Friday, March 25, 2011

Interview with Cole Alpaugh

First, two disclaimers. First, Cole and I share an agent who alerts her writers when a new book comes out. Second, I loved the The Bear in a Muddy Tutu, but it's really not for everyone. If you peek into Cole's web site, you'll see what I mean. It's captioned "stories from the other side of normal."

I reached out to Cole and asked if I could interview him. He was gracious and answered the following set of questions.

I saw some similarities with the classic Broadway musical, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Both Billy Wayne and J. Pierrepont Finch are both opportunistic hustlers. Did you have that musical in mind when you had Billy Wayne find How to Become a Cult Leader in 50 Easy Steps?
Wait, am I giving off a Broadway musical fan vibe again? Jeez, wear your wife's clothes to Pizza Hut once and look what happens? Actually, I've photographed that play a few times at high schools, but never paid attention to the story. I suppose the idea behind Billy Wayne's inspirational book comes from late night television infomercials. Wouldn't it be an awesome world if even a tenth of those advertisements were true? You'd have the laziest men on earth zooming around in Ferrari 250 GTO's, with thick braids of newly grown hair trailing behind...and I'd be one of them.

I like the way you break narrative rules and show us the story from the point of view of different characters. What gave you the idea to have an old, toothless dancing bear tell her story herself?
Thanks, but I think it's pretty easy to slip into the brain of an old dancing bear if you take some things for granted, such as emotions being fleeting things. She might be jealous or angry, but only briefly. Gracie is child-like and innocent, despite the years of beatings. And like a child, she lives in the moment. If she's getting her good spots scratched, the world is wonderful. If she sees seagulls fighting over some stinking carcass, it's even better.

Some of your characters, Flat Man and Lightning Man, seem to have no peers in fiction. How did you come up with their characters?
I spent a lot of time working in Third World countries looking for newspaper and magazine feature stories. You don't need to be terribly creative, only observant and not too squeamish. Ever see what people are willing to pierce then hang things from?

How long did it take from novel concept to finished product?
The first draft took three months, then another six of polish and re-polishing. It was sandwiched between two other manuscripts.

Some of us are 10-draft writers, others 20-draft writers. How many drafts did you write?
I suppose you'd consider it five drafts. I queried after a third draft, then track changes from my agent and editor essentially accounted for two more drafts. I have a writing partner, the lovely and talented Regan Leigh, but we only do limited beta reading for one another. In other words, this MS kind of just fell out of me without a lot of struggle.

Did you have to do much research to enter the magical world of the story?
Ha, yes, by raising two girls who demanded to be told original stories. Creating a world of talking birds was very satisfying with the kind of feedback they gave. But my appreciation of animals began on a much different track. My father was a prolific big game hunter, who tried his best to encourage me to take up arms against anything wild and potentially edible. It seems a little crazy now, but I grew up with a gun rack over my bed, a nightstand drawer filled with Buck knives. Not finding joy in killing things, I was an utter disappointment to my father during the various hunting seasons. Luckily, we had baseball season together. That was a time of truce that I'm grateful for because he's a really good guy and a helluva shot.

I particularly liked Lennon Bagg. Did the confusion in his name (supposed to be Lenin; came out Lennon) help you shape the behavioral traits of this character?
Yes, Lennon Bagg was to be named for the Russian Marxist revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin, by his father. Lennon Bagg grew up in a commune, which shaped his very empathetic view on the world. While Bagg is a passive, non-revolutionary man, his upbringing instilled a somewhat unique view of the human condition. There is a great deal of self-sufficiency for people in traveling circuses and the communes of the 1960s and 70s, although both ways of life were very difficult. Lennon Bagg looked beyond the dirt and smells, the ragged clothing and bad teeth. There's a very dancing bear-like innocence to Lennon Bagg. Instead of a good spot to be scratched, he just needs to hold his daughter to be happy.

Did you ever want seriously to run away and join a circus?
Not the circus specifically, but going to work for photo agencies was similar in many ways. Lousy pay, always traveling, and trying to perform an art. I love the circus, though. Especially the small troupes that travel across Southeast Asia. Talk about magical, they are like mini versions of Cirque du Soleil who perform for pennies or food. Actually, they perform because it's what their families have been doing for six and seven generations. It's who they are.

What are you writing now?
It's a story about a gifted program teacher at a rural high school. It begins on the first day of school, when one of his students has been chased up the wrestling team's climbing rope and falls to his death...a comedy, but not exactly lighthearted.

Last question: What are the last three books you read that you didn't write? And why did you read them?
I recently finished Tim Dorsey's Hurricane Punch, a comic novel about a serial killer caught up in hurricane season. I really liked the energy and frantic pace of the story. Another was Mister Pip, by Lloyd Jones, because I'm attracted to novels set on Pacific islands. I'm not a fan of the last forty pages, but it's a beautiful story and the violence is raw and perfect. And I just reread John Irving's The Water-Method Man, something I do about every two years. Irving has a way of developing characters that's unequaled.

If I haven't asked a question you want answered, please add whatever you would like here.
I was just kidding about wearing a dress to Pizza Hut. Not that there'd be anything wrong with it...

The Bear in a Muddy Tutu is available from Amazon in paperback and on Kindle.

If you read my blog post reviewing Cole's book and liked it, please "Share" it on Facebook. Ditto this interview. All writers have to support each other.


  1. Brilliant as always, Mr. Alpaugh. You're a very entertaining writer, which is good because that's the point, right? Great questions, Betsy! Kudos to you for coming up with fascinating and original topics.

  2. Great interview with insightful questions and visionary answers. Cole, I love your outlook. Now on to fab to share/like your link.

  3. It was Cole's opening chapter to BEAR (an older version) that made it obvious to me he was an amazing writer. Then I tied him to a chair and told him to write with me. :D It is a wonderful book.

  4. Regan, you are both so lucky to have found such a partnership. I tried one, but the other "writer" was more interested in thinking about writing than doing the hard work of writing. I can't wait for Cole's next effort. I'll be preordering it on Amazon, just like I did Bear.

  5. Cole tried to "grouch" at me, Vonnie, when I left the quote in about wearing a dress to Pizza Hut. Too bad. I had editorial control. Besides, what he said makes me know him better as a person. Enjoy the weekend.

  6. All I try to do, Rhiannon, is open a door to the writer behind the words. Some responses are better than others. Cole's belong in a MasterCard commercial -- priceless.

  7. Thank you, Betsy, it was fun. And thanks for the kind words, folks.

    BTW, Betsy, the word verification below this box says "luvdrano"

    It's crazy, 'cause I really do!