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AOTW- Paula Coomer

Paula Coomer

About the Author:
Biography/Paula Coomer

Paula Coomer's fiction, poetry, and non-fiction have appeared in many journals, anthologies, and publications, including Gargoyle, Knock, and the acclaimed Northwest Edge series from Portland's Chiasmus Press.

Ms. Coomer has been a nominee for the Pushcart Prize, as well as writer-in-residence for Fishtrap, Oregon's advocacy program for writing and literature in the American West. Her books include Dove Creek (2010), Summer of Government Cheese (2007), Devil at the Crossroads (2006), and Road, a single-poem chapbook (2006).

An instructor in the English Department at Washington State University, Ms. Coomer is a regular presenter at regional writing conferences and is a long-time Visiting Scholar for the Idaho Commission on Libraries.

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 Interview with Paula Coomer

Paula Coomer is a writer and a poet and the author of such titles as Summer of Government Cheese, Devil at the Crossroads and her newest novel, Dove Creek.

HP: Paula can you tell us a little about yourself?
    
Paula Coomer: I am originally from Kentucky, the mother of two grown, very handsome and brilliant sons and grandmother to three beautiful and brilliant grandchildren. I have been living in the West for more than 30 years. I teach English at Washington State University and am a program reviewer for Head Start, the federal preschool program. I am also a visiting scholar for the Idaho Commission on Libraries and a presenter at regional writing conferences and workshops

HP: Tell us a bit about your family?

Paula Coomer: I come from a very historically rich, if isolated, culture. My parents both were from the western Appalachian region of Kentucky--200 years of it. I am in the first on either side of my family not to be born in one of those mountain shacks. My father was magnificent carpenter and builder before he retired. He is one of those genius people who is constantly saying, "All you have to do is . . ." then goes out to build whatever it is he needs or dreams up. My brother is equally brilliant in this way. My sister, well, she is two years younger than I. We are estranged. Addiction is difficult on families. My mother is a recluse, a disabled woman who for years worked as a 700 Club counselor, talking to people on the phone about their problems. I am the oddball in my family. I am the one who left. Everyone else is very conservative, mostly fundamentalist Christians. I see religion as a means of avoiding the work of exploring and understanding the self. I see my life as one big, constant test case, taking risks, exploring, defying the odds. As Emily Dickinson said, "I dwell in possibility." And God, well, I think God is that thing we also call nature. I think we've pinned a masculine image on the planet's life force. A planet I happen to think is feminine.

HP: What got you interested in writing?

Paula Coomer: There is not one moment in my conscious life when I did not know I was different from everyone else. My earliest memory is of having pulled myself to stand while my mother, my father, and my father's stepsister talked about something very serious. Even at that very early age--9 months or so--I was aware of being apart, of being the one who was watching and recording.
    
It took me a long time to get around to devoting myself to writing, however (I was in my thirties). Life almost seemed to be working against me taking that path. One misstep after another, mostly in form of abusive men who were determined to keep me from writing. As if they thought I was going to write about them.
    
Mainly I am interested in writing because I don't know how to paint and am too lazy to learn. Words let me create images, which is what I enjoy doing: saying a lot with a little, blurring the lines of reality and propriety. It's a drug. A means of being here without being here, a means of offering up various forms of salvation to the world without having to have a prophet or a god.

HP: How long have you been writing?

Paula Coomer: I constructed my first book when I was 4. I was always telling stories to my sister, so I decided to make one of them into a book. I drew pictures, copied lines of text from the newspaper. Those lines of text did not match the story as it came from my mouth, but still, it LOOKED like a book, and the pages turned like a book. Beyond that, I was in trouble constantly in my early grades for writing stories and drawing pictures instead of my school work. Of course, my teachers couldn't exactly chastise me when they saw that I'd actually finished my assigned work already. Still, in my report cards they wrote, "Paula has difficulty staying on task." A few teachers gave me paper to take home at the end of the school year because we were very poor, and I think they felt sorry for me.
    
HP: How has your upbringing influenced your writing?
    
Paula Coomer: I did not start college until my late twenties, mostly because of my father's attitude toward education. Grandpa went to prison when my daddy was 13, for reasons I'd rather not discuss here, so he had to leave school after 8th grade and always has held disdain for education in general--despite the fact that his mother was a licensed teacher and ran a one-room school house in the mountains. By then I was on my second marriage and had two small children. My college teachers pleaded with me to abandon the nursing idea and focus on writing and literature--even the nursing faculty. But my husband at the time insisted I finish the nursing degree so I'd have a means to support our children, since he was planning to divorce me as soon as I graduated and found a job. I was not actually published until I was 33, and that was just an article in a nursing journal. You have to understand that I was from a culture which had no relationship to the outside world. I was not socialized as a child. Life was all about dreaming while looking at the Sears and Roebuck catalog. It took me a year of therapy as my second marriage was crumbling before I understood I had a choice about anything in life. I didn't know I could actually be a writer. I didn't know I could be anything other than what my husband told me I could be. I also didn't know that my IQ was 146 until my parents told me late in my 30s. I thought I was stupid, since that was what my mother had always told me. Conversely, she also told me I could be Miss America--appearance was so important to her, probably because her body was deformed. Her legs were misshapened and had to be broken when she was three years old. She was in casts forever. I don't know how old she was before she learned to walk. My family mostly was focused on the fact that I was overweight. Always. Except for a few short periods of time when I starved myself for months on end to try and fit in.

HP: What do you consider the most challenging about writing a novel, or about writing in general?

Paula Coomer: The acres of sticky notes plastered all over my walls. No, I'm kidding. I don't know. I love being in the writing space, so I don't think in terms of the challenges--although it is challenging to try to make other people understand what it is that I do and why I don't work a 40-hour-a-week job making enough money to buy the same stuff they buy. Publication is tough. It took me forever to understand that publication is not the goal. Creativity and living inside art and the effect that has on my day-to-day life, on my soul, and on the kind of human I am is what's important. The research part can be tough on me. I have to go experience things. Get up in the middle of the night staring into space waiting for the knowledge of what the story needs next to come to me. The diary sections in Dove Creek were written while traveling cross-country twice on a Greyhound bus. My knees have never been the same. The scenes on the Lostine River were written while I tried to do the very thing Patricia Faye so feared--sleeping alone in the woods. The things I have done and the places I've been just because story was drawing me! Getting up and grabbing nothing but my keys and wallet and driving who-knows-where until I see the thing or the person or the sign or the inspiration the story is demanding. The novel I'm trying to finish now, Jagged Edge of the Sky, has been terribly frustrating because parts of it are set in Australia, and plans to go there were thwarted by major life stuff, so I had to do more or less academic-style research. I couldn't go lay my body down against the Outback soil like I wanted to. Still, as also often happens, life keeps bringing the information I need to me. It's almost uncanny the number of films my husband and I have rented, only to get home and discover they were set in the very area in which my novel is set. Books, articles, people. It's almost frightening the way information I needed for that story just showed up. It came to me rather than me going to it.
    
Sometimes the aloneness of a piece of work gets to me. There is no one with whom to share it. No one understands what it's like, although my husband, bless him, is starting figure out how to be inside a story with me. (We've only been married a year.) I live in an area where there is virtually no high art or high culture. Yet I need to be here because I write about people who have no relationship to high culture. But I get to feeling starved sometimes, the only cure for which is a trip to a large city and an art museum. I don't have a writing group. My few soul-level friends live in other places. It does teach you to be emotionally self-sufficient. For a long time I was an affirmation junky. I sought out the approval of others to the point of driving them away. The aloneness of writing teaches you to be a solitary oak. It's not a bad ability to have.

HP: How did you come up with the title for your novel Dove Creek?

Paula Coomer: Dove Creek is a town in SW Colorado which I visited in the early 1990s quite by accident. At the time it was a nearly abandoned mining town. A place where saloon girls--whores, really--dropped their opium vials between the wallboards back in the day. I felt something so extraordinary in that town, but I do not know what it was. I kept going back. When I decided to devote my life to writing, I even traveled there to mail myself a card so it would have the Dove Creek postmark. The card had a wolf on the front. Inside I wrote, "Follow your dreams." I vowed to myself that if I ever was tempted to give up on writing, I would open the card. Eventually I had a dreamed which featured a book with the title Dove Creek. My sons and I were sleeping in our car in the Redwoods. They say they don't remember it, but they both woke up saying they'd dreamed about a book, too. The result is Patricia Faye's story. The fact that they dreamed about it told me the book had to include them. It's been 16 years now, and I've never had to open the card.

HP: Can you tell us a little about Dove Creek?

Paula Coomer: Dove Creek is the story of a woman from the mountains of Kentucky who is cast on the hero's journey by life circumstances. She ends up as a nurse on an Indian reservation in Idaho. She is a mixed blood, as so many Americans from the Appalachian country are, and finds herself intrigued by the culture to the point of trying to fit her life into a myth known as "The Lesson of the Seven Directions" as a way of ferreting out her identity and dealing with the raising of her two children. The story winds its way through her work with both the Nez Perce and the Coeur d'Alene people and gives a close glimpse at the issues those people were facing in the early 90s. Much of the humor in the book is Native American-style humor. Indian people love to laugh. They also love to make you feel uncomfortable. Patricia Faye learns to deal with all that. She also struggles with self-destruction in the form of relationships with men, as well as alcohol. My sister has been a terrible alcoholic for much of her adult life. I have at times worried about the effect of alcohol in my own life, not because of my own consumption, but because I am drawn to alcoholic men. It was a place to work out my own pain over the issue. 

HP: Who designed the cover?

Paula Coomer: Don't you just love it? Greg Simanson in Seattle. My publisher commissioned the artwork. You can actually buy a copy of the original on Greg's website, which is listed on the book's back cover.

HP: Where can we purchase the book?

Paula Coomer: I like people to order books from independent bookstores, but of course there are the usual mass-market places like Amazon and Barnes and Noble. You can also order it from the Booktrope website. You can actually read it there, as well, but you cannot download it.

HP: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?

Paula Coomer: Break free from what you've been taught is right and real. Study yourself. Learn about yourself. Know yourself. Find out who you are. Don't listen to anyone else's opinion about your purpose in this life. Follow the still, soft voice of yourself that lives--not in your brain--in your gut.

HP: Have you included a lot of your life experiences, even friends, in the plot?

Paula Coomer: Much of Dove Creek is an exploration of my own past. My mother is 1/4 Cherokee. My father 1/8. I have a great-great grandmother who was the daughter of freed slaves. The bones of Patricia Faye's story come from my life, and the characters are amalgams of people I've known. Obviously from the lengthy acknowledgment she book is dedicated to members of the Nez Perce and Coeur d'Alene tribes, and the book would not exist if it weren't for the relationships I had with those people.
    
But the details are mostly fabricated. Little in my life happened the exact way it happened to Patricia Faye. Also, she comes from much deeper in the Appalachian Mountains than did my family. She had a more harsh disconnect between the modern world and the world she was born to. When I sent copies of the book to my parents, I sent a 3-page letter explaining what was not true. I've never been an alcoholic, never been to an AA meeting. I've actually been married 3 times to her 1. My ex-husband did not make me have an abortion, although as a nurse, I counseled many women who were making that decision. Also, Patricia Faye has a much different thought process than I, a much more intense inner life than I. My inner life is all about imagining details of story. Always has been. She has much more of a long-term sense of herself than I ever had. Every day is a new day for me.

It is interesting that after I finished the last section of the book, I did meet the man who would become my 3rd husband. He is not an antiques dealer, but he does love browsing antique stores. In some ways, the book predicted my husband's arrival.

HP: I know on your webpage it says you are in the progress of "...finishing a second novel, Jagged Edge of the Sky and a second book of poetry, Nurses Who Love English, both of which are looking for homes." Can you tell us a little about Jagged Edge of the Sky?

Paula Coomer: I am so excited about Jagged Edge of the Sky. It is a much more ambitious book than Dove Creek in some ways. It tells the story of the first caravan (RV) park in Australia and the family who owned it and is somewhat experimental in the way it works with time and place. Primarily it is the story of two half brothers who are sired by a hired hand and who do not learn of each others existence until later in life. The book looks at the way familial patterns repeat themselves. I like to compare it to T.C. Boyle's World's End in which every generation of a family features someone losing a foot. Although in Jagged Edge of the Sky, people don't lose feet, the men unwittingly sire babies.

HP: What was your inspiration for it?

Paula Coomer: I met a young Australian man on one of those bus rides I took in order to draft the "My Mother's Eyes Dancing" section of Dove Creek. During the ride from Chicago to Minneapolis, he told me his family story. Weeks later, I met another man in a coffee shop who reminded me very much of the Australian guy. Those two people, and their stories, merged together to become the character Martin Tuor, the protagonist in Jagged Edge of the Sky.

HP: Did you enjoy writing Nurses Who Love English? Is there a certain theme to the poetry book?

Paula Coomer: I wrote the poems for Nurses Who Love English when I went back to nursing for a couple of years. I made a rather questionable but personally necessary move in 2006, leaving a contracted professor's job to have more time to write. Things fell apart, as things do, and I was forced to renew my nursing license and take a hospital job. In retrospect, I think I did it on purpose, because that hospital job became the foundation for the next novel after Jagged Edge of the Sky, which I don't want to talk about too much yet. So, yes, I loved exploring the two sides of myself--the nurse and the poet/author. So the book is about dichotomies. It is very political and at times very critical of the U.S. government. I am very angry at our government for not taking better care of us and our democracy and at us as a people for not demanding better of those we elect. We've let ourselves become mesmerized by capitalism.

HP: You said they are looking for homes, can I assume you mean publishers?
    
Paula Coomer: Yes, I am looking for publishers for both books. Although, recently I cracked open the narrative on Jagged Edge of the Sky to return it to an earlier draft stage so that I could do what I wanted to with the time issue. I listened to a couple of people who read it and who didn't like having to keep up with the back and forth of characters over time. To be blunt, I was trying to write a mainstream novel, hoping to make a little money. Oh the weight of unpaid student loans. But I decided to go with my own instinct and stick to a more experimental form. To stay true to the art of the work. I wanted to show the relativity of time in terms of occurrences and their effects on a life. The way the generations of our families affect us and the way the things we don't know about ourselves affect us. I'm getting ready to hole up in a hotel--in a big city!--for a week to finish it.

HP: Is there anything you would like to say to your readers?

Paula Coomer: Take chances with your reading. If you mostly read supermarket paperbacks, try a classic or a literary work. Don't give up reading it just because it seems hard to understand. Even if you only interpret half of what you read you will have brought yourself to a new level of being. If you mostly read classics and literary work, try something in the realm of innovative or speculative fiction. If you like genre work--mystery, science fiction, fantasy--go back and read the earliest writers in those forms. And read poetry. Don't try to "understand" it. Let yourself feel the words. Let yourself own them. Let them hold you in that unacknowledged meaning. Don't be afraid of not understanding. Write down the images they create in your mind. And for goodness sakes, if you are going to write something, learn how to use your own language correctly. Our culture has gone to hell in that regard. Computerized word processing has made us into idiots when it comes to knowing how to punctuate. Our grandparents would be mortified.

HP: Do you have any upcoming appearances that you would like to share with us?

Paula Coomer: I'll be signing books in Clarkston, Washington, on Aug. 4 at And Books, Too, at Alive After Five from 5-8 p.m. I'm scheduled to read from Dove Creek on Aug. 16 at St. Helen's Bookshop in St. Helen's, Oregon. Check my webpage at www.paulamariecoomer.com for time updates on that and for events in October. Otherwise, I am available throughout the month of September. As much as I love writing, I love talking to people about writing, and so am always happy to hold a workshop in conjunction with readings. 

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Books by Paula Coomer
Dove Creek
Summer of Government Cheese
Devil at the Crossroads


Coming Soon
Jagged Edge of the Sky
Nurses Who Love English

Find Paula at
Goodreads 

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