DAYDREAM BELIEVER: Raymond Cothern, Swimming Underwater

*** This is the 4th blog in a series of interviews with baby boomers who are pursuing their dreams.

I met Raymond Cothern on another writer’s Facebook page. The writer was also someone I don’t really know, not in the old-fashioned face to face, I met you in college or at the school our kids attend or at the office kind of way. Raymond and I had both commented on the same post.

As a self-published author trying to sell books I’ve been working on growing my Friends list on Facebook. So I checked Raymond out, or as my daughters call it, I creeped on him. What immediately grabbed me when I read his bio was that he is a Louisiana native and studied at LSU with Walker Percy. Years ago, a guy I was dating introduced me to Percy’s The Moviegoer and I loved the daydreaming character Binx Bolling, his boredom with his mundane days and his search for meaning in the everydayness of life. I thought Raymond and I might have a few things in common along the lines of Binx Bolling’s famous quote: “What is the nature of the search? The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”

You have quite an impressive resume, Raymond. The plays you’ve written have won numerous awards including the Deep South Writers Conference and the St. Tammany National One-Act Play Festival. The Long Hymn of Dilemma was produced in New York and The Pallbearer’s Social was a finalist in the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference. Did you actually get to see the production of your plays? What was it like, seeing your words interpreted and acted out on the stage?

I have seen some readings and productions of my plays. Two shorter plays done more recently in festivals in New York City—The Long Hymn of Dilemma as part of the DTE New Play Festival, and Fat Girl From Texas in the Distilled Theatre Company Short Play Festival—I did not attend for various reasons. Funny, after living there early in my youth and thinking I wanted to act, and then after discovering writing was really what I was driven to do, I would have killed to hear my words in any theatre in that city. Like so many dreams, when actually realized they are not quite as you imagined them. They are always different in most respects. Hearing words you wrote spoken by others is always a thrill. And I happen to think reading a story out loud is a good way to see if it flows. If you can’t read it aloud and keep the meaning going, if there are long and complicated sentences then most probably more editing needs to be done.

You have had your fiction published in numerous literary magazines and you also had an essay, Food & Photographs, included in the book Meanwhile Back at the Cafe Du Monde. As the self-published author of three novels now, I know it’s close to impossible to pay the bills on writing alone. In the piece you posted on your blog on the one year anniversary of your heart attack you mention you initially ignored your symptoms and passed them off as discomfort brought on by the stress of financial concerns in retirement. What was your day job and did you enjoy it or like me, were you always thinking about writing?

Well, I wasn’t sure why I was feeling discomfort in my chest. Shortfall in retirement funds definitely caused stress in my life. I was lucky, feeling the discomfort, and then doing what they tell you not to do: drive yourself to the hospital. In one of those things I will think about the rest of my life—some form of survivor’s guilt, I guess—I will always remember my father dying one afternoon at age 58 and me driving myself to the hospital at age 69, stopping at red lights, and surviving to live longer. At the time I had retired from a job that began with hurricane recovery for Katrina that morphed into housing for the disadvantage. I also had retired from managing the general interest part of the LSU Bookstore for 23 years. Most of my adult life has been spent as a bookseller, and, yes, I have written stories and such and thought seriously about writing since I was in the 8th grade.

If it makes you feel any better, my Dad also drove himself to a walk-in clinic thinking he had the flu when he was really having a heart attack. The name of your blog is Swimming Underwater which is also the title of your recently completed memoir. Can you tell us a bit about that?

The blog started as a place to post some of the memoir—Swimming Underwater—which is about growing up in Louisiana and framed by the story of the devastating effects of viral encephalitis on my daughter and of her triumph in achieving a normal life. The blog then evolved into writing about other things as well, heart attacks, aging, as well as dealing with an aging parent, all those fun things in life. The title of the memoir and the blog comes from the hospital experience and living in general, wanting things done in a timely manner which rarely happens. The feeling of swimming while submerged and the resistance against you and holding your breath and struggling to get to the end of something and the feeling of desperately needing air before you get there.

When I was reading your flash fiction story Amanda I was struck by how much you and I think alike at times. You wrote: “What depresses the hell out of me—is that the onset of crippling arthritis is the heredity factors made manifest, the visible proof there is no escaping family, the predisposition for diseases of body and spirit never avoided.” And in my latest novel, Life Is All This, I wrote: “This was his fault. He was the one with the weak genes, the addiction problems, and the lack of willpower. His DNA carried his vices and bad habits. It was hard enough protecting your kids from the outside world, but what could you do about genetic codes and inherited predispositions?” I knew when I read that you were a kindred spirit, and I also read you are a fan of Hemingway’s brevity. I have steered away from a memoir because one, I don’t think anything out of the ordinary has ever happened to me and two, the critics of my first novel caused me to shy away from telling too much of my story. I prefer to put my feelings into fictional characters and their stories. What led you to the memoir? In your fiction do you write what you know? What other influences find their way into your writing?

Yes, there’s not much to be done about passing physical diseases on to your children or their children down the road. But I’ve always been particularly sensitive about how people treat other people, what less than desirable messages and lessons get conveyed by parents to their children. Seeing my youngest daughter develop rheumatoid arthritis—a disease I’ve suffered from more than half my life—seeing that after the devastation of encephalitis was tremendously discouraging and a reminder the physical is just one aspect of the spirits we pass on. I came to the memoir because I kept a journal about what was happening to my daughter, Jennifer, and what I was feeling. It took me years to really begin to work on it—it raised such anxiety in me—but the more I shaped the material the easier it became to deal with all that had happened. It was therapy. Since I could see from the hospital window the neighborhood where I grew up, where Dee and I raised Laurie and Jennifer for a few years, the memoir incorporated more than just a story of illness and recovery. I think all writers use the material of their lives in their fiction. Come on, really, what else do they have to draw from? Oh, the material gets mashed and shaped and comes out so differently from some known experience, but there is always some footprint or DNA from the original author source. I think any hiding done behind characters—fictional or otherwise—can eventually become a weakness. Writing the memoir, getting to the core of how I felt about all things, getting to the point (as some writer said) where I knew I would have to learn to forgive myself for the life I led, all that digging and revealing and the angst it brought has made me such a better writer. That is what has influenced me more than anything.

Yes, I like that. The footprints are always there. So now that you’re retired, are you devoting more time to your writing? What are your plans for Swimming Underwater? Have you considered self-publishing?

I continue sending out query letters to agents about Swimming Underwater—but not as much as I used to—and I continue submitting the manuscript to various competitions I think are worthwhile. Occasionally I have excerpts from it published in various literary magazines. Submitting fiction is an ongoing thing. A story published in North American Review was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Sometimes to get away from prose, I do some work on a few plays and send them around. As far as self-publishing, I haven’t decided to go that route yet, but I know plenty of writers—some well-known—who have become frustrated by the publishing scene nowadays and have decided to get new material out by themselves. Look at The Martian by Andy Weir. Originally published by him as an ebook, picked up by Crown Publishing, and now the screen rights have sold. So success can happen but I think it is rare.

It is certainly hard getting the book to the readers. I can attest to that. So after all the years and all the miles, I reread The Moviegoer recently and realized although I have learned a lot along the way, I still struggle with the everydayness of life. It was something I wanted to explore in Life Is All This. Having studied with Walker Percy, did you gain any insider insight into the nature of the search? How do you feel about it all?

No, I wish Walker Percy had given me tips on the search and successfully finding what all this living means. What he gave me was more concrete. He told me I was a good writer, and he told me writers make up their own rules. One gave me the confidence to continue on in a horribly difficult life endeavor and the other made me less fearful about constructing my own paths while involved in the search. Raymond

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