Category Archives: Politics

“The Next Big Thing” Interview Project: John Copenhaver

Me in hat“The Next Big Thing” book interview project asks writers to answer a series of questions about their recent or forthcoming book, post it on their blog/web-space, and tag others for the next week.  Thanks to poet Chloe Yelena Miller for tagging me last week!

What is the title of the book?

Dodging and Burning.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

My inspiration came from two separate but connected events:  My reading of Walter Benjamin’s analysis of photography, and my decision to come out of the closet as a gay man.  Benjamin argues that photographs distort reality and only can be given value if paired with the right caption.  Being in the closet is like being a photo without a caption.  The only way to correct that distortion is to tell the story behind the façade.  Dodging and Burning is the mystery behind a crime scene photograph, but more accurately it’s an exploration of the way photos can twist our understanding of others and ourselves if their captions remain unwritten, their stories untold.

What genre does your book fall under?

Literary Mystery.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I love this question, because I think about it a lot.  Sadly, most of the actors I’d cast are dead.  One of my main characters, Bunny Prescott, is based on Gene Tierney; in fact, other characters tell her that she resembles Tierney.  But, to play fair, I’d cast Elle Fanning as Ceola (my earnest teenager), who has both gravitas and levity, Saoirse Ronan as Bunny (my love-confused debutant), who can be chilly and vulnerable, and Andrew Garfield (my wounded gay war photographer), who is wonderful at playing pained but not self-indulgent characters.  I loved him in Never Let Me Go.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Two young women attempt to solve the mystery of the photograph of beautiful corpse only to discover that the true mystery lies in the heart of the photographer.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Three-years.  Keep in mind of course I was working full time as an English teacher.  It took several more years to whip it into shape.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?


It began at Bread Loaf English of English when I took a course called “Photography and Modernity.”  It changed the way I looked at photography and, eventually, all visual media.  Also, I read Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, a genre-bending novel, a masterpiece that skillfully weaves together low and high forms.  And of course, my own personal journey out of the closet.  My theme, as I see it,  is the need for narrative.  Images without narrative (or worse images with a false narrative) can twist our understanding of reality, pushing us further from empathy and deeper into darkness.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m represented by the fabulous Annie Bomke of ABLiteary and currently in search of a publisher.

Look for these writers’ Next Big Thing interviews:

Kate Hattemer

Andy Peters

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Why failing gracefully deserves admiration

I’ve been thinking a lot about why taking risks is so important.  It’s actually a theme that emerges both in my profession as a teacher and my desire to be a published writer.  It’s also something which is necessary for growth.  It’s something that each of us needs in order to develop intellectually, physically, and spiritually.  If we don’t take risks, we don’t evolve; if we don’t evolve, we are static—and static beings perish; it’s a law of nature.

Often the byproduct of risk is failure.  Our society—particularly American culture—despises failure, whether it’s in the arena of sports or in business ventures or in an artistic endeavors.  This mentality rolls down from popular culture through peers, parents and even educational institutes, and gathers in many of the students I teach, filling them with anxiety and tipping them toward neurosis.

This fear of failure takes an even more troubling turn when students believe that grades—simply having A’s—is more important than learning.  In other words, seeming to have succeeded is more important than actually succeeding.  Having an A in English is more important than having learned how to write a clear and cohesive argument.  I hardly blame the students, though, when our culture is giving them every indication that this is a perfectly acceptable way of thinking.  Even our political parties are more concerned with “winning” instead of compromise and healthy debate.  They don’t want a clear and cohesive argument; they want their position of power, their A.

We need a paradigm shift where taking risks, whether the individual fails or succeeds, is respected, and playing it safe is viewed as cowardly.  We need to punch holes in superficial success, often monetary success, and define what real success is—which is, in a word, growth.  More specifically—growth of character.  You never grow more than when you fail, so in that sense, failure—at least failure born of risk—is success.

So, all pontificating aside, I must turn that theory back on myself and my professional goals.  I must take risks in my teaching.  I must take risks in my writing.  And when I fail, which I will, I need to fend off that horrible anxiety, those whispering judgmental voices, which often are only promoting or critiquing superficial success.  Of course, the best defense against those voices is the voice of a friend, loved-one, or colleague reminding me of what I believe deep down—that to gracefully fail, to learn from that failure, is succeeding.

I hope I can do the same for others.

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What the hell is it? Mystery fiction? Literary Fiction? (And Does It Matter?)

A genre war has been going on inside me for some time.

I love the structure of the mystery story, how it attempts to rectify the past and the present of its fictional world, a gesture that, to varying degrees, we are all asked to make in our lives.  Some of my favorite literary books—Atwood’s Blind Assassin, Byatt’s Possession, and Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea—address this theme in rich and compelling ways, and blatantly steal structural techniques from the mystery or thriller genre.  Also, well-written detective stories tend to ride a fine line between romanticism and realism.  Some of the greats of American hard-boiled detective fiction come to mind: Chandler and Cain.  The tension between the beauty of a dream and the sting of reality is a deeply American concern, one that dominates one of the most famous of texts of American literature, The Great Gatsby (which by some has been classified as crime fiction).  It’s also a theme which is alive and well in our culture.  Think: Reality TV, celebrity culture, and political spin doctoring—or even more insidious, the 2008 banking collapse and recession.

If taken at face value, my novel Dodging and Burning, as well as my newest project, are mystery novels.  However, my principle concern is character, not plot, so they don’t fit neatly into the mystery genre, although if the blessed day arrives, I don’t have a problem with them being marketed as such.  My fantastic agent, Annie Bomke, will certainly guide me in this.

For now, I’m comfortable walking the line between mystery and literary fiction.  (Maybe that makes me more marketable, I don’t know.  Tana French, Benjamin Black, among others are doing it and doing it well.)  Wilkie Collins, in his 1868 preface to The Moonstone, the granddaddy of detective novels, stated his objective in the novel was to trace the influence of character on circumstances.  It seems to me, even in detective fiction, plot should be a result of character, especially a character who is trying to resolve discrepancies between his past and present, between his romantic ideals and the hard truth.  For that reason, I do embrace the notion that, although we may have different categories for types of fiction, the basic foundations should be the same.

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Is Seeing Believing?

Ways of Seeing, a famous book by John Berger about reading art and images, begins with the statement: “Seeing comes before words.  The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.”

As a high school English teacher, I’m aware that the students I’m teaching live in a primarily visual culture.  The texts that I’m asking them to read—whether it’s Richard III or 1984—are in competition with the visual stimuli that glows on their computer screens or smartphones or high-def TV sets.   They are bombarded with visuals and visual language every day—and because seeing comes before understanding, these images are incredibly powerful in shaping the way my students (or frankly, many adults) view the world.  If perception helps mold that amorphous thing we call reality, then visuals and all the editing and crafting and contextualizing that goes into making them is altering and at times unhinging reality.

Reading, of course, is in part an act of creation where the participant must visualize and internalize the text in hand; viewing images—whether in a YouTube video or a movie or a TV show—can also be an act of creation and interpretation—but very few students understand how to read visual media.  They are easily persuaded to believe what they see because they don’t understand it as an art form—that it is, in part, artifice.  In terms of news media, it’s clear to see how this is dangerous.  The degree to which the news alters the truth and changes our sense of reality is upsetting—but in some ways, that’s old news. Many teachers are already arming their students with the tools to question what they see and hear in journalistic media.  But there’s more to it than that …

Fictional visual narratives—from “Realty TV” shows to AMC’s serious dramas like Madmen or Breaking Bad—also have a powerful ability to shape our sense of reality.  For instance, I wonder how many of you who are Madmen fans are convinced that the 1960s were just as the show’s creators have portrayed them.  The show’s images and characters are so powerful (and so well crafted) that, to a certain extent, I find myself visualizing that decade based on the show’s terms, which if I didn’t question what I saw, could be problematic.

When we read a novel set in the 1960s, we’ve been trained to see as emerging from a particular perspective—the writer’s.  However, when we watch a TV show, although we should realize that we are getting a specific point-of-view, we don’t think of it that way because we haven’t been trained to think of it that way.  As a culture—and I see this in my students all the time—we give the visual narrative greater authority than the written narrative.  It seems to us to be more authentic, more believable, more real.  And this really concerns me.

As an English teacher, my ultimate goal in terms of the content of my courses is to help my students understand the craftsmanship behind of what they read.  For some time now, to varying degrees of success, I’ve been doing this.  It helps the kids to become better readers and better writers.  However, now, I’m also feeling the need to teach them how to interpret the craft behind the visual narratives they are confronted with every day.  I want them to understand and appreciate a well built film or TV show or photo story, but I also want them to realize these art forms should not have greater authority than the written word—and that if we give them that authority, we can warp our sense of what it real and what isn’t.

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Finding what I was looking for … at the Lambda Writers’ Retreat

Left to Right: Andy Peters (Queer Y/A Fastasy Writer), Robin Talley (Queer Y/A Writer), Katherine Forrest (Retreat Faculty, Mystery Writer), Yours Truly

Here, in DC, I have many lovely and supportive writer-friends, and many wonderful and encouraging gay and lesbian friends, but I know—really know—no gay or lesbian friends who write seriously.  Last week, I spent seven days at the Lambda Writers’ Retreat at UCLA getting to know many amazing LGBT writers and learning even more about craft in my workshop on genre fiction led by Katherine V. Forrest, a pioneer lesbian mystery writer and editor.

I’ve been in and out of a lot of fiction workshops and literary communities, and frankly, before I arrived at LA, I was worried that this experience would be no different.  By this point—after cycling through both undergraduate and graduate writing workshops, which for the most part confused and befuddled me—I’d written off that sort of experience.  I craved direct instruction on craft, something I’d never had in a fiction workshop.  I’ve been critiqued out of my mind by my peers, but never explicitly lectured to about the do’s and don’t’s of craft.  For the most part, I’ve had to figure out craft on my own.  Thank God for Katherine! For the first part of the workshop, she offered concrete guidelines on writing genre fiction.  Then, when we began critiquing novel excerpts, I had the most supportive and honest workshop I’ve ever experienced.  It was downright therapeutic for me.

What amazed me the most about the Retreat, however, was that so many people with so many different backgrounds, inclinations, and identifiers could come together and support one another without the uneasy undercurrent of competition.   I know this sounds a bit sentimental—believe me WASPy stoicism runs deep in my blood—but what I witnessed was a community of people whose first impulse was to love and accept one another, not be suspicious of one another.  Perhaps, it’s just that I’ve lived in DC too long, but that experience was really unique for me.  It has a lot to do with the strength of the LGBT community and with the way Lambda Literary is getting things right.

Writers and artists of all types need to support one another like this more often—but as it becomes increasing competitive to publish, this sort of experience, I imagine, will become even rarer.   My hope is that, in the future, MFA programs and the like will begin seeing that part of their responsibility to their students is to help them form a strong sense of community.

Ultimately writing is a solitary experience, but being a writer doesn’t have to be.

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We are not masters of ourselves.

During the 10th grade year at my school, we teach British Literature.  Midway through the school year, we read several of the great essayists from the 17th century, and discuss the art and craft of the persuasive essay.  Later in the year, we read some of the great Romantic poets, such as Wordsworth and Keats.  One of my aims as a teacher is to contrast Enlightenment thinkers, who scorned subjectivity, believing that scientific method was the key to unlocking the mysteries of the universe, and the Romantics of the early 19th century, who embraced human emotion and the individual’s exploration of imagination as a way of gesturing toward the great questions that linger before us.

I encourage my students to contrast Enlightenment and Romantic philosophies to highlight the tension between reason and emotion, between the need to construct a civilization with a agreed-upon set of values and the raw force of our individual perspectives.  I do this, not because I think its a problem that this tension exists, but because we as a society don’t really understand it.  We are increasing becoming a culture in which feelings become facts, and attitudes become truths—and that IS problematic.

In a Mother Jones article, “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science,” Chris Mooney argues that reason is always going to be tainted by emotion, that the first interpretation of facts is often, if not always, self-interested.  We want the facts to conform to our sense of reality, and therefore, we rationalize more than we reason.  The Romantics were right—our emotions are a powerful force of Nature and can never be completely tamed.  Ultimately, we are not masters of ourselves.

However, more so than ever, we can’t allow our emotions and our beliefs go unchecked.  Our troubled political environment is a great example of this.  In Mooney’s article (which I do highly recommend), he points out the losing battle of emotions over facts: “Because researchers employ so much nuance and disclose so much uncertainty, scientific evidence is highly susceptible to selective reading.  Giving ideologues or partisans scientific data that’s relevant to their beliefs is like unleashing them in the motivated-reasoning equivalent of a candy store.”

Different factions select and arrange facts to support their perspectives, and the news media continues to encourage this behavior to boost their ratings.  News has become entertainment because partisan conflict sells ad space.  Period.  Although, of course, news media has always been partisan to a degree, it has never before been so omnipresent in our daily lives, and never before encouraged and funded so many talking heads, who are less interested in truth and more interested in establishing a contentious position that makes for a “good fight” on a nightly talk show.

I do what I can to combat this.  I emphasize to my students the power of emotion and the fragility of facts.  I encourage them to write essays which are more an act of exploration than a exercise in writing to a predetermined conclusion.  However, many of them are uncomfortable with writing as journey, because we live in a world where we value conviction more than we value truth.  Our culture—particularly the news media—is constantly reenforcing the notion that you should pick a belief and defend it no matter what.  We are being told that conviction and resolve are what make us Americans, anything less would be unpatriotic.  This is a simpler way to live our lives, but it’s also potentially dishonest.

An open search for truth isn’t easy because we are always having to guard against self-interested emotions and be willing to shift our perspectives, to allow ambiguity in, to be uncertain.  I want my students to become comfortable with that struggle, respecting the power of their own emotions and taking into consideration ALL of the facts when forming an opinion.  But this takes a great deal of practice and a willingness to create and destroy and create again without losing sight of their purpose—honest expression.

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“The Houses We Live In”: Historical Truth and Imagination

Using the Hipstamatic camera app on my iPhone, I took this close-up of one of the ads on the flyer.

My partner Jeff and I have been redecorating my office in anticipation of the arrival of new furniture which I purchased recently (See “Creating Space to Write”.).  On Saturday, we ripped up old wall-to-wall carpeting that had been installed over 10 years ago by the previous owners of the townhouse.  As we pulled the carpet pad back, we noticed a loose board in the pine flooring.  Curious, we lifted it up.  Inside we found a treasure trove.

The townhouse was constructed in 1901, and for quite a few years, it served as a boarding house.  It still feels compartmentalized, each room its own little bubble of life, like a dormitory.  So, it’s not surprising that one of the boarders who lived here would leave behind traces of his or her existence.  Under the floorboard and coated with fine dust, we found a letter penned by a woman named Catherine; a hand-drawing of Harold Lloyd, a famous silent film comedian; three empty Chesterfield cigarette packets; two Hershey bar wrappers; and an ad for women’s cosmetics, all dating back to the 1920’s or early 1930’s.

This is the sort of thing I live for.  The past has always held a fascination for me, particularly the first part of the 20th century, when life was rapidly, breathlessly becoming modern, the American infatuation with progress crashing into older, more conservative sensibilities.  I even set my first novel during the 1920s, and my second during the 1940s.  Finding fragments from a life lived during the 1920’s and 30’s—especially fragments which seem so unconscious (not orchestrated for posterity)—is food for my imagination.  So, I took the time to transcribe Catherine’s letter.  Here’s what I could piece together:

Dear Pal,

Please don’t think I have forgotten you I only wish you thought of me as much as I do of you.  But you know everything is with … it is quite unfors … me … to see you … then I do … wish you could … how badly I want … you I have a lot … you.  If you can a … to come to see me real soon let me know and I will be at home any day you say.  The weather have has been very hot and sulky here we haven’t … any rain for nearly three … so you know how hot … I went to the movies and saw dancing sweeties.  I mean it was a really hot picture.  I just wish you could see me now.  It is 3:00 AM and I still have my night gown … I haven’t even combed my hair … writing this letter with …  me and I got ink all … night gown and leg.  Some … [a]sk?)  We were Chapel … s Sunday. W… the water … stagesant [stagnant?] do to hot weather … [wou]ldn’t allow you to take any showers on account of the shortage of water  For there hadn’t been any rain for a long while.  Gee it surly is lonesome here all day with nothing to do … time I realy hate my self … answer soon as I want … from you—  Catherine

So, who is Catherine?  Did she live for a time in my office?  Did she smoke Chesterfields and blow smoke out the window, hiding them when the landlord came around?  She must have loved Hershey’s bars, but why hang on to the wrappers?  Why did she keep a doodle of Harold Lloyd?  Who is the “Pal” she addresses in the letter?  Or maybe it was “Pal” who lived in my office.  After all, the letter is folded as if it had been mailed.  But what would he be doing with a cosmetics ad?  Of course, there’s no reason why Pal couldn’t have been a woman, right?  One thing is certain, though, Catherine missed Pal and felt insecure about their relationship: “I only wish you thought of me as much as I do you.”  There is irrefutable residue of her emotion.

Like the letter, the lives of these people are so full of ellipses—ellipses that no amount of research can fill.  I believe it’s the job of the writer of serious historical fiction to use his or her imagination to fill in the ellipses left by time.  History is recorded almost always by those in power and most certainly with posterity in mind.  It’s up to the writer of historical fiction to see beyond the facade of history and imagine how life was lived by those not in power—women, blacks, gays, etc.

The contents of the hiding place underneath the floorboards in my office

This reminds me of a passage from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own:

“For fiction, imaginative work that is, is not dropped like a pebble upon the ground, as science my be; fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners … But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.”

Shortly after this passage, Woolf imagines the life of Shakespeare’s sister, Judith, who she invents to demonstrate how it’s only through imagination that we can begin to understand the truth of the past.

Catherine and her lover have already begun to stir in the corners of my mind.  I’m sure that I’ll write about them, and it will be 99% invention, but no less true, no less significant.  I must recreate them to say something about the past, to give a legacy for what has been forgotten or edited out of the history books.

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