I met Jack Cooksey at the north gate of the T. Tyler Potterfield Bridge on the hottest day of the year. It was so hot that the notebook I brought was soaked through with sweat by the time Jack crossed the James River, even though he was only five minutes late.
“This is brutal,” he said, with a shrug toward the sun.
“Oppressive,” I said.
“I feel like I’m wearing a jacket.”
“I feel like it’s raining without any clouds in the sky.”
We both laughed and shook hands. Jack was my executive editor at Richmond Magazine back in high school. That was a long time ago— two editorships ago for him; eight semesters ago for me—something like a lifetime. And yet in five years I’m not sure we’ve ever had a conversation that didn’t revolve around writing, down to the cutesy metaphors we used to describe the weather. It might drive some people crazy. To me, it’s comforting— makes me feel like less of a hack job.
Jack is as Richmond as they come— he grew up here in the Seventies, went to Benedictine in the Eighties, and graduated from VCU in the Nineties. Since then, he has bounced from magazine to magazine (to self-employment) in an industry that makes panhandling on Belvidere look like a stable profession. I have fond memories of the tie-dyed stories he assigned to me when I was an intern back in 2013— mostly environmental articles, and one Marxist daydream called the People’s Library— to say nothing of his sage advice, before I went to college.
“Do NOT major in journalism,” he told me.
And people wonder why I can’t be bothered to use AP Style. If you don’t like it, write a letter to The Editor.
Anyways, since Bottom Shelf Whiskey is only a baby, it seemed appropriate to end JULY 2018 by interviewing a man who knows more about writing in Richmond than almost anybody I can think of. (Tom Wolfe was unavailable for comment at press time— he is busy catching up with Ken Kesey).
Jack seemed surprised when I asked him if he’d do the interview. “I still feel like a poser,” he protested. “I might have had all these editing jobs, but to me, I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool writer— I’m just some guy.”
I figured that made him the perfect subject.
“I question my credibility,” he went on. “Not that what I say is in-credible, just….”
Well, if accidentally stumbling into that poetic double entendre wasn’t the most Neurotic Literary Genius thing I ever heard, then Hunter S. Thompson voted for Nixon. Jack was cornered now. We set off across the Potterfield Bridge, and the interrogation was on.
DHR: Why don’t we start off with some yes or no questions?
JC: Every exam should begin with true/false.
DHR: That’s true.
Alright, true or false: stories are not static structures, but living—albeit unconscious—creatures. True or false?
JC: Is a story a living, breathing thing?
That’s the question?
This is something Rajiv Mohabir told me: 90 percent of fiction is true, and 90 percent of non-fiction is false.
True or false?
JC: 50 percent true. You can only write about what you know, so the first half is true. But I’m not sure I’d say that 90 percent of non-fiction is false.
Then again, a lot of non-fiction is people bumping up against their own contradictions. I mean, both of the Clintons wrote books.
DHR: So— 90 percent true?
JC: We’ll go with that.
DHR: OK, true or false: the primary goal of writing is to communicate as much information as possible as succinctly as possible.
JC: I’d say that’s false, because it’s not always possible to be succinct.
Then again, it could be true, in the sense that you’re using as few words as possible to tell the story— but if it takes 800,000 words, you might not have many readers. And now I’m waffling here, and I’m not being succinct.
I think I’d say instead that the goal of writing is to tell the whole story in as few words as possible.
DHR: OK, enough true or false.
JC: Time for the essay questions, huh?
DHR: You could say that.
Okay, this is something that’s been on my mind. I think I’ve been reading too much Alan Watts and too little Mark Twain.
Anyway, Mark Twain’s contribution to my existence is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. That’s what he gave me. It’s impacted me deeply. I know almost nothing else about Mark Twain.
From the perspective of the reader, therefore, is there a line you can draw to separate the Writer, as an individual, from the Work he has created? Or is the Writer’s individuality a summation of the Work he’s produced?
JC: I don’t think the writer is a summation of his work, at least not in the sense that you mean. You’re looking at the question backwards.
DHR: Alan Watts used to say that.
JC: Think about Shakespeare—think about all of the languages and cultures those plays have been performed in. Once your words are in the possession of another person, the words are partly theirs, too. Writers don’t really belong to themselves. Mark Twain is no longer an individual— he doesn’t belong to himself. That’s part of the undertaking.
DHR: So you must kill your ego to be a good writer?
JC: I’d say you have to distance yourself from your ego, which in the end is impossible. You can destroy your ego, but ego rebirth immediately follows ego death.
I’d say that a story can facilitate death and rebirth for both the writer and the reader.
DHR: Alright, George Harrison, are you telling me you can destroy your ego by writing a story— or even just reading one?
JC: I would say that it is possible, yes.
But not every dime novelist is going to write himself into ego death, and not every story is going to lead the reader anywhere remotely close.
At a certain point, the characters take the writer on the journey. As part of your job, you’re getting lost, if you’ve written real characters. There’s the difference between a dime novelist and a writer. When you write real characters, they are real characters— shared by the writer and the reader. They can’t just be a papier-mâché scaffold for your plot.
Of course, this is from a guy whose fiction has never been published.
DHR: If your characters are the ones telling the story, then, is it possible to create a story from thin air, or does the story have to exist already?
JC: It’s possible to—but—well….
Man, these are Rubik’s cube questions. I’m having to twist a lot of colors to get something that feels like it’s in line, here.
It’s possible to create a story, but only in the way that the universe flows through you. Maybe one day the whole thing just falls into your head, fully furbished. That’s not impossible. But even then, that was all happening in the subconscious. Stimuli here, stimuli there. There’s no such thing as a closed system.
DHR: Let me re-phrase that. Are stories written or discovered? I’m talking fiction and non-fiction here.
JC: Neither and both.
I, the writer, am trying to discover truth— with the reader. And the page is a witness.
DHR: How do you discover truth?
JC: Question everything. That’s not just advice for a writer, either.
DHR: What? What? What? What? What? Oh….
JC: Exactly. I guess that’s why journalism comes naturally to some people. In spite of the pay.
DHR: Alright, last question. If you had to sum up Jack Cooksey into one story—or one literary symbol—what would you say?
JC: I think I’d say Jack Cooksey is a hat, blowing in the wind.
DHR: Why a hat?
JC: Because it’s the thing that’s most likelyto get blown off a person.
By the time we parted ways, the day had somehow managed to grow even hotter. Walking back to my car from Brown’s Island was like treading water in a Jacuzzi.
I don’t know why that’s relevant. I guess good writers let the reader know the story is over by tying the introduction back in somehow. I bet Jack Cooksey would say so— that’s what he would have told me when he was Editor-in-Chief at Richmond Magazine, or when he was an editor at Style Weekly, or if I submitted anything to his Fall Line Journal, or if I was on staff at his newspaper in Charleston….
But— his fiction has never been published.
What a poser!