What is a Real Substitute For Blood?: An Interview with Patty Yumi Cottrell
Patty Yumi Cottrell’s debut novel is Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, an “anti-memoir” about Helen Moran, a thirty-two year old adopted Korean woman who has to return to Milwaukee to investigate the sudden death of her fellow adopted Korean brother. It’s a weird little stall because the lurch of Helen’s brother’s death will get you to turn the page, but there are so many things that only Helen could say that will make you want to read and re-read them and cut them out and wear them into a suit of koan-like kernels to guide you through your each and every day. Helen drops gems like “the eye is a terrible organ” or “time itself is nothing but a construction to organize and measure flesh decay.” All the while cramming into this claustrophobic home that never really felt like a home with her adoptive white parents who are disappointed when she accidentally kills all the flowers meant for her brother’s funeral. There’s a vision of a balding European man. Books on drawings of trees in the Midwest. The abyss. Chad Lambo, the grief counselor. It’s a weird and dark and funny stroll. It nods to Sheila Heti, Thomas Bernhard, and Miranda July, but is completely of Patty Yumi Cottrell’s own making. After all, in the words of Helen, “everything in the world is a palimpsest, motherfuckers!”
Helen has such a distinct voice. She’s a little distanced and almost naive but also very attuned and confident in other ways. She’s also really funny. How long did it take you to find the right voice? Did it come instantly or after subsequent drafts? Do you remember the first sentence or passage where you felt like you “nailed it”?
Writing the book began a few years ago when I wasn’t writing anything. At that time I was reading books by dead writers. At some point, I started to write a book in my head. I thought about a particular tone I wanted, and by the time I sat down to write, the voice arrived immediately, which I attribute mostly to luck and maybe a little to the fact that for almost two years I read very little contemporary fiction. The first sentence I wrote was the first sentence of the book and has remained that way for years. As I continued on, I didn’t have the sense I had nailed anything, but I knew there was something off-putting about the narrator; I was repulsed by and attracted to how much space her self-absorption takes up in the middle of a family tragedy. Her brother has just killed himself. She’s stressed out about what type of sweater to wear to the funeral. It’s supposed to be funny. The humor in the book arises naturally from the narrator’s lack of awareness and her wretched situation. I was thinking about Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm and how he continually fucks things up over and over, yet he doesn’t realize how much he’s fucking things up for everyone, and most importantly, he doesn’t seem to care.
Larry David is spot on. I was never repulsed by her because her aloofness made the self involvement somehow more permissible. How hard was it trying to find that balance? Were there moments early on when you felt like things she did or things she said tipped too far into being unsympathetic or too off putting? Did you have to cut anything along those lines?
I thought it would be best to follow the narrator’s voice and see where it led me. Sometimes the forest of her mind was confusing as fuck. But I never worried about her being too unsympathetic. I remember thinking that perhaps the more unsympathetic she was, the more humorous it would be.
The voice almost reminds me of some of the work of Miranda July. But it’s still very much your own creation. Do you have a list of authors or books that helped hone Helen’s voice? Did you have to do any curating? Avoiding certain works? Pressing into others? Did Helen’s voice come naturally or did it take some time to re-enter her world during each writing session?
I love Miranda July. I’m a huge fan of hers. When I was writing my book, I wasn’t engaging with a lot of contemporary fiction though. Because I had a set out with a clear purpose, which was to write my way through someone’s mind, her inner world, when I sat down to work on the book, Helen’s voice arrived quickly and easily. It’s possible I created space for her voice to arrive like that because I made the decision to exert little control over what was happening. It was an interesting experience to have this specific task in mind, but to also have an open way of getting through it. I was curious about digression and how that could work in a novel. I lost my way over and over, I went down a number of weird paths, and I left all of that in the book, because that drifting is part of the narrator’s searching mind. It was a great joy that I was able to work with an editor who understood what was happening. The narrator, Helen, pays such close attention to particular things, but maybe the larger, more important things she doesn’t pay any attention to. That’s how people get lost, I think.
Regarding long form vs. short form, do you feel like one fits you more naturally or is it totally dependent on the story being told? How different is your process for your shorter work? After writing this novel has anything about your process in writing shorter pieces changed?
I like to disappear into writing; when I’m working on something, I want to be consumed by it, I want to forget that I exist. Not much has changed in my process since finishing this book. Maybe I now I permit myself to become uncomfortable with my own writing, and at times, nauseated by it. Recently, I wrote an essay and when it was done, a few minutes later I came down with flu-like symptoms. That’s never happened to me before. But the essay is so personal, and from such a raw and brutal place, I’m not surprised that writing it made me ill.
Classifications can obviously be helpful as organizational or marketing tools, but often times people feel like they box in a work. Some people shun them altogether. Others embrace them. Oftentimes it depends on who is doing the classifying. When I was reading this, I kept thinking, well, libraries/bookstores/lists are going to throw this under the Asian American/Korean/Adoption banner. And while the book is so clearly about those things, it’s such an original piece of writing that it almost needs its own category that would encompass all those things plus grief, houses, suicide, Milwaukee, New York, art, brother and sisterhood, and on and on. Do you welcome those sorts of broader classifications? Or do you eschew them altogether?
Marketing is something I’m indifferent to and sometimes embarrassed by. I like your classifications, especially how they’re not tied to an identity. I don’t have a problem with the Asian American/Korean/Adoption banner. I’m not thrilled with it, either. Maybe classification itself can be problematic. Like you said, it depends on who’s doing it and who is allowed to do it and who it’s for and for what purposes. I would not classify my book as a traditional adoption story. It might be thought of as anti-adoption. I don’t think the question of what category the book fit into was something that I ever concerned myself with as I was writing it, so it’s hard to say now. I don’t embrace identity boxes or categories and I don’t eschew them, either. I understand why they exist, and they can be useful. I don’t know. The main way I apprehend the world is through uncertainty. Categories themselves are thought of as fixed and stable, and they are not. My sense is I generally don’t trust them.
The majority of this novel is set in Milwaukee. And it bounces between Milwaukee and New York, often juxtaposing those two cultures. Your bio notes that you lived in Milwaukee. I know you live in Los Angeles now, but did you spend any time living in New York? And was it easier to write about Milwaukee after having left it? Did you return to do any research or were you less focused on creating this “factual” sense of Milwaukee and rather Helen’s own experience?
I lived in New York City for three years. The life I lived there was not sustainable. For one thing, I was always convinced we had bed bugs, and this drove everyone around me crazy. I would spend hours under the bed with a flashlight and a roll of tape, obsessively taping every crevice in the wooden bedframe. So I had a difficult time even though I love New York City. The Milwaukee of my book is not the real or factual Milwaukee by any means. It could have been Seattle or Houston or Minneapolis. Looking back, I don’t even know why I chose Milwaukee, except that I thought it was funny because few books are set in Milwaukee. Not many people know anything about it except the people that live there. I lived there for a long time with my parents and two brothers on a tree-lined street, and then on my own in various apartments and houses, but I don’t return to it that often.
The house is almost its own character in the novel. Helen feels like an outsider after she returns to her childhood home as an adult, and she explains that she always felt that way. And yet there’s a scene toward the end where she’s in her house as an adult and she hears all these voices underneath her and she feels this sense of warmth. Can you talk about that sense of balance? The house isn’t just one thing. You imbue the house with these different traits just like a multi-faceted character. Why was that important to you?
Thank you for noticing that paragraph. That texture of feeling is something I’ve experienced myself, and it’s hard to articulate because it’s so personal. It’s like a secret park I visit every once in a while if I’m feeling really anxious or down. To be clear, I don’t have that exact memory, rather I’ve had experiences in my life that have the same feeling. I like what you’ve said about the house as a character. Helen feels this physical connection to the house as a place she used to inhabit and at the same time, she’s disgusted by it. It’s similar perhaps to the feeling you might have when you encounter a person you used to sleep with. When you see the person, you might feel a mixture of friendliness and disgust. I think that’s how Helen feels about re-inhabiting her childhood home.
After I read The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard, it was impossible to see or to feel that a house is simply a house. The house is like a weird, comfortable, sinister and decrepit gothic character; it possesses its own hellish energy as a space of inertia. I’m interested in proportion, but I wonder if it’s something one can have any control over. I have this strange belief that things in the book will be proportionate and balanced if they’re ambiguous. In some ways, I’m intentional but perhaps in the traditional ways I’m not. The best way I can explain it is when I write I feel like I’m walking up a hill; by the time I reach the end of the book, I want to feel like I’m standing at the top of the hill, looking down. I’m not a writer who thinks, “Here on this page I’ll sift magical realism over the scene and then it will be done.” I suppose that’s one way of writing a book, but it’s not a book I’m interested in writing.
Yes. When I came across that passage, like you, while I’ve never experienced that exact scenario, I’ve definitely had similar situations that left me with that feeling. And when I read it, I almost had this bodily sensation of recognition. Like when someone taps into something so true to you that you never acknowledged or knew existed. When you came to that moment, in going back to your process, was it something you knew you were trying to get across on the page? Or did it just naturally arise in the moment as you were building that scene bit by bit? In writing this novel, was any of it planned in advance? Big set pieces or particular scenes you knew had to happen? Or were even those elements organically driven by that step by step process?
If I had to write set pieces, I would hate writing. The idea of writing like that is repellent to me, truly off-putting. My writing is not an accident, and it doesn’t just magically happen, but the process itself is mysterious and private. Writing and being alive are intertwined for me. Sometimes I’m writing in my head when I’m driving or cleaning the house or exercising. A book is an outcome, but not the most significant one.
There are a lot of allusions to classical literature in SORRY. At the end you even give us the source information. Since your process is so intuitive, were these allusions to Herbert and Lispector and Coleridge just naturally arising as you were cobbling together this world? Or were they intentional nods to the forefathers and foremothers of this particular novel?
Those allusions arose naturally as I was writing. There’s a phrase by Nabokov from Lolita, one of my favorite books of all time: “flattish and faded.” That is a crucial phrase in the book. It’s like blood. What is a real substitute for blood? One afternoon I spent hours trying to re-write it, because my editor wasn’t sure we would be allowed to use it. Attempting to rewrite that phrase was a special form of hell. It drove me crazy and it took me down. In the end, whoever or whatever is in control of Nabokov’s work said it was okay. I am very thankful for that.