of Paradise, To The Bright and Shining Sun, Lay Down My Sword and Shield, Two for Texas, The Convict, Burning Angel, The Neon Rain, Black Cherry Blues, A Morning For Flamingoes, A Stained White Radiance, Dixie City Jam, Cadillac Jukebox.
Elmore Leonard: Up in Honey’s Room, Road Dogs, The Hot Kid, Mr. Paradise, When the Women Come Out to Dance, Tishomingo Blues, Pagan Babies, Be Cool, The Tonto Woman, Cuba Libre, Out of Sight, Riding the Rap, Pronto, Rum Punch, Maximum Bob, Get Shorty, Killshot, Freaky Deaky, Touch, Bandits, Glitz, La Brava, Stick, Cat Chaser, Split Images, City Primeval, Gold Coast, Gunsights, The Switch, The Hunted, Unknown Man No. 89, Swag, Fifty-two Pickup, Mr. Majestyk, Forty Lashes Less One, Valdez Is Coming, The Moonshine War, The Big Bounce, Hombre, Last Stand at Sabre River, Escape From Five Shadows, The Law at Randado, The Bounty Hunters.
Mark Twain: Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huck Finn.
Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird.
Michael Herr: Dispatches.
Denis Johnson: Tree of Smoke, Nobody Move, Jesus’ Son.
Tony Hillerman: Dance Hall of the Dead, Sacred Clowns, Coyote Waits, Talking God, A Thief of Time, Skinwalkers, The Ghostway, The Dark Wind, People of Darkness, Listening Woman, The Great Taos Bank Robbery.
Paul Bowles: The Sheltering Sky, The Delicate Prey, The Stories of Paul Bowles.
Albert Camus: The Stranger, The Plague.
Raymond Carver: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Where I’m Calling From, Collected Stories.
*There are lots more. But that’s enough for now. I should add that Hemingway’s books had more influence on me than did all the rest of them. The same would hold true no matter how many additional books were put on the list. No amount of books, however many there are or how much they influenced me, could possibly have more influence on me than Hemingway’s books. For many years, including the years when I was young, I lived within their pages. As a result the stories not only happened to the characters, they happened to me.
Fiona: If you had to choose, what writer would you consider a mentor?
Hemingway, hands down. Everything I read gets filtered through the Hemingway lens. It’s like when Bukowski, the writer my brother says I remind him of, discovered John Fante. He was wandering the halls of the Los Angeles Library, drunk and hung over as usual, when, out of blind luck, he pulled a book down from the bookshelves. He glanced at the author’s name. It was John Fante. He had never heard of him before. He opened the book. He began to read. The whole world opened up to him. John Fante, he says, made him into a writer. He called him “his little bulldog.”
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
Tobias Wolff’s, “Pharaoh’s Army”, and Willa Cather’s “Song of the Lark.” Willa Cather is a very good writer, surprising and bold in ways I never expected her to be. Following that I intend to read John O’Hara’s story, “Appointment in Samarra,” and “The Brotherhood of the Grape,” by John Fante.
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
Yes. Denis Johnson is one. Kem Nunn is another. However, I usually gravitate towards those from an earlier era, like Hemingway. They were more disciplined. You have to have the discipline they had if you want to write well. Without that discipline, and the sense of aesthetics which is its natural offspring, you will not write literature. You might write some stories. But you will not write literature.
Fiona: What are your current projects?
My current projects are to re-start my landscaping business, work on my little two acre farm, promote my book, lose weight, swim long distance three times a week, and to work on short stories for additional books, holding them in reserve until the little sampler “Sally” has been read by the number of readers I need to cultivate a readership.
Daily revision is another project. It is current and never ending. Revision is something I do on everything I write, going through each piece of work a total of seven times. It’s fine for short stories. But the length of the novel is just a few pages shy of eight hundred. I have revised it once. I discovered numerous, obvious errors. It shook me to discover that many mistakes in my work. But, I think, by the time I go through it six more times, I should have the finished product.
Everything’s ready to go. But I’m no good on the computer. That is what I hired my publicist for. He knows what he’s doing. I wish I could help him. It is very frustrating, this sitting here with my hands tied.
Fiona: Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
Sure. In 1984 I had a break. It had a profound impact on me. I had no idea of how to help myself. I made an appointment at a mental health facility. They assigned me to an intern. His name was Eugene Tabor. He was an unusual, exceptional man. Besides his keen perception in the area of diagnostics, he had an astounding capacity for hard work. He was the director of a far reaching missionary organization, situated primarily in the Philippines, ran a house restoration business with his son, and was working on his MFCC in his spare time. He turned out to be the perfect combination; a dedicated Christian, and a highly skilled psychotherapist.
Within two weeks he had correctly diagnosed my problem. He explained its workings to me. I understood what he said. It all fit. Now I could begin. I began to climb out of the pit. Sometimes I slipped. But I always came back. The overall pattern was upwards.
It took six years to finish the work. This man, Eugene Tabor, was with me the whole way. He saw me once a week. Sessions usually lasted four hours. He never charged me a dime. At the end of six years I experienced a quantum leap forward. Everything came together. A year later I enrolled in graduate school, working on two teaching credentials. That was thirty four years ago. Gene Tabor saved my life.
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
Yes. Why not? I am a writer.
Fiuona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
Of course. Any writer would. Find someone who says differently. I’ll show you a liar.
Fiona: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
Yes. As a voracious reader the art of writing has always attracted me. But nothing came of it until my principal handed me that class schedule newspaper from UCLA. That’s where it gelled. My chance had arrived. I enrolled, applied myself, and discovered, through continued success, that I actually could write. I haven’t looked back.
Can you share a little of your work with us?
Yes, I can. Here is an excerpt from a short story, “Adam’s Apples,” as yet unpublished.
My wife and I moved from our place at the beach to another place at the beach. Something horrible had happened at the old place. I could no longer stand to be there. I was in great pain, out of it, going berserk. I tore an automobile apart with my bare hands one night and ripped a locked and bolted garage door off its hinges the next day. I started carrying a gun to work, a small caliber pistol I kept tucked in the waistband of my shorts. I was expecting company, the kind of company that spells trouble.
I made certain arrangements in the event of my demise. Then I made a phone call. I extended conditions. The conditions were accepted. I would let somebody live, unless, of course, the party in question happened to cross my path. If he did that I would kill him. There would be no way to stop myself. All he had to do was stay away. It was the best I could do.
I stopped carrying the gun around. I didn’t need it anymore. But it was too ugly to stay where I had been living. So we moved.
*The story, like all of mine except for a few, is true.
Fiona: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Yes. The goal I hold in front of me at all times is challenging. I am always attempting to combine a brevity of words with a maximum of aesthetics. Hemingway’s book, “Hemingway on Writing,” gives me all the guidance I need to articulate this goal. Everything is there; technique, philosophy, aesthetics, vision; experience, and wisdom; all present in spite of his tragic addiction to alcohol and his underlying propensity for madness. His little book was the only text I ever used. Other texts were recommended. But I refused to use them. They cluttered my understanding. I didn’t want clutter. I wanted clarity. I compare Hemingway’s book to the Bible’s story, “The Pearl of Great Price.” Sell all that you have, obtain the Pearl, and cling to the one true thing (paraphrased).
Fiona: Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
I can’t say this often enough. My favorite author is Ernest Hemingway. For me, he is the greatest writer who ever lived. Naturally other people see things differently. They are not wrong to believe as they do. Writers have to find what works for them and stick to it.
It is hard to identify those things about Hemingway’s work that affect me most. I suppose the sum totality of his work would be the best answer. But that’s not really an answer, is it? So, here goes.
Hemingway seems to always be able to find exactly the right word to say whatever he wants to say whenever he wants to say it. He credited Ezra Pound with teaching him that there is only one, true, absolutely best word to use in any given situation. There are many that are good ones. But there is only one that is the best.
Hemingway’s attention to detail taught me a lot. He compares the writer to a camera. He gets it all in. But he uses the fewest possible words to impart this exactitude of detail. He believes in revision as the tool through which the story is refined down to its true essence. This essence includes the detail that sharpens the vision of the reader.
I use his tool of stopping whatever I am writing when it I am still going good, provided I have an acceptable word count. I stop writing and sleep on it, letting the well of my imagination fill overnight from the springs which feed it, another technique taken word for word from Hemingway. It works very well for me. The words he uses to describe it are the words I would use if I were smart enough to think of them.
I also very much believe in his practice of counting words. I try for a daily average of seven hundred words when I am writing something new. This keeps me from kidding myself into believing I am working hard when, in fact, I am doing no such thing.
As I said earlier, I revise everything I write seven times. I didn’t get the idea of revising my work seven times from Hemingway. I got that number from myself. It takes me seven times to get it right.
Hemingway called this, “tightening the story.” When asked why he wrote the last page of “A Farewell to Arms” thirty nine times, he said it was because he was trying to get the words right. It sounds vague. But it isn’t. I understand completely. When he arranges the words correctly it will sound right and it will feel that way, too. There are so many intangibles in writing. Judging them requires an inner sense of divination. Hemingway had this sense. I like to believe that I have it, too.
I believe in his theory of knowledge being those things you know something about through direct experience. I began writing down memories that came to me from which I could write stories. I have written more than thirty stories taken from these ideas, and there are still a couple of hundred story ideas written down in my notebooks, all ready and waiting to be written.
Hemingway had a sense of rhythm and cadence and timing that was very much like music. When he wrote his words on the page it was as though he transposed them onto a score. Like the notes on any piece of music, they must harmonize if they go beyond the one, lone, single note. The words, like the notes, have to complement each other.
I very much appreciate his disdain for symbolism, a thing overworked by many authors which he believed is either hackneyed or imaginary. I also share his disdain for critics, whom he referred to as “failed writers.” He trashed them thoroughly in his short story, “Birth of a New School.” Everyone should read this story. It is very funny, ha, ha.
He stated in the strongest words possible the necessity for the writer to create real people rather than characters, rounded, not flat like photographs. He referred to characters as caricatures acting out a role, not as people in a story. There is no place for caricatures in literature. You have to make the characters real people doing real things that you, too, as a reader, might also do if you were in the story.
He had a theory, the “Iceberg Theory,” which explained that ninety percent of the iceberg is underwater and therefore unavailable for direct examination. He believed the same held true for stories. This underwater part is in the story. But it is not visible. The writer has to get this in without referring to it directly. He can intimate. Or he can omit. But he must get it in or an important piece of the writing will be lost.
His emphasis on the truth of a story is elemental, making a story so true that after the writer has read it he will have incorporated the experience into his memory so profoundly that it becomes a part of his own experience. In his words, “after you are finished reading one you will feel that all (of) that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.”
I believe in his idea that “good writing contains a mystery that does not dissect out. No matter how many times you read it, the story becomes something new.” It is something that you, as a reader, will not know, in any complete sense of the word, how it is done. In his words again, “It continues and it is always valid. Each time you re-read you see or learn something new.” Taking the musical analogy again, our understanding is usually confined to one instrument at a time. Only rarely will we be able to have an understanding that encompasses the breadth and depth of the complete orchestra. It does happen. But it only happens after long and exhaustive examination, or sometimes, if we are lucky enough, we may experience this understanding in a burst of total, experiential comprehension. This is so rare as to be almost non-existent.
I am sixty seven years old. So it was with particular poignancy that I read the words, “The hardest thing, because time is so short, is for him (the writer) to survive and get his work done.” He goes on to say that, “There are some things which cannot be learned quickly and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring…They are the very simplest things… (and) it takes a man’s life to know them…” But, he also said, “You figure what age the novelist had that wrote the really great novels.”
He also said the best early training for a writer was “an unhappy childhood.” I know this from experience.
The main reason I write has very little to do with money, although I would like to make some, for the novelty of it if for nothing else. The main reason I write is the deep, absolutely undeniable drive I have to be an artist. Beyond that my reason for writing is to put something good into the world, something that adds to the total sum of virtue. Not only do I want to add to the sum total of good present and active in the world, I also want to do it as a writer of actual literature, an artist. Hemingway is my model for this.
I like his ideas on war; “We know war is bad. Yet sometimes it is necessary to fight. But still war is bad and any man who says it is not is a liar.”
On writer’s block; “…sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence…So finally I would write one true sentence and then go on from there…If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.”
I don’t squeeze little orange peels into any fire. But I do know what he is talking about. Write the first sentence and then, after that is done, simply follow it by taking the next logical step.
One thing Hemingway repeatedly inveighed against is thinking about what you are going to write before you actually sit down to write it. I agree with him, although lately I sometimes find myself thinking about what I am going to write ahead of time. When I catch myself doing that, I stop. I find that if I decide what I am going to write ahead of time, I miss the experience of actually going to where the story itself is going to take me. I don’t want to miss out on that. So I do not truncate the experience by deciding the story’s content ahead of time. The story will tell me that. All I need to do is write the first sentence, follow it, and the story unfolds. Another thing, I also quit while I still have enough juice to continue the following day.
As Hemingway wrote in “A Moveable Feast,” “It was in that room too that I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything, I hoped; learning, I hoped; and I would read so that I would not think about my work and make myself impotent to do it. Going down the stairs when I had worked well… was a wonderful feeling and I was free then to walk anywhere in Paris.”
And here is something that helped me to complete the rough draft of my almost eight hundred page novel; “There is only one thing to do with a novel and that is to go straight on through to the end of the damn thing.” So that is what I’m doing.
Also there is, “That terrible mood of depression of whether it’s any good or not.” Hemingway calls it “The Artist’s Reward…” Since my book refuses to sell, I also have this “Artist’s Reward.” But if Hemingway had it, I’m on safe ground. After all, I know my book is a good one. I just have to find several thousand people to agree with me. Not knowing how to manipulate the social media is a serious handicap. I can’t help my publicist. I have to hire a tutor. I think I have found one. Perhaps between the three of us we can make something happen.
Here’s something else. This illustrates the writer’s susceptibility to environmental influences. “I was writing about up in Michigan and since it was a wild, cold, blowing day it was that sort of day in the story.” This is wonderful.
I remember the first sentence in “A Moveable Feast,” “And then there was the bad weather.” He went on to describe the rain and the wet, wind driven leaves blowing across the street in a mad scatter, the leaves piling up against the autobus and just like that I saw it all in my mind and it was happening there in the town I was living in at a location I had passed hundreds of times, many times when I was walking home from elementary school. I saw that corner in my mind as I read the book and I saw the rain and the wind and the leaves blowing up against the curb and I was pulled immediately into the story in a way that has never happened before or since. Elmore Leonard advised writers to never begin any story with a reference to the weather. But Elmore Leonard was wrong.
Here is a quote which helped me keep my perspective when responding to other students while in the UCLA graduate program.
“Writers should work alone. They should see each other only after their work is done, and not too often then. Otherwise they become like writers in New York. All angleworms in a bottle, trying to derive knowledge and nourishment from their own contact and from the bottle. Sometimes the bottle is shaped art, sometimes economics, sometimes economic-religion. But once they are in the bottle they stay there. They are lonesome outside of the bottle. They do not want to be lonesome. They are afraid to be alone in their beliefs…Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates…”
Here is something else; “Invention is the finest thing but you cannot invent anything that would not actually happen. That is what we are supposed to do when we are at our best-make it all up-but make it up so truly that later it will happen that way.”
On knowing what to leave out; “It was a very simple story. It was called “Out of Season” and I omitted the real end of it which was that the old man hanged himself. This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything if you know that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood… If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them…It wasn’t by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, or physics…there are many mysteries; but incompetence is not one of them.”
The terseness of his writing was learned, in part, by his experience as an International Correspondent, where, in the messages he sent to the Toronto Star, the paper was charged heavily for each communique he sent. He said you had to make each transmission very interesting or you would soon be looking for another job.
I’m going to finish this question with this quote. “I think you should learn about writing from everybody who has ever written that has anything to teach you.”
I agree. But it is Hemingway who has taught me the most and continues to teach me. A great deal of it has been through the internalization of intangibles gained through reading and re-reading and re-reading again, each time seeing and feeling something new until finally enough comes together and the intangible becomes tangible, something concrete and definite; something you can apply, something you can put into words on paper, the flesh going onto the bones. It is hard to describe. But it is there.
Fiona: Do you have to travel much concerning your books?
No. All of my traveling has been done. Everything is in my head. I don’t have to go any farther than that. Besides, I hate to be away from home, unless it’s to go surfing. Then I can be gone for a while. The ocean is my home, too. But, in the end, it is always a pleasure to return to the place where I have made my dwelling.
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
Genius Book Services designed the covers.
Fiona: What was the hardest part of writing your book?
All of it was hard. There was the problem of finding the time to write in. There was the daily word count. Picking a topic was hard. I had to wait for the story ideas to come and then I had to write them down immediately or I would lose them. Sometimes this happened while I was driving on the freeway. Often, by the time I got pulled over the story was gone. So I tried to write them down while I was driving. This is dangerous. It also produces an illegible scrawl. And then there was the discipline to do these things in the order necessity demanded. But the hardest part of the writing was putting together a body of aesthetics that guided the process of putting sentences down onto paper. Hemingway, who called this “keeping the old pecker pointed north,” directed my footsteps in everything. I was lucky to understand his philosophy and technique. I didn’t have to look any further than his books. There was a lifetime of material right there. Once I understood it I had to internalize it until, after a sufficiency of time had elapsed, it became something instinctual and automatic and I could apply it.
The practice of revision was difficult. It is necessary. It is very time consuming. It is also quite pleasurable, this buffing the story down until it shines. Hemingway referred to this as “trying to get his work done” while he still had the time to do it in. At sixty seven years of age, I am experiencing this same truth. Perhaps, if I live another fifty years… Hey. Don’t laugh. I think I can do it.
Getting the book “Sally” done was simply a matter of taking the work I had done at UCLA, adding some other work I finished after graduating, and going through it, over and over again, making the changes I thought needed to be made. After a while the words began to run together and I couldn’t make sense of it any more. I submitted the stories, vignettes, and free verse poetry to my publisher and let it ride. After it was published I found some things I would have changed, one glaringly obvious thing in particular, I don’t know how I missed it. But by then it was too late.
I remember reading about Hemingway having the same thing happen to him. You put your best foot forward and find out later that it wasn’t your best foot after all. What can I say? It was your best foot at the time.
Fiona: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
Well, first of all, I learned how to write a good book. I think this is important, this recognition on my own part that the book is good and the work I did was good. Secondly, I learned how to write in the more general sense of the word. The more I write the better my writing becomes. I think this is true of all serious writers. Discipline, practice, persistence, a stubborn will to endure; these are the virtues that refine talent into something worthwhile. Hard work, of course, outweighs everything, even, perhaps, talent itself, since a talented writer who is lazy will produce nothing worth reading, while a hard working writer who is less talented will maximize whatever talent he does have and will, to everyone’s surprise, produce a novel. It probably will not be a masterpiece. But it may be something very good. And, the less talented writer can build upon this first novel, producing something even better the next time. The lazy writer who is talented but undisciplined will sit around with others like himself, trade compliments, make excuses, commiserate with one another, bemoan the world’s woes, and do nothing beyond showing up for coffee the next day.
Fiona: Do you have any advice for other writers?
Yes. Find out what works for you. Do this by reading the authors that appeal to you most. Once you have clarified the matter, do not ask for the opinion of other writers. Trust your instincts. Many times other writers are jealous and competitive. If given the chance, they will sabotage your chances for success rather than work hard to maximize their own. Other times, writers will give you sincere advice that is well-meaning but is poisonously bad. One is as lethal as the other.
Beyond identifying the writers that appeal most to you, try to isolate and articulate in comprehensible terms the aesthetics that carry their work. If you like the writers, the aesthetics will work for you.
Discipline yourself, write every day, establish a minimum word count, and engage religiously in revision. This will refine your work into something of value. And, going back over your work time and time again is highly instructive, always finding something that you missed before. When you stop finding these mistakes, you can probably say that the work of revision is done; probably, but not definitely. Look one more time.
And remember Hemingway’s definition of the artist. The artist is a lone wolf. As artists we work alone.
Fiona: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Yes. Read my book. Get your friends to do the same. Tell others about it. The stories are good. They are made from experiences that almost killed me. I wouldn’t advise anyone to do the things I did. But it won’t do any harm to anyone to read about them. They’re interesting and they’re real. They will take you to places you will not otherwise encounter.
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
No, I do not remember the first book I ever read. That was over sixty years ago. I was in the first grade. How the hell would I remember that? But I do remember the circumstances. The teacher in my little high desert elementary school decided to stage a competition. Whoever read the most books in a given amount of time won the contest. I gathered an armload of simple little stories and read over sixty of them, aloud, to my mother. She was my witness. When I finished a story she wrote her signature on the back of the last page, signifying that I had read the book. When I tried to claim the victory the teacher disallowed me. The books, she said, were too short and too simple. My mother was outraged.
“They are books, are they not?” she said to the teacher.
“Yes,” the teacher admitted. “They are books.”
“Well then,” my mother said. “He has read them. You have my signature attesting to the fact. He wins.”
“He does not win,” the teacher said. “The books are too simple. They don’t count.”
My mother turned purple. But nothing she said could change the teacher’s mind.
I still feel cheated.
Fiona: What makes you laugh? What makes you cry?
Ernest Hemingway once said that a man really had to suffer a lot to write a really funny book. Charles Bukowski is the clearest example I know of this, especially in his book, “Women.” Apart from Bukowski, humor, when done cleverly and without profanity, is most amusing to me. I don’t much care for crude humor. Anybody can say “f__k”.
Sad things make me cry. But so do things that are ineffably beautiful, like music, or love, or tenderness, small children caught up in moments of great poignancy, moments when the memory of those moments flood unexpectedly into my mind, or picturing my parents, both dead now, as little children or as a young married couple, also caught up in moments of great poignancy.
Sometimes tears come over me. Laughter does too. But I am more prone to tears. This does not indicate depression. Au contraire, it is a reaction to beauty.
The love of God also moves me to tears. For example the Bible verse, “Yea though He slay me will I trust Him,” sometimes moves me to tears, especially if I don’t see it coming. I cried like a baby when I saw Robert De Niro play the slave trader in the film, “The Mission.” I started to cry when I was writing about it in this interview.
Here is a thumbnail sketch. Robert De Niro plays the character Rodrigo. Rodrigo killed his brother over a woman who, in my estimation, was worthless, coming between two brothers the way she did, getting one of them killed. If you read the book you will find that Fate was not kind to her.
Rodrigo’s remorse is killing him. He is waiting to die in a sanctuary operated by the church, sitting on a pile of dirty hay in a cell with the door left open.
A priest comes to see him. He dares him to try penance. Rodrigo scorns the priest. No penance is too hard for him. The priest dares him again. Do you dare to try it, he says. Do you dare to see it fail, says Rodrigo. Nevertheless he tries it. His penance is to drag all the tools of his trade in a net behind him attached to a stout rope he carried over his shoulder; helmets, swords, spears, breastplates, rifles, and all other manner of metal equipage in the net. The load is terrifically heavy. He is part of a group of priests who have to climb a steep and treacherous cliff to the waterfalls above them. This was where the Indians he had taken prisoner were living. Dragging that weight behind him, slipping and sliding in the mud, the net dragging and catching on roots and tree limbs; the rigor of the ordeal almost kills him.
That’s all you get. I won’t go into any further detail. If you haven’t seen the movie I don’t want to spoil it for you. But what happened at the top of the falls was one of the most visceral things I have ever seen. There were other people in the room with me when I saw this for the first time. I didn’t care. I sat in my seat and cried like hell.
Fiona: Is there one person past or present you would meet and why?
I would give a great deal to see Ernest Hemingway. The reasons are too many to enumerate. But I will give some examples. I would love to see the man who constructed the body of aesthetics from whom I took my lead. I would love to talk to him, to experience the totality of his person. I would love to go through his manual, “Hemingway On Writing” with him, to compare the insights I took from reading his quotes to the things he would say about them. I would love to talk to him about his books and his short stories, to analyze the criterion that he used to evaluate them with. I would love to just simply be in his presence, to soak him up, as a towel does water, to get his essence inside of me, something to allow me to see the world through his eyes. I would also love to box with him, provided, since I am a Muay Thai kick boxer, I could use my feet.
I would also tell him to get honest about his drinking, admit to his alcoholism, and to start attending A.A. meetings. I would pester him about this. I would tell him not to leave Cuba, ever, that only madness awaited him on the Mainland. I would tell him to stay with Hadley forever and to stop all of his shameless philandering that, along with his alcoholism, brought about his downfall. And, although he was a nominal Catholic, I would try to convert him to Christianity. He knew that life existed after death. In “A Farewell to Arms,” he wrote about being in a trench when a shell exploded close by and covered him and the men next to him with dirt. He laid there and felt his soul leave him, go out a ways and then come back, return to his body, and go inside of him. He said he just breathed and then he was back. After that he knew it was a mistake to think that you just died. You didn’t just die. There was more.
Someone once asked Johnny Cash if he was a Christian musician. He said no. He was a musician who was a Christian. Ernest Hemingway could have said the same thing; he was a writer who was a Christian. If he’d done that he wouldn’t have ended up with that shotgun under his chin.
Fiona: What do you want written on your head stone and why?
I haven’t given it much thought. Some fool keeps sending me letters urging me to have my body cremated after I die. But I’ll tell you, no flames will be touching this body after I’m dead.
As for my tombstone, I would prefer that it contain something about love of family, fidelity, and my relationship with Christ.
Fiona: Other than writing do you have any hobbies?
I run a small landscaping business. I swim long distance. I also surf. Writing is not a hobby. It is a profession.
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
The only thing I watch on T.V. is Fox news or CNN, except for sports, such as baseball and basketball, which I pay a marginal amount of attention to, and football. When it comes to football I watch everything.
The films I enjoy watching are war films, espionage films, crime dramas, and anything else that is bloody, violent, well-acted, and believable.
Fiona: What are your favorite foods, colors, and music?
My favorite foods are steaks, ocean fish, trout, sweet corn on the cob, baked potatoes, asparagus, and artichokes. I also love chocolate ice cream. My favorite colors are red for fire, green for vegetation, yellow for the sun, and dark blue for the ocean and the sky. As for music, I love slow classical music, jazz, especially Cal Tjader, vintage rock and roll, and popular music from the fifties, especially Brenda Lee, whose voice made the sap run in my tree. I also love old hymns.
Fiona: If you were not a writer, what else would you like to have done?
I was a trained singer for many years. But I lost my voice to alcoholism. One night after a performance I vomited so hard that I ruptured my vocal chords. In the morning when I woke up my voice was gone. I have missed it every day for the last forty six years. I would have loved for that not to have happened. I wanted to be a professional singer, living at the beach, surfing all day, and singing in clubs at night as a serious musician who was part of a group of serious performers.
I could have written stories. I would have had all day to write them. But I don’t think I would have written any. I would have been in the water, surfing. But I would have read a lot. I have always read a lot.
Fiona: Do you have a blog/website? If so what is it?
The website is www.johncookauthor.com.
Buying link http://www.amazon.com/Sally-John-Cook/dp/1500641723/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1431623535&sr=8-1&keywords=john+cook+sally+and+other+stories