A Poetic Q&A with Author, Activist and Alumnus William J. Cobb

“Bill Cobb’s The Bird Saviors is a stark modern-day Old Testament story in which the evil that men do is barely balanced by the good that a few manage to achieve.  It’s a gritty harrowing story set in a dust-blown Colorado town that seems filled with vivid characters.  Cobb’s expert story-telling compels us forward scene by scene to a final satisfying redemption.” – Kent Haruf, author of Plainsong

William J. Cobb (MA English, ’84) is a novelist, essayist and short fiction writer whose work has been published in The New Yorker, The Mississippi Review, The Antioch Review, and many others.

Before his most recent novel, “The Bird Saviors,” Cobb authored “Goodnight, Texas,” “The Fire Eaters” and a book of short stories titled “The White Tattoo.” He has received numerous awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts grant, the Sandstone Prize, an AWP Award for the Novel, and the prestigious Dobie-Paisano Fellowship — a prize sponsored by the Graduate School at The University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Institute of Letters that provides solitude, time and a comfortable place at J. Frank Dobie’s Paisano ranch house for Texas writers who have written significantly about Texas.

Set in a time of economic turmoil, virus fears, climate change, fundamentalist cults and illegal immigrant hardship, “The Bird Saviors” is a visionary story of defiance, anger and compassion, in which a young woman ultimately struggles to free herself from her domineering father, to raise her daughter in the chaos of the New West, and to become something greater. It is an elemental and timely vision of resilience and personal survival, but — most of all — of honest hope.

From his home in Colorado, Cobb kindly answered some questions for ShelfLife@Texas about his life, writing and teaching styles, and what he hopes readers will take away from reading”The Bird Saviors.”

We recently reviewed the book of an alumna that was set in Galveston, Texas — a city with which she has long had a fascination. You seem to have a strong interest in the American West. Where did that come from and how does it affect your writing?

I am totally (and unabashedly) fascinated with the West (both New and Old), and see myself much more as a Western writer than anything else. Most of my childhood was spent on the northwest side of San Antonio (near Olmos Creek), and that landscape of cactus, juniper and oak trees, limestone hills and clear-flowing rivers and creeks enthralled me. I’ve written essays about how it seemed I was growing up on the border of the Old West, which I later found out to be quite true: A couple years ago I read S. C. Gwynne’s “Empire of the Summer Moon” (2010), about the history of the Quanah Parker and the Comanches, and there were many references of Comanches in that area of the Hill Country. But my obsession with Colorado really began when I was about nineteen years old, on my first trip there, en route to Montana: We slept on the floor of a group of archeologists involved in a dig near Cortez, Colorado, and I thought the mountains (and the people) were wild and beautiful. For the past thirty years or so I’ve spent some or all of my summers in the West, and for ten years now I’ve owned a second home in Colorado, which I think of as my real home.

The West influences my writing greatly now, like an Appaloosa I like to ride. In particular I’m obsessed with that mixture of the past and the present — of outlaws gone, remembered and soon-to-be — of a landscape in flux. The summer of ’99 I lived in Creede, Colorado, and was jazzed to learn that Bat Masterson (I love the name.) once owned a saloon there. Robert Ford — “the man who shot Jesse James” — was shot to death there (in 1892, I believe) and was at one time buried in a cemetery through which I would often take my dog for a walk. I think of myself as something of a Western landscape writer, certainly not an “urban” writer. There are plenty of those in New York, but someone must celebrate the importance of the plains and the mountains far west of the East Coast. I’m glad to be one who does that.

In 2004 you received the Dobie Paisano Jesse H. Jones Writing Fellowship: How was that experience for you personally and for your writing? Did you learn anything new about yourself or your writing process?

My time at the Paisano Ranch was nothing short of bliss. That year (2004) had a wet spring, so Barton Creek flowed the whole time and my wife and I went for swims daily. Until the heat of summer set in, the air was cool, the fields were green and the wildflowers gorgeous. Although the ranch is only about seven miles from town, it was quiet and peaceful. At night, the most distinctive sound we heard were the lions roaring in a small zoo that was located near the entrance to the property, about a mile away. The bird life was amazing. In late April we started hearing a lovely trilling sound outside our bedroom window, and soon came to find a family of Eastern Screech Owls lived in the Elm Oak beside the patio. If you shone a flashlight over the fields, you could see just their glowing eyes as they hunted insects. We liked to say those were the souls of Comanches floating over the fields. I have a long list of Paisano birds sighted, which includes the remarkable sighting (by my wife) of a juvenile Whooping Crane (traveling along the Colorado River flyway, no doubt), Ospreys, Painted Buntings, Black-Billed Cuckoos and a Golden-Cheeked Warbler, which is extremely rare. The Chuck-Will’s Widows could be so loud at night we’d have to close the windows to get some sleep.

My Paisano Fellowship came at a good time, when I was burned-out from teaching and needed some time to write: I finished the novel “Goodnight, Texas” there. What I learned most from that experience is to value the time free to write. People don’t realize how demanding the role of being a writing professor can be, how full your days can become, with no time to write. If I had the chance, I’d love to go back to Paisano and spend another spring there writing. We had a trio of longhorn steers that came to visit us regularly, and although I’m sure we weren’t supposed to, we left the gate open so they could come inside and eat the sweet grass close to the house. My wife even hand-fed them now and then. They liked her cornbread the best.

Although you were raised in Texas, you live and write in Colorado and teach writing at Penn State, correct? Can you tell us a little about your teaching style in the classroom?

I tell stories. One of my teaching assistants in a large-lecture class I taught not long ago said, after a few class sessions early in the term, “I have to come up with some anecdotes to tell.” Since most of what I teach is about storytelling, I think it’s a good way to approach the subject matter, by doing it as well. I love the anecdote related about Vladimir Nabokov in his “Lectures on Russian Literature,” in which he is said to have asked all his students to give a reason why they were taking his course, and his favorite was, “Because I like stories.” Right now I’m reading the great evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson’s new book, “The Social Conquest of Earth,” and although much of the material is rather cerebral and analytical, he still manages to tell a lot of stories, such as anecdotes about his adventures as a field biologist studying ants in South America. I don’t think of this as “lite” or “easy,” either. Great storytelling is a rigorous endeavor. We understand the world through the stories we tell, the tales we share with another. In explaining the evolutionary steps to the development of human consciousness, E. O. Wilson cites the role of the campfire and hearth as central to our development. We became human, after millennia of sitting around the campfire, telling stories. It’s the essence of what makes us special.

How did your idea for “The Bird Saviors” develop?

Two things kicked this novel into being: At some point I heard a voice in my head — Ruby’s voiceover in the beginning of the novel — and I jotted that down, which contains the first line: “Lord God is talking again. He does love to hear himself speak.” Her voice stuck with me for a long time, and I began with that. Yet I didn’t conceive of this as a singular story, but rather multi-voiced, with an ensemble cast of characters to provide a complex vision of this world. So the second seminal moment for “The Bird Saviors” occurred when I heard an anecdote about a young woman engaged to be married, then after her fiancé cancelled the engagement, he asked for the ring back. She refused. Soon afterward her apartment was burgled, and the only thing stolen was the engagement ring. Naturally her family suspected the fiancé was the culprit. I was fascinated by the story, by the gall of the fiancé to ask for the engagement ring back, and even more so to break into her apartment to steal it back. That was the catalyst that set everything else in motion: Once I understood Ruby’s and Becca’s characters, the other people and events developed naturally. I always pictured it in the not-too-distant future, too, when the landscape is parched and dusty by drought. Unfortunately, in Colorado that’s only too true right now.

You have described yourself as “committed naturalist and card-carrying member of the ABA (American Birding Association),” and although it’s by no means heavy-handed, there is an environmental conservation theme running through this book. Can you tell us about how some of your personal passions find their way into your fiction?

I certainly hope I never use a heavy hand in my approach, but I want my fiction to be engaged in the world, and not to be about only my life, say, or my petty likes and dislikes, but things that matter. As a father, I’m concerned about the way I see the world changing now, and am worried about how much we might alter the natural balance of the world, particularly in the Southwest, which is focal point, to some extent, for climate change. I have no patience for climate change deniers or so-called “skeptics.” Too often mainstream media outlets are giving space to kooks and shills who have some dubious if not despicable agenda. The evidence for climate change is now overwhelming. There’s a deadly epidemic in the background of “The Bird Saviors,” and one of the dangers of climate change is that it may well alter habitats in ways we don’t understand, and push viruses into the human population that have been secluded or dormant for years.

For those interested, one of the best books I’ve read recently on the subject is Michael Mann’s “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars” (2012), which tells the story of Climategate from the scientist whose emails were stolen and distorted. I certainly believe that writers should speak out, should touch on what is close to their hearts, and what concerns the rest of the world. Right now I think the biggest issue facing the world is environmental and economic collapse, and I touch on both of these in “The Bird Saviors.” Some of my fiction has seemed prophetic at times, such as my previous novel — “Goodnight, Texas” — imagined a great storm hitting the Texas coast, and was written before both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ivan. That said, I don’t have a prophetic bone in my body. But I read much science-related nonfiction, and perhaps because of that, I can read the writing on the wall.

What do you most hope readers will take away from “The Bird Saviors?”

I like that idea of “taking away” something from a book. One of the things fiction (and all writing, actually) does best is to give something to its readers. So what do I hope I’m giving readers? That image of a young mother lost in a desert town blanketed with pink snow, at the novel’s beginning, when Ruby flees her father and walks miles across the prairie and through town to reach her mother, just as a dust storm collides with a cold front. Or the gutsy strength and artistry of George Armstrong Crowfoot — a Native American who functions as a kind of avenging angel and chronicles this changing world by painting petroglyphs on a mesa’s cliff-side. Or the scheming pawn shop owner Hiram Page, who likes to quote various philosophers and kings as he cheats people and bilks the needy and desperate. He’s despicable, conniving, and the rest of the world has to move quickly to keep up with him. And Jack Brown’s squishy morality as he somehow justifies to himself that kidnapping a toddler in exchange for a pickup truck is not a reprehensible act. Or Fufu’s trashy love for Officer Israel James. And much, much more.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m off from teaching for eight months and plan to write the first draft of a new novel tentatively titled “The Donkey Woman.” It’s loosely based on the donkey woman folktale I heard while growing up in the Texas Hill Country, which I later learned was a retelling of the famous La Llorona folktale from Mexican culture. I’ve got the itch to write it, which is always a good sign.

High Praise From Down Under: UT Alum Nominated for Top Australian Literary Prizes

DomThe accent is still there, made faint by long years away from Australia.

Dominic Smith, a 2003 alumnus of the Michener Center’s MFA program in writing, was born in Brisbane and grew up in Sydney, but his education and work have taken him far from the continent since—he earned his B.A. in Iowa and worked in the dotcom boom in Europe before coming to The University of Texas at Austin for graduate school.  Smith seems to have found Texas to his liking, though, and has stayed in Austin for more than ten years now.

After graduating with one completed novel, “The Beautiful Miscellaneous,” he won a prestigious Dobie Paisano Fellowship and spent six months completing a second novel,The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre.” Both were sold in 2004 to Atria (Simon & Schuster), who published them in reverse order, “Mercury Visions” being touted as his debut, followed by “Miscellaneous” in 2007.

“Miscellaneous” is a contemporary tale, the story of the average son of a genius physicist who develops a form of synesthesia after an accident. The novel explores how the character comes to understand his own mind and deal with his father’s demanding expectations.  It has been optioned by Southpaw Entertainment, with Smith adapting the screenplay himself.

In “Mercury Visions,” Smith shows his gift for capturing another time and place.  Photographer Louis Daguerre slides into a madness caused by exposure to mercury vapors, and determines to capture ten final images before he dies.  The novel expertly conjures Paris in the 1800s and the historically accurate, though fictionalized, life of Daguerre, creating what Kirkus Reviews called  “a compelling psychological study, a thoughtful tracing of the birth of a new art form, and an atmospheric portrait of 19th-century France:  impressive on all three counts.”  The book was selected for Barnes & Nobles Discover Great New Writers Program and received the Steven Turner Prize for First Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters.

BrightShoresDomSmithIn his third novel, “Bright and Distant Shores,” Smith returns to the 19th century—1897 Chicago this time, where a gilded age magnate competes in the race to build the city’s highest skyscraper and erect on its rooftop a spectacle of South Pacific natives.  It is his first novel to be published in Australia, where it’s been received with critical praise and two national literary award nominations.

“Smith’s novel is an atmospheric, meticulously observed period drama from a footsure and stylish writer with a fine sense of narrative pace,” says “The Age,” Melbourne’s daily, which has shortlisted the novel for its Book of the Year Award.  It was also shortlisted for Australia’s prestigious Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction.

Smith launches the book’s U.S. release this week with a reading and book signing at Austin’s BookPeople at 7 p.m. on Friday, September 16, 2011. He answered a few questions for ShelfLife@Texas about his research for the novel and its reception in his homeland.

What was the genesis of “Bright and Distant Shores”?

It was a story I heard about the arctic explorer Robert Peary and the anthropologist Franz Boas, who was then working at the American Museum of Natural History. In 1897, the year my novel begins, a family of six Greenland Inuit disembarked from a ship at a dock in New York City while a curious crowd of thousands looked on. They had been shipped to the city under the care of Peary at Boas’s request — he had asked Peary to bring back a single native so the Inuit could be studied “without fear of frostbite.”  Peary took it upon himself to bring back six Greenlanders instead of one, and the Inuit were housed in the basement of the museum. Within a year, all but one had died of tuberculosis, and the sole survivor, a boy named Minik, was adopted by a museum official. The bodies of the dead were turned over to a medical school for dissection and the bones were later returned to the museum.  The bones sat in a drawer at the museum until 1992, when they were returned to Greenland after a journalist exposed the situation. Minik returned to his homeland in 1909 but later came back to the United States, only to die in the flu epidemic of 1918. This tragic story got me thinking about the troublesome relationship between museums and the people and cultures they catalogue.

Is it true that you took a crash course in sailing to get the nautical lore right for the sea voyage that takes place in the novel?

It is true, and my wife can vouch for what a disaster that was. I had read all I could about 19th century tall-mast sailing and had struck up an email correspondence with a sailor named Jonas Collins, who was circumnavigating the globe alone in his 35-foot Pearson Alberg sloop. He would answer my obscure questions whenever he got Internet access—for example, how long would it take to sail out to a remote island like Tikopia from New Guinea outside of monsoon season? Even though I knew the factual ins and outs of sailing, I felt afraid of betraying what a landlubber I was in the novel.  So I enrolled in a sailing course with a private instructor.  Flash-forward to my first time renting the boat alone and deciding to bring my wife along so I could show off my maritime prowess…we nearly collided with the dock, the boom nearly hit me in the head, and I sat by the tiller yelling instructions in a way that brought Ahab to mind.  My wife was a good sport about it all, but she suggested — quite diplomatically — that I should invite one of my male friends to go along next time. I haven’t been on a sailboat since.

You do a lot of research for your historical novels. What’s the oddest thing you discovered about the 19th century or the settings for the novel?

The 19th century abounds with oddities, one of the reasons I find it a deep well to draw from in my writing. Consider the Chicago meatpacking tycoon who tried to dynamite a freighter’s way out of frozen Lake Michigan one winter, or the use of the word antifogmatic for a drink of liquor taken in the morning to brace oneself against bad weather, or the fact that Harper’s and other serious magazines published articles that profiled the emerging skyscrapers in Chicago and New York, asking questions like—How Will High Altitude Affect Business Acumen? These were, in the 1890s, buildings of not more than 10-25 floors. The 19th century is full of gripping philosophy, words, but also lots of whimsy. I feel right at home there.

You haven’t really taken Australia as a subject for your fiction thus far.  As you look towards other projects, does the book’s tremendous reception there make you rethink this?

I’ve published one short story that takes place in Australia and the current novel has an Australian sea captain — the son of a freed Tasmanian convict — but that’s as close as I’ve gotten to staging fiction on the continent.  I’ve had an idea for a while about a novel set in Australia during its early period, but so far it’s escaped my grasp.  I’m working on something now that features a school of New York painters of the early 20th century, but then I’m determined to make the Australian idea come to life.  I was in Australia for about a month earlier this year and it was very gratifying to see my work getting a warm reception there. I’ve spent half my life in the United States, but culturally I still feel very connected to the place where I grew up.

Next Paisano Fellow shares tall tales, not-so-tall tales and “Birdisms”

SarahBirdSarah Bird’s favorite description of herself as an author came from a high school student who was forced to attend a literary reading by her English teacher. She says,  “Sarah Bird was tall and thin and wore these cute reading glasses on the tip of her nose. If I recall correctly, she forgot her reading glasses and had to borrow somebody’s in the audience. Regardless of the reading glasses situation, she was very genuine and you could just tell on her face she did not write novels for money, she wrote novels because she loved writing. Her short excerpts to me seemed like a complete novel of their own. I mean she specifically picked pieces she loved, but the details just filled up like a complete novel. I really enjoyed this reading, and I definitely got some laughs out of it.”

Laughs and enjoyment seem to be two key aspects of writing novels for Sarah Bird and they were plentiful on Thursday night (10/8/09) as Bird was welcomed as the next Dobie Paisano Fellow during an event in her honor on The University of Texas at Austin campus.  Bird will hold the Ralph A. Johnston fellowship for established writers during her time on the Paisano ranch.

Bird enchanted the audience with witty tales of her younger self (who would be insanely jealous of her new fellowship), excerpts from her writing (including channeling her “Zen Mama” to deal with a teenage child) and stories from the front lines of Houston high society.

A columnist for Texas Monthly and the author of seven novels, Bird’s writing career has won her many awards and accolades.  These include the Elle Magazine Reader’s Prize, Amazon’s Fiction and Literature Editors and the American Library Association’s Booklist Editors Best Book of the Year and the Texas Institute of Letters’s Award for Best Work of Fiction (twice) among others.

Becoming an author was not Bird’s dream as a little girl.  As the child of a military family, much of her youth was spent oversees with little exposure to writers.  She says,

“The idea of being a writer never crossed my mind until I discovered a form so, hmmm, let’s say, ‘approachable,’ that it occurred to me that human beings might be producing it rather than the gods who wrote the books I loved.  This form was the photo-romance.  I discovered the photo-romance when I was an au pair in France.  Ostensibly, I was in France learning French.  Actually, I was fleeing a very bad love affair.  In any case, I was a 20-year-old nitwit and the only person whose French was worse than mine was the three-month-old bebe I was taking care.  So I started buying photo-romances as a shy person’s way of learning the colloquial language.

When I returned home, I sought out a comparable market in the United States and discovered true confession magazines.. ..These publications allowed me to learn how to tell a story in a voice that was not my own, to sink deeply into a character and her world, but, most importantly, since these ‘confessions’ were all anonymous, they allowed me to simply learn how to fill up pages with no thought whatsoever that they would ever be associated with me.”

As she has clearly learned how to do more than “fill up pages,” Bird still expressed “utter delight and astonishment” upon learning that she was chosen for the fellowship.  The last time she applied for a fellowship more than 25 years ago, (the Paisano fellowship, as a matter of fact) she was turned down.  She says it took this long to get up the nerve to apply again.  That might also have to do with the fact that her friend Terry Galloway, who did win the fellowship that year, tried to make her feel better by extolling the more rustic virtues of the ranch – including rattlesnakes and scorpions.

Bird, who will live on the ranch with her “Texas boy” husband, is undaunted by the critters and is looking forward to the proximity to nature as she works on a rewrite of her next novel for her publisher, Alfred A. Knopf.

Spotlight on Dobie Paisano Fellow Diane Wilson

Activist, fisherwoman, mother….Diane Wilson has been called by many names, but the one she was always reluctant to give herself was author. In fact, her 93-year old mother once told her that if she ever actually got a book published, she would stand on her head in the middle of traffic.

Two highly acclaimed books later, the self-taught writer can add another moniker to her list…Paisano Fellow. The Dobie Paisano Fellowship, sponsored by The University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Institute of Letters supports writers while they live and work at the Paisano Ranch – J. Frank Dobie’s 254-acre retreat just outside of Austin.

“My feet have still not touched the ground,” says Wilson of her reaction to the recent announcement of her award. Born and raised in Seadrift, Texas, she was thrilled with the validation she felt as a writer with her selection as the Paisano Fellow starting in June, 2010.

Author of “An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas” and “Holy Roller: Growing Up in the Church of Knock Down Drag Out; or How I Quit Loving a Blue Eyed Jesus,” Wilson has received critical acclaim from the likes of Rick Bass, Molly Ivans and Garrison Keillor. “Holy Roller” was recently awarded an honorable mention by the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards.

Wilson plans to spend her time at the Paisano Ranch writing about a topic close to her heart – fishermen and the sea. She is particularly looking forward to the solitude and time to reflect and to write during her stay. We can look forward to the results.

And by the way, despite the fact that Wilson is currently working on her third book, she has yet to collect on that promise from her mother.