Taking the Fifth with Daniel Libman

An interview series where writers lay it all out for Fifth Wednesday Journal

Talking Soccer with Robert Coover


Photo courtesy of Dul Johnson

Robert Coover has a problem. Two problems, really. The first is he’s supposed to meet his friend and his wife but can’t reach either on his cell phone. The second is that the World Cup Semi-finals are on and he can’t find a television on which to view it. (The game is unavailable in his Hyatt Regency hotel room for some reason.) Coover once wrote that a true soccer fan, “in his despair or ecstasy . . . often fails to see the game at all, experiencing it rather at a level that is blind, irrational, profound, innocent.” It appears that this will become prophecy if he can’t get to a boob tube soon. And to make matters worse, he’s agreed to be interviewed, this time as a favor to this same lifelong friend, Jim Ballowe, who is now incommunicado.

Now poor Coover’s sitting with this interviewer, not a reporter, really, but a guy in shorts with two handheld digital recorders. They’ve ended up in the hotel’s spacious lobby bar with an enormous television broadcasting prelims, although the bar itself has not yet opened. The sweaty interviewer had run down the street and procured them a six-pack of a locally brewed IPA, and now the bar staff courteously provides empty glasses to pour this into, as well as a bowl of chips and salsa. Other customers of the hotel catch wind of this and start to fill in the empty tables under the screens to watch the match. Pretty soon it’s crowded and lively, although Coover and the interviewer are the only ones drinking.

It will be some time before Jim Ballowe and Robert’s wife turn up, and the game will be a rather shocking and historic rout of Brazil by Germany (known by historians as the 7-1 game), but Coover doesn’t know any of this yet. All he knows is the interviewer seems confused about the operation of at least one of the handheld recorders, and that he probably won’t be agreeing to be interviewed again, not even as a favor to Jim.

Fifth Wednesday Journal: Who are you pulling for?

Robert Coover: Well, they’re all gone. All my teams are gone.

FWJ: But who’s your —

RC: Spain. Spain’s my favorite.

FWJ: How does a Midwesterner get to be such a soccer fan?

RC: I had rented a flat in London with my family, and my son was playing the game and he wanted to have a team to follow. He was a kid ten years old at this point and we went to all the stadiums. We had tickets for this little club, QPR, Queens Park Rangers. Man United and Chelsea had both gone down to the lower divisions a couple years before, and as a consequence they developed what they called the red armies and blue armies: kids, thugs smashing windows and things in the name of their club. Really the worst kind of hooligans. Kids would put on red shirts and go around and beat up little kids in the name of Manchester United, so my son hated Man United. He felt personally abused. Then QPR whipped Man United four nothing. We became fans, and we’ve suffered ever since, of course. We have a third goalie, QPR does, the one nobody wants to use; they farm him out whenever possible. He’s the Brazil goalkeeper. That’s why I’m rooting for Brazil.

FWJ: And then they made you do a publicity tour during the World Cup.

RC: I was, but that’s over. I did a West Coast tour and that was more than enough.

FWJ: Do you enjoy that sort of thing? Touring in support of books.

RC: I enjoy the moment and the reading, the contact with the audience. I like talking with people when they’re asking questions, that’s fine. It’s everything else: the travel, the bookings. The nuisances of the interviews.

FWJ: How has this sort of promoting changed over the years, decades?

RC: Tours were more common in those days. They were often useless in nature for the kinds of things I write. University audiences: urban, sophisticated audiences are fine. But your neighborhood bookstore or your local Barnes and Noble, people are looking to hear authors talk about cooking, recipes, or something. I actually have gotten questions like that. You give a reading and they stand around and then they say I wonder if you could tell us how to make such and such a dish. Or what did you think about the local football team, something stupid like that. They obviously aren’t paying attention to what you’re doing. So they were kind of a waste and you wasted a lot of energy and time, and nothing gets done. You come home totally exhausted, a wretched flight back. Saw a few friends, but there is a lot of downtime where you don’t know what else to do, and you don’t have your computer handy and so you have that feeling of wastefulness. All to sell maybe six copies.

FWJ: The original Bruinist book is almost fifty years old now. Are you finding that people are still familiar with it? That they remember it?

RC: It depends. A lot of them have read the first one and maybe haven’t read anything else, so now they’re curious to know what happens in the sequel. That’s true with faculty audiences as well because no one reads everybody’s everything.

FWJ: Is this a recent decision to go back and revisit the Bruinists, or have you been thinking about it all these years?

RC: Back in the sixties, fifty years ago, I got the idea for the sequel while I was writing Origin. Actually, I got the idea for several variants on the sequel. The basic notion was the same, but how I would get to it had a lot of different routes. The basic notion was that I had created this little cult which was going to predict the end of the world and not have it happen, which would be a parallel to the early Christian period. I wanted to do what they did: found a church after failing. So they announced the end of world, and everybody, Jesus and everybody in the New Testament, said it would happen before they died. So they failed, but nevertheless the religion took off. I wanted to have that happen in contemporary times.
At the beginning I had a different preacher in the Presbyterian pulpit, I had a different guy who was very thoughtful. In fact he was a bit boring, and I took him out of the first book because he was a kind of theologian who wanted to get it right. He was going to play the role of the anti-Christ himself, a kind of self-adopted role. Then I had a notion of church elders, so I had various ideas and worked on them in not a very active fashion in the years to follow. I got to doing what I wanted to do starting with the baseball book The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. and the stories Pricksongs and Descants, and I kept moving on to that stuff, and pretty soon I was doing books like Gerald’s Party and John’s Wife and that kind of thing.

I went, in fact, to Venice and took several mailbags of research books. I’d been collecting this material for twenty years, and it was time to write it, and so I carried it with me to Venice. When I got there it had been snowing; it was January and beautiful, gorgeous. But my study was in a kind of loft area that lacked windows. I had to do something, and I walked around looking at the beauties of Venice, taking a lot of photographs, stopping in to get warm at the museums and looking at the artwork and not remembering very much. I decided to create a character who was an art historian, who was back in Venice after writing his youthful work on Venetian painters, coming back to re-check his opinions. But I wasn’t really going to write anything until one day in the snow I saw a sign that said, “Pinocchio in Venizia.” I thought, that’s curious. I always wanted to write a Pinocchio story, so I walked in, and it was all the artwork associated with Pinocchio: takeoffs, different books that had been done about him. I bought the catalog for the show, walked out, thinking, I really should do this. Here I am, this is the moment. I thought, what would Venice be? Well, it’s an island. It could be the island where the little boys are turned into donkeys. I began to see a story. So I ended up writing about this ancient, almost one-hundred-year-old Ivy League prof, coming back to his home country, to the island where he got turned into a donkey and he’s urgently trying to finish a book, his final book about the blue-haired fairy. He’s urgently doing it because he’s turning back into wood again. He’s dying. I got involved in that. I spent the whole year writing it. I had the best time of my life, and when I was done I had all these big gray mail sacks full of books that had to be shipped back again to the US. So I thought I wouldn’t do it. But then Bush got elected. The second Bush. Suddenly there were all these evangelicals with power. They no longer were people in the background; they were people in the foreground. And I thought, if I’m ever going to do this, I better do it now. So I started it then, restarted it, and got seriously engaged with it in 2004, and ten years later I got the book out.

FWJ: Do your books, with all their bifurcating stories and twists, do they work especially well on e-readers, where people can be more fluid with how they read?

RC: It’s a curious moment in a changing technology. What typically happens as you move from one technology is that no one quite knows what to do with the new stuff, so they kind of grab the old stuff and convert it. When Gutenberg invented moveable type, which led to the printing press, they didn’t have any actual things to print. Very few things. They raided the monasteries of their manuscripts, and they reproduced those manuscripts, and Gutenberg’s first typeface imitates handwriting. A new book emerged, but there were still a lot of barriers. They still had parchment, and we really didn’t understand the book properly for a hundred and fifty years, until Cervantes wrote Don Quixote. Don Quixote became a revelation. We are a ways away from that. We’re doing a lot of things, but we’re still a ways away. And meanwhile, people aren’t reading the new work yet. They aren’t accustomed to it. There are a lot of writers producing digital work, but they’re not catching on. Maybe they’re not good enough, maybe the readers aren’t adept enough, or whatever. But at any rate there’s a kind of transition, and in this transition they’re mining the monasteries again. They’re reproducing old books as e-books and putting them on Kindles, which looks like a book almost.

FWJ: E-readers go out of the way to replicate the book experience even, with page turning via animation.

RC: Exactly. With a hand stroke doing it rather than a click or something. So that’s kind of getting people adjusted to what the new technology can do, and I don’t know when we will see a natural transition to it being the only thing there is, but when that transition happens, I don’t think that books as we know them will be the main material. What is more likely to happen is that the book will continue as a book in print form, but it will be much more like an art object, and it’ll be much more the domain of the artist and poets and so on. You won’t be selling your current murder mystery that way. A digital version would be more fascinating, there would be ways in which you can pause and explore possibilities and search out your own clues. You can go from one thing to another.

FWJ: More like a video game?


The complete interview with Robert Coover is available in the spring 2015 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal.

For more about Robert Coover

Daniel Libman is Pushcart Prize and Paris Review Discovery Prize winner. His debut story collection, Married But Looking, was published by Livingston Press in 2012. He regularly writes the “Taking the Fifth” interview and is a founding editor of Fifth Wednesday Journal.

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