T Cooper e-interviewed by Ricki Marking-Camuto (February, 2007)
T Cooper is the author of Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes, and Some of the Parts, as well as co-editor of A Fictional History of the United States With Huge Chunks Missing, an anthology of original stories. T was born and raised in Los Angeles, attended Middlebury College in Vermont, and then taught high school English in New Orleans before settling in New York City in 1996. T earned an MFA from Columbia University in 2001 and has written for various magazines and newspapers.
Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes introduces the Lipshitz family, Russian Jewish refugees who land in Ellis Island in 1907, and manage to misplace their five-year-old son in New York City, before relocating to Texas. The novel tells their strange tale, as well as that of present day descendant, T Cooper, who inherits 'a family history filled with loose ends, factual errors, and decidedly maniacal behavior.'
Q: Most turn-of-the-century immigrant novels take place in New York. Why do you choose to set so much of Lipshitz 6 in the Texas panhandle?
A: Because one side of my family ended up in Texas through The Galveston Movement, I was drawn to telling the, as you say, atypical story of new immigrants who land not in a place like New York, Philadelphia or Boston (where there would've been so many people like themselves, speaking their language, dressing and acting in a familiar way), but rather find themselves in a place completely unlike anything they'd ever known before - with very few other Jews around.
The Galveston Movement was a program which operated between 1907 and 1914, and sought to funnel otherwise East-coast ghetto-bound Jewish immigrants to the port of Galveston, Texas instead. The original intent of the program was to alleviate the swelling anti-Semitism in cities where immigrants were naturally flocking to be among their own. It was a generally well-meaning program, motivated in part by embarrassment about conditions in ghettoes like the Lower East Side. A member of my family came to Texas through Galveston, and the rest of the family joined him there soon after. The movement managed to relocate about 10,000 Jews by the time it ran out of steam, but many others who weren't officially in the program came as a result of it (like my family), providing the seeds for the Jewish communities in many Western cities like Memphis, New Orleans, Houston, St. Louis, Santa Fe, Denver, etc..
I've spent a lot of time with family in Amarillo, Texas, where there aren't a lot of Jews, and there really is a sort of Jewish "ghetto" in the back of the cemetery where my family is buried. Over the years I found myself pondering the "instant assimilation" that occurred for them because they stuck out so blatantly. So I wanted to explore that a little bit in this book.
Q: Why choose Charles Lindbergh for Esther's obsession as opposed to any other famous American of the time period?
A: After his flight, Lindbergh was thrust into the spotlight and put upon a pedestal the likes of which hadn't quite been seen as far as world-famousness goes. Yes, there were other iconic entities out there, but with Lindbergh, I think it was one of the first times the world literally fell in love with somebody, this strapping, young, blonde-haired, blue-eyed hero, who literally did something that at the time was still difficult to wrap one's mind around. And for the first time, you could see all of this play out before your eyes, in moving pictures - Lindbergh walking, talking, smiling, and just generally being strapping and heroic. People the world over just flat-out grew smitten, (which was why Lindbergh fell so far when he started speaking out against Roosevelt, Jews and the British before World War II).
When I read A. Scott Berg's 1998 Lindbergh biography, it dawned on me, this notion of American-ness that he instantly started representing - an almost blank screen onto which people of all sorts who are just trying to fit in themselves might project all of their fears and desires and identities.
Lindbergh's life is so iconically tied to the 20th century, it felt perfectly natural to tell the story of one Russian family's assimilation against the backdrop of the various ups and downs in Lindbergh's life. And for Esther, if Lindbergh is indeed her son, then she's "made" it in America - she's the ultimate American, she's completely assimilated, and in her mind, all the horror of the past and the loss of her "real" child disappears ... Or at least feels much better.
Q: What sort of research went into Esther's part of the story?
A: A great deal of research went into every aspect of the story, Esther's included. I spend a lot of time reading books about Russia, immigration, Ellis Island, Jewish life in Texas, and all about Lindbergh - I even did a little Eminem research! As for Esther in particular, most of what brought her to life for me was just spending time with the character before putting her into the story ... Doing character sketches, brainstorming details, really getting to know her before putting her in these situations and seeing how she might act and react.
Q: Of all the entertainers popular today, why did T choose to emulate Eminem?
A: In some ways, though it's joked about in the book, Eminem is the modern manifestation of Lindbergh. Again, that blonde-haired, blue-eyed cultural phenomenon with a dark underside. Or in Eminem's case, the dark-underbelly is on the outside too. Only Eminem is aware of America's obsessions and predilections and is exploiting them, capitalizing on them. He knows he sells more records because he's white.
He's tapped into some sort of nerve in this country, connecting to all these white, middle-class suburban kids who have no overt similarities to Eminem's life, and yet relate to his music on such a fundamental level - it's the rage and anger that people respond to, the angry white male if you will. But there's also something else there when people of my parents' generation are all like, "I love Eminem; he's so cute and smart," and popping his tapes in their decks when they're sitting in traffic. After 8 Mile the movie came out, there was a tangible shift, and Eminem was sort of given a "pass" by mainstream, white culture in this country. He'd already been given a similar pass by the black, hip-hop community, which to me is why he fits into the story I'm telling in this book - because the notion of "passing" is so intriguing to me. Passing as white, passing as American, non-Jewish, or passing as another gender ... All these supposed rigid boundaries (and binaries) that we cross back and forth over, and sometimes just walk the line right down the middle. That's infinitely more interesting to me - that space between the extremes - and does call into question these dubious notions of "fact" and "fiction," white and non-white, male and female, American and un-American, and so on. I wanted to work with all of this in the book, and like Lindbergh, Eminem was an ideal entity with which to do it.
Q: There is a lot of death throughout Lipshitz 6, but none of the real tear-jerking moments usually found in immigrant stories (of fleeing hardships in the old country and attempting to assimilate in America). Was it a deliberate choice to present these death scenes without playing on readers' emotions?
A: The horrors in some ways are just too horrible to do anything to besides let them speak for themselves. It was important to me to first and foremost evoke a realness with things like the pogrom in Russia, in which Avi loses his wife and child, and the city's Jews are attacked for two days straight. I don't think it's my business as a writer to embellish this or string it out or do anything to it really besides faithfully render my truth of some of this violence and death. And it was indeed my intention to tell not just another immigrant tale, not just another typical Jewish mother. I wanted the story - and Esther in particular - to be unlike any other mother one might encounter in literature.
Q: How much of the story is true or close to what really happened?
A: Who can really say? The only "true" part of the story is what has been passed down in my family for years and years, which is that my grandmother, when she came through Ellis Island with her family as an infant, lost one of her brothers there, and he was never heard from again. Now that's the story ...
Is it true? It's very hard to say. So much acts upon the so-called "truth," that I believe it becomes altered over the years, because of pain, sadness, tragedy, different agendas, mental illness, power, etc..
As far as the Lipshitz family's lives in Texas, some of those details are taken from my real grandfather's life - but I never knew him, and again, these are just details that I learned from family members, legend, small-town local newspapers, etc.. So I'm sure they've been altered along the way. But that's the point of fiction for me - the lie that reveals the truth, or a truth, a realness about what these characters experienced, what it might've been like to live through these moments and have this kind of stuff happen to them.
And what was it like for my grandmother's mother to have lost that kid (if indeed it really happened as the story goes)? Nobody knows, nobody talks about it. Which got me thinking about the entire notion of a family history and how one might "write" it, and how the minute it happens, it will always be altered in the re-telling - just by the simple act of its being filtered through a source, any source, even a newspaper - whatever it is, it's never going to be "fact" again. So all that went into the book and is meant to come up at various times throughout the narrative - the notions of truth and fiction, and the blurry line between these two poles.
Q: What is your next project?
A: I wish I knew! No, actually, I have two different projects I'm just in the beginning stages of exploring and fleshing out. Both will require some research, but not in such an extensive historical way as with my research for LIPSHITZ.
And they're both a little more contemporary: one's set in Cambodia in the early 80's, and the other in Los Angeles during the 60's and 70's.Find out more about the author, his books and other writing, and his involvement in The Backdoor Boys performance troupe at T-Cooper.com.
Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.