Local boy makes good fiction
Local author Christopher Coake represents at this year’s Books & Authors series
I met writer Christopher Coake for the first time on a Tuesday morning in February, but I liked him beforehand for a few solid reasons: He asked that the interview take place “anywhere that dispenses” coffee, he agreed to meet on a Tuesday morning, and he arrived on time—valiantly and, obviously, under the weather. The effect was to make him look the part of the tortured artist when, in fact, he turned out to be a composed and lucid commentator on his writing.
Meeting up with Coake is a luxury we all have, to a point. He teaches creative writing and composition courses at the University of Nevada, Reno and is now in his second year of helping local budding writers hone their craft. He is an author and instructor who deserves his diligent audience.
He came out of the gates impressively when his debut collection of short stories, We’re in Trouble, earned more than just high praise from the literary collective—it won him the 2006 PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship for Writers. Each year, this national literary prize is awarded to a fiction writer whose debut work “represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise.” Coake also has the distinction of being the only local speaker for this year’s Nevada Humanities’ Books & Authors series.
Coake’s stories, some of which have appeared in major journals and literature anthologies, including The Best American Mystery Stories 2004, don’t fit neatly into a thematic nutshell. There is, however, a mature and often grim stylistic voice holding them all together.
“I thought of the stories as being similar in tone and, in some cases, style,” he said. The sense of continuity that his collection provides has caused some reviewers to comment that We’re in Trouble reads more like a novel than a group of short stories. The length of the stories, which is no hindrance to the book, adds to this sense and makes Coake’s work feel unrelentingly intense at times.
“The question always came up, ‘Do these stories need to be 50 pages long?'” he said. “My defense was always that I don’t think of them as long stories. I think of them as really short novels, and that’s how I composed them.”
Picking the brain of a talented fiction writer is a boon enjoyed by Coake’s students, who take full advantage of the opportunity. Coake fields a lot of questions that revolve around the practical concerns of early publication. While encouraging them, he tries to give his students a dose of realism about the potential difficulties of getting in print.
“Usually, once a semester, we’ll sit down and talk about submitting stories to journals,” he said. “[My students] sometimes tell me it can be a little depressing because I have to be honest with them about how stories get published and about what the odds are. But I think it’s my duty as a teacher to let them know that, too.”
Since taking his post at UNR, Coake has been advising his students to persevere through inevitable rejection letters. He sees literary potential in his classes every semester.
“I’ve got writers at both the graduate and undergraduate level who are doing publishable work,” he said.
Coake is gratified by the fact that a few of his students have already had work accepted for publication, although he doesn’t take credit for their successes.
“On the one hand, I’m dealing with beginning writers who need guidance,” he explained. “They need to hear what a more experienced writer can bring to their stories. On the other hand, I don’t ever want to tell them not to write the story they want to write. I think that more people become writers by following their muse where it goes than by having someone crack a whip over them and say, ‘You can’t write your story about murder. You can’t write your story about science fiction, etc.'”
One of the tricks to getting published, according to Coake, lies in keeping hope alive.
“There are a lot of really talented writers who never end up making it,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just bad luck, and sometimes it’s because they just don’t have the stubbornness to keep putting their work in an envelope.”
Coake is taking his own advice about productivity and diligence. He’s currently at work on a historical novel set in a Colorado mining town. He hopes to finish the novel this year but is proceeding calmly.
“If there are days that I don’t end up sitting down with my writing, it’s OK,” he said. “I don’t feel terrible about that because writing means something to me, and I don’t ever want to put out a book that feels rushed.”
The sophistication of Coake’s writing is impressive. The fact that he happens to be readily accessible on campus is a happy accident for the Books & Authors series and for the community at large. Regarding his expectations for speaking to local audiences during the series, Coake said simply, “I just hope to give people something that they can take away with them.”
And then there were three
Two other talented writers will visit Reno and join Coake during Books & Authors.
Booking Alexie for the series was a coup in itself. But Steve Davis, one of the lead coordinators for the event, approached the author about doing more during his visit. And Alexie was, well, into it. The day after his Books & Authors presentation, he’s scheduled to spend the afternoon speaking to local Native American students.
“A writer at his level may often say, ‘I’m not willing to do more than just give my talk,’” said Davis. “But in his case, beyond graciously signing books and giving his talk, he wants to work with Indian students. He wants to give back to his community.”Davis has these laudatory words for the other guest in the series: “Sandra Steingraber, though her name is unknown to most people, has adopted the legacy of Rachel Carson.” Steingraber is an accomplished ecologist and author whose field of expertise lies in investigating the effects of environmental hazards on human health. Her books, Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment and Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood deal with issues relevant to any community but particularly one with first-hand knowledge of how insidious hazardous waste can be.
On March 6 and 7, Steingraber will address student and public audiences at both the TMCC and UNR campuses, as well as deliver a lecture to the area’s medical community. Davis expressed confidence that Steingraber’s talks will appeal to a wide range of people in the area—especially those interested in environmental studies, medicine and women’s issues.
“Not only is she a mother, but she is a mother who had cancer, who has written about her experiences,” said Davis. “That is a very important issue—the impact of environmental pollution on pregnancy.”
If there is a unifying theme for the Books & Authors series, it is arguably public interaction. All three of this year’s authors represent some of the most community-engaged writers that have ever visited. And for that, Reno is grateful.