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The Parallel Apartments
by Bill Cotter
McSweeney's
500 pages; $25.00
McSweeney's
The Parallel Apartments
by Bill Cotter
McSweeney's
500 pages
$25.00

Bill Cotter has a thing for maladjusted characters who transplant their problems from one city to another. His first novel, Fever Chart, traced its dysfunctional lead from Boston to New Orleans, while Justine Moppett, the heroine of his second, The Parallel Apartments, carts her neuroses from New York to Austin in search of answers.

Cotter will be at Austin’s BookPeople on February 25 at 7 p.m. to read from The Parallel Apartments; he will be joined by performance artists Annie La Ganga and Rebecca Beegle, also known as The Grownup Lady Story Company. In keeping with the women’s stories within The Parallel Apartments, La Ganga and Beegle will each tell hilariously true stories of their own.

Though he was born in Dallas, Cotter has lived in Austin for the last 17 years and considers it home. It was Austin that gave him the idea that would become The Parallel Apartments, so he decided that in Austin the story would stay. “One time I was in Austin driving around with my mother, and she pulled the car over on Avenue G, I think it was, and pointed at a duplex across the street,” Cotter says. “There were weeds in the yard, those fancy artisanal chickens you see sometimes, and she pointed to the place and said, ‘Bill, that’s where you were conceived.’ My mother is not one to confess that sort of thing, and so at the time the idea of a fictional character came to me, a character returning to their place of conception instead of their place of birth, hoping to find the answers to some mysteries. I don’t think I could have set it in any other city but Austin.”

The book’s promotional material makes The Parallel Apartments sound like a Pedro Almodóvar film—full of color, and featuring an ensemble of bizarre yet lovable characters including at least one transvestite—but they give nothing away about what Cotter says the book is really about. “I had this story that I wanted to tell about a matriarchy and the matriarch herself. It’s about these five generations of Austin women. And the middle three generations, they’re mutually estranged,” Cotter says. “And the story is about the circumstances of their estrangement and how they’re trying to solve it, how they’re trying to get over it, get around it, and get back together again.”

Cotter says he grew up surrounded by powerful women, and although he found the concept of matriarchy intriguing, at times he found himself doubting his ability to portray women accurately and authentically—and almost abandoned the story completely. “I really struggled with this book in this way. I am writing about women, and I’m writing about women from the first person, from their perspective, and I’m not a woman, and I think it’s a kind of arrogance for me to try and write about that,” Cotter says. “I didn’t want to be seen as presumptuous and arrogant, but at the same time it fascinates me and I wanted to explore it. Whether I succeeded or not I don’t know.”

The Parallel Apartments is difficult to define. One part kooky comedy, one part family drama, one part exploration of womanhood, and one part gruesome catalogue of emotional dysfunction, Cotter’s second novel defies any particular genre, except, perhaps, Cotter’s own. Protagonist Justine Moppett has an obsession with creating collages, and The Parallel Apartments is its own kind of collage, pieced together from scraps of Cotter’s own psyche. “I guess I’m pretty maladjusted myself, and that’s not to say I’m interested in myself, but I’m interested in characters that aren’t quite normal. They haven’t made it. They’ve been mishandled by providence some way or another,” Cotter says. “They hold more interest for me—someone that’s been damaged in their life, and are trying to heal themselves.”

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San Antonio playwright Gregg Barrios

Gregg Barrios, the San Antonio playwright, poet, journalist, and occasional Observer contributor, is taking his new play, I-DJ, to New York City, where it will kick off the FRIGID New York Festival later today. I-DJ is one of the first original San Antonio plays to run in a commercial New York City theater venue, and Barrios is duly excited. “It’s quite an honor to have my work at this year’s FRIGID New York. Of the thirty companies selected, most are from New York City, a few are from Canada, but we’re the only one west of the Mississippi,” Barrios says. “That speaks volumes in my playbill.”

The seedling of the idea that would become I-DJ was planted when Barrios worked as an arts journalist during the early 1980s in Los Angeles, where he covered the city’s recording industry, including Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss’ A&M Records. In I-DJ, A&M artists constitute the soundtrack for the life of gay Mexican-American DJ Amado Guerrero Paz, aka Warren Peace, whose story traverses both the Vietnam War and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. “He tells his story through the music that emerged from Alpert’s A&M Record label,” Barrios says. “The Carpenters, Chris Montez, Joan Baez, The Police, Peter Allen, and briefly, the Sex Pistols. The music is a character that comments, disagrees, and soothes Warren as he tells his story.”

In the original version of the play at San Antonio’s Overtime Theater, Warren, played by Rick Sanchez, tells his tale against a backdrop of music, film clips and a wall plastered with graffiti by San Antonio artist Supher. As B.V. Olguin describes the play in the San Antonio Current, “Call it a cross-cultural, multimedia dog pile.”

Though some elements of the dog pile didn’t make it to New York (Supher’s graffiti wall, for one), the play should find a warm welcome at FRIGID; the festival’s mission is to offer participants total artistic freedom and to provide venues for work regardless of content, form or style. “FRIGID New York prides itself as an open and uncensored festival,” Barrios says. “We had the creative freedom that many other curated festivals shy away from. It also is a smaller [festival] with only 30 productions, so you don’t get lost in the crowd of shows. And best of all, FRIGID gives us 100 percent of our box office.”

First, I-DJ had to raise the funds to get there, and Barrios says he’s thankful for the support of I-DJ’s home stage, the Overtime Theater, and the wider San Antonio theater community. “The response from the local community has been overwhelming. Four theater groups—the Overtime, the Playhouse, the Woodlawn Theater and San Antonio College—have contributed with in-kind services, fundraising and cast and crew,” Barrios says.

“The best part about going to do this particular show,” Barrios says, “is that it tells a Mexican-American story. That’s a real rarity in New York theater, and even locally. It isn’t often that Mexican-American actors have the opportunity to do Latino parts. The play also speaks to the underserved LGBT community,” Barrios says. Plus, “The fact that our local team will get to see how a play is produced in NYC is a rare opportunity for them to get a taste of what working actors who come to NYC in search of a career in theater have to endure, and perhaps weigh their options when pursuing their own dream. That experience alone is priceless.”

The FRIGID Festival runs through March 9, and features five performances of I-DJ at the Under St. Marks Theater.

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Happy Valentine’s Day from The Texas Observer! We’d like to use the occasion as a shameless excuse to share some of our writers’ favorite books about love—be they memoirs, cultural histories, or novels.

museumofinnocenceThe Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk
Recommended by Anis Shivani
Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence (2009) stands out for me as the most remarkable recent love story. Perhaps not since the 1960s has a novelist of world repute tried to cover the different paradoxes of love on such a grand scale. What is the distinction between love and obsession? Does one have to sacrifice identity to be truly in love? In other Pamuk novels, politics are often prominent, but here the politics of the authoritarian 1980s in Turkey recede into the background as the single-minded pursuit of Kemal for his distant relative Füsun makes him rediscover himself as a nobody. Kemal spends night after night at Füsun’s home over many years, craving the slightest nearness, while Füsun carries on with another man. Recently Pamuk has added another dimension with the remarkable museum he has laboriously constructed to document Kemal’s love in the form of the minutiae of the era; the museum’s catalog—or rather Pamuk’s philosophy of love and of novel-writing—is available in an astounding art book called The Innocence of Objects (2012).

lovewesternworldLove in the Western World by Denis de Rougemont
Recommended by Steven G. Kellman
Inundated with erotic images, one might believe that romantic love is universal. However, as François de la Rochefoucauld observed: “There are some people who would never have fallen in love if they had never heard of love.” A social construction, love was, according to Denis de Rougemont, invented in medieval Provence. In Love in the Western World (1939), de Rougemont identifies troubadour poetry as the origin of a condition he traces through to Hollywood. Though biological coupling is ancient, the exaltation of passion as a transcendent state was new to the Middle Ages, an era of religious mysticism. Saint Valentine was a third-century Roman, but it was not until the 14th century that he was celebrated as the patron of love. On Valentine’s Day, Love in the Western World provides an antidote to the reification and deification of love.

justkidsJust Kids by Patti Smith
Recommended by Brad Tyer
Punk godmother Patti Smith’s memoir of her formative years is swimming in love: love of words; love of books; love of Smith’s youthful co-conspirator, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe; and love, maybe most of all, for the New York City of the late 1960s and early ’70s, which nurtured all the love above in a way that seems almost hopelessly romantic from a distance of over 40 years. The book has its quirks—Smith’s beloved “for,” for example, is an unsalvageably stilted synonym for “because”—but anyone capable of producing the album Horses can be forgiven that and a whole lot more.

 

americanahAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Recommended by Patrick Michels
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie deftly avoids a common pitfall of so many will-they-won’t-they love stories, abruptly ending her novel at the moment that central question is resolved. Along the way, though, Americanah takes you through decades of urban development and political strife in Nigeria, two central characters’ immigration to two different countries, and meditations on the meaning of race in the United States. There’s a lot going on here. The central love story, the tale of an old college couple that never got the satisfaction of a proper break-up, carries it all well, tying together a story about rediscovering people and places we once thought we knew.

 

writtenWritten on the Body by Jeanette Winterson
Recommended by Elizabeth Stewart
This book is often celebrated (and taught in college classrooms) for its gimmick: The enigmatic narrator’s gender is never revealed, making the love story therein possibly queer, possibly not. Narrative intentions and questions of heterosexual or homosexual aside, Written on the Body is unforgettably smart, wry, and gorgeous. Although at first it’s difficult not to assign pronouns to said narrator, eventually you forget about whatever genitalia the storyteller might have because it doesn’t ultimately matter. The story isn’t about that. It’s about the narrator’s love for the redheaded Louise, what that love means, and how having a savior complex serves only yourself. At the beginning the narrator asks, “Why is the measure of love loss?” and by the end we’ve figured out that it doesn’t have to be.

oldconflictA Fine Old Conflict by Jessica Mitford
Recommended by Robert Leleux
For those in search of a romantic read, I’d recommend Jessica Mitford’s A Fine Old Conflict, one of my all-time favorite books. Among the 20th century’s finest muckrakers, Mitford was also—much like her good friend Molly Ivins—a fierce politico and a legendary humorist. This memoir chronicles her time as a card-carrying Communist, for which she makes no apologies. It’s a fascinating, rigorous history, and it’s also a scream. (Few writers could make you weep with laughter over the evils of McCarthyism.) A Fine Old Conflict is also the story of Mitford’s marriage to Bob Treuhaft, one of the nation’s pluckiest lefty lawyers. The story of their romance, laughter, activism and partnership is something I keep with me always.

TheSonPhilippMeyer

Philipp Meyer has been busy the past few weeks. He’s been meeting with an unending line of directors, producers and cable networks who all want a hand in bringing his critically acclaimed second novel, The Son, to television. Meyer has enlisted the help of fellow novelist Brian McGreevy in navigating the perils of adapting his book for the small screen, since McGreevy had already successfully passed the hurdles in adapting his own graphic novel, Hemlock Grove, into the TV series of the same name. Meyer and McGreevy met while attending the Michener Center for Writers at UT-Austin, and even before Meyer completed The Son in 2013, he knew he and McGreevy would be working together to get it on TV.

American Rust, my first book, was auctioned by a big studio, and [they made] huge promises. They attached a director, they attached a screenwriter, I heard they even wrote a screenplay. Of course nothing happened, but I also had no input,” Meyer says. “99.9 percent of stuff that Hollywood picks up they actually have no intention of making it, and for the one percent of stuff that they do want to make, they have literally no interest in having the creator of the original material involved.”

It seems the only way to keep a hand in the adaptation of your own work is to do it yourself, so Meyer, McGreevy and fellow Michener graduate and author Lee Shipman are writing the screenplay for Meyer’s multigenerational Texas oil saga together. This is Meyer’s first attempt at screenwriting, and though the plot of the series will mirror that of the book, he says much of the dialogue will change. “I just felt like, okay, what is the point of this scene? What does this scene have to get across? What has to change, from beginning to end?” Meyer says. “The result of that was that all the scenes are entirely new. It just seemed like quoting stuff from the book was just not efficient.”

The trio began writing in September, after Meyer finished his book tour. The original plan had been to do a miniseries, since the 592-page book (which spans a period of roughly 200 years) would never fit into a two-and-a-half hour feature film, but it soon became clear that the story would fit best within the format of a traditional serial show.

“The arc of the series would have the same creative arc as the book, so it wouldn’t be open-ended,” Meyer says. “Whether that means four seasons or six seasons we’ll have to figure out.” More seasons means more storytelling options—and for Meyer it also means a chance to utilize some of the 4,000 pages of material that didn’t make it into The Son.

If Meyer and McGreevy have anything to say about it, the show will be shot in Texas. But that question, along with the issue of casting, is irrelevant until they’ve decided on a network and a director. “There’s an auction going on,” Meyer says. “Who’s going to commit the most money is not the entire story. Who’s the best home creatively, and who’s going to give us the most creative freedom and see eye-to-eye with us, in terms of what the show should be—[when we answer these questions], then we’ll make the decision.” As deliberately as Meyer and McGreevy are weighing their choices, the demand for the show is immediate, and Meyer and his partners are targeting a 2015 premiere. “You fight this battle, you fight this battle, you fight this battle, then you sort of hurry up and wait,” Meyer says. “It’s like making sausage. I never knew that there were so many moving parts.”

The process may seem all-consuming, but in the midst of constant meetings and screenwriting, Meyer has also started work on his next book, which he calls a “modern take on the old myths of the Underworld … a sort of modern Orpheus and Eurydice story.” Rather than historical fiction, the new book will offer magical realism, and though he’s hoping this book won’t require as much intensive research as The Son did, the stakes are high for his third novel. “To be honest, people still don’t really know what I’m capable of doing, because they’ve seen only two books,” Meyer says. “Novel writing is so much more intense than screenwriting. In screenwriting, the dialogue has to be perfect, but everything else, they’re just screen directions. Ninety-five percent of the artistic value of a film or TV show is the result of the actors, the director, the costume designer, the set designer, the director of photography,” Meyer says. “Two hundred people have to do their absolute best work in order to make a film or TV show good. The writer is one part of that. With a novel it’s just you.”

Following the critical and commercial success of The Son, and given the time that screenwriting and participating in the production of the upcoming show will take, Meyer would have license to be stressed about writing his third novel. He’s not. “It’s no different from being a pro athlete in some ways,” he says. “Like, you’re not really surprised when you win some championship, because you know how good you are. You know how good you are long before the world has any idea, because otherwise you wouldn’t keep doing it.” When the bidding war began for rights to The Son, Meyer was excited—but not surprised. “There’s this false modesty that some writers and artists affect, but you can’t make it without going through a decade or more of very intense and painful rejection, and so, by definition, you get very used to the world’s conception of you and your work being very, very different from your own,” Meyer says. “So when the world’s reaction changes from negative to positive, you’re still in the habit of ignoring it, and I think you actually have to stay in the habit of ignoring it.”

This habit of trusting in his own work, and tuning out both avid fans and harsh critics, was one more reason to adapt The Son for TV himself. He, McGreevy and Shipman are hoping to encourage more authors to take control of putting their work on-screen. “It’s a super-obvious thing to do, but no one’s doing it,” Meyer says.

As enthusiastic as Meyer is about adapting The Son for TV, he’s quick to draw a boundary between his work as a novelist and the ephemeral nature of television. Regardless of what happens with the show, he says, “I wrote the book as a book. I wrote the book to last.”

Last year, the Observer’s Emily DePrang called George Saunders on the phone to talk about Tenth of December: Stories, his most recent work. She asked him if short stories fight injustice, and Saunders responded that they do. In his words, short stories “make the boundaries permeable … remind you that you’re not without agency and you’re not above or below the fray.” Saunders will be in Houston at Brazos Bookstore at 7:30 p.m. tonight. To mark the occasion, we polled Observer writers for their favorite short story collections, new and old, that traverse boundaries and pull readers into the fray.

 

goodbye-columbusGoodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth
Recommended by Steven G. Kellman
A few months before celebrating his 80th birthday last March, Philip Roth, the most decorated living American novelist, announced that, after publishing almost a book a year since 1959, he had ceased writing. Goodbye, Columbus, the collection that launched his career of brilliant literary provocations, is still astonishingly fresh. Consisting of the title novella and five short stories, the volume explores love, faith, and assimilation with both wit and compassion. In particular, “Defender of the Faith,” the story of a war-hardened drill sergeant who responds in complex ways to a cunning Jewish recruit who tries to exploit their common background to extract special treatment, shows no signs of aging.

 

jesussonJesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
Recommended by Emily DePrang
Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson, is messed up. Not the execution of the book itself—it’s crushingly beautiful and stylistically perfect; I mean perfect—but the content: drugs, crime, car accidents, drugs again. It makes you feel deeply with and for people you would never want to meet and live moments you’d never want to live through, except that because Johnson is such an excruciatingly good writer, you’ll read on anyway. And if you’re me, you’ll read on again and again and again, just to get that feeling.

 

 

objectlessonsObject Lessons
Recommended by James McWilliams
“Jack liked his office and it was alright to like your office.” This is the opening line of Norman Rush’s classic short story, “Lying Presences,” originally published in The Paris Review in 1982. Rush’s story is one of 20 published Paris Review pieces now compiled in a book called Object Lessons. It goes without saying that the stories themselves are, in various ways, masterful (if largely dark) expressions of what many prematurely lament as a dying genre. But what’s especially valuable about this anthology is that leading contemporary writers—including Dave Eggers, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Lethem and Lorrie Moore—chose the stories and, albeit too briefly, introduced them. Unexpected insights emerge from this arrangement. Who would have guessed—as Mona Simpson, who introduces Rush’s story, reveals—that the opening line about Jack liking his office had, on its own, convinced The Paris Review (where Simpson once worked) to publish the story before even finishing it? As Simpson notes, “Editors, like curators, develop refined intuition.” It shows throughout this volume.

 

hideislandHide Island: A Novella and Nine Stories by Richard Burgin
Recommended by Anis Shivani
Burgin writes some of the most dangerous short fiction being published today, as Hide Island: A Novella and Nine Stories—his newest collection, and ninth overall—demonstrates. These stories are dangerous because they force readers to question ordinary ethical behavior and the boundaries between transgressors and victims. While his previous collections have also been dark—involving every variety of sadomasochistic behavior imaginable—the new book seems to be his darkest yet, compounded by an intensified concern with mortality in addition to Burgin’s usual preoccupation with sexual “deviancy.” In all these stories, Burgin puts the darkest possible spin on our private lives, exposing the baleful mendacity and self-deception whereby we operate day to day. There is an undertone of a radical political critique here, an ardent nihilism that is all the more lovely for its ring of unshakeable truth.

 

barnumThe Barnum Museum by Steven Millhauser
Recommended by Elizabeth Stewart
This book is usually remembered for the story at the end, “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” because it inspired the movie starring Edward Norton and Jessica Biel, but for me, Millhauser’s magic lies in his shorter stories. The one I can’t forget is titled “Rain,” and follows a man caught in a downpour after coming out of a movie theater. City lights and storefront signs swim around him, and eventually everything—even the protagonist—dissolves. The premise is straightforward, and the story is approximately eight pages long, but in those eight pages Millhauser manages to explicate the futility of an unremarkable life, while deliberately, and beautifully, washing it away. The Barnum Museum is a series of age-yellowed, water-damaged images—long-forgotten artifacts and mementos both magical and achingly sad.

Steven Fromholz at the Texas Book Festival in 2007.
Larry D. Moore
Steven Fromholz at the Texas Book Festival in 2007.

Texas songwriter and wordsmith Steven Fromholz died in a hunting accident this past Sunday, Jan. 19, at age 68, when a rifle he was handling on a feral hog hunt near Eldorado, south of San Angelo, fell and discharged. According to legacy.com, Fromholz’ funeral will be held at 2 p.m. this Friday at the Ft. McKavett Cemetery near San Angelo.

Born in Temple and educated at the University of North Texas in Denton, Fromholz became one of the founding fathers of Texas folk and country, performing everywhere from Houston’s Anderson Fair to Terlingua’s Starlight Theater in Big Bend, where he periodically worked as a raft guide on the Rio Grande. His long-out-of-print debut From Here to There, with Dan McCrimmon, laid the groundwork for a sound that would be built on by a subsequent generation of Texas songwriters including Lyle Lovett, who covered Fromholz’ “Bears” and “Texas Trilogy”—a three-part ode to the tiny town of Kopperl, Texas, in Bosque County, comprising “Daybreak,” “Train Ride” and “Bosque County Romance”—on 1998’s Step Inside This House album. Willie Nelson, John Denver, Hoyt Axton and Jerry Jeff Walker have also covered Fromholz’ songs.

“Texas Trilogy” was also the inspiration for a book, Texas Trilogy: Life in a Small Texas Town, by writer Craig D. Hillis and photographer Bruce F. Jordan, published by University of Texas Press in 2002 and excerpted in the Observer.

The songs alone are legacy enough to install him in the Texas canon, but Fromholz was an accomplished storyteller in multiple modes. He was named Texas’ Poet Laureate in 2007, the same year TCU Press published his New and Selected Poems.

Remembrance and notice has come from all quarters, including these from the Houston Chronicle, the Houston Press, the Austin American-Statesman, the Austin Chronicle, and the Big Bend Sentinel.

The Dallas Morning News published this photo essay of late-career Fromholz.

But perhaps the best way to remember him is just to listen.

 

Again for the First Time by Rosemary Catacalos Wings Press 80 pages; $16.00
Again for the First Time
by Rosemary Catacalos
Wings Press
80 pages; $16.00

2013 Texas Poet Laureate Rosemary Catacalos, a longtime San Antonio resident of Mexican and Greek heritage, makes frequent use of the Ariadne myth in her 1984 book, Again for the First Time, originally published in 1984 and recently reissued by San Antonio’s Wings Press in a 30th-anniversary edition.

Read Anis Shivani’s review of Catacalos’ work here.

 

 

famouswritersThe Washington Post dubbed James Magnuson’s new novel “a triumphantly preposterous fish-out-of-water campus caper,” and Famous Writers I Have Known has garnered an abundance of similar kudos. The book’s been called a satire, a romp, a farce, and a gleeful jab at the world of MFA writing programs—one that Magnuson, director of UT’s prestigious Michener Center for Writers, is well positioned to write. Magnuson will read selections from Famous Writers I Have Known at the Bullock Texas State History Museum at 7 p.m. on Jan. 21 as part of the museum’s Texas Artists Series.

The book opens on con man Frankie Abandonato and follows his exploits as he poses as reclusive Salinger-esque author V.S. Mohle in order to weasel his way into elderly MFA program benefactor Rex Schoeninger’s bank account. The MFA program in question is fictional, but it resembles the Michener Center in more ways than one; likewise, Schoeninger can be read as both a parody of and tribute to the late James Michener. Frankie’s scheme is destined to fail, but not before Magnuson pokes a semester’s worth of fun at the writers and academics his con man encounters.

Magnuson’s story is lighthearted and playful, while still shedding a gently critical light on the eccentricities and absurdities of graduate writing education. But Abandonato’s deft infiltration of the literary world raises a question not easily glossed over: Are writers and con men really so different? Both rely on a certain amount of theatricality; both are actors playing a role; both tend to make it up as they go along. Frankie may not be V. S. Mohle, but he’s a phenomenal storyteller regardless. As is Magnuson.

His will be the second performance of the Bullock Museum’s Texas Artists Series, a program that aims to connect Texas history with live performances showcasing the music, theater, and literature that bring the stories of Texas to life. Magnuson’s reading promises a whimsical portrait of a program few have the good fortune to get into, and an artful reminder that nothing—authors included—should be taken too seriously.