WIPs Conversation: Raymond Cothern on his work in progress

Raymond CothernRaymond Cothern studied writing with Walker Percy and Vance Bourjaily. Winner of the Deep South Writers Conference and the St. Tammany National One-Act Play Festival, his plays have been produced in New York City. Nominated for a Pushcart Prize, his fiction, poetry, and essays have been published in North American Review, Manchac, Intro 8, Two Thirds North, American Antheneum, and in the book Meanwhile Back at the Café Du Monde.

Raymond, in “Motherless Child,” Sarah reflects on her unusual upbringing after her mother Lacey’s suicide. At times, the roles of mother and daughter had seemingly reversed, and Sarah finds herself “admitting again she became a psychiatric social worker with dim hopes of saving her mother, or failing that, saving herself.” Perhaps she failed to save her mother, but, as the narrative slowly reveals more about Sarah’s own personal struggles, it seems to offer hope for her by the end. Although largely focused on Lacey, do you consider “Motherless Child” an indirect route to Sarah’s own story?

Oh, absolutely. It is as much Sarah’s story as it is her mother’s. Some may be left to the reader’s imagination how much Lacey’s actions may have affected her daughter. The thought of a mother sharing intimate details of a sexual nature with a daughter might make the skin crawl, for a daughter as well perhaps for a reader. Having repeated plenty of parental patterns of my own, and especially seeing how much I passed on to my two daughters, I have always been fascinated at how much less desirable attributes—whether genetically or environmentally—get pushed on.

The Whole Lying Opera, the entire collection which includes “Motherless Child,” is comprised of stories representing their entire family. Will readers find numerous stories with Sarah and/or Lacey. Are Stephen, Billy Wayne or Karla Mae central figures elsewhere in the book?

The linked collection of stories covers 50 years, 1965 to the present, but not necessarily in chronological order. Memory and how it works or doesn’t work is a huge element in my work. My youngest daughter had encephalitis and had to fight to get her memory back. My mother who just died on Christmas night was over 100 years old and I witnessed how she compressed time and confused events. Like everyone, I’ve seen how memory functions (or should) and how when we think of something in the past, it is immediate, a significant part of that present moment of remembering. So the stories jump around in time, shading events and characters in other times. The characters of the Leleux family appear in most of the stories—Luther, Billy Wayne, Karla Mae, Lacey, Sarah—and the timeline looks like this: the present, 1965, 2014, 1965, 1992, 1968, 2000, 2007, and the present. It’s not as confusing as I’ve made it sound.

Lacey’s teenage years and early married life was marked by events surrounding the tumultuous sixties, when the sexual revolution was going full throttle and young people were tuning in, turning on, and dropping out. They were also getting drafted to fight in Vietnam, which in a way doomed her marriage right from the start. Are most of the stories in the book also set during this time?

Oh, Lordy, see that erratic timeline above. Lots of people roll their eyes when the subject of the 60’s comes up, but it was a time of tremendous change, politically as well as experimenting sexually. The upheaval marked anyone who lived through it. There’s a line I wrote in something else that applies here. “We sat around nights with parents and talked back with proper respect and resented them for slights we felt and then hugged them before going to bed. Then a decade down the road, behind all the talk and indifference, there were bodycounts on television, all of us better educated than our parents, discussing things with them we didn’t care about anymore.”

The story evokes a strong sense of place, both in recalling the past and also in the descriptions of Louisiana’s small towns and countryside during Sarah’s visit. Do you consider yourself a “Southern writer,” however that might be interpreted? Are there writers from the South that you feel have strongly influenced your own work?

I do consider myself a “Southern writer” and have no trouble being called that. Every writer is influenced by the place he came from and that permeates his writing to some degree. The heritage of place given voice by great “Southern writers” many times imparts a sense of family and history—whether that history is ground blood-soaked or merely littered with storm debris. It is simply home, pets buried in the backyard and relatives in the cemetery down the road, the place of growing up and learning the hard truths of living anywhere. Influences? Well, books are my salvation and my downfall. I taught myself to write creatively by reading. I learned early to appreciate literary writers as well as “storyteller” type writers. Good writing exists on many levels. I read The Moviegoer as a teenager and by a twist of fate I got to take Percy’s novel-writing class at LSU when I went back to school at age 29. So Percy influenced me along with many of those other “Southern writers”: Capote, Welty, Shirley Ann Grau, Reynolds Price, Barry Hannah, Ellen Gilchrist.

How are the stories for collection coming along? Do you have a finished manuscript that you can show agents or publishers?

I have finished a couple of drafts in its present form. For me it works well to put something aside for a fairly long period—sometimes several months—and when going back to it, maybe to do another complete draft, what’s bad tends to smack me in the face. I guess I am about to come out of that cooling off period. The other day I read the first story and felt the breezy attitude of the narrator seemed a little forced in a couple of places. Maybe it’s time to tackle another draft. But, yes, I would have no problem sending it off as it is now, noting that it is a work-in-progress.

What other creative projects have you got going these days?

Until I went back to LSU to finish my undergraduate degree at age 29, I was determined to be a playwright. (I was involved in theatre early in life and later owned a theatre with my wife and two daughters for 15 years.) I think writing in that form is the best training in the world. If you can write great dialogue and bring all the needed information out seamlessly, writing fiction is like being let out of prison. I still do work in that form and have a couple of full-length plays I keep sending out. A few of the shorter plays have won awards and been done in some festivals in New York City.

Thanks, Raymond. Is there anything else you’d like to share with or explain to readers?

Maybe a note to writers among them of all ages—and I consider myself to be an old emerging writer. It’s so easy to get discouraged. Like actors, writers get many more rejections than they have successes. I had just gotten a rejection for my memoir from a publishing program sponsored by the University of Georgia Press. The next day I got an acceptance for Motherless Child and this questionnaire from WIPs. So, sometimes even in writing, nature abhors a vacuum.

 Read “Motherless Child,” a story from Raymond Cothern’s collection in progress