As part of the blog tour tour for L Andrew Cooper’s debut novel Burning the Middle Ground, I have a guest post about his writing style.
Being a closeted/unpublished novelist made sense when I was a graduate student in English—all English professors have as secret novel tucked away, right? (FYI: wrong). The further I drifted from teaching literature—which I still love, honest!—the weirder my novel-writing habit became, to the point where now, as a film studies professor who has finally published some fiction, I get cock-eyed looks like I’m ramming my film-critic career into a brick wall. But I like movies and know a lot about them. And at the present moment, I don’t want to make them. Which makes teaching them much easier than teaching a book and having to stop and think—Wait, how would I have written that?
But the question I’ve been getting from my small, beloved audiences at recent shows is more often this: being a film teacher, do I write like the movies? On the level of scene, I most certainly do. My imagination works in cuts—eyeline matches that lead me from writing about the person looking to what she or he sees, for example. I rely on settings familiar from movies so I don’t do all that much place-description; instead, I try to focus on cultural flavor, primarily through dialogue and the point-of-view characters (of whom my novel Burning the Middle Ground offers four). Some of my more experimental moves are also based on film experiment. For example, I play with jump cuts, or sudden leaps in a movie that call attention to omitted time. An example from my novel is a joking jump-cut from the characters saying they should stay together, leaping to everyone being alone. A more hallowed example would be in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, which elides an awaited conflict almost entirely through a jump in the prose (adapted for the movie by the Coen Brothers as a jump cut).
I build my novels in my imagination around key scenes, often the more violent and cinematic ones, but putting those scenes together is where my imagination becomes less cinematic. The reason I keep returning to novels is that I like what words can do by themselves, and in spinning long-form narratives—novels—I like what they can do with time. Burning the Middle Ground has a three-part structure. Part one, good guys encounter bizarreness that raises lots of questions as the town spirals under the control of a conspiracy involving supernatural mind control. Part two, leap backward, giving story of bad guys’ conspiracy, answering lots of questions asked in part one. Part three, continue where part one left off, careening toward the epic conclusion. While I hope I’ve enticed you through this tantalizing way of approaching a plot about a supernatural plot, if I were to make a screenplay to tell a similar story, I would NOT write it that way. Movies that effectively leap around in time usually do it quickly and as part of some time-travel scenario, family saga, or artistic fragmentation. Here, my sustained time-leaps create and resolve mini-mysteries on the way toward addressing the big mystery… but their sustained-ness requires a sustained narrative form, the novel. For a standard-length movie, I’d have to compress crucial elements of the bad guys’ back story into the unfolding of the good guys’ present timeline. Otherwise, I think it’d either be boring or a miniseries. Or both. Look what keeps happening to Stephen King’s wonderful long novels.
I have endless hours of fun imagining different actors playing characters in my work. Most of the people I think of are older than the characters I wrote… I think of Seth Green for Ronald, Susan Sarandon for Jeanne. I’ve gone through quite a few Jake Warrens. The media are, in my mind, inextricably mixed, but however comparable their uses, a novel is a novel, film is film. If I further blur the already-translucent line between then, all the better.
About L Andrew Cooper
Links: Website, Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads
L. Andrew Cooper thinks the smartest people like horror, fantasy, and sci-fi. Early in life, he couldn’t handle the scary stuff–he’d sneak and watch horror films and then keep his parents up all night with his nightmares. In the third grade, he finally convinced his parents to let him read grownup horror novels: he started with Stephen King’s Firestarter, and by grade five, he was doing book reports on The Stand.
When his parents weren’t being kept up late by his nightmares, they worried that his fascination with horror fiction would keep him from experiencing more respectable culture. That all changed when he transitioned from his public high school in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia to uber-respectable Harvard University, where he studied English Literature. From there, he went on to get a Ph.D. in English from Princeton, turning his longstanding engagement with horror into a dissertation. The dissertation became the basis for his first book, Gothic Realities (2010). More recently, his obsession with horror movies turned into a book about one of his favorite directors, Dario Argento (2012). He also co-edited the textbook Monsters (2012), an attempt to infect others with the idea that scary things are worth people’s serious attention.
After living in Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and California, Andrew now lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where he teaches at the University of Louisville and chairs the board of the Louisville Film Society, the city’s premiere movie-buff institution.
Burning the Middle Ground by L Andrew Cooper
Links: Amazon, Goodreads
BURNING THE MIDDLE GROUND is a dark fantasy about small-town America that transforms readers’ fears about the country’s direction into a haunting tale of religious conspiracy and supernatural mind control. A character-driven sensibility like Stephen King’s and a flair for the bizarre like Bentley Little’s deliver as much appeal for dedicated fans of fantasy and horror as for mainstream readers looking for an exciting ride.
Brian McCullough comes home from school and discovers that his ten-year-old sister Fran has murderer their parents. Five year later, a journalist, Ronald Glassner, finds Brian living in the same house in the same small town of Kenning, Georgia. Planning a book on the McCullough Tragedy, Ronald stumbles into a struggle between Kenning’s First Church, run by the mysterious Reverend Michael Cox, and the New Church, run by the rebellious Jeanne Harper. At the same time, Kenning’s pets go berserk, and dead bodies, with the eyes and tongues removed from their heads, begin to appear.