HALIFAX — Writer Wyn Cooper's first novel, Way Out West, has plenty of thrills and chills, but none, it seems, as big as the one its publication provided the author.
“I've been lucky in my life, and readily admit it, but nothing prepared me for the thrill of having my first novel published,” Cooper says.
Way Out West follows the developing relationship between two protagonists as they try to complete a sci-fi B-movie that might or might not be a cover for nuclear testing. They have to face their own troubled pasts before they can solve the riddle of the government's intentions.
“It's been a dream of mine since I was a kid in high school reading a novel - or trying to - every day,” he says.
That's saying something, coming from the man whose poem, “Fun,” became the heart of famed singer Sheryl Crow's 1994 hit, “All I Wanna Do.”
Not to mention that he penned the first draft of Way Out West 32 years ago.
Cooper has written five books of poetry, most recently Mars Poetica. His poems and stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Poetry, Five Points, Slate, and more than 100 other magazines. His work is included in 25 poetry anthologies.
Songs based on his poems and lyrics have been featured on five television shows, and he has collaborated on CDs released in 2003 and 2008.
Cooper has taught at the University of Utah, Bennington College, Marlboro College, and The Frost Place, a museum and nonprofit educational center for poetry located at poet Robert Frost's former home in Franconia, New Hampshire.
The author is former editor of Quarterly West, a literary magazine based at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. He worked for two years at the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute, a think tank run by The Poetry Foundation.
Cooper continues editing fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and memoir manuscripts. Not counting his own first novel, 65 of the books the affable, generous, and modest writer has edited have been published during the past 12 years.
He's a formidable downhill skier, too.
'I'll just write a novel'
It was 1987, and Cooper, who now splits his time between Halifax and Boston, had just dropped out of the University of Utah and a creative writing Ph.D. program and “needed something to do.”
A classmate said he was going to write a novel - one page a day - and Cooper set out to do the same.
“I had no plot in my mind whatsoever,” he told the audience at this year's Brattleboro Literary Festival of the story that takes place in three parts from 1983 to 1984, following protagonists Robin and Tyler through the “complicated worlds of movie-making, love, drugs, and spying,” as author Margot Livesey has put it.
For Cooper, the first chapter of Way Out West is “kind of like a poem.”
It begins here, in these mountains rising out of the desert. This desert that seems endless in summer, and endlessly hot. And cold in winter, when movie crews spend freezing days filming life elsewhere in the galaxy. This is the moon, they say, let's get weightless, as they pass a bottle of gin around. Even as their vision blurs, they see these mountains clearly in the middle distance. And as they continue to drink the things around them begin to move, to sway, to lose their weight in the lunar night. Except the mountains, which remind them of everything that was ever stable in their lives, or pleasant, or real.
Cooper lived in Utah when he wrote the manuscript, but he never visited most of the other sites in the book about which he writes so lyrically.
“I lived in Utah for 12 years and I miss that landscape, and I loved it when I lived there,” the author says, adding he thinks of the landscape “almost like a character in the novel,” in part because it has such an impact on the lives of the story's human characters.
Cooper says he had been “both fascinated and troubled” by the nuclear testing that had been taking place in Nevada for several decades and researched as he wrote.
“It seemed entirely possible that the government was withholding information about the downwind consequences of the tests and I - and most of the country - was downwind,” he says.
“I created a character who was involved in making a film near, and eventually on, the Nevada site, so I tied the story of the making of the film into the testing and ended up with what's been called a slow-burn thriller that's also a love story,” Cooper continues.
Above all, he describes Way Out West as “a story about two people who each have myriad problems, meet by chance, are challenged by their relationship, and have to resolve that before they can attempt to figure out if the testing is somehow related to the film. And what they can do about it.”
Cooper also didn't know much about moviemaking, he says.
“I love movies [but] I don't know why I had the main character, Tyler, be a former stuntman whose body was falling apart,” he says. “I was a daredevil skier in Utah when I wrote the novel, competing in aerials and moguls and jumping off cliffs, so maybe that had something to do with it.”
He says he was also a fan of the 1980 film The Stunt Man, with Steve Railsback, Peter O'Toole, and Barbara Hershey, which involves a stunt performer crashing a film set and using his skills to save his own life.
Cooper describes the scenes in the novel that take place on movie sets in Nevada and Arizona as “purely imaginative.”
“I've still never been on a movie set and had never been in the places in those western states where the filming took place,” he says.
Cooper did, however, attend college with Doug Monroe, director of photography of the television program Sister Wives.
“When I was revising the novel last year, I sent him many questions about how camera filters might have been used in 1983 and 1984, when the novel is set,” Cooper says. “He helped me greatly.”
Asked how he was able to delve as he did into the mind of the main female character, Cooper says that “the question is flattering.”
“Robin is more like me than Tyler is, so it was easier to see what was happening in her head and heart,” he says. “She's also based in part on a woman I was in love with at the time whose mind I had access to because we stayed in touch the old-fashioned way - letters.”
“I finished the book at Ucross, a writers' retreat in rural Wyoming, so she and I sent letters back and forth between there and Utah,” he says. “I still have the letters and read them all again last year when I was revising the novel. I got in touch with her, and she still has all of my letters, all these years later.”
Cooper adds that some of his favorite works of fiction are “written by men who've created strong, believable, and memorable women characters,” such as in Andre Dubus's early stories from the 1980s and Jim Harrison's 1988 novel Dalva.
“And I can't even count how many times I've read [Henry] James's The Portrait of a Lady, or Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary,” Cooper says. “As Flaubert said, 'Madame Bovary, c'est moi.'”
Cooper also had to write dialogue for the first time, divining how the characters interrelated as he developed a plot.
As to how writing poetry versus fiction compares for him, Cooper believes both share a sense of “coming from the unconscious.”
“I loved writing fiction when I wrote the novel more than 30 years ago, in part because it was such a big project compared to a poem,” he says. “I didn't know where the novel was going when I started it - I just created a character, then another, then put them into situations that caused them to behave in ways that let me get to know them better.”
Cooper admits that the process “sounds mysterious, as if a ghost were dictating the chapters to me and I had no control over the pen in my hand, but that's not really so far off the mark.”
But, he says, “I'm a firm believer in the unconscious, in part because our conscious minds can get boring.”
“My poems come from my unconscious and much of the novel did, as well,” says Cooper, who had “no idea how it was going to end until I got to the end.”
“I kept hoping my unconscious would come to the rescue,” he says - “not just to rescue the characters, but to rescue me.”
In a box for 32 years
On St. Patrick's Day 1988, Cooper finished Way Out West.
He sent the manuscript to a few agents and “big New York publishers,” but despite some nice rejection letters, he had no takers.
“I really, really, hate rejection and I didn't want to keep doing that, so I just put it in a box,” he says.
Every five years or so, “I would take it out of the box and reread it and I would think, 'I don't know if anyone will want to publish this,'” Cooper told Festival-goers. “But I'm really proud of myself that I wrote a novel, because when you're a poet, you never write anything more than a page long.”
“It's kind of a big deal,” he said.
Despite his fear of rejection, Cooper decided last year to take the manuscript out of the box yet again. He also made some plot changes, channeling his 30-year-old self once again, as he says - and this time, however, he sent it out again.
After five months with it, Concord Free Press accepted Way Out West for publication.
Cooper supposes the story “is one of belief in yourself and your work.”
“It's not about perseverance, exactly, because I didn't persevere in sending my manuscript out. I did, however, believe in the novel, and in the end that was enough,” he says. “Well, that and revision.”
Cooper is one who believes writers should have editors and so asked a few writer friends to read the final draft.
As proud as he is of his debut novel, Cooper is also clearly proud to be connected with Concord Free Press, which has also published Newfane author Castle Freeman Jr. and Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked, which became the renowned Broadway hit.
Concord's ePress is part of the whole, explains Cooper, and it's the part that funds the Free Press. Half the proceeds from sales of his $16 book go to funding the Free Press, which gives books away, asking in return that recipients give to charities of their choosing. By doing so, Concord Free Press has raised more than $4 million for hundreds of charities.
“It's an experiment in altruism,” the author says.
He credits Stona Fitch, the novelist who runs the press, for coming up with his book's title, “which is far superior to the one I had decided on after coming up with 150 candidates,” Cooper says.
Way back when
The road from poetry to music and literary fiction has been a great ride for Cooper.
Having six lines from one of his poems spun into Sheryl Crow's pop music hit was a life-changer.
“Sheryl was recording her first record in 1993 in Pasadena and the producer didn't like the words she had come up with for the tune that would become 'All I Wanna Do,' he explains.
“So they went around the corner to Cliff's, a used bookstore, and found a copy of my first book, The Country of Here Below. They bought it because many of the poems were similar in theme to the songs they'd already recorded, in that they were about the underbelly of society.
The producer had Crow sing “Fun.”
With some adaptation, the poem worked.
“They called me to get my permission, and I said 'yes,'” says Cooper.
The experience turned out to be his ticket into the music business.
“I was able to quit my teaching job, had more time to write, and was asked by other musicians to write lyrics for them or work with them at turning my poems into songs,” he says.
“I flew to California several times to write with well known musicians, worked with Israeli folk-rock star David Broza to turn a poem into a song, and wrote, recorded, and released two CDs with novelist Madison Smartt Bell - Forty Words for Fear and Postcards from the Interior, “the latter of which is a combination of my poems and song lyrics I wrote for Madison to set music to.”
Don Dixon, co-producer of the first album by REM, produced and played on both albums.
Those songs, which Cooper says he is “most proud of,” have been featured on five television shows.
“Though I'm not a musician, becoming part of the music world has been a dream come true. Madison and I were lucky enough to have. So I guess you could say the song was my ticket into the music business.”
Way Out West is also dedicated to Bell.
These days, Cooper is skiing and working as a freelance editor for those hoping to publish their poetry, fiction, and nonfiction manuscripts.
“It's very satisfying,” he says. “Being an English major has turned out to be a blessing.”
Will he write another novel?
“I hope so … but it's hard,” says Cooper. “I can't go back to my 30-year-old self and have that kind of energy and that view of the world. And that's probably for the best.”