"I knew from the moment I sat down to begin the book that I wanted something gray and drab and portable and contradictory."
In Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, the debut novel by Patty Yumi Cottrell out this month from McSweeney's, the reader is introduced to Helen Moran, who decides to investigate the suicide of her adoptive brother. This sounds very serious, of course. By this description you might think you know where the novel is headed, but it's going nowhere you might have imagined. The novel is serious, especially in how far it drops into loss and absence, into how hard it sometimes is to simply be alive, but it manages, in striking ways, to carry other registers of feeling and actuality. And it happens to also be funny. As Lindsay Hunter put it, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace had me opening my mouth to laugh only to hear sobs come tumbling out.
Here, Patty and I talk about digressions, swaggering, and the abyss.
Amina Cain When I started reading Sorry to Disrupt the Peace I was especially struck by the narrative voice and these two sentences: "The voice on the other line stopped speaking and started to wail and it sounded like a thousand rusty needle tips scratching across an endless sheet of metal. As soon as I heard it, I was confident the sound would haunt me for the rest of my life." The narrative voice is obsessive and peculiar, but its matter-of-factness leaves room for these moments of intensity, humor, and aesthetic experience. Was this voice with you from the beginning or did it come out of some feeling or thought, or from somewhere else entirely?
Patty Yumi Cottrell I have no rational explanation about where the voice came from. The book began in a state of confusion. The conditions of my life at the time, confusing as they were, created a situation in which the voice could be realized immediately. The narrator lacks the basic ability to understand simple things that everyone else around her understands, yet she is very confident about her confusion and lack of understanding. That was funny to me. Someone, I forget who, said she has this swaggering posture. Even though I think swaggering is a somewhat disgusting word, I get it. I was attracted to her confidence, how bold she is, her absurd phrasing. I had no plan for what she would sound like or how she should be. I made the conscious decision not to exert any control because as soon as I interfered, the voice became stagnant and brittle. At times I felt I was trapped in a rancid broom closet with a crazy person, but the movement of the narrator's thoughts, the bleak humor of the situation, sustained me. Despite my lack of control, upon rereading it after a lot of time and some distance, the narrative seems lean and tight.
AC That sense of leanness seems to come from how "close" the narrator is to everything she does and says, how fully she goes into each moment so that none of it is excess. And Helen does have a swaggering posture. I love that: both the characterization and how it plays out, what the swaggering is in relationship to. The book itself is hilarious, but it stays so close to the abyss, which amazes me. What did it feel like to write from that place?
PYC Writing the book felt healthy and sane, like cooking and eating dashi with steamed vegetables. To some people that might sound miserable, but if you've been eating a steady diet of crap, that type of food is really amazing to digest. I should make the distinction that writing the book didn't feel therapeutic at all. I would venture that in the book there's very little of my own personal experience of the world, or if that personal experience exists in the text, it's warped by the narrator's digression and absurdity.
When I write I try to remove any sense of a self from the situation, and the way I remove it is through digression. For years, I've been obsessed with digression because I see it as a form of ambiguity. There's almost no purposeful structure in the book; it's probably 80 to 90% digression and evasion. Digression is humorous and playful and fluid and confusing and meandering and upsetting and a sketch of a cloud and a trapdoor. The meaning of the book is ambiguous. I knew from the moment I sat down to begin that I wanted something gray and drab and portable and contradictory.
AC What you say about digression and evasion is appealing, that digression itself can form a novel, and not in any kind of intentional way. I'd like to hear more about how the word "portable" relates to your book.
Right now I'm trying to visualize the form of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, and I'm seeing waves that keep washing out deeper into the ocean instead of onto the sand. It's the first time I've seen this image in thinking about your book.
PYC I was just talking with my editor about form, and how some people think form means the same thing as "structure." She and I were discussing form as the "being" of the book, its essence, its soul. When I went through revisions with her, I started to perceive all of that, even though nothing really changed in the book. Reading her comments helped me to understand that the book even had a form.
At some point, I realized it was comprised of brief accounts of the narrator's search process and her complaints. Helen struggles to confront her brother's death and estrangement from her parents. She appears to be content with entertaining herself with the idea of an investigation. I have empathy for that choice; I wanted to know more about what was behind and underneath it. At the center of Helen's investigation is her brother's absence. So my sense is this book is made up of holes and people choosing whether or not to exit their lives and in what ways.
When I say I wanted the book to be portable, I mean that there's some kind of feeling or tone readers can extract from the book and carry with them. People keep saying that the book is sad, that there is a heaviness and weight to it, and I'm aware it's not an uplifting book, but it's not like I think I've written a cinderblock of psychic pain and distress. There's levity, and that is intentional. I'm thinking of the book Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett and how most people wouldn't describe it as a comedy, but underneath the embroidery, density, and dissonance of the prose, there is a cheerful and neurotic sense of humor.
AC In the sweeping quality of the narrative (the waves that keep washing out or Helen sucking things into her void), I see the ways in which some part of it could be swept past the limits of the book. It's no cinderblock of psychic pain and distress at all. It's much more fluid and complicated than that and brings into being something I've never quite experienced.
As to Pond, I love its jaggedness, the way it can go off the rails for a long time into a discussion of stonework or ovens before swerving into something else entirely, the way the narrator is so particularly in her head, always, not unlike your narrator, Helen. Do you feel a kinship with other authors or books that come from a place of intense interiority?
PYC Most of my favorite writers are dead, so I'd say that my book was written in relation and in response to dead people. The most direct influence on my writing process was The Loser by Thomas Bernhard, which is not an intimate book even though it takes place in the narrator's mind. The Loser is about suicide. And rivalry disguised as friendship. Glenn Gould is a character, but the setting is self-contained and sealed off from the contemporary. The Loser is really funny and absurd and depressing. When I was introduced to Bernhard's writing several years ago, I had this feeling of, Oh now I can be very still and quiet for a long time. I felt this stillness spreading throughout the rooms of where I lived. I've never experienced anything like that before.
Amina Cain is the author of Creature, out with Dorothy, a Publishing Project. She lives and works in Los Angeles.