Journal of Writing & Environment

My Dad Tried to Buy Costa Rica: An Interview with K. L. Cook

K. L. Cook is the author of three books of fiction. His most recent book, Love Songs for the Quarantined, won the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. His novel, The Girl from Charnelle, won The Willa Award for Contemporary Fiction, and his first book, Last Call, won the inaugural Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction. Cook’s work has appeared in Glimmer Train, One Story, Poets &Writers, Prairie Schooner, the Harvard Review and other journals.  He is an associate professor of English at Iowa State University where he teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Environment.

On March 31st, 2014, Cook read his short story “Costa Rica” as part of the 10th Annual Symposium on Wildness, Wilderness and the Environment at Iowa State University.  The theme for this year’s Wildness Symposium was “Resilience Thinking in Dystopic Times.”  Flyway editors caught up with Cook after the reading to talk about, among other things, niche markets such as environmental writing and short story cycles.

Flyway: The short story you read at the Wildness Symposium, “Costa Rica,” was included in your collection Last Call, which came out in 2004.  You’ve written quite a lot since then.  Why do you keep coming back to this story?  Why did you read it at the symposium?

KLC: A number of factors determine what I’ll read at any given event. Some factors are practical. Which self-contained piece or pieces work within the time limit?  Which books of mine will be for sale?  What is the theme of the reading?  My first book, Last Call, was just re-released in a 10th anniversary paperback edition, and so I wanted to help sell books for my publisher. The story also, I think, reads well in the timeframe allotted. And the theme of the Wildness Symposium was “Resilience Thinking in Dystopic Times” and the particular theme of this reading was “Interior Mythologies.”  Though I considered many other pieces for this reading, “Costa Rica” seemed to address those themes most directly.

Perhaps most importantly, I enjoy reading “Costa Rica” aloud.  It moves me, and I like to share it. I like to sing it.  Since this was my first public reading at Iowa State University (my new home base), I wanted to read something that linked my past to my present to my future as a writer. What I depict in “Costa Rica”—a reimagining of my father’s ill-fated scheme to purchase a large swath of Costa Rican jungle, an event that became mythic in my family’s history—was one of the reasons I became a writer in the first place.  I’ve told the story as an amusing anecdote for years.  But writing the story was a breakthrough for me, and the story has grown in my imagination, serving as the seed for the novel I’ve been working on for the past few years.

Flyway: Speaking more broadly, you’re currently working in the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University, and you recently came from Prescott College in Arizona, a small liberal arts college with a focus on the environment and social justice.  When people talk about “environmental writing,” often they mean writing about environmentalism, or writing with an environmental agenda.  On the other hand, sometimes people define “environment” in fiction so broadly that it just means “setting.”  How do you think about “environmental writing” so that the term is not so broad as to be meaningless, but not so narrow that it can still accommodate the limitless variety that is fiction? 

KLC: Fiction, which is my preferred genre, is the genre most fully engaged with a specific sense of place.  Short story writers and novelists tend to be cultural anthropologists, family systems theorists, and ethnographers—that is, close (even obsessive) observers of how people behave with one another in their natural (or unnatural) habitats.  A story needs a place to contain it, to give it meaning.  I don’t think I’ve ever written a story or a novel in which place didn’t figure significantly into the conception, writing, and revision of the piece.  I’m not sure I know how.  The environment—place—is always, for me, a character.

Having taught in “green programs” for more than twenty years, I’ve read a great deal of environmental fiction, poetry, plays, and essays—much of it simplistic, sentimental, overly earnest, didactic, strident, or pseudo-spiritual.  Frequently the problem is tonal.  As a teacher of creative writing in environmental programs, I often believe that my primary job is to help fellow writers avoid some of these pitfalls of tone.  If a story—or any piece of art—starts to sound too much like a sermon or a lecture or a campaign speech or a pity plea or a scare tactic or propaganda of any kind, then the writer loses his or her fundamental authority as a storyteller.  A story may teach the reader something or it may provide a distinctive moral or ethical vision (preferably one that embraces the complexities of environment), but teaching and preaching aren’t the primary goals of art. The storyteller’s first responsibility is to create a vivid and continuous dream in the reader’s mind, as John Gardner famously said, to create a shining performance, a storm of exuberantly rendered experience.  A writer, of course, needs to think carefully about the implications—environmental, ethical, emotional, spiritual—of this performance.  But I try to encourage my students to be the best artists they can be and to let their love of, and anxieties about, the state of the environment serve their art rather than have the art serve the activist.

Flyway: Tell us a little bit about short story cycles.  What draws you to this form of writing?  What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of this form, both on a literary level and on a practical (publishing) level?  How do short story cycles intersect with other elements of both the publishing culture and of popular culture?

KLC: As you know, I love the short story cycle form (a.k.a. linked stories, novel-in-stories, short story sequence) and have written and spoken about it at length. (I have a page on my website devoted to short story cycles, including a video of a lecture I gave about the subject.) It is the defining form for our post-postmodern times, as evidenced in part by the quality these days of television shows, where much of the best narrative storytelling is happening.  What I might add here is this: when you commit to this form, you are in essence committing to mosaic narrative design. There may be energetic linear storytelling within a short story cycle, but the form challenges linear narrative design. If you have what I call a “cyclical imagination,” then you tend to embrace individual stories as much as you do novels. But there’s a trade-off in immediate power. Nothing quite beats the urgency of a big linear narrative, cleanly and intelligently told. We’re talking about the power of causation: this caused that which in turned caused this.  The short story cycle writer is always, even if only subtly, trying to compensate for that loss of linear narrative urgency.

Another issue.  Because the form values individual stories as much as it does larger holistic narrative effects, values self-contained parts as much as organic unity, values polyphony over a unified authorial voice—then there can be a tendency toward preciousness.  Story writers, I think, are nervous about holding the reader’s attention, afraid some editor will not read past the first page, concerned that everything in a story must contribute to the overall effect. That anxiety often leads short story writers toward tour de force performances—often preening in the language itself, or dependent on some kind of unusual formal distinctiveness, or pared down with a radical minimalism that forces the reader to work very hard to understand the submerged narrative. Writers and readers of long-form narratives usually prefer a more measured pace, a slower stride, and a clearer, less anxious sensibility.

Flyway: As your students in the MFA program at ISU will attest, your classes provide strong evidence against the theory that creative writing can’t be taught.  How does one teach creative writing?  How do you teach creative writing?

KLC: I’ve always thought that the “creative writing can’t be taught” theory is, at best, half-baked. Of course, it can be taught, like any art form can.  The mentoring process—more experienced practitioners teaching apprentices craft, aesthetics, and habits of art in a hands-on way—has a very long tradition, longer in fact than any modern educational system. There’s no one way to approach the teaching of creative writing.  I don’t have a way really, but I do have certain principles, goals, and strategies that guide me as a teacher.  My first goal is to encourage what is legitimately distinctive about a younger writer’s sensibility: all artists need authentic encouragement. I also believe that the workshop process itself rapidly accelerates your development as a writer; if you treat this process generously and rigorously, then you get better while grappling with your peers’ works-in-progress. Through this process, you expand your aesthetic and learn very practical strategies for dealing with craft issues that may not be present in the current manuscript you’re working on but that may be useful to you in the next piece or a piece you write a decade from now. Above all, I try to speak to the ambition of writers.  I urge boldness, emotional and aesthetical risk-taking, and compassion, and I try to do this not from a position of authority but as a fellow writer.  I want my students to know that it’s perfectly fine to fail; failure is a natural byproduct of boldness and therefore should be embraced.  I’ve found that if you persuade talented writers that their desire to make art is worthy and honorable, and that the process itself can be joyous rather than paralyzing, then they get better simply because they want to and are willing to work harder than they’ve ever worked before to discover and refine their vision.  

Flyway: What are some advantages of going through an MFA program, and what are some disadvantages?

KLC: My MFA experience was the most valuable educational experience in my life.  It changed me.  I had mentors who treated me and my work generously, fairly, and rigorously, imploring me to do better.  I had peers who supported, challenged, and inspired me.  And I had a community that said it was okay to do this thing I wasn’t sure I really could do.  I believe every writer needs those three things—experienced writers taking an interest, peers whose work inspires, and a community that allows you to create without apology or defensiveness.  A creative writing program isn’t the only kind of writing community, and not every writer wants or needs these mentors, peers, and community.  But most creative writing programs champion these principles and frequently provide genuinely transformative experiences for writers.  Even if I had never published a single piece, I would still cherish my experience as a student in an MFA program.  At the very least, it taught me how to read like a writer reads, how to think like an artist, and such a lesson has enriched me as a reader, as a writer, and as a teacher.  I feel very privileged to have spent my professional life teaching creative writing and literature to both undergraduate and graduate students.  Every semester I have amazing students who inspire and challenge me.  I’m a lucky dog.


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