Aesthetically Speaking: C.S.E. Cooney

Today’s Aesthetically Speaking interviewee is a published author and writer of many things, from novels to poems, plays to blog posts. I especially appreciate the honesty of how tough it is to find good readers of your writing, who you can trust and whose advice you can take. Thanks for sharing, C.S.E.!

What is your name and city of residence?
C.S.E. Cooney, almost-formerly-of-Chicago. Soon to be “Somewhere, Rhode Island.” I’m moving in a few weeks, east. 

What medium do you work in?
Words! Stories, novels, poetry, plays, reviews, blogs, whatever!

Jack o the Hills book cover CSE Cooney

Jack o' the Hills

How often do you work on your art–is it a full-time endeavor or something you work on in your spare time?
It’s like a second job that wants to be my first job. Nights and weekends sort of thing. These days, writing is not so much an escape from the day-job, as it is that the day-job (and everything else) serves the writing. 

How does art fit into your life, in general? Is it something you think about and talk about every day, or every week, or only in certain situations, etc.?
It’s the sort of thing that creeps into almost every conversation. The sort of thing where you’re babbling at someone about whatever book you’re reading, story you’re writing, writing convention you’ve just gone to, this new writer you’re corresponding with, this play of yours that you’ve just seen produced, and thinking, “Is this all I ever talk about? Am I more boring than any bore that ever lived? Talk about something else. Talk about that Wampug you just saw on YouTube…” 


But there’s this: whatever else I talk about — movies, science, that creep on the train, the etymology of the word “yawn” — there’s a voice in the back of my head that says, “Remember this. Use it in a story.”

When you start on a piece, what kind of end result do you have in mind? Does it get performed or published, put in a permanent form or is it more temporary?
I write short stories with the idea of submitting them as soon as possible. They have to accumulate a number of both drafts and rejection slips before they’re either trunked for good or finally accepted somewhere. 

Sometimes an idea starts out a poem, morphs into a play, and then it turns out it’d make a better story. I rarely know this starting out. Some ideas require many structures before its ultimate shape is refined.

Plays I either write for fun, or competitions, or festivals. I usually write them only if someone out there’s interested in something from me specifically. But there have been a few cases of me waking up in the morning and saying, “I’m gonna write a play today.” No one wants them necessarily, but at least I had fun pulling them out of the ether for their own sakes and no one else’s.

Poetry is usually a visceral reaction I have to something. Either that, or I stumbled onto a moment I want frozen in all its glorious hyperbole. Those times I’m feeling something strongly I may never feel again, something effervescent in its novelty, I’ll try and capture to examine more closely later. And also to show it off… My wild menagerie of past experiences.

With novels, I don’t know — I’ve not had one published yet. With the one I’m working on now, a fantasy called Shadowstalkers, the end in sight is, “Finish the danged thing, go on a Great Agent Quest, and then from there we’ll see.” I’m fewer than 100 pages away from writing The End on this present draft.

What goals do you set in relation to your art, both short- and long-term? Is it something you hope to make money doing, or is it something you want to keep uncommercialized? Does the term “sell-out” hold meaning for you or do you see the art/commerce relationship as a necessary one?
I certainly want to make money with my writing. The times I already have are kind of addictive. The trick is getting the production and quality up to a level where my earnings from the writing are at least as consistent at whatever day-job I’m working in order to eat and pay rent while writing. I may never get there. It’s a goal, anyway.

I hate the term “sell-out.” What does that even mean? Producing something you hate for loads of cash? If that’s what a “sell-out” does, then I couldn’t do it. Just judging from past day jobs: if I’m in a position I consider toxic, I quit — for my own health’s sake, which I value. I want to wake up and like myself. It’d be great to wake up, like myself, and make money too. I don’t mind compromise or flexibility. I often don’t even know my own boundaries until I come smack up against them. I try to keep an open mind until confronted with an ethical crisis, and make my decision then.

Also, just because I create something, recognize that it’s well-constructed, and even publish it — that doesn’t mean it’s good art.  I have failed at making the kind of art I want to make — failed spectacularly. Sometimes it’s not possible to recognize that something is a splattering huge mess when you’re right in the middle of it, looking out. Someone might come along and point out this huge, raw flaw you’d never intended, never in a million years, and you wish you could take it all back and put it down somewhere in the dark, but it’s out in the world now. You suck it up. Learn something about yourself and the world you live in. What it makes you. What you make of it.You just learn from it, try not to do it again, and hopefully do something better with the next project.

Every story I write seems to require something utterly different from me than the last.  I have to learn a whole new skill set with each thing I write. It’s completely fascinating, but I hardly ever feel like I know what I’m doing. I’m trying to become more conscious of my process, without stymying the process. That gets tricky. But it’s never boring.

The Big Bah-Ha by C.S.E. Cooney book cover

The Big Bah-Ha

What role does collaboration with others play in your art, if any?
Well, you can’t have theatre without collaboration. That’s a given. So, with a play — collaboration’s built in. Actors might give a script a read, directors will piece it apart, everybody’s input informs the next draft. The script often morphs during the rehearsal process. So far, that’s been my experience. My experience is pretty limited. 

But stories, at least in the initial stages, are more personal. For myself, I have a handful of friends, who are all writers or editors at varying levels of their career — from award-winning, published novelists to people like me who’ve only just traded their apprenticeship for journeyman’s rank — and I often send them early drafts of things for their critique.

There’s much trial and error involved in this. Trust must be built up over time. Few people come through the crucible of this process, but those who do I value highly. I have to be careful to whom I send a story, because a certain kind of criticism too early, or given tactlessly, can ruin my enthusiasm for months. Some friends I can take a pummeling from and bounce up grinning. Some friends, even at their gentlest, slay my desire to create. It’s not their fault, or mine. It’s simply a matter of personalities.

After a draft is done, of course, and a story is submitted, it takes a small army of slush readers, associate editors, editors, designers, and artists to put together a magazine. Without them, I’m just a writer with a few thousand words in a Microsoft Document.

How conscious are you of your artistic influences? Who are your artistic influences?
Pretty conscious, I’d say. Stephen Sondheim, Caryl Churchill, Shakespeare, Ogden Nash, Dorothy Dunnett, Gene Wolfe (probably him above all, as he’s been my mentor since I was 18 years old), Robin McKinley, Patricia McKillip, Victor Hugo, Flaubert, the Brontës, Jane Austen, Lois McMaster Bujold, Neil Gaiman, Stephanie Shaw, Alexandre Dumas, Lloyd Alexander, Tolkien and Lewis, Diana Wynne Jones, Georgette Heyer, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Elizabeth Peters, Ursula K. LeGuin, Octavia E. Butler, Shirley Jackson, James Enge, Pablo Neruda, Peter S. Beagle, Stephen King… Can you tell I’m mainly a Fantasy writer? 

Since this is a travel blog, how does travel relate to or affect your art? (Themes in what you produce, road trips to perform your music, thoughts on what happens to your painting when you ship it across the country to a customer, etc.)
Much of the traveling I’ve done in the last nine years has been to writing conventions. That’s where you meet folks in your field. That’s where you meet your influences, hear them read out loud and answer interview questions and shake their hands. It’s where they become human. And suddenly you think, “If they can do it, I can do it.” 

Road trips — especially with other writer friends — to these sorts of things are where character, plot and story are all born.

There’s something about movement, the freedom of the road, really late nights in highway darkness, that get all the good weird stuff of the soul stirred up. There’s also a great deal of history moving outside your window. The good, the bad, the pretty and the ugly all buried in that landscape with the bones. Horizons you’ve never seen. Roads you’ve never traveled. Music on your friend’s iPod you’d never listen to on your own. Really vulgar jokes. Weird roadside pranks. All of it full of story.

There’s a reason there’s a whole genre of novels called “picaresque.”

And finally, a right-brain question: If your art was a map, what would it be a map of?
You know those ragged, half-scorched parts of ancient maps that say “Here Be Monsters”? Everything beyond that. 

If you’d like, share your website/Facebook page and any upcoming gigs/plans you’d like readers to know about.
I keep a blog at On my profile page is everything I’ve done writing-wise and where to find it. 

If you want to buy my book “Jack o’ the Hills,” being two stories in one of a very twisted fairy tale, check out Papaveria Press.

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