Smoking With Thomas Cooper

by Nancy Stebbins Read the Story December 22, 2010

Jorge thinks that he and the narrator share a language. What is this language?

I think it’s a lack of language they share, or their inability to communicate in a meaningful way.

The narrator’s wife viewed by the light of the bug zapper is one of those images that sticks with me. Can you say what inspired it?

Yes, seeing a bug zapper glowing beside a pool. Ha.

Jorge’s mother gives a fantastic/magical explanation for Jorge’s lost tongue; did you imagine that she believed it herself?

Given the language barrier, it’s possible that the narrator misunderstood even Jorge’s mother.

I noticed that you referred to the “SmokeLong Crew” in your cover letter, and I wondered if it was a play on “krewe.” I didn’t get a sense of local setting–New Orleans or elsewhere–in the story, however. Did you purposefully downplay local setting in order to emphasize the in-laws’ culture and the narrator’s lack of belonging? Where do you picture this story taking place?

I’ve only lived in New Orleans for three months. I’d feel kind of phony, not to mention crassly opportunistic, if I were to start using this amazing city as a character. Maybe one day, but not now. I haven’t earned the right.

Before New Orleans, I lived in a series of crappy towns in Florida. Before that, other crappy towns in the south. I was born in Ft. Lauderdale. I spent my childhood in arcades and shopping malls and movie theatres and bookstores. I wasn’t out poaching alligators or bb-gunning quail. To this day, I would rather get a root canal than go camping.

I sense this affected regionalism in stories these days. I don’t have anyone specific in mind. But all these rhapsodic passages about “quack grass” and “broomsage” and “mysterious timberlands.” You can almost taste the loam. Then you read the author’s bio and discover that the guy’s never stepped foot out of Detroit.

There are writers who pull off this kind of thing wonderfully. William Gay. Tom Franklin. Cormac McCarthy. Rick Bass. Eudora Welty. The list goes on. Setting seems organic and authentic in their stories, so painstakingly rendered that it acts as a kind of character. In my stories, not so much. Sometimes, but each story has its own demands, especially in flash, where setting seems to play a less pivotal role.

Your chapbook of short fiction is titled Phantasmagoria, which makes me wonder if the hint of magic we see in “Language Barrier” is more prominent in some of your other writing. Can you give us a sense of the stories in the collection? (And are the stories flash?)

“Language Barrier” is part of a new flash collection. Phantasmagoria is all flash fiction. I have also finished a full-length book of long stories, but who knows what’s going to happen with that.

There’s a luxury in being relatively unknown and having no reputation. There are no expectations attached to your work, so you don’t have to worry about things like “Is this serious enough?” or, “Is it okay to throw in a ghost here?” It’s not something I think much about, as pretentious as that sounds. But I suppose in some of my stories that the boundary between dream and reality is blurred. To me, The Metamorphosis is much more “real” than anything on television these days.

About the Author:

Thomas Cooper's short stories have recently appeared in New Orleans Review, Pindeldyboz, Beloit Fiction Journal, Quick Fiction, Opium, and elsewhere. His chapbook of flash fiction, Phantasmagoria, is forthcoming from Keyhole Press.

About the Interviewer:

Nancy Stebbins is a former editor at SmokeLong Quarterly.