There’s a lot of expatriate New Yorkers who call Southern California home. Fewer So Cal natives have migrated eastward.
An exception, T Cooper (nee Teresa), grew up in Malibu, but for the past six years has called the East Village home. She returns Nov. 21 for a book signing and reading at Barnes & Noble in Santa Monica, but it’s just a stop on a cross-country tour for her first novel, “Some of the Parts.”
Calling from Albuquerque last week, she said the tour is going better than she expected, for which she credits her publisher, Brooklyn-based Akashic Books.
“I really have grown to appreciate the attention writers get from small publishers,” she says.
Some of her friends from grad school, who snagged great deals with big corporate publishers, didn’t fare so well. “After booking one event for them, securing a review or two in the S.F. Chronicle or N.Y. Times, their publishers pretty much forget that they exist.”
Still, having her book selected in the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program gave her mainstream exposure and boosted the book into its second printing.
“I never thought I’d be reading in places like these, but for a small press, first-time author, it’s very helpful to have a massive corporate bookseller behind you,” she says.
The book was also last month’s selection of the Quality Paperback Book Club. Besides eight or nine Barnes & Noble stores, mostly on the coasts, the rest of her “almost 30-city tour” is independent booksellers and five women’s bookstores.
After working in magazine publishing and writing articles for slicks like Parenting and Teen People, she enrolled in Columbia’s MFA program where she studied with Michael Cunningham, whose “A Home at the End of the World” is the novel that inspired her to become a writer.
“I was writing this horrible Southern Gothic novel that everyone really liked, but he was smart enough to take me aside and say, ‘Why are you writing this?’ “
So she began “Some of the Parts,” about half of which became her graduate thesis.
“It didn’t dawn on me to write a typical coming-of-age novel, centering on one character. Those have never appealed to me as a reader, so it wasn’t there as a writer.”
Instead, she created four characters that wind up as a kind of post-nuclear family: Arlene, a ditsy, divorced mother; Taylor, her sexually conflicted daughter; Charlie, her HIV-infected gay brother; and Isak, his estranged transgender partner. None of them are based on real life characters from her experience, she says. Nor is the novel particularly autobiographical.
“I guess the standard line that none of it is true and all of it is true holds here,” she says.
Her experiences, however, are ample to fill several books. After a summer internship with this paper, she went to Middlebury College in Vermont. Then she taught middle school and high school English and writing in New Orleans for two years.
“I was only four or five years older than some of my students,” she says.
After that, she moved to New York and a series of publishing jobs, and then founded a rock band called the Backdoor Boys.
“We basically poked fun at pop culture through the medium of the boy-band phenomenon, especially the Backstreet Boys, the ber boy band,” she says. “We performed their songs, with perfect style, choreography, etc., but we brought out the homoeroticism in these groups. They borrow so much from gay male culture without knowing it.”
It started out as a joke, but took off into something bigger. Eventually, the band disbanded, and Cooper went back to writing, drawing on the experience for at least one character in her book.
“I definitely imbued Isak with some of my performance experience as a Backdoor Boy,” she says.
Geographically, the story draws on her knowledge of New York, L.A. and Providence, Rhode Island.
“I guess for me, it’s important to see characters rendered solidly in their geography,” she says. “I know New York very well, and it was where I wanted most of the book to take place. As for Los Angeles, it was hard not to let it slip in. People are so strange there in their little ways and needs and wants.”
Although she grew up here, Cooper says she feels “like a space alien” every time she returns.
After the tour, she plans to return to the East Village apartment she shares with her dog, Murray, and get back to work on another novel that’s still in the beginning stage. “No working title, and not much more than a few pages and some outlines and ideas,” she says. “I’ll have time to turn to this project after the first of the year, when I imagine my reading schedule will have died down considerably.”