Des Cooper will be joining us for two sessions at our 31st year of A Rally of Writers. Past presenter Andrea King Collier is interviewing our presenters, asking them about their experiences in writing, publishing, and life in general. You can also read Des’s bio on the Archive page. www.descooper.com
Many people know you as a journalist. How did the short story collection Know the Mother come about?
I’ve never not wanted to be a creative writer. I got into journalism as a way to make a living as a writer, but it was never a life ambition for me. Through the years of carving out a career and raising a family, I continued to write stories and meet with other creative writers to learn and grow. This collection was 20 years in the making, the result of my continued pushing to write whenever I could. My process is very much reflected in the theme of the book: How women fight to self-actualize beneath the often-crushing mantle of “mother.”
The cover of your book is extraordinary. Tell us about that process.
I am so proud of the cover, and of Wayne State University Press for making it happen. I really wanted the work of an African American Detroit artist to be on my cover…. I have lots of artist friends and I scoured their work, but I couldn’t find anything that perfectly depicted the themes of the book. So I Googled “African American surrealist” and up popped the extraordinary work of Karin Miller, who, of all things, is a white South African! She is a digital artist who uses icons of politics, history and religion to comment on race and gender. It was only after we got permission to use her piece “Guess Who?” for the cover that I learned that the woman in the image is actually Queen Elizabeth!
Did being an award winning journalist help you when it came to getting this collection published?
I think being a veteran journalist helped me write the book more than it helped me to get published. I have always seen myself as a creative writer who went into law and then into journalism to make a decent living writing. What I didn’t realize is that those two careers taught me so much about compressing narratives and squeezing a lot of information into tight spaces. When I finally had room in my life to do more creative writing, I found that I got lost or bored in long narratives. Instead, I had developed a mental muscle for short, concise writing. I always say that if there wasn’t any such thing as flash fiction (stories 1,000 words or less), I would have had to invent it.
A note for new writers: Even though I have worked in the media for more than two decades, I was not able to be my own publicist. Promoting fiction is a different world than writing news articles and columns. One of the best things I did for my book was hire a publicist to help me promote it.
What is your writing ritual?
I have no writing ritual, sorry to say. I write desperately in snatches when I can or when I must. Thanks to insomnia, I now often rise early to write, but this is a new experiment for me. We’ll see how long it lasts.
How does it feel to be on the other end of the interview process now?
I’ve always seen interviews as dialogues, even when I was the interviewer. This book has given me a welcome chance to talk to people everywhere about how gender and race permeate our most intimate moments. It’s been extraordinary.
You are a Michigander who also now lives in VA. Has this change of settings shifted your writing style and perspective?
I love Detroit and I miss it dearly. I moved there in the ’80s, in the middle of the crack epidemic and a recession, and raised a family and carved a career while living in the city for more than 25 years. To have to leave now, when things are so interesting, so alive and so creative is the cruelest irony. On the other hand, I really, really hate winter and it feels wonderful to have finally escaped the Michigan weather and trade it for Virginia Beach!
I moved to Virginia, however, not to retire in the sun, but to take care of my aging parents who both have memory issues. My own belongings are in storage and I bunk on a twin bed in the back bedroom of the family home. I’m isolated and caregiving full time. This has come with a profound sense of loss of self, of space, of personal meaning. I join the millions of (mostly) women who sacrificed to raise children and who must do it again to support their parents.
You are also a terrific blogger and you are also a sandwich generation caregiver. How do you juggle?
More than when my kids were little, I feel like now I’m writing for my life. Writing helps me remember who I am in the middle of all the demands. It’s a tough juggle and I run hot and cold. I often think, if only I didn’t want to write, I could relax into my current life and be less stressed. I slow down for awhile, but then the gate bursts and I’m going again. It’s like that line in Brokeback Mountain, “I wish I could quit ya.”
What’s next for you?
My writing is coming out in all forms these days. Since my book came out, I’ve published a number of essays, which is new for me but a logical extension of column writing. I continue to write freelance articles and publish flash fiction in online journals. But I think for the longer run, there’s a memoir in me. We’ll see!