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Profile: An Interview with PSU Professor and Local Author William J. Cobb

Penn State Associate Professor William J. Cobb recently published his third book, Goodnight, Texas (Unbridled Books September 10, 2006).  Tell me a little about yourself.

I grew up in South Texas–San Antonio, which is inland, and Rockport, which is on the coast. After graduating with an MA from the University of Texas I lived in New York for four years and worked in the publishing industry, and then to save myself from the fate of being an editor the rest of my life, returned to graduate school in Houston and received a PhD. I taught in Texas for a couple years, then joined the faculty here at Penn State in 1995. Generally I teach creative writing, but also hybrid classes of creative writing/literature, such as I’m doing this fall in an Honors course titled The Magic of Blood, about literature of the Southwest.

How did you come up with the story for Goodnight, Texas?

I had become fascinated and somewhat frightened by the idea of global warming, and on a visit to my former home on the Texas coast, I noticed how high the water was, how close to the shoreline many of the homes and condos are. It’s easy to imagine that when the next big hurricane comes along, it will cause a great amount of destruction. I lived through several hurricanes in our old house on Copano Bay, and once the storm surge rose so high that we had four feet of water in the lower level–basically the lower half of the house was in the bay. So that was always on my mind, as well as the family history of many of my ancestors dying in the Galveston Storm of 1900. And I should note that Goodnight, Texas was written mainly in 2003/2004, before Katrina. Part of the story is much of small town America is dying out, and how the people who live on this coastline are inured to the comings and goings of big storms, which sets the atmosphere. The characters are based on people I’ve known in Texas. Several critics have commented on the polyglot nature of the cast, the Mexican-Americans, the Vietnamese, the Russian. And this is the world of Texas I know, full of immigrants, complex and fascinating.

How much research did you do before you began writing?

I did a great amount of reading on global warming and natural disasters, almost none of which appears on the page, but is important as background: for instance, I read Bill McKibben’s “The End of Nature,” Simon Winchester’s “Krakatoa,” David Keys’ “Catastrophe,” Eugene Linden’s “The Winds of Change” and “The Future in Plain Sight,” as well as many others. It’s important for a writer to know much more than ever appears on the page.

What is your writing routine?

I  try to write every day, although when I’m teaching that’s not the easiest thing to do. Generally I write the first draft out in longhand, keyboard that, then edit the keyboarded version. I wrote much of the novel’s final draft while on a writing fellowship in Austin, Texas, living on a ranch of the famous Texas writer J. Frank Dobie. That was a great experience: there was a beautiful creek near the ranch house, and my wife and I would write in the mornings, go swimming in the afternoons, have dinner in the yard, beneath the giant oak tree, which had a family of screech owls who would flutter and trill above our heads.

How did you get your start as a writer?

I didn’t write much until my senior year of college, and have been pretty consistent ever since. When I was about 24 I sent off one of my first stories to TriQuarterly, an excellent magazine, and they asked for a rewrite. I worked hard on that, all excited, and then they didn’t take it! But it did give me confidence that I had some ability, and I kept at it, and eventually, a few years later, began to publish fairly regularly.

What was your “big break”?

In grad school, while working on my PhD, I had a story accepted by The New Yorker. That was exciting. When they first called I thought it was a prank call by a cruel friend. Then the editor laughed and convinced me that yes, it was legit, and they wanted my story.

How long did it take before your first book was accepted and published?

My first novel, The Fire Eaters, was published in 1994, although it was actually accepted in 1992: there’s often a big of a lag time between when a book is purchased and when it actually appears. I was in my mid-thirties then. I heard someone once say that there’s usually a ten year “apprentice” period for writers of literary fiction, and I guess that’s pretty accurate for me.

What is the one piece of advice you have for fledgling writers?

Read. Read the best literature, and especially the best contemporary literature. Some of my favorite writers at this moment (the list is constantly changing) are Kent Haruf, William Gay, Pete Dexter, Cormac McCarthy. When I read a great book it compels me to write, to throw my hat in the ring. And speaking of throwing . . . . Throw away the cellphone. All that chatter seems to infect student fiction, and it’s often just pointless talk. Stories are about things happening, great description, amazing people, wild and memorable events. Chitchat is the death of all that.