'It's weird when everyone decides one person is cool, don't you think? I'm suspicious of that.' James Withers talks to Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes author, T Cooper, about writing, reading, coolness, Jennifer Aniston, and why boy bands should never reform.
T Cooper takes on two of America's 20th century icons, Charles Lindbergh and Eminem in Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes. The novel, based on an actual event in the Cooper clan, traces the history of the Lipshitz family, beginning in Russia at the height of the 1903 pogroms and ending with the last surviving member, who earns a living on the New York bar mitzvah circuit impersonating the Real Slim Shady (something that, for some reason, irks me to no end).
While different in scope from Cooper's first book Some of the Parts (published by Akashic Books), Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes deals with what a scholar would call Cooperian themes. Namely the value of the real and what constitutes family and personal identity (with a little pop culture thrown into the mix). PopMatters chatted with Cooper on his book, these themes, and other things.
This is your second book, but you are with a bigger publisher this time. What are the pluses and minuses of moving away from an independent press to a more mainstream one?
I feel like I learned so much the last time being published by the small press Akashic -- had a hand in almost every aspect of creating the first book, from inception to design, publication to promotion. I'm actually doing another book with Akashic, coming out in August, (co-editing a fiction anthology called A Fictional History of the United States With Huge Chunks Missing). But I definitely put in my time with the first novel, often making phone-calls and booking events under the name "Catherine," the freelance Akashic publicist. So things are definitely different at a larger publisher, and I'm enjoying learning about this whole other side of things, and seeing what can happen when I have time to put my energy into other places on behalf of the book. I think my books have found their rightful homes, and I truly believe my two publishers have found and will continue to find their appropriate audiences. I just hope I'm lucky enough that each of my future projects lands in the right place.
Are you worried that some readers will be searching for facts/hints about you because the genesis of the novel is from your life?
I'm not too worried about that, I mean, it's a work of fiction, so there's not much that can be misconstrued in a negative way. The only truly autobiographical part of the story comes from something that happened to my relatives, not me, and that's the lost child. My grandmother's brother disappeared when the family landed at Ellis Island, and they never saw him again. There are a few other details from my family that are also true (my grandmother's and grandfather's life in Amarillo, Texas). And there are a few scattered, playful uses of so-called "facts" in the modern section of the novel -- but for the most part, this is a novel, and I'm calling it a novel, not "A Million Little Jewish Pieces."
Now we both know you can't bring up the reference and not have me ask you what you think about the whole James Frey episode?
I'm so sick of that clown, I shouldn't have brought it up. Is it too late to take it back?
Which character in your new novel worries the most and why?
I think they're all worriers to a certain extent. And wait, am I counted in this, like because there's a character who shares my name? Because if so, then I'm the biggest worrier. And why? Because I can't help it; I come from a long line of worriers. And come to think of it, so does he.
What character do you like the most and why?
C'mon now, I like all my characters equally. You have to, or they're no good. But if you're asking who I'd most like to have a cup of coffee with? That's hard, but I'd have to say Sam, the character based on my grandfather, who died well before I was born. I only heard stories about him -- how he won his jewelry business in a poker game, ran off with the circus when he was a boy. In fact, I learned more about him through the newspaper articles and advertisements from the Amarillo local papers than from any family member who actually knew him. He's a smooth fella.
T Cooper in the book is a bit nasty and I have to say I don't like him. What about him am I missing or don't get?
I don't think all readers must like all characters. As a reader myself, I think it's boring if all characters are immediately "likable." It's fine to have some universally likable characters, I suppose, but it's weird when everyone decides one person is cool, don't you think? I'm suspicious of that; it's like, Jennifer Aniston or something.
What? No love for Jennifer? Even with her Brad heartbreak?
I'm just saying, she's like a golden retriever -- cute and well groomed and with soft hair and nice and stuff, but otherwise, just whatever, blah, right down the middle. As for T Cooper the character, I actually like him, despite the crudeness and misogyny, which I think are just further playful aspects of his "performance," both on stage and off. It makes sense you don't like T Cooper if you don't get or like Eminem. As with Eminem, I think there's a soft spot and sweetness to T beneath all the tough-guy exterior, a guy searching for depth and answers to questions that most raging, shut-down men don't allow themselves to plumb. He loves his wife, even though it scares him to death. He wants to consider very seriously whether or not to have a child, to bring another life into a world that has been so terrible to the many generations of his family that came before him. He's incredibly sensitive, just trying to figure out why he is the way he is. To me, that's something everyone can relate to, even if it's not always "likable."
The T Cooper character in Lipshitz Six does the bar mitzvah circuit as an Eminem impersonator. Does he realize the irony of that? I mean why does Slim Shady connect with so many white folk? Is he the Glenn Miller of today? And yeah I'm showing my age.
I've been known ride the "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" every once in a while, so how old does that make me? I don't know what to say about Eminem, for myself or the T Cooper character. I think you either accept the irony and alternate personality that he uses to make his cultural critiques, or you don't. I happen to be on the side of accepting it. Sure there's some supposedly "hateful" stuff there, but I believe he's a whip-smart guy who knows precisely what he's doing. He's a brilliant lyricist who cracked open the hip-hop world by using himself (who knows how much it's his "real" self), as his primary palette, and that is always interesting to me, even if at this point it's unclear where he'll go from here. And the fact that he's a white dude? What can I possibly say that hasn't already been said about that? Just know that T Cooper the character (and of course T Cooper the author), "gets" the irony you're speaking of, and is using it in a conscious and deliberate way -- somewhat like Eminem does, which is part of the point.
The Lipshitz family seems to obsess over blonde men, from Lindbergh to Eminem; however, both men are utterly different. Or are they?
Didn't you read the book? There's an actual frigging chart in there, laying out how they are similar -- or as similar as icons from these two eras can be. They both have serious mother issues, fathers who left or died, both married the first women they had sex with, both claim to hate the fame thrust upon them (but also use it to their advantage), and both have adversarial relationships with the press. People have speculated that both are gay, need I go on?
Basically, what strikes me is that "everyman" quality of both Lindbergh and Eminem as iconic figures of their respective eras. In a way it was more innocent in the '20s, this hero-worship aspect, whereas with Eminem, he's more of an anti-hero. And yet it ends up that all the supposed hate that Eminem spews and so many people identify with is a million times less sinister and dangerous than what Lindbergh came to represent through his admiration of Nazi Germany and rabid isolationism in the years leading up to the war.
Last question: If the Jackson Five can do a reunion tour, is it too much to hope for a Backdoor Boys reunion (Cooper was the founding member of "The Backdoor Boys" performance troupe)?
Any sort of boy band reunion is, without fail, a disaster -- yes, including the Jacksons. Did you see how terrible the Backstreet Boys' new album was last year, the one they put out after they pretty much said they were through a few years back? And you don't see Justin crawling back to *NSYNC after going solo. That would be career suicide, dude, and I'm not having it.