An Anarchist Fairytale
Initially, I had been wary about opening Cotman’s email. The email’s title implied that it was a response to a Craigslist ad I had posted as a director of a non-profit arts festival. I knew from personal experience that both timid perverts and innovative artists alike lurk on CL. Which would respond when was always a toss-up. But, eh, I shrugged, there was no harm in reading an email.
Cotman had visited the art festival’s website and was disappointed that he had missed the annual event. He asked if he could participate next year. So far, so good. I kept reading.
Then Cotman said he was touring across the South with his in-development book. He did not know anyone in Richmond, but, after noticing that I went to school there and checking out my work online, wanted to know if I’d read with him. Pure courtesy and nothing about nude photos. My CL fears rapidly subsiding, I said ‘yes.’
At this point, I still did not know Cotman or his work. After discussing the logistics of scheduling the reading, we did not further correspond. Our reading was still a couple of months away at that point. I took a chance on a potentially mediocre writer, but the risk paid off. On July 31, 2010, Elwin Cotman read excerpts from The Jack Daniel Sessions EP at Chop Suey Books in Carytown, and I was astounded. Aliens and anarchists interacting in a way that makes sense? Wow. This was a first-time-soon-to-be-published-author? Double wow.
I arrived at Chop Suey about thirty minutes before the reading. Looking like a packrat, I was holding boxes full of art prints and comics to sell after the reading. I threw them down with a sigh of relief, nervously re-positioned the chairs in the room and sat down. Cotman came maybe ten minutes later.
Somehow, from the moment I saw him, I perceived his vast sensitivity. I would later see that same sensitivity in his writing, when he was able to inhabit the minds of both children and supernatural creatures. Cotman had the aura of one of those rare people who’s capable of both thinking and feeling profoundly. Maybe agreeing to this reading wasn’t the worst idea, after all. I could learn from this fella.
Cotman is not a tall man or big in any sense of the word’s physical definitions, but he is striking. He has pecan skin with cinnamon freckles and a deep auburn mini-afro. At the time, Cotman was clean-shaven. A smile rested naturally on his face. Despite the fact that he had been traveling for a while at that point, he dressed sharply, with a crisp white dress shirt, formal pants, and a feathered fedora.
Immediately, Cotman spoke kindly and evenly. After politely introducing ourselves, we discussed how to split up our reading time and soon started to address our modest audience.
I gathered then what I know for certain now that I have had a chance to read Jack Daniels from cover to cover. The book is riveting, engaging, a page-turner—whatever best translates into ‘a flurry of fascinating subjects, themes, emotions, and conflicts.’ Think ghosts, teen angst, racism, poverty, Adams Morgan, virginity, harpies, the Bible, World War I, and far more. Jack Daniels features five stories: “Safe Space,” “When the Law Come,” “Dead Teenagers,” “How Brother Roy Lost His Dog, Twice,” and “Assistant.” While their characters are rich and varied, all of the stories exemplify Cotman’s strong hold of concepts involving the imaginary, the nostalgic, and the otherworldly.
Michael S. Begnal, author of Ancestor Worship, put his praise of Jack Daniels as such:
“Cotman’s interests are wide-ranging: Punk rock intersects with D.C.’s Dominican community, African-American folktale intersects with Greek myth, Goth teen suburban angst in 1990s Ohio sits side by side with racist atrocity in the pre-Civil Rights South . . . Yeah, there’s magic in some of these stories, but the real magic is in Cotman’s words themselves—stark and deadpan one moment, lushly descriptive the next.”
“Safe Space” and “Dead Teenagers” take place in the 1990s, whereas the rest of the stories take place from the 1920s to 60s. The former use modern and fairly Standard English sprinkled with some punky terms and numerous musical references. Punk music is clearly important to Cotman and his characters. During our February phone interview, he described music in general as “an incredibly cerebral art form” and explains that he is “intensely jealous of anyone who plays an instrument.”
But words are Cotman's instruments. There is certainly nothing awkward about the way he employs them, either. “When the Law Come,” “How Brother Roy Lost His Dog, Twice,” and “Assistant” all make eloquent and often humorous yet touching use of poor, unlearned African-American dialect. The diction is powerful and the stories themselves are magnetic.
While I could not choose a favorite story in the book, the one that most resonates with me is “Assistant.” This is most likely because it is the longest and therefore the most absorbing. It is hard to forget 64 enthralling pages about a young black boy whose job it is to collect the inner-children of those who have died and lead them to the afterlife at the same time that he is witnessing the horrific effects of white Southern racism on his share-cropping community.
Cotman is not an autobiographical writer, but he pays tribute to the adage of 'writing what you know.' The story "Dead Teenagers," for instance, evolved out of a stint in high school detention (but it was "not cool like 'Breakfast Club,' he quipped over a siren). A decade ago, he was sitting next to a girl who had recently broken up with his friend. That same girl was mourning the loss of a classmate who had just died in a moped accident. It was an incident that had affected everyone in his class, but this girl seemed particularly shaken. Cotman snatched up that real-life instance of drama and made it his own, ghosts and all.
"A fairytale is a very stripped-down kind of story,” Cotman said in his authoritative yet unobtrusive way. “Fairytales are about getting caught up in the storytelling.”
He went on to say that while myths are common to all societies, that does not make them trite. It makes them relevant to all of humanity. “The state of fantasy literature is very exciting right now,” he gushed (but only a little), “because people are reinventing old myths.” Again, Cotman spoke almost as if he did not include himself in this pool of incredibly gifted people. Yet to think of him as a non-member would be a huge mistake.
On a note aside from Cotman’s captivating writing, it would also be unforgivable to forget the illustrations in Jack Daniels. While not responsible for their creation, Cotman thought very carefully about which artist he would choose to visually interpret his stories. He eventually picked Rachel Dorrett, a native of Baltimore who, like Cotman, adores fantasy-based work.
As a whole, Cotman truly values collaboration between writers and other artists. He believes that "any kind of art you do is storytelling” and champions "the ability to meld different art forms” as “amazing." From now on, he intends to have an artist illustrate every one of his books. Cotman definitely wants to include more song and music in his readings, too.
With the sounds of San Francisco traffic blaring as he pauses to think, Cotman overshadowed the noise with, "It's really easy for people to lose interest if you're just reading at them." (As if to say his words were merely words.)
Even as a boy, Cotman was interested in collaboration and experimenting with other art forms. He and his younger sister would launch into oral fan fiction using characters from their favorite Judy Blume books. His father gave him a typewriter to play with and read young Elwin stories as he punched at its keys. Meanwhile, his mother gave him cassettes and Cotman used them to record the stories he made up throughout the day.
Cotman also thanks his family for introducing him to so many books, movies, and TV shows as a child. Cotman’s welding of magic, history, and anarcho-punk culture stem from his early loves of everything from Tolkein to Scorcese to The Cure to Nintendo and more—as long as a good story was involved.
As Cotman aged, he refined his tastes and honed his storytelling. At age 12, he won a poetry contest judged by August Wilson. Throughout high school, he took journalism classes. Then in 2003, he enrolled at The University of Pittsburgh and eventually graduated with a degree in Fiction Writing.
From there he had many adventures in Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, and San Francisco, hopping between the three areas whenever he saw fit. While he recently completed his third semester at Mills College, Cotman began his M.F.A. at the University of Maryland. He was also, at one point, the writer-in-residence at The Cyberpunk Apocalypse Writer’s Project in Pittsburgh. Cotman has been, according to the biography printed at the end of Jack Daniels, “a Wal-Mart employee, bookseller, middle school teacher, youth counselor and ESL instructor.” Each job allowed him to do what he treasures most: write.
In 2009, Cotman launched an ambitious series of readings in Pittsburgh. The one that made a professional difference happened in an art gallery called Modern Formations. It was there that Che Elias, publisher and editor of Six Gallery Press, heard him read. Then and there, Elias asked him if he had a book in the works. The answer was yes and—boom!--that project was Jack Daniels.
Remarkably, the oldest story in Jack Daniels dates back to 2003, which Cotman began as a college freshman, whereas the newest one was born in 2008, not too long before Six Gallery Press took notice of his unique voice and subject matter.
Six Gallery has been a boutique independent publishing company in 2000. They only publish fiction and poetry, and typically take interest in talented Pittsburghers. Thus, their philosophy, like Cotman’s, is very community-minded.
"I value the community part of writing...workshopping is incredibly integral to the process," Cotman said. That is precisely why he appreciates the M.F.A. program at Mills: he is surrounded by other writers. He’s also living in a hippie house in San Francisco, which only adds to the creative forces he constantly craves in his life.
Apart from promoting his book, Cotman's latest endeavor is a radio show called "Fort Liberty." He describes it as "a historical drama/epic/soap opera" about a forty-something anarchist living in Pittsburgh. He’s banking on San Francisco’s creative spirit to make it a reality. Once again, the community may just come to his rescue and spot his knack for “spinning a good yarn,” which is his main goal in all he does.
The last time I saw Cotman (only the second time in my life) was at my own reading. I was recovering from a nasty bout of food poisoning when the day I'd been anticipating for months finally arrived. Per his suggestion, I had applied to the residency program at The Cyberpunk Apocalypse Writer’s Project. From mid-December to mid-January, I wrote and illustrated a book project. January 14th marked the culmination of my efforts, and I felt like swallowing my tongue.
Cotman, on the other hand, looked comfortable, casual. Punk, but not "fashion punk." No Mohawk, no challenging-the-status-quo type piercings. He looked more like a thrift shop punk in his burgundy hoodie, worn jeans, dark shoes, and woven ski cap. He plopped down onto a tweed armchair with plush poking out from its jarring pores and holes like pus.
Sleepy-eyed and not especially fast to speak, Cotman was still adjusting to the time difference between San Francisco and bone-biting Pittsburgh, where his relatives lived.
As people trickled into the communal room, Cotman looked far too reserved for a man whose book release was only about a week away. Jack Daniel's launch party was scheduled for January 22nd in Oakland, CA. But when I spoke to Cotman a week or so after the party, he was not quite so tame. He was ecstatic:
"The book doesn't suck. I love all of the stories for entirely different reasons. I am intensely excited about how the book came out. Anyone who enjoys storytelling will enjoy this book."
And don't we all enjoy a good story?