Vermont poet Wyn Cooper pens first novel 'Way Out West'
A literal fall from grace on an icy mountain. A chance encounter that follows, leading to a dangerous romance. And a confluence of events that intertwines a Hollywood movie production with secretive government tests in the era of Ronald Reagan. These are the threads that are tied together in the debut novel Way Out West, by Vermont poet Wyn Cooper.
Vermont Public's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Cooper. Their conversation is below, and has been edited for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: Before we get into the details of this novel, I'm curious about what prompted you to turn from poetry to fiction. Is this something new, or maybe a project that you've been meaning to take on for some time?
Wyn Cooper: Well, it's a project that started a very long time ago. I was in the graduate program in creative writing at the University of Utah. And I had just published my first book of poems. And one of my fellow grad students, who was also a poet said, "You know, I'm going to try to write a novel, I'm just going to write one page a day for a year. And then I'll have a novel." And we all laughed at him and thought, "Oh, yeah, right." And then I thought, "Well, wait a minute, if he can do that, I can do that. Or I can at least try." And so I just set out to write one page a day of a novel.
It took me about a year to write the first draft, just like he had predicted. This was in 1987, and 1988.
I sent it out to some publishers in New York, and some agents. I got some really nice letters back from them, but nobody wanted to take it on. And since I don't like rejection, I put it in a box and didn't send it out again for 32 years. But I did a lot of revision of it over the years, and especially after it was accepted last year. I then decided it really needed more work. So I changed the plot. And I shortened it a little bit. And it got accepted, much to my delight.
Well, you know, I think your background in poetry actually serves you really well here, because this is a slim novel. It's a little more than 150 pages. It's got a propelling kind of streamlined plot that's at sometimes surreal, and it keeps the reader guessing.
We meet these two people who come together in the strangest of circumstances. First, tell us a little bit about the character Tyler Dutton, who I referenced in the lede as a man who was climbing an icy mountain face before he plunges nearly to his demise. What is he seeking? What is he running from?
He's kind of running from his own life. He's a very unhappy guy. He had been a stuntman for years, and his body was starting to wear out. He's 36 years old in the novel, or when it starts. And so he was starting to learn how to work the lights to become a lighting tech. I try to fill in his background as the novel goes, so that his trip up that mountain makes more sense.
And he encounters this mysterious woman, named Robin, who has some issues of her own, mostly related to substance misuse. And I'm wondering how these two characters with similar problems help each other, even when it seems like perhaps they could make things worse by getting involved.
That's a very good point. I think that they're both lonely. They don't hit it off right away. They argue a lot about whether she actually hit him or not with her truck, which is how they physically meet. But they fill the gap in each other's lives.
He becomes the director of a movie, much to his surprise. Whomever is behind the movie, Tyler and Robin become suspicious of where this money is coming from, and who's really pulling the levers behind the scenes — if it's some kind of conspiracy, if it involves nuclear testing, since they’re in Nevada, in 1983, and 1984, which is when it takes place.
Why did you want to evoke the '80s in this novel? Does the book have anything to say as well, in subtext, perhaps about the times we live in now?
At a certain point, I realized that it became a historical novel. But I think that people worrying about conspiracies these days has relevance. I'm not a conspiracy theorist in any way, just to be clear, but that's what I think it speaks to. And it speaks to the fact that people still have emotional problems, substance abuse problems, relationship problems.
I hope I'm not going to embarrass you or annoy you by bringing this up. But I do have to remind folks if they've forgotten, because I'm sure at the time, this was a question you got a lot. But in the 1990s, Sheryl Crow wrote a hit song called "All I Wanna Do", and as I understand it, this was based on one of your poems, is that right?
Yes, it was. It was a poem called "Fun." And it came out in my first book. It was in a used bookstore in Pasadena. And when Sheryl and the band were recording the album in early 1993, the producer didn't like the lyrics she had written to one of the tunes. So they took a break, went to the used bookstore, found my book, bought it, and brought it back into the studio. The producer said. "Sheryl, try singing this poem to the tune we have." And she did. And it worked. And they cut six lines out of my poem. They added Santa Monica Boulevard. So they placed the poem in LA. They called me, got my permission, and it came out.
Way Out West is available from the publisher, and local Vermont bookstores.
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