Sunday, July 7, 2013

Cowboy hats and Coors Light: My exclusive interview with Chris Cope

- By Emma Carrbridge
Chris Cope stopped giving interviews about three years ago, which isn't terribly surprising for a person who has yet to do anything of note. That he was ever being interviewed at all is probably more a testament to the desperation of Welsh-language media than anything else. The last time he did an interview in English was roughly four years ago, when he inexplicably served as a guest on the Roy Noble programme. The general consensus is that the show's producers thought he was someone else.

Nonetheless, when Chris' publicist (Chris) informed me the struggling author was willing to sit down with me for an exclusive interview, I decided to take him up on the offer. I did this in part because we are old friends -- we have known each other since fourth grade, when my mother made me square dance with him at school -- and in part because, as a construct of Chris' imagination, I kind of didn't have any choice. (The aforementioned square dance experience actually happened to Los Angeles-based artist Erin Cooney, but Chris has imagined it into my own incongruous past.)

We meet on a sunny afternoon at a cafe in Penarth, the Victorian seaside village where Chris lives with his wife, Jenn. I am keen to ask about Jenn, of whom Chris hasn't spoken a great deal in public, as well as their exact relationship status, but first I am taken by his appearance. Wearing a white cowboy hat that reminds me of those satellite dishes they place on dogs to keep them from licking stitches, he greets me with a nod and a raised can of Coors Light.

I had heard about this. He is in danger of becoming a caricature.

"So, I guess we'll start with this," I say waving my hand at him as I reach into my purse for my notebook.

"What's this?" he asks, flapping his hands sarcastically but, in fact, correctly identifying the two things that are causing me the most concern.

He bought the hat as a joke a few years ago, when the two of us were tipsy on Summit at the Minnesota State Fair. He wears it now with increasing earnestness. When jokes become truths there is cause for concern. I suppose I can concede him this; it is an eccentricity in Britain and he has always sought to stand out in small ways. But the beer is unforgivable. Coors Light. So many previous incarnations of Chris Cope would be appalled.

"I guess it's a homesickness thing," he explains. "It's like those Irish guys you'll meet from time to time at Irish pubs in the United States. They're really, really, really Irish -- more so than anyone you'll ever meet in Ireland -- because they miss home so much. Their homesickness makes them a bit stupid and subconsciously eager to reinforce national stereotypes. So, I miss America; I'm drinking crappy beer and I've stopped reading challenging novels. I'm also considering the merits of libertarianism."

He flashes his charmingly crooked grin. I offer him the accepting roll of eyes I can tell he is seeking, but can't help fearing that such joking, like the cowboy hat, reflects something he is trying to say about himself honestly. He talks a lot about homesickness these days, almost the way a committed dieter talks about food: it is the alpha and omega of his thought process.

In our personal conversations he talks about it in such depth that I had hoped to ignore it in this interview. But I ask him, anyway. I ask if he feels it means something, if there is a reason he talks about homesickness so much.
"I can't help it," he says. "It just is. And it eats me up. It kills me. But I guess another part of me wants to hold on to it in some way. To remind me, you know?"

"Remind you of what?" I ask.

"Well, that I want to leave Wales, for one," he says. "I have to. I'm not happy here. Whatever I can be, I won't be that here. This place is wasted time now. But saying that, things are pretty comfortable at the moment. In most ways, better than they've been at any other time in the seven years I've lived here. We've got a flat we own. Some friends. Good jobs. And it's not just me. On my own, you know, hell, I'd live in a car. But it's 'we.' And if we were to leave right now, where would we go? Jobs? A house? There are a lot of stresses and unknowns Jenn and I would have to tackle. It just wouldn't be prudent to leave right now." 

I raise an eyebrow at the word "prudent." It is an old man's word. I sense Chris is using it deliberately, to convey a feeling of stodgy inadventure. He questions whether his declarations about prudence are relevant to him. 

"At the same time, I can't let myself fall into something," he says. "Some pattern. That inertia that is so prevalent here. I don't want to wake up one day, 60-something years old and living in a semi-detached house in Barry or Rogerstone or some fucking place and think: 'Oh my God. The one life I have and I've wasted so many years of it.'

"So, I guess I feel I need to hold on to it -- the homesickness -- to remind me: this is not my place. Build now. Build toward leaving. I tell myself I'll leave on my 10th anniversary of coming here. Or before. I hope. I don't know how realistic it is."

He takes a gentle sip of his beer.

"I saw this quote the other day from JP Morgan," he says. "'The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide that you are not going to stay where you are.' I need to remember that. I've made my decision: I'm not going to stay in Wales. I need to hold to it."

Chris' confused and acrimonious attitude toward Wales is another thing I had hoped to avoid in this interview. His tone toward the UK region reminds me of a boyfriend I dated in college: silly and embittered. The boyfriend was in a band of sorts and after we broke up he produced an entire album highlighting everything he perceived to be a fault. Honestly, one of the songs was titled: "Red-Headed Girl Who Doesn't Know How to Eat Spaghetti the Right Way."

I decide to change the subject.

"Tell me about the motorcycle thing," I say.

Chris' eyes light up and he begins rambling off makes and models of motorcycles -- an indecipherable babble of letters and numbers that somehow have meaning to him. It is all stuff I have heard many times before, of course. And there are times I feel there is a little too much cowboy hats and Coors Light to it all. But on the other side, a motorcycle is just a machine -- a means of transportation. And zeal for that fits with the Chris I've always known. When we were teens, one of his measures for self worth was his ability to drive a car.

He didn't fill his head with facts and figures about cars in those days, nor keep a blog about them. But perhaps that is only because we didn't have the internet. No one knew what a blog was, and the only way to learn about things in those days was to go to the library -- a place Chris visited less often (and less enthusiastically) than the dentist.

Besides, he has always been a person of intensity. If he loves you, he loves you A LOT. Which allows me to finally steer the conversation to Jenn. For all Chris' lamenting of Wales, it is here that he met his wife. And, yes, "wife" is correct.

"Yeah, a lot of people have been confused by that because our wedding isn't until late July," he explains. "We were officially married back in November [2012], but it was a small thing."

Chris and Jenn wed on the weekend of Bonfire Night, primarily to avoid immigration issues that would have cropped up had they waited until their wedding date. However, they kept the summer wedding planned for the sake of Chris' friends and family. Most of us live thousands of miles away and some would not have been able to attend the November wedding on such relatively short notice.

"So, then I didn't really talk much about getting married because I didn't want people to not come to the actual wedding," he says. "That's what this wedding is to me -- the one coming up -- that's the actual wedding. Because it's about everyone being there and me saying, in front of all the people I care about: 'This is the woman I love.' I wanted them to be there for that. And I didn't want them to think it's not important just because Jenn and I will already have been officially married."

His shoulders drop a little and he lets out a breath. Staring at the Coors Light can and thumbing the opened pull tab, he says: "But I guess I feel kinda stupid about that now. 

"Because, you know, first, I was finding myself sort of censoring Twitter updates, or what have you, not saying how awesome Jenn is. Because I didn't want to give away that we were married. But that's stupid. Hiding it. As if I was embarrassed or something. No. I should have owned it. I should have been shouting it."

I point out that this closemouthed behaviour is more in conjunction with the overall way in which he deals with Jenn on his blog. In comparison with so many other things, he doesn't seem to discuss her much.

"Because it's not a story," Chris says. "Jenn isn't a character and our being in love isn't a narrative. I have a tendency to treat my life otherwise, to give people nicknames and so on, and sometimes I've looked back and wished I hadn't shared that much. It's an odd thing for me, because I am such a fan of oversharing. I'll talk for as long as a person wants to listen, and then a few hours more. But a relationship -- that's not for someone else. It's not created."

I ask him about that which he does create: his writing. Late last year, Chris completed work on a book that at the time he claimed was the best thing he had ever written. A single literary agent in the United States chose to give it a pass and he seems to have been stalled ever since.

"I still believe in that book," he says. "I still think it's the best thing I've written. I don't know why I'm sitting on it."

Here he meanders into postulation that Wales is somehow to blame. I let the tangent run its course and steer him back to the issue of his writing career.

"I tell myself that I want to find an agent in the UK," he says. "I think that's possible, but first I need to readjust the book for a UK audience. There's no heavy lifting; it's just a matter of taking out references to corn dogs. Stuff like that."

"What book did you write that it was so corn-dog centric?" I ask.

"They're an important part of American literature," he jokes. "But, yeah, honestly, that's the point. There's not a lot of work to be done. But for some reason I'm not doing it. I got really, really down when my former agent gave the book a pass. But, you know, that was months ago and every writer has to face rejection. I know that in order to get this book published I will have to overcome a hell of a lot more rejection. And maybe that's part of the laziness. Both those things. First, there was the severe depression I was suffering through the winter -- every year it gets worse, this whole homesickness thing. And secondly, there is an exhaustion that comes from thinking about the mountain I have to climb. I know I can climb it, but thinking about it makes me tired."

Chris has unwittingly touched upon one of the greatest frustrations of being his friend: he can "climb the mountain" but too often does not. Even this might be tolerable were he not so accutely aware of his own failings. Listening to someone rigorously identify each and every one of his weaknesses, yet fail to correct them grows exhausting after a few decades.

At the same time, his self-assessment is often unrealistically harsh. He seems to lament the fact that he is not a kind of eccentric renaissance genius.

"I suppose that's true," he says. "I've always wanted to be Johnny On The Spot for all things. Everything that can be done well is a thing I wish I could do. That would be my super power: the ability to do All the Things. Write novels, fix cars, throw baseballs, plant tress, whatever. I wish I could be good at all of it."

Admittedly, I can do all those things. I also have six Olympic gold medals, a Congressional Medal of Honor, and I frequently receive love letters from both Brad Pitt and Charlize Theron. But mine is a unique case. I point out to Chris that, unfortunately, the human corporeal experience is finite. Because of that, perhaps it is best to pick a few things and actually do them.

"Be a good husband," I say. "Be a good writer. Lay the groundwork that will allow you to leave Wales comfortably. Work on those things. Make them happen. Don't just say; do. Accept that you will never throw a baseball well and instead be the man you can be."

He looks at me. I frown because I've been drawn into lecturing him again.

"OK. I will," he says. "But I'm keeping the cowboy hat."

~ EC ~

-- Emma Carrbridge is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who is, in fact, a figment of Chris Cope's imagination. Partially his alter ego, partially a reflection of his own aspirations and partially the representation of his nebulous and impossible vision of a perfect woman, she is the author of 11 best-selling novels. She speaks seven languages and is the great-granddaughter of Cary Grant.

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