Books In Conversation
Martha Cooley with Catherine Parnell
Buy Me Love
(Red Hen Press, 2021)
I met Martha Cooley in 1999 when, as a then-visiting writer in the Bennington MFA program, she gave a series of lectures, one of which covered Milan Kundera. Martha joined Bennington’s fiction faculty, teaching in the program for fifteen years; I was fortunate to study with her there. I was taken by Martha’s crisp, incisive view of the world, and she’s always been one of the voices that sound in my head when I’m working. Her latest novel, Buy Me Love, sings with quirky philosophical consternations surrounding an unexpected windfall as the protagonist, Ellen Portinari, navigates the channels of love, work, and money. And death. There’s always that.
Catherine Parnell (Rail): Buy Me Love initiates with a coincidence. A poet who makes her living as a freelance editor notices a string of seven numerals written on a scrap of paper, and recalls they’re the same as her childhood phone number. On a whim she buys a lottery ticket, betting those seven numerals.
In your beautiful essay on LitHub titled “Capturing Natural Coincidences, in Fiction and Life,” you wrote: “At times we perceive coincidences where there really aren’t any—wishing our experiences to be glazed with inexplicability, not planed and sanded by logic and reason. Other times we ignore coincidences because their illogic unnerves us.” How cautious were you when writing this book, fearing perhaps readers might shake their fists at any easy coincidental links between events?
Martha Cooley: Coincidences—small and large, important and not—are endless in our lives. Many we fail to spot; some we grant more credit than they deserve. In any case, I think most people enjoy the essential oddness of coincidences. They restore to us a sense of mysterious connections. Of capriciousness in a benign key, one could say.
Writing Buy Me Love, I found myself thinking about happenstance and its relation to happiness. The latter word derives from the same root as the former: hap, which means fortune or luck, good or bad. Winning a lottery jackpot is an instance of positive hap, obviously—but it sparks unavoidable challenges. Trust and transparency, for starters: whom do you tell about your crazy win, and how, and why? Plus, even for a lottery winner, coincidences don’t simply cease. Their mischief, vexing or reassuring as it may be, continues to play out…
With this novel I wanted to make a story to whose coincidences the reader will assent even when they seem unlikely. Put differently, I wanted the reader to say, “jeez, what?!—but still, you know, I believe it…” We’re incredulous in the face of all that’s “stranger than fiction,” yet in our lives we recognize that coincidences are altogether real and inescapable. And we take pleasure in this very strangeness.
Rail: I tore through the book, couldn’t put it down, reveled in the braided structure, rooted for the romance in the making, was struck by the brother/sister relationships, and wanted, oh so wanted, that hundred-million-dollar lottery ticket! Let’s start with the structure: how did you work it out?
Cooley: From the start I sensed that Ellen, the lottery winner, would require a kind of counterpoint—some who’d also be an artist (visual, not linguistic), and who’d be very different from Ellen, though not an actual antagonist. It took me time to grasp the similarities between these two characters, since on the surface they couldn’t be more different. One big thing they share (I realized after a bit of barking up wrong trees!) is an instinctive devotion to their brothers, each quite problematic in his own way. Also uniting my two protagonists is a commitment to art-making without a focus on earning potential.
Ellen’s career as a poet has never taken off; she’s been juggling freelance assignments for decades, earning just enough to get by. And Blair (considerably younger than Ellen) is in financial hot water, too. She scorns the kind of fame accorded to the best-known artists doing street art, as she is. Street art’s a realm in which surprise, provocation, and ephemerality are vital; instant visibility can quickly turn into fifteen minutes of banal fame that gutters down to nothing.
I wanted these two characters’ lives to intersect by chance, but not too readily or quickly. So I created a narrative structure that takes the reader back and forth between the lives (interior and exterior) of these two women. This toggling happens within a compressed time-frame—since Ellen’s got just a month in which she can redeem her winning lottery ticket—and in a circumscribed place, Brooklyn. My characters’ familiarity with this borough of New York City—their sensitivity not just to the built environment and its subway infrastructure, but also to Brooklyn’s largest green-space, Prospect Park—felt increasingly important to me as I proceeded. Ellen and Blair get the rhythms of the place. I wanted the prose of the novel to capture those rhythms, too.
Rail: How much research did you do when creating Blair? Any particular street/graffiti artists take your fancy? I’m thinking of Geco in Rome, Clet in Florence, and Banksy, of course.
Cooley: I didn’t do much poking around or researching. Perhaps that’s because from the start, I felt it was important for Blair to be consistent in her desire to remain autonomous or “invisible” as she puts it. For her, not being seen/recognized as an artist is a virtue. She derives philosophical support for this existential position from her reading of the work of Albert Camus. Intellectually, Blair behaves rather like a magpie. She picks up and tucks away certain memorable phrases and passages from Camus’s work that resonate for her, without developing a coherent understanding of his philosophy as a whole.
Rail: One of the most striking themes in the novel is that of time—time passing, time past, and time over, a.k.a. death. The novel raises the question of how we spend our time, and what it does to us as it passes. We see this, for instance, with Ellen’s brother, Win, who’s stuck in time as a result of his partner’s death in a political bombing in Spain. Readers feel the tension mount as time keeps slipping away and Win keeps refusing to accept help from his sister—which adds to the suspense of the not-yet-claimed lottery ticket.
Cooley:I wanted the novel to be powered by several sources of mounting tension. One is Win’s apparent falling-apart. From Ellen’s vantage point, her brother has been immobilized by what happened in Spain. (There was in fact a bombing at Madrid’s Atocha Station; I imagined Win’s girlfriend as one of the casualties.) Ellen is understandably worried her brother’s life will soon fall apart, financially as well as emotionally. Win drinks too much; he’s angry and self-isolating. And despite his recognized talents as a composer, he refuses to score music in the traditional way, insisting instead on sketching rather than notating what he hears in his head. Yet the reader realizes (as does Ellen) that Win’s private rebellions are an expression of moral and political outrage: as a composer, he’s refusing to play the game of competition. What he’s after is creativity’s independence, the imagination’s sovereignty, art’s truth-telling. As the only person to whom Ellen confides the secret of her lottery ticket, Win ends up playing a forceful role in her struggle to be honest with herself about the need for change. He functions as a kind of emotional metronome in Ellen’s life, urging her to reckon with time’s ticktock, ticktock… His behaviors are also meant to remind her (and the reader) that a loss such as the one he’s sustained isn’t merely private; bound up as it is in public events and traumas, it summons the sorrows of countless other people. By the same token, a gain such as the one lying on the horizon for Ellen isn’t merely private, either. After all, a jackpot win inevitably thrusts the ticket-holder into the public arena—and not in a gentle way.
Rail: I heard echoes of other writers’ voices in Buy Me Love, felt their attitudes and saw their auras. What writers were by your side as you wrote?
Cooley: Well, like many writers, I suffer from anxiety of influence. So I don’t keep any author in particular too close to me while I’m working on a novel. But I’m always aided by Italo Calvino’s notions about lightness and quickness in fiction. Calvino praises what he calls a thoughtful lightness (the farthest thing from frivolity), which allows meaning to be conveyed “through a verbal texture that seems weightless,” as he puts it. Calvino views linguistic lightness as a means of reducing the world’s mass and weight, so what’s essential in our experience can be more readily apprehended and contended with. As for quickness (another of Calvino’s literary values)—well, storytelling is all about working creatively with time, isn’t it?—and never wasting it, of course. According to Calvino, the god of speed, Mercury, should be the writer’s patron, “with his winged feet, light and airborne, astute, agile, free and easy.” I agree.
Rail: In your recent essay in The Common, “Taking the Waters,” you deploy sulfur as inspiration for a listicle-type piece. The essay, a cataloging of the dual nature of sulfur, brings us at the last moment to a handprint on a cave’s wall. It lights up the imagination with the dark power of fireworks, leaving a lasting imprint—on wall and mind alike. What lasting imprint or flash of idea/feeling do you want your readers to take away from Buy Me Love? Or is that up to them?
Cooley: I’d say it’s up to the reader. The writer’s aims are one thing, but after finishing a novel, readers know what’s left a mark (for them) and what hasn’t. I guess my hope for this novel is that the reader is left with a sense of refreshment—of having escaped the restrictive arena of “this is lucky, but that isn’t” in which we all tend to get trapped.
I’m very fond of the novel’s epigraph—it’s the surprise of change that makes / good fortune and bad luck feel the same. It captures an important existential truth: we fare best when we’re adaptable, so “the surprise of change” doesn’t freak us out but instead gooses us into new perspectives and sympathies.
Rail: And speaking of change, you’ve just moved to Italy! Which meant you had to sort through your possessions, deciding what to store, ship or toss. And now you’re settling into a place both familiar and new—a tiny, near-deserted medieval village in Tuscany, where you and your husband have had a home for nearly a decade. As you packed up your apartment in New York, how did it feel to revisit your life through books and possessions? I’ll never forget closing out my parents’ house and finding tags under ornamental bowls, taped to furniture, or tucked in books, indicating who was to get the item in question and why – and sometimes a little history of each object was included. All in my mother’s handwriting. Although this was chilling, it was also a relief. But how does one decide what’s important to keep or let go of?
Cooley: Tough but fascinating question! I certainly don’t have a clear answer to it; not for myself, and surely not for anyone else…and there weren’t any tags to guide me as I packed up. Much depends, I think, on one’s age. Now that I’m in the middle of my sixth decade, I’m dealing with a sense of deracination that at times feels liberating, at times quietly heartbreaking, and always very curious and strange. Although I’m a dual citizen, I experience moments of powerful estrangement in which I feel neither Italian nor American, and am unsure what it might mean to “be” either. Yet the estrangement is bracing. It keeps me alert to possibility, and wary of facile conclusions about how/why things are as they are in either country.
As for packing up my possessions, well, I had to give away a lot of books (they went to my university’s library), which meant making some really hard choices. I’m eager for the arrival of the books I decided to keep, which are currently on a ship docked in the port of La Spezia, waiting to clear customs. I await, too, beloved kitchen things and certain memorabilia and photos—stuff that makes the past feel coherent, somehow, though I know coherence is itself a fiction. The process of selection wasn’t fun... Sorting through the contents of our apartment in NYC all in one go, in just a few weeks, was rather like watching my entire life-experience whiz by in one of those little photo flip-books. You know—look, there’s childhood! And there’s high school, there’s my first marriage, there’s Bennington, there’s Adelphi University… Yeesh!
Rail: Buy Me Love is a very urban story. Almost all its action takes place in Brooklyn, though there’s a brief scene in the small city of Cremona, Italy. When you think “setting” now—in fictional terms, I mean—what comes to mind?
Cooley: While on sabbatical here in 2019-20, as the pandemic broke out, I was immersed in drafting a new novel whose action takes place mostly here in my region of Lunigiana. I managed to finish it before returning to teach my final year, but I haven’t looked at the manuscript for a while. I’ll be returning to it shortly. The story’s setting is rural, and very local: nearly all the action takes place within miles of where I now live. Lately I’ve realized cities no longer have the same hold on my attention that they used to. I miss New York, at times fiercely. But the urban realm saps too much energy. Like one of the characters in my novel, I have tinnitus, so city noise is a major hassle. I need the quiet of my village, and I imagine the birds and cicadas in the woods around me feel the same way. Their varied sounds—songs, chants, chatter—I can happily handle; trucks and buses and noisy A/C units are another matter.
Rail: A moment from your memoir-in-essays, Guesswork: A Reckoning With Loss, which has stayed with me is in the essay titled “Pleasantly and Well-Suited.” You and Antonio are in a rental house in your village, and a bat flies out from a cloth covering the bedroom windows, and you think: “I’ll need to imagine myself the actual proprietor of this domicile.” It sounds like you’re already doing that imagining.
Cooley: I am…but the terms have shifted a bit. It’s true that my husband and I are the actual proprietors of our domicile, an old stone house we purchased from (of all possible sellers) the Catholic Church: it was formerly the priest’s house. (Before that, it lodged the contadino who worked for the priest. Our two studios downstairs were once a pair of donkey stables.) Yet I’ve come to believe the actual proprietors of our village aren’t its human residents but its cats, who know its nooks and crannies better than the rest of us, and its owls, who govern the night. And since our village sits on a ridge, its most important caretakers are arguably the dry stone walls that gird it.
Rail: There will be a reckoning with loss on both sides of the ocean, now that you’ve left the US. Thank you, Martha. We’ll be looking for more of your work.