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.