11/20/13 AN INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR RON COOPER. (SEE ALSO HIS GUEST BLOGGER POST ON NOVEMBER 1, BELOW, AND MY REVIEW OF HIS ACCLAIMED NOVEL PURPLE JESUS ON OCTOBER 20.)
Q: Your novels, Hume’s Fork and Purple Jesus, take us into the lives of the rural underprivileged. In The World Republic of Letters, Pascale Casanova says: “…the birth of the American novel may be said to coincide with the use of the oral language in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn… insisting upon a specific idiom freed from the constraints of the written language…” Purple Jesus is in the tradition Twain started, its characters far free of constraints, language-wise. What are you writing now, who’s at the focus, where’s it set? Will idiom be as much a part of the characters, or are you venturing otherwise?
A: My brilliant editor Harrison Demchick at Bancroft Press and I are in the midst of editing a novel that is a total departure from all the fiction I’ve written before. A Christian legend dating as far back as the second century said that Jesus had a twin brother named Thomas, presumably the disciple Thomas. In fact, one of the many early Christian works that was not included in the Bible is the Gospel of Thomas, and it claims to have been written by one Judas Didymos Thomas. “Didymos” is Greek for “twin,” and the name “Thomas” comes from Aramaic for “twin.” My novel is narrated by Thomas, who, after many years of traveling the world, has returned to Palestine just after the Romans have devastated the region. Now in his 80s, he says that he is writing this book to correct the wild tales that have spread about his brother. I’ve incorporated material from non-Biblical, early Christian works, such as the Gospel of Thomas, as well as re-written a number of New Testament passages to present a Jesus who’s a fully human reformer and visionary. What this novel has in common with my previous fiction is that the characters are from the underclass and struggle against the restraints of their social predicaments. The working title is Gospel of the Twin. I’m hoping some televangelist will condemn it or perhaps a library in a conservative town will ban it!
Q: In Purple Jesus a young man (Purvis), desperate to escape his mentally-and-otherwise impoverished adult life, creates a goddess who, in his mind, will lift him to a better world. The young woman whom he diefies (Martha), desperate to escape the psychosexual hell that is her birthright, plans to jump any train out of town, even one that might crash off a bridge at 70 miles an hour. A monk with a bow-and-arrow (Brother Andrew), desperate to let the animal in himself surface after years of contemplative living, trembles on the line between note-taking naturalist and male hunter-gatherer. Purple Jesus throbs with psychosexual desperation. You were raised in the South Carolina lowlands, the setting of Purple Jesus, but you’ve spent many years on college campuses by now. Haven’t you seen Purvis and Martha there, too, and seen Brother Andrew among the senior faculty?
A: I’m sure I’ve had more students than I’ll ever know who have come from environments similar to that of Purvis. I like to believe that getting to college is a big step in overcoming those disadvantages, but why they take that step and others, like Purvis, remain trapped in their desolation is difficult to say. I can relate to those students, given my own background. I’ve also known women who, like Martha, experienced the horror of a multi-generational cycle of family abuse, and even for those who make progress in moving beyond the pain, the scars never entirely heal. Martha is a strong young woman with a strange scheme for escape, and it turns out that Purvis’s desperation makes him an ideal piece in her plan. The idea for Brother Andrew came to me long ago. I grew up in swampy Berkeley County, SC, which is the unlikely home of a small monastery of Cistercian monks. They may have been the only Catholics in the county! It’s far out of town in the middle of a large tract of woods beside a river. I used to wonder if any of the monks took advantage of the natural beauty of the place and, if so, whether that would enhance or distract from their faith. I find it difficult not to become contemplative if on a hike or kayaking. There’s a chunk of Brother Andrew in me—I’m a bird lover, his internal monologues are filled with philosophical themes from some of the subjects of my research, such as Alfred North Whitehead, and in fact I used to enjoy archery. Unfortunately, for some people on college faculties, the rigors of academic life—grading papers, serving on pointless committees—can deflate the creative wonder of their youth. I think many academics would benefit from trekking through a swamp on occasion.
Q: The behavior of your two main male characters suggests a limited ability in some men to mature beyond the level of longing for a goddess to take care of them or beyond the level of the adolescent pitching a rock at a bird in a male hormonal fit of man-vs.-nature, whereas the behavior of your main female character suggests that a woman might be more capable of committing the decisive act that will take her to some next level, however hopeless that next level might or might not be. Is this a difference between men and women that you’ve seen in the world-at-large? Is it not in the spirit of the day to see women as more mature, more capable, than men?
A: I wish I could say something profound about the differences between men and women! It’s commonplace to say that men never quite leave their childhood. They’re more likely than women to engage in behaviors that can be considered play, like golf, bowling, or poker, and when they’re not engaged in them, they’re watching others do it on ESPN. I tend to think, however, that these are genetic holdovers from our prehistoric hunter-gatherer ancestors. Women have traditionally been the caretakers of children, a role which demands a different way of experiencing the world and perhaps a certain sort of maturity. Some of these tendencies can be found in fiction. Violent fiction, like you find with Cormac McCarthy and Harry Crews, is much more likely to be written by men, while women are much more likely to write about relationships and family dynamics. In any case, I’m not sure what any of that says about their comparative abilities to make critical, now-or-never decisions. Regarding Martha, her whole life has been a fight to survive, and she’s had to learn strategies to cope with all the manipulation from those around her. So she’s been toughened up and had to live by her wits. That doesn’t mean that her decisions are always the wisest or most ethical. I can say this—I was uneasy about writing portions of the novel from a woman’s perspective. I constantly second-guessed everything I wrote about her.
Q: Could you have written Purple Jesus with Purvis’s and Martha’s roles reversed, or would a male in Martha’s role be too unchivalrous for readers to accept?
A: Interestingly, I don’t recall any readers saying much about whether Martha should be condemned for her motives. Given the wretched conditions of Martha’s childhood, readers don’t blame Martha for wanting to escape, even if she exploits someone in doing so. Now, they all feel sorry for Purvis. He’s not the sharpest guy around, and he’s aware of that. He’s also rather lovable as he bumbles through life. So even though Purvis has not suffered the abuse that Martha did, readers accept his bizarre behavior and can, I think, sympathize with, although not support or completely understand, his utter devotion to Martha. I suspect that readers, especially women, would not have been as forgiving of Purvis if the roles had been switched, even if Purvis had suffered the same abuse as Martha had. I also suspect that if a woman character did as many stupid things as Purvis did, she would not be seen as childishly piteous but as a badly drawn character. I’d probably be accused of not liking women!
Thank you for being with us, Ron Cooper. When I finished my first reading of Purple Jesus, I added it to my list of all-time favorite books. I read it again and kept it on the list. It’s a book I’ll enjoy reading every few years. I look forward to the Gospel of the Twin.