Curtis Smith interviews Michael Cocchiarale!

author photo summer 17Michael Cocchiarale is Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Widener University. He is the author of two short story collections—Still Time (Fomite, 2012) and Here Is Ware (Fomite, 2018). He occasionally blogs about writing and other matters at: https://michaelcocchiarale.wordpress.com/

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Here is Ware. I’m always interested in a book’s journey, especially in the indie-press world. Can you tell us how you and Ware ended up with Fomite?

Michael Cocchiarale: Thanks! When I finished Still Time (my first collection), I started looking around for small presses, having little idea of how to proceed. I happened upon Fomite, a fairly new press at the time, and queried Marc Estrin, the publisher. He read the manuscript, liked it, and—to my great joy—published it. When it came time to submit Ware, Fomite was at the top of my list. Happily, Marc liked this one as well. Fomite is a small operation, but Marc and Donna Bister (the press’s production manager) have amazing energy and have brought a great number of excellent books into the world. I’m forever grateful to them for their support and thrilled to be in such fabulous company.

CS: In your day-to-day life, you’re a writing professor at Widener University. How does this impact your creative work? Do you have days where you’ve spent so much time considering print that you can’t return to the manuscript waiting on your desk? Do you find yourself motivated by what you see your students achieving?

MC: It’s difficult to get writing done during the semester, but during breaks, I find it pretty easy to slip back into a routine. I do wish I had a little more balance in my life, but I wouldn’t want that if it meant shortchanging students in any way. Throughout the school year, I really enjoy focusing on teaching, advising, and mentoring. I love getting to know students and helping them develop as writers and editors. In the classroom, I’m continually impressed by their talent, work ethic, risk-taking, humor, and generosity with each other. Outside of the classroom, it’s inspiring to see them shine as editors of our literary journals or as presenters on the national stage at the Forum for Undergraduate Student Editors Conference and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference. Still buzzing from the positive energy generated in a given semester, I find I’m ready to jump back in to my own work when break begins.

CS: I enjoyed the sense of place in these pieces. We share some common roots—I lived for a bit in Erie, PA, and I recognized that eastern Great Lakes landscape. How important is place in your work? And in particular, what is unique about this area in terms of what it brings to your writing?

MC: Sometimes, students will set their stories in New York or LA—places they’re used to seeing on TV—and I’ll say, “Why not Philly?” “Why not where you’re at or from?” When I read Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio in high school, I saw place names I recognized—Cleveland, Sandusky, Cedar Point—and that gave me a real charge. Years later, I read Mark Winegardner’s fabulous novel Crooked River Burning, and that reinforced for me the fact that Cleveland was a place one could use to explore important themes and obsessions. For several years now, I’ve been writing quite consciously about my hometown. The city has much to be proud about—the world-renowned clinic, the (free!) museum of art, the orchestra, the Christmas Story house (ha, ha)—yet Clevelanders suffer from a real inferiority complex. Violent crime, racial tensions, political corruption, and population loss haven’t helped matters. Add to these things other less troubling but still important factors, like the weather. Long and heartless winters give way to humid summers, which are spent sweating over winter’s impending return. Then there are the professional sports teams, whose collective track record of futility (with the exception of the Cavaliers a few years back) serves as a seasonal blow to the city’s self-esteem. Of course, no discussion of Cleveland’s psyche would be complete without mentioning forty-some years’ worth of jokes about the river that caught fire. With some of the stories in Ware, I wanted to both represent and push back against some of these things. In “A Night at The Orr House,” an old high school acquaintance takes the protagonist home to her shrine for Cleveland native Benjamin Orr, bass player and singer of the rock band The Cars. In “A Series of Your So Nices,” a young couple drives around the city’s West Side after dinner one night, trying to delay their return to the protagonist’s parents, where they’re staying for a few uncomfortable days. I do something similar in “Red Right 88,” in which the character listens to local sports talk and drives past old haunts while his toddler snoozes in the backseat. In these and other stories, I took great joy in the simple naming of people, streets, neighborhoods, and establishments. Making Northeast Ohio come alive a bit on the page.

CS: There’s a lot of coming home here—reconciliation with one’s past, making peace or perhaps just coming to terms. What about this theme calls to you? Do you think it’s the kind of current we ever truly escape?

MC: For much of my adult life, I’ve lived away from Cleveland. Because the Pennsylvania turnpike is interminable (and expensive), “home” is a place I return to only a few times a year. It’s great to go back, but at the same time, I also feel that however long I stay it’s always not enough. I think everyone who moves away feels this to some extent. Over the years, you miss important events. You’re not present to help when emergencies arise. You’re sometimes not able to return in time to say goodbye. The likely reason many of my characters in this collection are driving to or from home is because that’s been the overarching pattern of my life for the last twenty-five years: fall semester, home for the holidays, spring semester, home for a week in summer, repeat. I have no great desire to escape that current. As much as anything else, it’s who I am. However, I could do with a couple hundred fewer miles between here and there. And I could definitely do without those turnpike tolls.

CS: The book is anchored by the title novella. I’m a big fan of the novella, but I fear it’s often misunderstood or underappreciated. What about the form attracts you? Did you start out with a novella in mind—or did it kind of grow on its own?

MC: “Here Is Ware” started out as a single flash fiction. However, it wasn’t long before I wanted to find out more about Samantha Wayne and her dysfunctional family. I wanted to see her grow up—to see how, through both luck and savvy, she was able to avoid the pitfalls that claimed other family members. Then I became keen on exploring the tensions that arose when she moved away from her hometown. Not just the price she paid for rising out of bad circumstances and trying to forge a life of her own but also the struggle to appreciate or at least understand family members who had been for her such a source of conflict and pain.

CS: I also appreciated the novella’s structure. How did this come to you? What do you think it brings to the piece?

MC: As I mentioned above, the structure emerged bit by bit, as I added pieces of Samantha’s life. I think the structure also reflects her fragmented upbringing too, as well as her fragmented sense of self as someone with a new life elsewhere and an old life at home that is not simply going to go away. Novellas-in-flash have been enjoying a well-deserved moment in the last few years, and I think “Here Is Ware” sort of fits in with that genre.

CS: What’s next?

MC: I’m doing final proofing for my novel None of the Above, which Unsolicited Press will be publishing in early 2019. Set in Ohio (where else?), it’s a coming of age story that begins in 1980 and ends in 2007. Catholic school, toxic masculinity, xenophobia, academia, America’s foreign policy misstomps—I try to cover a lot of ground. It might not be surprising to learn that there’s also a bit of leaving and returning home involved.

I’ve also been working on a couple of longish stories that incorporate elements of the fantastical. One of those—a novella—is done, and I’ve begun shopping it around. It’s a very different kind of thing for me—a dark comedy about the end of the world. Not the real dark comedy we’re all howling through right now, but I did my best to give our absurd reality a run for its money.

WARE Cover

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