Interview with Andrew Cotto
I’m delighted to launch my 2019 Interviews with Andrew Cotto. He is the author of The Domino Effect, Outerborough Blues: A Brooklyn Mystery, and Cucina Tipica: An Italian Adventure. I’m intrigued by his work because he doesn’t write to genre. His stories are driven by the protagonists’ personal quests, which they pursue with a clueless determination that ignites the everyman place in the reader’s heart. Cotto’s novels illustrate the value of taking risks, the strength in vulnerability and the power of kindness.
Thanks so much for sharing your stories and for joining me today, Andrew.
1— Correct me if I’m wrong, but my sense is your choice of setting for The Domino Effect (split between urban New York and a boarding school) and Outerborough Blues (placed in a deeply-rooted African American community in Brooklyn on the dawn of gentrification) came as a package deal with your protagonists because of the issues they needed to resolve. But in the case of Cucina Tipica, my guess is Italy was the front-runner and Jacoby Pines was designed to showcase the setting. How does the combination of location and protagonist shape your story choices?
There’s a great quote, though I’m not sure from which writer (maybe John Ashbery?), that claims the most important character is always setting. I tend to start with a place and give birth to characters within those confines. This is probably less obvious in the first two novels than it is in the last as Italy is so important to not just the events but also the motivation and the food/wine soaked milieu. Regardless, I’m always trying to use the setting to inspire the realities that inform the narrative. As a reader, I’m drawn first to setting. I devour the James Lee Burke novels set in southern Louisiana primarily because of what his work with setting does for my imagination.
2— What factors help you determine if a story idea is worth the time and investment needed to turn it into a compelling novel? Can you walk us through the process that takes you from an idea to the point when you’re ready to start writing forward?
Besides a compelling setting, I’m really looking for interesting characters and the type of events that lead to a satisfying process and ending. Most “interesting” people, at least the ones I know, are products of complication or trauma. I enjoy putting characters in challenging situations and seeing how they deal. I want them to suffer, persevere, and prevail.
Of course, themes have to be a factor. I guess, overall, I ask myself if the story “works.” And this is contingent upon a lot of effective elements (character, motivation, conflict, etc.), but I really have to imagine the ending being one where the reader is satisfied and happy to have spent all that time getting there. I want to leave readers with a sense of satisfaction.
3— In addition to writing, you have experience as a line chef for a fine-dining restaurant. One of my previous jobs was as a short-order cook. A lot of writers seem drawn to the culinary arts. Any thoughts on why? Are there any culinary skills that have directly impacted your journey as a writer? What is your favorite Italian meal, and is it highlighted in Cucina Tipica?
Oooh. Nice connection. I imagine it has a lot to do with the attention to sensory matters, which are interesting to creative types, and the attention to specifics, the whole “Devil in the details” thing. I dunno for sure, but I’m all for it.
As far as my favorite Italian meal, I don’t technically have one because what I love about Italian food is the regional diversity, so I’m taking the specialty of whatever region I happen to be in and loving it because of the cultural appreciation. That said, if I could take three Italian plates, it would be bucatini all’amatriciana as the primi, lamb chops scottaditta for the secondi, and a three-cheese plate for dessert; I’d drink Chianti Classico Riserva throughout and have a grappa when it was all over.
4— You wrote The Domino Effect while living in a refurbished barn above the tiny village of Antella in the hills of Florence with your wife and daughter. This barn is the setting where Jacoby Pines finds himself in Cucina Tipica. Any tips on how to select and transform real life experiences into effective elements for fiction?
There’s stories everywhere, so paying attention to our own experiences and of those around us is an endless resource. I love local news for ideas since the context is familiar and therefore easier to build a story upon. Plus, there’s that “Truth is stranger than fiction” mantra. On a more romantic and adventurous level, travel is a great way to have experiences and also inspire imagination, though – that said – it took me ten years to get around to writing about Tuscany after living there. The delay was probably caused by my not having a character to drop into the setting; I wrote about Italy a lot for magazines, so I remained connected to the setting, but a fictional experience didn’t come to me until years later. This is probably due to my return for a long period, five weeks teaching in Rome, which reminded me of how magnificent it is to be in Italy day in day out, as opposed to the experiences of a tourist.
5— In your interview in The Brooklyn Rail with Anne Tammel you said, “All novels are about the journey of searching for self.” Your books certainly reflect this viewpoint. In a world where external forces like social media are pulling so many people away from center, what insight can you offer from the lessons your characters have learned to help readers stay grounded?
I’m not certain that there are any lessons in literature beyond that life is a struggle. The struggles of today are in (large) part informed by social media and technology in general, but my only way to connect any sort of remedy with regard to books is to simply read more. The escape provided by immersion in literature is probably never more important yet unheeded. I don’t have the numbers, but people read a lot less literature these days, and technology is to blame. Irony noted.
6— Your choice to use so much Italian dialogue in Cucina Tipica literally accents Jacoby’s displacement. Did you have any fear that the Italian would be off-putting to readers? If so, how did you adjust for that concern as you wrote?
I did! It was a concern, though I was also wondering how to realistically depict an experience in Italy (especially one off the beaten tourist path) that didn’t involve people speaking Italian. And I really wanted the reader to recognize how displaced one can feel when not knowing the language, so what I did was use dialog in Italian in context that could be figured out and/or I had the subsequent English prose provide the translation. It was a complicated scenario regardless, and I have heard from a few readers who were put off by it. I still feel like I handled it correctly, though – I have to admit – it does bother me that their experience was affected by this. I want the people who are kind enough to read my work to love every aspect of the experience.
7— I was surprised to discover we have a shared history with the South. You received a BA in Literature from Lynchburg College in Virginia; I lived in Lynchburg for ten years. You also love New Orleans and travel there often for writing assignments; I lived there for nearly a decade. My time there was so transformative, I couldn’t resist setting what I hope will be my debut novel in New Orleans. In what ways has your time in the South influenced your writing? Caesar from Outerborough Blues spent time in Louisiana learning how to cook Creole, but is there any chance you’ll set an upcoming novel there?
I’d like to spend enough time in New Orleans and southern Louisiana to tell a story there. I’m fascinated by the mix of cultures and, of course, the love of food and music. There’s a Caesar Stiles story in my head that is set there involving the Creole lover he had to leave behind. Of course, I’d have to go down there and maybe spend a year or so…Work. Work. Work.
8— Your next book, Black Irish Blues, is a sequel to Outerborough Blues. Why did you decided to dive back into Caesar’s life? Any idea when it will be available? Any chance Jacoby Pines will make another appearance?
I just had to tell another Caesar Stiles story. I mean, when Publisher’s Weekly writes that a novel reads like “Raymond Chandler taking dictation from Walt Whitman” you don’t walk away. The reality is that the voice wouldn’t leave me; I even ended the original with a sequel in mind. It’s finished now and (I believe) really good. I’m not sure when it will come out, though I imagine possibly this year or next. Then I can move on to New Orleans to research the subsequent novel in the series…Sounds like a plan to me.
As for Jacoby Pines, yeah, I have a sequel with him in mind: Cucina Romana: Another Italian Adventure. This would involve Jacoby accompanying Bill (his ex-pat friend) to Rome in search of something that I’m not sure of yet, but I am sure it will, once again, not be a DaVinci Code type adventure and it will involve lots of eating/drinking.
9— I understand your current work in progress deals with a professor/author who turns to a life of crime. Can you tell us a little about the inspiration behind this breaking-bad story?
This novel-in-progress is called Kingsborough, and it’s based on two respective TV shows I wrote that were shopped but not picked up. My feeling was that neither had enough of the sex/violence requisite in TV dramas, though I did feel that they could be combined into a compelling novel about the new face of desperation in modern America. In this case, it’s a professor and an author who can’t make ends meet (a real scenario for many, especially those – the majority – of college instructors who are adjuncts, combined with how hard it is to make a living as a writer) who connects with a police detective manipulated into an early retirement. It’s very much the story of gentrification, corruption, cultural acrimony, and income inequality in modern American cities. It will make a great TV series once the novel comes out.
10— You’re more than a novelist. You’re a regular contributor to The New York Times and several other magazines. How do you organize your time as a writer? Do you have a particular routine? What advice can you offer young writers who want to make a living in this field?
For starters, I have to be writing on a very regular basis. I do this early in the morning, when I’m fresh and then able to reload during the day in preparation for the next. This is the key: Either you write or you don’t. As to what I’m writing, it depends, but I can take time to break from a novel in order to work on an article. As long as I’m writing, it’s all good. In fact, I kind of like the breaks as it keeps things interesting. My only advice is to do the work and find a mentor.
11— When it comes to reading who are your go-to authors? What was your favorite book of 2018?
I don’t yet have a favorite book from 2018, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem, which I’m reading now. My go-to authors are James Lee Burke, Flannery O’Connor, Breece D’J Pancake, John Cheever, and Joan Didion.
Thanks so much for taking the time to provide an inside look at your writing life, Andrew. Wishing you all the best.
Andrew Cotto is the award-winning author of three novels and a regular contributor to The New York Times. His work has also appeared in Parade, Men’s Journal, Rolling Stone, The Huffington Post, Condé Nast Traveler, and Italy Magazine. Andrew teaches writing at LIM College. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. For more about Andrew go to andrewcotto.com.