An Interview with David Cotrone of Used Furniture Review

by Ryan Call

Ryan Call: Tell me a little bit about yourself. I’ve seen your name and writing around online, and I know you live in Plymouth, MA, but other than that, I don’t know much about you.

David Cotrone: No worries; there’s still a lot I don’t know about me, too. But here’s what I do know: I’m currently a student at a school in Massachusetts. I’m afraid of driving a car.

RC: Wait, why are you afraid of driving a car?

DC: I don’t know, really. Maybe it’s because I have visions of losing control of the wheel, or of another driver taking me out. Or maybe I’m afraid to move in vehicle that’s not my own body because my body’s exactly what I’m not yet comfortable with–rather, the thing that controls my body. So I speak to this thing at night. Converse. Get to know it. Make peace. Repeat.

RC: At night is when I’m most terrified, feel most out of control, though I am physically still. Afternoons, however, I find a local peace, that gentle conversation with my brain, in the enclosure of my backyard, raking leaves, carefully mowing grass. Death seems far away then.

DC: I’m really drawn to that phrase, “local peace.” But it’s terrifying, too, when even that goes missing. Where there was once a tree in my neighbor’s backyard there’s now a swimming pool. I have a twin brother named Michael and we both have brown hair and brown eyes, though different tastes in music. I’m colorblind but didn’t know until I was told.

RC: And your writing?

DC: I’m currently working on a large piece of fiction about a bunch of people who fall apart and come back together and a large piece of nonfiction about the same thing.

RC: Why the same thing?

DC: When I’m writing, I think I’m most interested in pain, confusion and loss, lineage and reckoning, what makes us feel split into pieces, what makes us feel empty and what makes us feel whole again. I started the two projects at different times, the fiction before the nonfiction, but those variations on the theme just happened; it was natural. If my disposition changes before I finish either one then I’m sure my writing will reflect that change.

RC: To what do you aspire?

DC: Like most people reading this, I have dreams of my work being printed and bound, of being a part of this supportive and awesome community, of living with and within this thing called writing.

RC: How did you discover ‘this supportive and awesome community’? I’m always curious to hear how people find their way, how they perceive ‘the community.’

DC: I looked.

RC: What caused you to look? I guess I’m asking if you recall any one thing that sort of sent you looking, or if it was an organic process. In my case, I went looking because I wanted to see more than what I’d been reading in my graduate program. A friend sent me to Tao Lin’s blog, and my confusion led me on from there.

DC: I love that. I remember stumbling across PANK a couple years ago and thinking it was the best thing that had ever happened to me. Here was this place filled with experiment and risk and stuff you would never find in a bookstore. It was liberating to at once feel so stifled by what it would mean to become a successful writer and to see a space where people are working toward that success. There’s a sort of refreshing honesty and bareness that’s all over these online venues. Don’t get me wrong, I think big-time authors such as Luis Alberto UrreaRick Moody andTom Perrotta are part of this community, too. They were so willing to run interviews with us that it took me off guard. I don’t think they talked to us out of pity or sympathy or anything like that. They were happy to spend time with like-minded people, to make something as lonely as writing an experience of companionship and contact.

RC: So, what is ‘the community,’ exactly, and how does someone join it? It’s one thing to find these lit blogs and online stories/poems, but another to actively participate, right?

DC: But so I think this community is so vast that it’s hard to enter into it, it’s hard to stick, to make a mark. It’s also easy to miss. You have to be willing to look further than bestseller lists. I could be talking to someone about the weirdness of Amelia Gray or the dexterity of Matt Bell and that person would have no idea who or what I was talking about. You have to spend time with the community for it to become one.

RC: This is interesting to me, actually, because you mention that the community is vast, and yet I often hear elsewhere that it is a relatively small one, is even insular to some. Do you disagree, then? How is it hard to enter, then? To make a mark? Is this to the community’s detriment? Could you talk more about that entrance, especially in relation to the smallness/vastness of the scene?

DC: You know, I think you’re right, that it can seem small. I think there are names you see a lot. Certain people rise to the top. I’m sure that sort of pyramid could turn some people off. But for now, at least, it should probably be that way. I think it’s great that people who get to the top in this community deserve it; they always seem to be generous and their writing is outstanding. There’s a move toward sincerity and candor here. If your writing deserves to get noticed it eventually will. But there’s a lot to look at, a lot to take in. I think by vast I really mean that making your mark takes commitment. I mean, most things that require commitment are vast: education, writing a book, Russian literature, love. So to be a part of this you need to do things like read Stephen Elliott’s Daily Rumpus emails, appreciate the blessed anonymity of the editors over at > kill author, support ventures like Dzanc Books–or at least have a certain awareness. It takes time to sort through everything, to stay up to date, but there’s room for everyone who has something to say. For me, that’s what makes it all worth it.

And if we wanted to talk about publishing, we would have to talk about money, I think. Small presses don’t run on nothing–they need to sell their product to stay in business. They really have to choose wisely: a stellar writer and someone with some sort of platform. Now, with buzzwords like “product” and “platform” it might seem like I’m veering away from the things I love about this place (“sincerity” and “candor”), but I’m not. I think this scene is still intact. There’s no sense of corruption or foul play. I’m positive I could read ten books put out by small presses or ten articles or stories run by indie lit mags and I’d love them all, at least appreciate them. I wouldn’t be able to say the same if I went to the bestsellers table in Barnes & Noble. There would be something I’d like, sure, but not everything. In fact, here are two titles off the store’s current Top 10 Bestsellers list: Crazy Sexy Diet and Strengths Finder 2.0: Discover Your Strengths. This community seems to say no thanks to that stuff, know what I mean? The literary (and even the fiction) sections are getting smaller, but there’s a need for content. So where does it all go? Well, look no further.

RC: So you’ve really anticipated my next question here, but I’ll ask it anyway: why did you start an online literary magazine like Used Furniture Review?

DC: There are so many places to find great writing and and thinking, especially now. There are venues like PANK and New York Tyrant and The Collagist and really so many more that it’s hard to name them all. Then there’s The Rumpus, The Millions and even this site–same quality of writing but a different focus and means of production. Where the former group publishes work as a whole (a magazine or issue made up of a smattering of contributors), the latter goes at it guerrilla-style: the sites are updated continuously. There’s a sense of urgency. There’s a tone of necessity. You get hit with the punch as its thrown. At UFR, we’re trying to let these two approaches meet.

RC: Why do you wish to combine these two approaches? How have you done this?

DC: Aesthetically, we’re like a newsreel, a magazine updated in real-time. But when it comes to content, we have a columnist who talks about working in bookstores, another who “makes an annotated mix tape of his life in stories and cover songs.” We have interviews with authors both decorated and emerging. We have fiction and nonfiction. We have poetry. We have photography. We have more. We’re still growing. We’re trying to figure out how to reach people. We want people to feel reached.

RC: Can you tell me a little bit about your readership? Since your launch, how many visitors have you received?

DC: Sure. We launched in November 2010 and have been growing ever since then. Some days we have over 1,000 visitors, other days we have around 500, and sometimes we have less than that. Those numbers are probably relative. Depending on who’s reading this, they could be interpreted as indicators of success or insufficiency. I think they’re all right considering we’re still pretty new, but of course I would love to see more 1,500+ days.

Ultimately, we want to be a place where people can come and find something they like. We want our inbox to be overflowing with submissions. There are so many voices out there. There’s no reason why something like this can’t work.

RC: So, what happens until then? How, for example, did you get your current batch of contributors? How do you choose a columnist?

DC: We started out by asking people we admire to contribute, people like Roxane Gay, Mike Young, Brian Oliu, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, etc. Then we worked on spreading the word through a grassroots approach. We asked our contributors, interviewees, friends–anyone we came into contact with–to let people know we were looking for submissions and content. Since then, we’ve been able to build a platform, and we’ve accepted work on a rolling basis. That way, we always have something new to offer, and a queue to draw from. I mean, yeah, we did the standard things, like setting up an account with Duotrope. But that hasn’t done much for us, I don’t think. It’s kind of a stale way of interacting.

As for our columnists, we were–and still are–looking for distinction. It’s true that not everyone is going to like every column, but I think most of our writers have such unmistakable voices: beguiling and sad and funny and utterly serious.

RC: Why the name? Why Used Furniture Review?

DC: Good question. The name comes from a story I started to write but then abandoned. I wrote something like, “He felt like used furniture.” The metaphor seemed a little forced at the time but I still liked the idea of it, so in thinking of a name for our review, it was there to use. There’s also a certain air that goes with it, I hope, that evokes eclecticism. And a sort of wonder, too. This idea that writing is an investigation of where a certain antique came from, what it witnessed, how it outlived its owner. But so that last bit is dealing more with hindsight than anything else. When Susannah (our managing and copy editor) and I decided on UFR, it was as simple as we liked the way it sounded.

I think there’s something to be said for the way something sounds. Someone once told me there are two ways of looking at writing. You can be obsessed with a word’s meaning, the philosophy behind things, or you can walk around singing and scatting and reciting lines and lyrics, all the while falling in love with the musicality of language. If that’s true then I like to think our name has both.

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Glam Lit: Eight questions from the Jaipur Literature Festival

by Guest Post: Neelanjana Banerjee

The DSC Jaipur Literature Festival, held January 21-25 at the Diggi Palace in Jaipur, India, is the biggest literature festival in the Asia Pacific region and supposedly the biggest free literature festival in the world. I spent the festival investigating the new culture of literary glamour that has arrived in the subcontinent.

 

i. Do glamour and literature make good bedfellows, or should they stop hooking up?

Jaipur is a city on the edge of desert. It is a few-hour or half-day drive from New Delhi (depending on who you’re asking), which is India’s publishing and intellectual capital. I’ve never been to The Hamptons, but Jaipur feels like it could be an equivalent, except the white linen and Bentleys are exchanged for multicolored, mirror-work ethnic wear and camel carts. It is also the bastion of very old money, meaning the town is populated with the offspring of an 11th century clan of feudal rulers known as the Rajputs, who built hundreds of opulent palaces, most of which have been turned into tourist attractions or guest houses.

Scene from the balcony of the crowded Jaipur Literature Festival front lawns.

Hearing writers speak under grandly decorated tents at a Rajput mansion built in the 1860s gives all of the Jaipur Literature Festival’s events (even a panel named “The Return of Philosophy”) an inherently glamorous feel. Glamour is defined as “the quality of fascinating, alluring, or attracting, especially by a combination of charm and good looks,” and it is the preposition that makes me suspicious when it comes to the literary scene. But maybe, just two months in to a year of living in India, I’m just not used to it. Because in my experience, book events in America are held in convention center rooms under florescent lights, or in the children’s section of a bookstore set with uncomfortable folding chairs, or in the usual stronghold of American literary glamour: the grimy bar.

The Indian English book market is supposedly outdoing America’s nine times over, which would seem a veritable reason for massive celebration. Maybe this is also why corporations such as infrastructure company DSC Limited bankrolls the event, along with sponsors like Merrill Lynch, Coca-Cola, Goldman Sachs and Shell, among others, but along with the fancy parties and voluptuous meals for writers–they also kept the daily events free for the masses, which included large groups of school children dressed in shabby blazers.

At a panel entitled “Migritude”, a term coined by Oakland-based poet Shailja Patel and having to do with migrants with attitude, Guyanese-born British writer and actor Pauline Melville opened by drawing the connection between forced migration and some of the more nefarious sponsors.

“This festival is for writers, people who are genuinely interested in the human condition, but behind us are the logos–staring at everybody–of the most pernicious organizations in contemporary finance,” Melville said. “Even as I speak, I’m half expecting to get a bullet in the back.”

ii. Is there anything more glamorous than controversy?

Open Magazine, Indian magazine that stirred “Literary Raj” controversy, welcomes people to the festival.

In the weeks leading up to the festival,Open Magazine (kind of a cross betweenNewsweek and Salon.com) writer Hartosh Singh Bal penned a piece that pointed out India’s continued deference to British literary arbitrators, the foremost of whom is Jaipur Literary Festival co-director William Dalrymple–who in terms of basic attire (polo shirts, khakis and sneakers) was entirely non-glam by Indian standards for the entire festival. Dalrymple shot back an angry response calling Bal racist, which earned another knocking for throwing around the weighty word. (I had a sneaking suspicion that Open Magazine, whose banner flew outside the gates of the festival inviting their readers in, was in cahoots with Dalrymple to strum up media, but my idea was shot down by a foreign correspondent at the NY Times who obviously has no sense of the glamour of conspiracy theories.)

iii. Is glamour bad for the aspiring writer who needs to learn to fail?

Junot Diaz, who Indians found incredibly glamorous, spoke at length about how the need for approval was the young writer’s worst enemy–a subject he has been adamant about since winning the Pulitzer.

All of us are trying to do what the Latin teaches us the root of author is, which is to augment. Author: augmentus. You’re trying to add something, no matter how slight…Artists, by their nature, we’re kinda pain-in-the-asses. If you’re an artist because you want more friends, you’re like an evil artist. For real, you’re like a bad Jedi…The good artist, of course, is not looking to make friends. In general, the good artist is going to do something that will discomfit. The very nature of the new is that you are going to make less friends than you would if you were just trying to gain approval. Because we have a society that so encourages everyone to seek approval, there isn’t much space for people to form an artistic personality because we spend our entire lives in a society that tells us: ‘Do the monkey dance, so we can clap for you.’ So many of my young artists that I work with, they are wonderfully talented, but they are so desperate for approval that they are never going to produce anything of worth that we need, not because I am the final judge, but because we know we need less applause and more conversation.

Of course, this was met with wild applause.

iii. Who’s more glamorous: a Booker Prize winner, Nobel Laureate, a chick-lit writer, an elder statesmen, or a Bollywood lyricist?

Kiran Desai, winner of the 2006 Man Booker Prize for Inheritance of Loss, was described as a “giggle head” by the Indian newspaper, Daily News and Analysis. That might have canceled out her glam factor–in the Indian media–if she weren’t in a relationship with Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, who spent much of his public appearances at the festival scolding audience members for their run-on questions and panel moderators for not fully understanding the importance of writing not in English. Sometimes grumpy can equal glamorous, I guess.

Other Nobel Laureate J.M. Cooetzee refused to engage with the massive Indian crowds through conversation and instead read a 45-minute story, “The Old Woman and the Cats,” about a famous writer who has retired to a village in Spain whose son comes to visit from America. Over the course of the visit, the mother and son have a days-long conversation about her adoption of the feral cats in the village and why exactly she has taken in the village flasher. There was a horrifying description of the flasher’s teeth, which the son imagines the man has not brushed in years. I found Coetzee’s quiet, steady voice and blue-button down shirt completely unglamorous, in a good way.

India’s own Chick Lit ingenue Ira Trivedi, who described herself as an “author-turned-model” when marketing her best-selling 2006 novel What Would You Do to Save the World: Confessions of a Would Have Been Beauty Queen?, launched a new book about Wall Street internships and moderated a discussion with Candace Bushnell, one of the only major American women writers present. During their well-researched conversation, Trivedi asked Bushnell, 52, if she ever planned to have children. Even more glamorous than these beautiful women was the festival’s sense of literary populism.

Opening guest of honor Dr. Karan Singh, elder statesman and bibliophile, put materialism in its place by saying: “In all my life, I haven’t bought cars, I haven’t bought jewelry, but I have bought books…[if you come to my library], you’ll find 25,000 books that I have collected over the course of my lifetime.” In a rousing speech in Hindi and then translated to English, he reminded the audience that India has creative writing in 25 different languages. The glamorous block-printed gift-bags for festival delegates had copies of his anthology A Treasury of Indian Wisdom.

But Bollywood screenwriter and lyricist Javed Akhtar won the glamour contest, because at the end of the day, it’s quite tough to compete with the biggest film industry in the world. When a tent with capacity for some 300 people was up to 600 with rumors of a stampede outside, I decided he was just too glamorous for me and escaped out a hole in the back.

 

An example of old world glamour at the festival: a chandelier at Durbar Hall, Diggi Palace, Jaipur.

iv. Does a glamorous, well-endowed prize matter?

One day I was sitting in on a conversation about how authors who sell books in India make no money from the sales–the average price of a book here seems to be 300 RS or $6, cheaper than the cheapest ebook in America. The theory was posited that the only way to really make money from selling books was to sell books in the UK or America. But how many people really make money from selling books?

Some of the glamour of the festival, especially the brand-new DSC Prize for South Asian Literature for $50,000, seemed to have been hatched to overturn that idea. Unlike the Pulitzer and the Booker, this prize doesn’t seem to have geographic specifications, only subject matter matters: “Authors could belong to this region through birth or be of any ethnicity but the writing should pertain to the South Asian region in terms of content and theme.”

Bollywood-crossover star Kabir Bedi–you may recognize him as evil Bond henchman Gobinda from Octopussy, or his various stints as a regal Arab on various American soap operas–awarded the premier prize to first-time novelist HM Naqvi for Homeboy, which I assigned Nawaaz Ahmed to review in Hyphen last year.

Naqvi was sporting the very glamorous shaved head, unbuttoned-shirt-look of several male writers at the festival. Get a sense of his glamour in this video of him playing ping pong in boots and a wife-beater.

v. Is there anything that confirms glamour like a drunken fist fight?

During one of the festival’s nightly parties, poet, novelist and journalist CP Surendran, who looks very misanthropic in his Times of India column photo, mistakenly asked a man whose religion considers “smoking injurious to the soul” for a light–this lead to some violence. My favorite report of this incident was in novelist and comic book writer Samit Basu’s twitter feed: “Top #jlfmoment. Watching Tarun Tejpal and Sanjoy Roy rescuing CP Surendran from angry punchy Sikh dude.” Like any glamorous high school party when someone from the uninvited crowd starts the fight, the fight has been used to talk about what’s wrong with “those people.” Obviously, the puncher is not familiar with the chorus of Sheila E’s anthem “The Glamorous Life”: “Without love, it ain’t much, it ain’t much.”

vi. Have discussions about displacement and diasporic writing lost their glamour?

There was a great deal of consternation about whose “Imaginary Homelands” might have actually been “Two Nation, Two Narratives”, which came from somewhere “Out of West.” (All event titles.)

The glamorously casual Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie pooh-poohed the question of displacement and diaspora, since even when she lived in Karachi, her writing was talked about as “showing the anxiety of displacement.”

But far more interesting to me, was that as a child I lived in Karachi my whole life, and I was obsessed with reading novels and all the novels I read were in English and none of them were set in Karachi. So that imagined world, which I spent just as much time in as the surroundings around me, was shaped by what I was reading. And my childhood novels were all set in a fantasy world, it was all time machines and dog heaven–and it took awhile to figure out what it was to write a novel in the English language about Karachi.

Actually, I thought the most fascinating moment of diasporic writing came from Malyasian-Australian rapper Omar Bin Musa, who was part of the musical line-up one evening, and not just because I had never heard an Australian rapper before. Musa, from the rural town of Queanbeyan, spit lyrics about identity and politics over decently produced beats. But it was when he performed a song that was most definitely influenced by the Pitbull Miami hip hop sound with the chorus: “Pura vida mami” that I felt like I had witnessed something especially glamorous. I’m hoping Dalrymple will invite Jay-Z to talk about Decoded next year.

vii. Is it glamorous to put down American writing?

British writer Martin Amis, who is apparently moving to America, seemed especially intent in proving to Junot Diaz, Richard Ford and Jay McInerney that “The Crisis in American Fiction” was basically that “the senior generation of writers” have all died recently–meaning John Updike, Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer. The complete lack of women writers in the discussion and any mention of women writers (until Richard Ford quoted Eudora Welty sometime around minute 20) gave the conversation a feeling like it was at some writer fraternity where American writers have to be hazed by the grumpy Amis in order to later drink jungle juice out of a garbage can.

But Ford and McInerney did their best to defend the diversity of American fiction, while Diaz spoke about how maybe the issue wasn’t the novel’s fault but “the structural shifts in the society that have made contemplative life and the ability for you to sit and read a novel for two or three hours everyday threatened and almost impossible.”

Amis parried with the idea that it would be impossible for a novel like Saul Bellow’s contemplative tome Humboldt’s Gift to spend eight months on the American best seller list like it did in it’s day. McInerney brought up Franzen’s Freedom and its success, then Amis replied with: “Not a comparable novel…There is a lot going on in that Franzen novel, in Humboldt’s Gift, nothing happens at all.”

Ford, who I found most glamorous with his elegant Mississippi accent and white hair, may have put it best when he said: “When I break the threshold of inanition to perform something on the page, that’s where the crisis actually exists, not somewhere up above my head.”

viii. Are there things to learn when not being glamorous?

You know what’s not glamorous at all? Getting food poisoning on the last day of the book festival, and having to skip hearing Vikram Seth and Irvine Welsh and even the uber-glam party held at the Amber Fort replete with camels and dancing and drunk author antics. Instead, I spent the day in the bed of my well-appointed artist residency-esque inn on the outskirts of Jaipur, listening to doves and watching the paper kites sway where they have been captured by the trees. But there is a certain glamour in the way the cook and her daughter retreat to the balcony outside your room at noon to oil each other’s hair.

Perhaps it is an un-glamorous space like this that one needs to analyze the literati–the bird’s eye view as it were. I mean, the danger of the glamour is that it overshadows the very unglamorous space of the writer’s desk, or it masquerades as a consolation for the quiet time one must put in. I don’t write for the smart people with moneyed connections who put glamorous parties together, but for a reader somewhere who will connect with my work, right? As an aspiring writer myself, does a decadent party like Jaipur inspire me or spin my head in the wrong direction? Or maybe I’m wrong, maybe the hundreds of school children who hob-knobbed with the world’s literary stars came away wanting to be a writer, and maybe more importantly, wanting to be readers in a country where that is exciting, alluring and attractive.

One of my final views from the car on the way to the airport were polo players on the Jaipur Polo Fields and the sun setting on the Amber Fort in the distance. It was one of the most glamorous sights I’ve seen in my life.

***

Neelanjana Banerjee is a writer living in Kolkata, India for the year. She is the co-editor ofIndivisible: An Anthology of South Asian American Poetry (University of Arkansas Press, 2010), and her writing has appeared in The Literary Review, the Asian Pacific American Journal and is forthcoming in The Speculative Ramayana Anthology (Zubaan Books, 2011).