An Interview with Elisha Cooper
Chicago Public Library Teen Volume Program with author and artist Elisha Cooper. Elisha spent a year interviewing, sketching and observing high school students from Chicago’s Payton College Preparatory High School. Join us in a reading from and discussion of Elisha’s memorable new book, ridiculous/hilarious/terrible/cool: A Year in an American High School (a March 2008 publication). Teen Advisory Council Member Karen Feng was fortunate enough to the interview the author Elisha Cooper in April 2008. Here’s the scoop:
First of all, I’d love to know more about how you came up with the title, ridiculous/hilarious/terrible/cool: A Year in an American High School?
I started with a long list of bad ideas. I’m looking at it now. Among others, I had: Hello Tomorrow, That was My Yesterday, A Seriously Ridiculous Year in an Outrageously Average American High School. Some things in this list stuck, like the word ‘ridiculous.’ Maybe I just wanted to use the word ‘ridiculous’ in a title! It seemed to make sense because ‘ridiculous’ was a word the kids at Payton said all the time.
Can you tell us more about how you decided to focus on Walter Payton College Prep students for your new book, ridiculous/hilarious/terrible/cool: A Year in an American High School?
There were a few reasons. I had a friend who taught there, and I knew that having an ‘in’ at whatever school I wrote about was essential. Payton is also a magnet school, drawing students from all over Chicago, and I knew I wanted to look at a diversity of students. This felt important to me, since I wanted readers of the book to be able to see themselves, and also to see people who were not like themselves at all. Lastly, Payton is five minutes from where I lived, a quick five-minute bike ride.
How did you decide on which students you were going to interview, sketch and study for the year?
I talked a lot with my teacher friend, and the Payton guidance counselor. We tried to identify students who we thought would be compelling subjects (I wanted to write about the girl who was the best soccer player in the school), along with students who I’d never even thought about (one girl had just transferred to Payton and previously had been at school in Cairo). It was sort of like a buffet, but with kids! That said, the great thing about writing this book was when the admittedly broad-stroke stereotypes I may have had initially subverted themselves. As I got to know the students over the year they became individuals (obvious, I know). I sort of knew, or at least hoped, that this would happen. It’s something that keeps the book on its toes.
Were there any surprises—good or bad—that you discovered while working on your book?
Definitely. Every day I came to the school felt like a surprise. Or, something surprising happened. The students’ lives could change so quickly. A sprained ankle, a slept-through class, a drama with a friend. Each development that happened, even if—especially if—it was bad, made the story move forward. Like when one of the students was asked to leave the Payton: initially I thought this was a disaster, but then I thought, let’s see where this goes (I don’t mean to sound entirely callous, because I think that leaving Payton was probably the right thing for this kid). The surprises made the year. They make the narrative arc of ridiculous/hilarious, if that makes sense.
Do you think the students you interacted with changed their behavior around you? If so, do you think they were trying to act more sophisticated around an adult or cooler to show off for their friends?
I hope not, though I’m sure in small ways they did. One of the big reasons I liked these eight kids was because they all seemed relaxed having me around. They were pretty cool. I would have worried if I thought they were always trying to spin me. It’s possible they were spinning me (we’re all spinning ourselves all the time, just as I am in this interview), but I believe that at some point – maybe around February or March of the year – the students had become nonchalant about having me around, and really let me into their lives.
ridiculous/hilarious/terrible/cool and your book about being a father, Crawling, are both reflections on a year. Did you use the same writing process (taking notes and sketching in journals, then going back and condensing/expanding/reorganizing to write the book) for both?
Yes, I love the structure of the year! It just works for me. And yes, I used the same process for both Crawling and ridiculous/hilarious. Lots of note-taking and sketching, getting everything down in small 4x6 notebooks. Then, I hole up in a cafe—for the high school book it was The Grind in Lincoln Square—write up the notes on my Apple and start arranging them, squishing them together and seeing what sticks.
Was it easier or harder to write about your more personal experience of fatherhood, as you did in Crawling, versus the experiences of other people, not to mention an entirely different generation, in ridiculous/hilarious/terrible/cool: A Year in an American High School?
I don’t know if one was easier than the other. I do know the two books are tangentially linked, because after Crawling, which was so personal, I wanted to take myself out of it. But I enjoy both forms. I like the personal essay, how fun it is to send oneself up as a character (those great David Sedaris essays come to mind). But I also like writing about other people. Maybe more so, I think. It’s a bit more ennobling. I hope some future book of mine will be some combination of the two—one of those non-fiction books where the author slips in and out.
I’ve learned that your picture book, Beach, was inspired by Chicago’s North Avenue beach. It seems like you definitely have a “soft spot” for Chicago… though you’ve moved around the country a lot, from California to Chicago to New York City. Where’s your favorite place to live?
Chicago, of course! How could I not say Chicago? I loved Chicago, and when I was back there recently I ran along Lake Michigan every day. I miss the architecture, that flat Midwestern feel, the big-cloud skies. But I’m nostalgic about all the places I’ve ever lived in. I used to live in northern California , and I miss the coast and the outdoors, the fresh food. Though, with every place, there are things I don’t miss. In California, it was the idiot drivers. In Chicago, I sometimes felt I was living in an irony-free zone. And now, I love New York, though parts of that drive me crazy. But I do miss Chicago (unironically), and am looking forward to coming back to the Printer’s Row book fair.
What was your experience in high school like? Tell the truth: were you a jock? A nerd? A cool kid?
I was an amazing jock, and a sensitive artiste. I was also very popular. Um, no. In my dreams. But I think I went back and forth between the groups in my high school. I didn’t want to be pinned down. Still, as I look back (and looking back is dangerous and should not be believed) I mostly remember being pinned down by my lack of confidence with girls.
There are lot of labels and cliques in high school and I think your book shows how similar the different teens are. Was this what you intended readers to experience?
I don’t think there was any intent, any definitive idea about where I wanted the book to go. I wanted the facts to drive the book. The stories of the kids to become the story of the book. Of course, I may have had some notions that developed over the course of the year. One may have been that, yes, even cool kids get anxious. And that outcasts can win in the end. Maybe I believe in that old-fashioned American notion of redemption, that we get our just desserts in the end. That things even out. Though, really, who knows if that’s true. I bet hedge fund managers were awful in high school, and now they are even more so. Sometimes jerks are jerks forever.
Do you think the high school experience has changed since you were a part of it? Do you think those changes have made things better or worse?
I don’t think I can make such broad sociological statements (though, as a writer, of course I can!). And I’d qualify anything by saying this: it has probably always been difficult to be an adolescent. I imagine being a 14-year-old apprentice in feudal England had its dark moments! And yet, there are real differences that different generations experience. I’m thinking of the Internet, or of different concepts of dating. So, we’re the same, but not.
Did spending so much time in Payton College Prep make you want to relive your carefree teenage years?
God, no. My “carefree teenage years” were anything but, even though they were relatively content. It would be more accurate to describe them as “careful” in that I was constantly managing myself. But being that age can be very raw. And raw can be thrilling. I’m thinking of Zef here. I met him once at the end of the year, and he was all over the place, happy and sad, worrying about a girl. Later I wrote about the encounter (I’m checking the quotation now). I wrote: “Life can be exhilarating and baffling, often at the exact same moment.” I think conflicted feelings like these were inside all the kids I wrote about, and probably in all of us.
Seeing what teens in high school are like now (better or worse), are you worried about what your daughters’ high school experiences will be like?
Yes, but they’ll still have to go through them, if they want to reach the age of 24, which is a great age. Or 37, which I am now.
Do you think writing this book will help you deal with their teenage years?
That would be great, but no.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer and illustrator?
I always wanted to be a wide-receiver for the Green Bay Packers (I mean, Bears). But that hasn’t happened, except when I close my eyes. So I don’t know if there was any one moment when I knew I wanted to be a writer (I’m lying with every breath I take here). It was just something I loved. Reading books, that is. And sketching. They are things that have always been in me, and I’ve been lucky enough to figure out how to get those things out of me.
What books inspire you as a writer? As an illustrator/artist?
I love long non-fiction pieces, the type in The New Yorker that you can really sink into. I’m thinking about Susan Orlean or Ian Frazier (his book The Great Plains is the greatest book ever written), or William Finnegan. Finnegan’s piece about a 15-year-old New Haven student/drug dealer was a model in many ways for ridiculous/hilarious. I also just read a book called Dishwasher, which I loved (guy trying unsuccessfully to wash dishes in all 50 states).
Artists? There’s not much art I love (said the curmudgeonly artist). Okay, that’s not true. I went to the Edward Hopper show at the Art Institute when I was back in Chicago. That guy could paint! And there are some illustrators whose work I definitely appreciate. But the stuff I do, the little sketches that are sprinkled throughout ridiculous/hilarious are just something odd I do that I don’t think of as being that influenced by anything.
Are you working on writing and illustrating another new book now and could you tell us about it?
Yes, my walls are covered with watercolor sketches of Illinois farms (one’s an hour west of Chicago). It’s for a children’s book on farms. The book has nothing to with high schoolers, and everything to do with tractors and big chickens.