I am excited to welcome author Elwin Cotman, who is getting ready to release his second novel, Hard Times Blues, the follow up to his first novel, The Jack Daniels Sessions EP.
A train-hopping couple discovers each other on a trip through the South—and discovers worlds beyond their own. Pulp archetypes collide in San Francisco. A sharecropper races to save his kin when the apocalypse comes to the Mississippi delta. Two young musicians discover the aural cure for their sick brother. A retail store finds that employing zombies is not as simple as it looks. Drawing inspiration from the Gothic, rock’n’roll, the Bible, and anime (to name a few), Cotman continues to redraw the map of the American fantastic.
On my story with the most drafts
My name is Elwin Cotman. I’m the author of The Jack Daniels Sessions EP, a story collection nominated for two 2011 Carl Brandon Awards. In two weeks (!) Six Gallery Press is releasing my second book, Hard Times Blues. This collection contains the story that I have written the most drafts of. No, I don’t know the actual count. All I know is that I have been revising it since the moment I started writing during a 2008 trip to Spain. And I’m still editing it. A few days ago, on the publisher’s recommendation, I took out a word.
That word: “harmless.” It had been in the story for years, two syllables I never thought of in my hundreds of rereads. My editor pointed out to me that the adjective’s use did not truly match up with my protagonist’s idea of what is harmless. One word, throwing off the characterization! Thankfully, he caught it, and the story is far better for it. That’s what a good editor does.
The story is called “The Elvis Room,” and it’s a prime example that you never know where inspiration leads you. I went to Spain as a gift to myself, and mostly stayed in Barcelona. I had dinner in anarchist squats. I drank wine with tapas in their dive bars. I checked out the Gaudi architecture. I met people from all over the planet. I visited El Alhambra. I saw the farmlands of southern Spain. A friend and I ran across downtown Barcelona so I could make it to my hostel by curfew. To complete my Spanish experience, I even got frisked by racist cops who must have mistaken me for a Moor, before they got the greater pleasure of oppressing a foreign black. During this time, I was reading Vampire Hunter D, the glorious purple prose of Hideyuki Kikuchi.
What does a diet of Spain and the ultimate anime hero yield? A story about train hoppers in the Southern US.
Thunder crashed. Within seconds it poured on them, the rain quickly filling their footprints in the mud. Taking Lindsay’s hand, Ren dashed for the shelter of the trees. Around the shopping center, down a flight of broken stone steps, green with moss, that descended into the valley. He spied a road at the bottom of the hollow, and the low, red-brick train bridge crossing over it. The track continued into the forest, disappearing among the raspberries. By the time they reached the asphalt, rain was falling like bullets. The oaks swayed over them like witches casting spells. Five long strides, and they were under the bridge, where the ceiling dripped with stalactites of congealed tar and the drop in temperature turned their panting breath to cottonballs. He pulled her in his arms to warm her. “We’re here,” she laughed, in a mix of relief and adrenaline, digging her fingers into his shoulders. “We exist, Ren. We are.” This he could do without fail: the split-second decisions that turned disaster to survival. They would wait out the storm and follow the tracks to the train yard. Ren considered sleeping on the rat-gnawed mattress piled with yellowing newspaper. Or the purple polyester couch missing one cushion, lethal-looking box springs exposed, the other cushion bleeding pink stuffing. So many roaches scuttled on the ceiling it seemed like the stone was moving. There they huddled, curtains of rain on either side. Mushrooms grew from the red dirt and he remembered sunlight on a cactus, the Baja Desert vast and elemental and wonderfully indifferent to mankind, until the hiss of a match igniting returned him to the present. Lindsay lit the half-smoked cigarette she kept behind her ear and, together, they finished it. Ren closed his eyes, meditated on the smell of wet earth, the crackle of burning tobacco paper. Passing the smoke back and forth, they shared its warmth like a kiss.
So I came back from Spain with a fully formed story having nothing to do with Spain. Simply traveling, breathing the new air and standing in the unfamiliar sun, got my creativity flowing. I considered “The Elvis Room” my “Charles de Lint” story: the Old World fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel mixed with the modern mythology of Elvis Presley. In this way, I considered it a concept piece. I was eager to send it to magazines.
Then I workshopped it. I workshopped it again. Friends across the country read it. Classmates at the University of Maryland and Mills College gave their feedback. Histories and events and characters and climaxes were created and discarded, discarded and reinserted. At least a hundred rewrites, some of which only had one word added/dropped/given a new tense. Character motivations, and even genders, changed in a story that never once exceeded thirty pages. The characters fleshed out. Slowly but surely, the cobwebs of what I thought the story was about were cleared, to unveil what it actually was. Not a concept piece, but something deeper.
At the counter sat a skinny old woman. He couldn’t bear to look at the shiny bric-a-brac on the shelf behind her, a mess of bugles and sad clown portraits and God-only-knew what else. One sardonic look from him made Lindsay stop gaping at it. The old woman took so long to stand up from her wicker chair that Ren felt sorry to bother her. She wore a baggy blue cotton dress, enough beads and gold chains around her neck that she looked like a jewelry stand. Her hair was iron-gray, with streaks of copper in the iron.
“So I’m guessing you’ll be wanting to see the Elvis Room,” she said.
I believe strongly in workshopping. I need that extra pair of eyes not only to catch mistakes, but to suggest new avenues I can take the story. Still, there comes a point where it gets ridiculous. Three or four years of revisions will do that. I was starting to hear the words of Magpie Killjoy, who was visiting writer at my old writers’ co-op: “How long have you been working on that? Dude, just publish it.”
Words of wisdom, indeed. Hard Times Blues is a collection of contemporary fantasy pieces. The Book of Revelations and all its characters visit upon a Southern hamlet during a time of flood. Two children attempt to heal their brother with music. The dead are resurrected and enslaved for the ultimate doom: retail. Old World mythology intersects with the modern mythology of Elvis Presley.
The years since Spain put the story in its absolute best form. Still, I hope no other tales I write take so long to reach that point.
Meet Elwin Cotman!
Elwin Cotman is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Jack Daniels Sessions EP. In 2005, he obtained his BA in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh, and received his MFA from Mills College in 2012. He is a former resident of the Cyberpunk Apocalypse Writers’ Cooperative. As a touring artist, he has read at venues across the country
Want to purchase Elwin’s novels?
The Jack Daniels Sessions EP