An Interview with James Cotter – 60-Something Debut Novelist

James Cotter is an associate professor of Gerontology at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of a gripping SF thriller about the travails of building a bridge across the Bering Strait. Here’s an excerpt from the novel’s opening passage:

The environmental challenges surpassed any other construction project, and these were dwarfed by the financial and political challenges. But the dream would not die – because humankind still remembers, deep in their souls, their early migrations when they walked out of Africa and spread across the world. And the Bering Strait has always remained a symbol of humanity’s sundered kinship, and so eventually someone would restore those ancient ties with a bridge across the Bering Strait.

The Bridge over the Bering Strait is self-published, available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle versions. Brisk, deeply grounded, and thought-provoking, it’s a good beach read, especially on those muggy days when a dead accurate depiction of winter in Alaska may soothe. We talked in downtown Richmond at Sefton Coffee.

When did you find time to write this novel?

I wrote the book over several years of early mornings – getting in an hour or so before work – and taking writing vacations as it came together towards the end. That’s still how I write. In the work we do as professors — which is intellectually strenuous — by the end of the day it’s hard to focus enough to get any real writing done.

Did you workshop the book or have readers look at your drafts?

I had some friends read parts and I was in a writing group at the time and received great feedback there.

Why this theme – building a bridge across the Bering Strait? It seems almost mythical, since as you have written, it serves to heal the broken link that brought the first Americans here. And speaks to the tortured Russian-American relations that have colored all our lives.

An image just came to me one day. A father and son were falling into the Bering Sea from a bridge. Just took off from that image.

You chose to self-publish this book. Had you shopped it around to agents before you went that route?

I did. Went to James River Writers Conference and met agents there, but nobody bit. I sent it off to a few agents and editors, but again no one seemed interested. So I went to Amazon’s Create Space and paid the $3000 to have them copy edit, typeset and publish the manuscript.

It looks good, beautiful cover, trade paperback quality, well done!

My son’s a graphic designer, so he mocked up the PDF for the front and back covers, and we used that. Create Space will do that, but it would have cost more and it probably wouldn’t have been any better.

So the book came out in 2010. How’s it been selling?

I’ve sold under 100 copies, a few more than just family and friends, ha. But I haven’t made my investment back, if that’s what you’re asking. And probably won’t. When you consider the monthly flood of books from traditional publishers in every genre, the thousands of writers going the self-publishing route. I paid some money extra for what Amazon called a marketing package. I think they sent out fliers to booksellers, that sort of thing. Of course it was a joke. They must get millions of these fliers. Next time, I won’t bother to pay for that feature. After all, a friend of mine who writes romances told me she has 30 days on bookshelves before they pull her books. 30 days to get somebody’s attention. And that’s for an accomplished author.

But you’re still at it.

I am. I’m taking a few days off next week to fly out to Portland, Oregon for the annual Historical Novel Society conference. I have an idea about an American soldier who finds himself involved in the sequence of conflicts that spread across the late 19th Century, between the Civil War and World War I. One book for each conflict. Meets Teddy Roosevelt, etc. I was a history major in college and I know how to do the research. I enjoy imagining myself back into those details of life back in the day, in different eras.

Your eyes light up when you talk about this. It’s like here you are in your 60s, near the end of a quite accomplished academic career, and you’re starting fresh with this whole new endeavor with some of the enthusiasm of a young man! Do you think there are a lot of writers out there who are taking up a pen as retirement comes closer?

Probably thousands and thousands. I mean, I wanted to write when I was young. I actually did that thing, went to Paris, lived in a garret, sat at a café table all day. The whole deal. Then eventually came to my senses, came home, and found work that I felt was both meaningful and paid the rent.

Do you regret that decision?

How could I? It’s been so rewarding on so many levels to have this career, to raise a family. And coming back to it now, yeah, who knows what I may have lost? But I’m not a naïve kid anymore either. The lived experience of all these years. I can draw on that now.

Yeah, our stories run parallel in those ways. New Orleans was my Paris. I mean, we all have this romantic notion about the starving artist and all, but most of the writers and artists I know have day jobs or rich spouses or trust funds. You don’t expect to make your way doing it really.

No.

It’s a stretch, but isn’t there something romantic or cool, too, about going back to your art in retirement? There’s less pressure to make the rent, you’re not fretting over getting rich and famous. You’re perfectly free to write what you want.

Except that the stress does drive you. Lacking that, it’s easy to take a day off, lay the story aside, go putter in the garden.

Well that’s true even with the stress, eh?

You know, much of my academic career has been about fighting ageism. So maybe I’m especially sensitive to this. I would think, though, that there may be an understandable but I would say unfair bias among agents and publishers who may shy away from an older writer. They’re investing in a career and all the years it takes to get a series of books written and successful in the marketplace, thinking that the older writer won’t have the stamina to get it done.  But I’d argue that we’re the ones with the energy and the time to really focus.  So I think that may be a mistake on their part.

And as you say, the older writer can bring that lived experience to inform the writing. Meanwhile, self-publishing. So you put the novel on your shelf, and pass it out to friends, and sell some here and there. And get on with the next one.

Yes. That’s right. And I suppose if you’re up for it you can self-promote, build some social media presence, go to book readings, maybe even show up with a box of books at the local bookstores.

And occasionally a self-published book catches on that way and a traditional publisher picks it up.

I’ve heard of that happening. For me, I’m glad that self-publishing is so accessible. Being able to hire an editor and control all the publishing details yourself, that’s not so bad. Better than the old days, I’d say.

Do you have a title for the book you’re working on now?

Not yet. Keane’s Quarry maybe.

We should start a 50 or better writing club. A guild!

We could, for sure. Not a bad idea.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s