No Fences: A Conversation with T Cooper
T Cooper has received some deserved attention. T's first novel, the critically acclaimed Some of the Parts, was chosen as a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers pick and a LAMBDA Literary Award finalist. Cooper has been a resident at the MacDowell Colony, with a current project, a novel about Jewish immigration, a finalist for a Koret Jewish Book Award. But T Cooper doesn't just garner the attention of awards committees - the producers of 'Sex and the City' came out to see an alter ego, T-Rok, founding member of gender bending pop-sensations the Backdoor Boys. T may be something of a rising star of transgender literature but is beyond 'identity politics.' T's latest work focuses on how history is formed and recalled, the formation and scattering of families through time and how periods of violence affect the bonds between people - themes which are universal and timeless. Still, identity is something that still lingers as an issue - T points out that in the middle of the country lies a vast stretch of land where queer kids look for solace in their local corporate bookstore and you never know what danger lurks near a public bathroom for a woman with short hair.
We met near T's house on the Lower East Side and enjoyed one of the first balmy days of spring, drinking iced chai and watching the dogs run by us in Tompkins Square Park.
A: You toured the country to promote Some of the Parts.
T: A lot of my family comes from Texas, not from the big cities, from the panhandle part, though some are in Houston. I'm fascinated with the middle parts of the country, but I'm scared of them too. This past summer I drove cross-country twice. I've driven back and forth across the country probably about 25 times in my life. There's just something about it. I feel instantly unsafe when I do it. You just get so ghettoized in your identity in the cities like New York and L.A. Its nice to span the distances between them.
A: In what way does it feel unsafe? Do you mean physically threatening?
T: Yeah, physically threatening, and just being such an unknown entity, some people are scared to death of that. It's a different culture out there, it's a Wal Mart culture. You turn on the radio and there's a preacher railing against the evil homosexuals and the evil Jews and anything that's different.
There's a scene in the book where there's bathroom danger. That happens a lot for real. I've been chased out of bathrooms by women who are nervous about what I'm doing there, and their husbands will get a security guard. Its funny but sometimes its scary. Once when I as in New Mexico, Some guy got a shot gun out 'cause he thought I was a man in the woman's bathroom.
A: How did you decide to go into writing?
T: I guess I always wanted to write. I always knew I wanted to do it, but I didn't know what form it would take. I started out with non-fiction writing doing magazine articles, writing for Teen People, Parenting. I think my first story was about family restrooms, how stadiums across the country are now adopting family restroom so that you could go with your husband if you're a woman and go and change diapers. That was some really hard hitting reporting… That was years ago, so I was really on the cutting edge of the family bathroom phenomenon. I stuck to fact because it took me a while to realize that I could just make stuff up, and once I realized that it was much more fun. Right now the stuff I'm working on is based very little in fact. I'm doing tons of research on Russian Jewish immigrant history, so that's based in fact, but its just so nice to have freedom.
A: So tell me about this new project you're working on.
T: The book is basically three generations of this family living in Kishenev, in the Ukraine. It starts in 1903 with the pogroms, a 2 or 3 day violent span of events around Easter. They leave in 1903, and that generation reappears in the next part, near the end of World War II, and then their kids are living in the present day in panhandle of Texas.
The two autobiographical strands are - my family on my mothers side, my grandmother came here from Russia in 1899. She had 5 brothers with her, and when they came through Ellis Island they just lost one. Gone. Never to hear from him again. He was about 5. He kind of knew his name, but he kind of didn't because it had already been changed and it was just chaos. They searched and searched but just couldn't find him. In the book, that happens, it's a little later when it happens in 1907. In my book its a blonde kid who doesn't look Jewish at all who's lost and he's kind of the thread that pulls the three generations together. There's a matrilineal obsession passed down with what happened to this child.
And the second autobiographical element I had to piece together with research. There was a movement called the Galveston movement that operated in the 1800s. A lot of the wealthy German immigrants who came over in the earlier wave were embarrassed by the conditions in the Jewish ghettos of New York, Boston Philly. They funneled all this money to Russia to get all the Jews who were leaving to not even go to the east coast, to take them on boats and send them right to Galveston, Texas which was a sparsely used immigration port. The idea was to get able bodied Jewish men who don't have families or are willing to leave their families, who work on the Sabbath, to totally integrate into society. They go to Galveston with the idea that they would be industrious and be sponsored and move to New Mexico, California, Memphis. Many Jewish communities in our country were founded or populated by these people. So one of my relatives, came through that. The program probably settled only 100,000 Jews from Russia, but in the end many more than that came, because once people hear about the wide open land and all the money that can be made…[they just came in droves].
Jacob Schiff was the main financier here in New York who funded it. And legally you couldn't pay for an immigrant to come to the US, but you could line up rail passage, passports and boat passage. So really it was about facilitating immigration.
One of the characters in my book who loses his family in the 1903 pogrom goes through Galveston and the rest of the family follows him. I have about 200 pages done and I think that's about a third of it.
I went to the MacDowell colony which is an amazing gathering of artists, writers and filmmakers. They basically pay for you to write. They deliver your food in a basket every day, its amazing! So that's where I got the bulk of the writing done so I'm hoping to get into another one because its hard to integrate as much writing as I need to do in my daily life. I feel excited about this new book because its so different than anything I've ever done. I think if I wrote Some of the Parts right now I'd do it much differently, but it's nice to be in a different stage. It feels right to be done with that and moving on to something that's quite a stretch for me. I feel like if it's not a stretch why bother.
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