Andrew Cothren's short story, "The Drowning Plagerist" appeared in the Autumn 2010 issue of The Battered Suitcase. Andrew is a recent graduate of Binghamton University, where he received his Bachelor's Degree in Creative Writing. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming in The Teahouse Review and Quintessential Zine. Originally from the Hudson Valley region of upstate New York, he currently resides in Brooklyn.
Andrew, When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I took a Creative Writing workshop in my freshman year of college and realized that it was the first time I actually enjoyed having deadlines and creative work assigned to me on a weekly basis. It was much more appealing than, say, a twenty-page essay on Barthes or a laboratory report for a Biology class. Writing had always been at least an occasional hobby of mine, but being inundated with it on a regular basis made me realize just how much I enjoyed it. The fact that I still feel that way reassures me that I’ve (probably) made the right career choice.
Why do you write?
Storytelling is, in my opinion, the oldest profession on the planet (in spite of the popular opinion about another, very different line of work), yet we still seek out new stories and characters to spend a few minutes or hours with. Despite all of the technological advances of civilization, that demand is still out there and still needs to be met. If I can make just one person live vicariously through one of my stories or characters, then it will make every second spent writing worth it.
Is being a writer anything like you imagined it would be?
Very much so. I’m only a few months removed from graduating from college, so all of the warnings my professors and friends have given me about that initial, early-20s failures and rejections are still fresh in my mind. As are the actual failures and rejections. In spite of those, though, there’s still something exciting and satisfying about clicking “Send” on a submission e-mail or sticking an envelope in a mailbox. I guess I’m still quite doe-eyed about the whole thing.
What do you think makes a good story?
A good story has to haunt the reader. Not in a horror-movie way, necessarily, but it needs to be weighing somewhere on their conscience for at least a little while after they read it. Whether it’s a particularly bizarre image, or a character’s bad decision, or if it reminds them of a feeling they haven’t felt since childhood, there has to be something that the reader can’t shake in order to be effective. If you feel the need to tell somebody about the story you’ve read or if you have a debate about the ending of a movie you and your friends just saw, then you’ve experienced something very special.
What's your favorite genre to read?
I’m drawn to magical realism stories that border on the speculative but never quite cross over. A man turning into a cockroach overnight is great, for example; dragons and wizards, not so much. Any story in which the fantastic and impossible are accepted as mundane and everyday fascinates me.
Who is your favorite author or poet?
In my opinion, there’s nobody writing today that has as diverse a range as Joe Meno. He has a great, distinctive style, but at the same time he can write about damn near anything and bring it to life. He can dabble in the absurd one second, and then emotionally devastate you the next. The Boy Detective Fails is the one book I re-read whenever I’m feeling particularly uninspired. Great writers can both inspire and depress you with their natural ability to write better than you ever could, and he’s definitely in that category for me.
What books or stories have most influenced you the most as a writer?
The Boy Detective Fails is probably the biggest influence. I found it at random in a bookstore when I was maybe fifteen, and it left a big impression. I was a big Encyclopedia Brown fan when I was a young kid, and to see that genre turned on its head in the way Meno did made it clear to me that everything in fiction, down to the most familiar trope, is always malleable and can be made new. Many times, whatever I’m reading at the moment inspires what I’m writing: for example, my story “The Drowning Plagiarist” was inspired by being completely entranced by Glen David Gold’s Carter Beats the Devil. A lot of the books I was reading when I first started getting into books probably shaped my writing in a lot of ways, too; things like The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, or the Wayside School books by Louis Sachar.
What books or stories have most influenced you as a person?
I owe a great debt of gratitude to my parents for getting me into reading in general at a young age, and for introducing me to writers like Kurt Vonnegut and John Irving once I was old enough to appreciate them. I remember being entranced by Welcome to the Monkey House after I got it as a Christmas present and finishing it in just a couple of hours. I was completely drawn in by Vonnegut’s style and cynicism. Even when his stories are complex, he still guides you through with a very colloquial and disarmingly kind voice. He puts his hand on your shoulder while telling you that the world is a terrible, awful place, which is comforting in a way. Irving’s been inspiring, too, both philosophically and as a writer. The way his books serve as biographies of his characters is also affecting; even though our own existence may not be as intriguing as those of Homer Wells or T.S. Garp, we can take comfort in knowing that, like them, we live full lives surrounded by those that care about us, in spite of the occasional ether overdose or political assassination.
Where/how do you find the most inspiration?
For me, ideas usually come in the form of a single line or image from an overheard conversation, or a dream, or something else throughout the day. Stories come about when I try to bounce those tidbits off of each other to see what works together or can inspire characters and plot. I do the same thing with whole stories that I’m not pleased with or aren’t going anywhere; I’ll sell the best portions for scraps to other, in-progress stories.
What does your family think of your writing?
They’ve been nothing but supportive. My siblings and I have always been encouraged to follow our creative passions, and it means a lot to have that parental love behind you when you’re just starting out in the competitive world of writing and publishing.
What is your work schedule like when you're writing?
I’m one of those people that keeps very odd hours. I feel like my works best very late at night/early in the morning, so I’ll usually start writing at around 1AM and go until I feel tired enough to sleep. The biggest thing I need to work on is making my writing a regular habit, even if I’m uninspired. That will come with time, hopefully.
Do you have any writing quirks or rituals?
Most of my writing-related weirdness stems from the music I listen to while working. When I’m starting something new, I need instrumental music that isn’t quite classical, so I listen to a lot of Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Rachel’s, Clogs, and others. Once I’ve gotten a story down on paper, though, I like to assign different music to each character or situation. Giving everything a theme song just works for me. It sort of grounds these creations of mine in something tangible and listenable.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
For some reason, I find it difficult to write without constantly proofreading as I go. I need to work on just letting things flow in that initial burst of writing so that I can come back and make changes later. I also tend to abandon ideas too quickly sometimes. If something’s not working, my first instinct is to scrap the entire thing rather than to let it sit for a while and return later. Again, it’s just a matter of adjusting myself from writing creatively for college credit to writing as a line of work.
What are your current projects?
I’m currently working on a few dozen short stories of various lengths that will hopefully coalesce into some sort of collection at a point down the road.
What are you planning for future projects?
I try to not look too far ahead to the future, but I have been bouncing an idea for a novel around in my head. It would be inspired by thrillers like The 39 Steps where the everyday man gets caught up in some international conspiracy, but would take place in a world like The World Beyond in The Phantom Tollbooth, perhaps with fewer puns and wordplay. Again, very preliminary and slightly insane.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
The only group of writers I feel at all qualified to give advice to would be college undergrads who are thinking about going into the world of writing: it will be difficult for a while once you’re out there on your own, but there is something thrilling in the not knowing and in finally breaking through and getting published. The rewards certainly outweigh the disappointments.
Where else can we find your work?
Another of my stories, “Storage” will be in the next issue of the Susquehanna Review. I’ve also just started a blog (andrewcothren.com/blog) that will feature stories, reviews, photos, and anything else I can muster.