Fiction Spotlight: Tom Cooper

TomCooper_AuthorPhotoThis week, Memorious contributor and short story rounder Tom Cooper releases his first novel, The Marauders (Crown), to a bevy of critical and popular acclaim. Born out of Cooper’s longstanding history with New Orleans, the book is a wry and sprawling study in character and setting, with the fictional port of Jeanette still logged with the bodies of Hurricane Katrina and the sludge of the BP oil spill. Similar to the not-quite-right character in his story, “John Laroquette” (featured in Memorious 12), the cast of The Marauders includes a one-armed treasure seeker, psychopathic twin drug dealers, a father & son pair of shrimpers, company men, and a pair of lay geographers hunting for an island not shown on any map, each of them dogged by circumstance and the belief that they are in charge of their own fortunes.

To mark the release of his novel, Memorious was fortunate enough to talk with Tom Cooper about his work, his influences, and his relationship with the place he’s called home for years.

In The Marauders, each character seems to be haunted by history. I’m curious, then, about how history fits into your characters’ designs. Could you walk us through the process of building one of your characters in the book and how you’ve structured their back story?

It was, and always is for me, a tentative process of discovery. I always end up with much more material than I use, which I suppose is the case for many writers. But for several months, maybe for up to a year, I gather stuff—words, images, music, photographs, characters, jokes, dialogue, anything—like a bowerbird. By the time I have enough stuff, it’s just a matter of putting it together. Nothing is structured or premeditated until this point.

Actually, I’m always gathering material. I have a file cabinet with about three thousand Post-It notes stuffed inside. No exaggeration. Maybe a little OCD?

Speaking of history, the fictional town of Jeanette in the novel feels like its own character at times. It seems like it’s based on a place or places that are very familiar to you. Why did you choose to set the story here? What did the bayou afford you that your adopted city of New Orleans couldn’t?

Well, New Orleans was affected differently. My next novel—what I hope will be my next novel, who knows—is the yin to The Marauders’ yang. The sister book. The Marauders being the brother and male-centric. The next explores how New Orleans is affected, the sinister chain reaction that occurs during the same summer. Concurrently, and in kind of a Pulp Fiction fashion, one or two of the ancillary characters in The Marauders make an appearance in the next book.

But The Marauders. The Marauders had to be set in a small coastal community. Jeanette is an amalgamation of many of the coastal towns I’ve visited, and worked in, over the years.

Let’s talk about the research you accomplished in preparation for writing The Marauders. Where did you start? What went into the research project itself? What was the most surprising find you made in your search?

So much weird research went into writing this book. I’m one of those guys who carries a Moleskine pad in his back pocket. Not ostentatiously, though, or so I hope. You know those guys. But I always write down images, character sketches, snippets of dialogue.

Aside from this usual process, I was teaching down in Thibodaux, Louisiana, at a small state school, and this community was one of the hardest hit by the oil spill. I heard stories every day. Every day. And many of them were horrific.

I read a lot, of course, but much of my reading was off-center. Obscure books about southern lore and the pirate Jean Lafitte. Newspaper archives. Many books about the marshland, the oil spill, the irreversible damage to the environment. It’s something I care about, having been born and having grown up close to the Everglades, a similar ecosystem that’s been gouged and hacked into oblivion.

Man, all of this sounds like a downer, doesn’t it? I guess it is. Except don’t worry: the book isn’t preachy or overtly political. I don’t want to bludgeon readers with the obvious.

In terms of literary tradition and inspiration for the book, which writers would you say have been most influential here and why? On top of that, what books would you say have haunted you in the design and progression of The Marauders?

This is a great question. Well, I favor novels that are character-driven and atmospheric, but with a sinister vein—a foreboding sense of imminent doom for at least one, if not more, of the characters—and this vein gives the narrative a pulse. A direction. At least a Hitchcockian MacGuffin. John Gardner called this quality in fiction ‘profluence.’

Random House is pushing the novel as a mystery and thriller, though they feature it in the literary section of their catalogue. I think it’s a little bit of both, but some mystery readers won’t like the novel much if they’re expecting the usual beats, the usual dead body by page ten, the usual pedal-to-the-metal pace. I like my novels much looser than that. I’m thinking of certain episodes in the work of Flannery O’Connor and Joy Williams, in stuff by William Gay, Larry Brown, Denis Johnson, passages which don’t advance the plot per se, but which illuminate character, which give the book some breathing space. I’m thinking Elmore Leonard, his jazzy passages that are nothing more than characters shooting the shit. Oh, and Graham Greene, too, of course. He had his “entertainments” and his “serious novels,” but often the former were better than the latter. And I guess you can say the same thing about William Faulkner.

In the end, I think all of my favorite literature is darkly comic, but not goofily so. Something has to be at stake. Our lives now, times are desperate and times are strange. So I like desperate characters in desperate situations. That’s when we discover our true natures, and of what we’re capable.



—Barrett Bowlin, Contributing Editor

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