Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Douglas Cole’s fiction piece, The Machine Shop at the End of the World
Sommer: I love how this story starts in medias res, right in the middle of things without any preamble whatsoever. Seems like a ballsy move. How’d you find the balls?
Douglas: Uhmm…. Aristotle’s Poetics. He describes that as a feature of drama. I read the Poetics, so, I guess somewhere along the way the idea sunk in. I didn’t plan for this story to be something that started in the middle of things in the classical sense. But of course it is part of a longer work, so, it really is in the middle of things. But I think it’s a moment that hovers well in its own little paper universe.
This story makes me laugh out loud every time I read it. Who are some of your favorite humorists and why?
Oh, who wrote that character Ignatius J. Riley? I like Mark Twain, certainly. Swift is funny. Sherman Alexie can be funny. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are funny writers. I like stand-up comedians. Jesus’ Son is funny. Dorothy Parker slings the zingers.
One aspect I love about this story is how it shows that genius can be found in the most unassuming places. Tony, for instance, is this blue-collar, probably uneducated laborer who happens to know everything there is to know about rock-n-roll music and its influences in history. What kind of characters are you most interested in writing about, and in what ways do they guide (or follow) the story you have to tell?
Some of the most intelligent people I’ve met haven’t been to college. Then again, intelligence, well…I think I learned young that there is a very important kind of intelligence that you just can’t acquire in a classroom. The kind you need to read a situation and understand what people are thinking and doing, maybe even before they know. I respect that kind of intelligence because…it snaps on or it doesn’t, and that might make all the difference.
I don’t think I’ve ever considered what kinds of characters I write about. I mostly write about people I know and throw them into the particle mixer with other people I know and people I’ve read about and dreamed about. But a lot of the characters I write about are poor or live on the margins of the American Dream. That in itself is a conflict. But I don’t have an agenda, meaning I’m not a pamphleteer. Maybe I’m prejudiced. The sufferings of the rich seem…I mean, the suffering of people who really worry about where the money’s coming from and what they’re going to put in the refrigerator is different…Well, we all suffer, so…
Will Larry ever get it right?
Larry can’t get it right, ever. He’s stuck. He’s stuck in a rut. He’s trapped in the amber, sad to say, but he doesn’t know it. So, no, he can never get it right. Well, I mean, the minute I say that, then I remember that an electron can be in two places at the same time, so, yeah, maybe Larry has a universe where he gets it right. Not this one, though.
Do you have any advice to writers about handling rejection?
Don’t take it so personally. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again.
I guess I should say more. Okay. Use it as an existential exercise. You’re right in the moment. What does that email or that letter, if you’re doing it the old fashioned way, really change about your moment? The air get any hotter? Did you step in any quicksand or out the door of a plane at 35,000 feet? Perspective. And your work? Does one, five, twenty people’s opinions change your attitude about your work? Would you cut your hair every day if someone said they didn’t like the way it looked?
Then again, listen…one of the privileges of getting any response at all is that you might get a good piece of advice. Is it worse to get a rejection or look at something in print and realize it’s under-done and you shouldn’t have sent it out in the first place? Balance. Clean, cool consideration. Measure twice, cut once. I’ve made some changes that editors have asked for. I’ve not changed some pieces because they were right for me. Rejection? Wow…if that’s the worst you have to suffer in this life…
I understand this story is a part of a novel that may soon be published. Can you tell us a little bit about the novel and how writing it differed from writing shorter fiction?
This particular novel came as a lightning bolt to the head. I wrote it out by hand in one long fever dream over maybe two weeks, 30, 40 thousand words. Then I built it from there. It was a work of accretion. I would read it again, and it would fill in a bit more each time, like a kid gaining weight. But I had the bones and sinews right off the bat. That was nice. Every scene, every move from beginning to end was already in place. It’s not always that way, but it was with this one.
Shorter pieces come this way, too, sometimes. Sometimes it’s a mystery, an adventure, like a rider out there I’m following, and I don’t know where he’s leading me, and he doesn’t know where he’s going.
Thank you for doing this interview with me, and congratulations!
Thank you. I appreciate the questions, and I’m grateful you chose my story for the journal.