My first learning objective when applying for this social-media-esq field study was to teach literary arts in both an educational and professional setting to an international audience. I thought it would be interesting for an MFA student pursuing a degree in Writing Fiction to interview literary professionals and ask them questions about their own work, and maybe even seek advice. The Instagram gods decided to recommend Andrew Cotto to me on Instagram, an award-winning author of three novels, and a regular contributor to The New York Times.
AAHOO: Let’s talk about your mystery novel, Outerborough Blues! It takes place in the dawn of urban gentrification, and the protagonist, Caesar Stiles, is described as a drifter who has a single week to solve a case while dealing with his past. I think many writers starting out struggle developing two story lines (present and past) without screwing up the pacing or Point of View. When writing Caesar’s past storyline while he presently solves the case of a missing art student, what’s a rule of thumb you followed to make your writing’s pacing and Point of View consistent or flow.
ANDREW COTTO: This was definitely the hardest part of the narrative to construct. The main character, Caesar, had a complicated backstory that informed the current narrative, as most characters do. I mean, everybody comes from some place, and it's impossible to tell a current narrative in a novel without proper attention to the past. The past is never past, for all of us.
In this case, it was particularly important because the narrative of Outerborough Blues is predicated on an attempt to redeem the past (a very dramatic, if not fantastic, family history), so what I did was, first, start off with a prologue which somewhat unpacked the unique and problematic history of not just the main character but also his family. The opening establishes this (paraphrasing: My mother's mother came to this country to kill a man). And I love prologues for this very reason: Writers can do a lot of work in a limited space (all three of my novels have a prologue; just sayin'...). After this, within the primary narrative, I have flashback vignettes where we see our main character throughout his travels around America as a runaway dealing with matters which explore his past but also inform the primary narrative.
So, I didn't have a rule of thumb beyond threading these vignettes within the novel, in places that worked (no easy feat), that helped the reader understand who Caesar was and why he behaved in the manner, often violent and also tender, in which he did. For writers in general, I'd just say to have a conflict that is complicated enough to warrant tension and then address said tension in a way that works within the overall narrative. As said, the past is never past, so don't be afraid to dedicate pages to such without taking away from the primary story. Think of how often we see this in film.
AAHOO: I glanced at the Cotto Blog on your website, specifically A Higher Standard in Higher Education. You wrote about an educators job—to represent values and dignity in an institute of higher learning, which hopefully students will practice in their personal and professional lives. I understand the context was about Cal State Fresno’s Professor Ronda Jarrar’s hate speech on Twitter about Barbara Bush. I wanted to briefly discuss this increase in hostile political environments on college campuses nationwide. Do you feel in this political climate, students are prone to be (as you mentioned in your blog) “low information voters”, and with social media being ever so active, more manipulated by propaganda than previous elections (prior to Smart Phones)? Do you feel that educators in higher learning have a greater responsibility than previous elections?
COTTO: There's chaos in the world of information. Truth was once truth; and now it's different versions of truth. Much of this is propaganda, and much of this is an intention of the political right who see their status diminishing in a rapidly changing America. I mean, come on: Fox News is a propaganda device of the political right, while their counterparts, MSNBC, primarily, are center-left political news operations with a commitment to objectivity (and some incredibly talented journalists, like Rachel Maddow); these two competing approaches to news are not an apples-to-apples comparison. And the others in their respective spheres follow the same path: the right-wing "news" are decidedly biased and rooted in misinformation and dissembling while those on the left, for the most part, try to get it right.
That doesn't mean that the left is perfect and the right is entirely disingenuous; it's just that the right on a regular basis presents their "news" with an agenda to promote right-wing ideology at any cost (in many cases to an absurd, even bizarre extent) while the left has a generally more logical, reality-based approach, perhaps to a fault at times. They don't always get it right, but at least they try. And that said, I worry about the pushback from the left; the thought that the battle has to be fought on similar ground, similar tactics that the others (who have been successful, after all) utilize. Part of the left's territory is academia, and I worry about professors weaponing the classroom atmosphere to promote political agendas and ideas.
My strong belief is that our job is to teach students how to understand the times in which we live, logically, and to make up their own minds. That is how we develop critical thinking skills that sustain a democracy. Save our personal beliefs for our art (if we so engage) outside of the classroom. So, to your question: yes, I believe educators have a responsibility to teach students how to think logically in a time that is defined, in part, by illogic, by tribalism, feuding, winner-take-all. Our job is to make sure the educated class practices the tenets of the educated.
AAHOO: Your writing credits are impressive! (NY Times, Huffington Post, Maxim, Rolling Stone.) You discussed that an educator’s role is obligated to practice higher personal conduct. Would you say journalists have a similar obligation? There’s obviously a conspicuous gap between right and left in the media, but tying in manipulated propaganda, what do you think future journalists can work on to become less manipulative, and more informative than their predecessors?
COTTO: I pretty much answered this in question #2, but I say that journalists have a different obligation than instructors, but they share a commitment to the truth and objectivity. In my writing, I can be more opinionated as the audience is different, as is the purpose, but truth and logic still prevail.
AAHOO: What made you decide to pursue your MFA?
COTTO: I didn't know what an MFA was until I was in my early-30's and started talking about pursuing writing as a vocation. I had an English BA, so it kind of made sense; when I learned that an MFA qualified one for teaching in higher ed, I was all in. I really wanted to teach, and on the college level really appealed to me. I'd also taken some non-credited courses in creative writing at The New School (where I would get my MFA) and really liked the benefits of such an atmosphere. I loved the workshops, not only for getting feedback on my own work but also providing feedback to my peers. Being in the room with a successful writer was also invaluable, not only for their seasoned responses to the works-in-progress but also the insight into the writing life. Just the anecdotal stuff was very helpful. I also really enjoyed the community at large. I mean, come on (once again), we as writers are mutants, and being surrounded by fellow mutants is very validating and helpful. Some of my closest friend to this day are those from my MFA program, many of whom were once my instructors.
AAHOO: Recommend some (or one) fiction and non-fiction novel(s) that either changed your perspective in some shape or form, or one that you admire the prose and storyline.
COTTO: Hmmm...of all of your really insightful questions, this is the most simple but yet complicated since individual taste really matters. My general response is to read within the genre which you want to write and steal as much inspiration as you can, but - speaking of my own experiences - I was particularly moved by Mystic River by Dennis Lehane since it brought a literary validation to a genre that I love (mystery/noir). I'm also a sucker for The Great Gatsby since the narrative voice is so lyrical and awe-inspiring while not overwhelming the narrative itself (one which I find kind of silly). Finally, I really like the short-stories of Flannery O'Connor and John Cheever as they are quiet yet rooted in such depth. Oh, and the non-fiction of Joan Didion; and oh, oh, the poetry of Jim Harrison and Kenneth Fearing; and oh, oh, oh the songs of Lucinda Williams. I also really like the TV show The Wire. I could go on...
Andrew has also written for Parade, Men’s Journal, Rolling Stone, The Huffington Post, Condé Nast Traveler, Italy magazine, Maxim, and more. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School and lives in Brooklyn, New York. More about Andrew and his work can be found at www.andrewcotto.com.