MJ Rose’s Backstory: John Cotter

I used to play at being a writer.

Afternoons in Boston, in my early 20s, I’d pour three fingers of Black Bush whiskey, feed a page into my typewriter, and surround my desk with books by whoever I was reading then—Bill Knott, Marguerite Duras—and add to that bibles and newspapers. I’d open to random pages and write down whatever caught my eye, whatever seemed anachronistic or poignant, then I’d make a hash out of it.

My philosophy, to the extent it was operative, was that the world had become a calcified hypocrisy—my mission was its exhumation and deconstruction. To this end I wrote up texts by stealing and re-combining lines and paragraphs from other writers; I’d use a tape recorder to intercut them (like William Burroughs in Paris); I’d tear out a page of Genesis and type excerpts from Henry Miller in the margins, or scotch tape headlines about a Dorchester murder onto poems about World War I. My method was not purposeless—in my own mind I was mating these things like a dog breeder, fixing a hybrid text that could both embody and healthfully poison the world.

My old friend Colin came down from New York to help. We’d take uppers and pull books off the shelf and read each other random bits to be typed up together. All of our models from the avant-garde were about fifty years out of date, but we didn’t really acknowledge that—we felt like we were at the center of the world and that the work we were doing was crucial. And it was crucial, at least to us. Eventually, he and I had a falling out (we could never quite manage to finish a project), and my style grew up.

Years later, writing the novel Under the Small Lights, I gave some of those afternoons to my narrator. Under the Small Lights is a book about identity, and Jack constructs his identity from those parts of his friends and heroes he most admires. His is a collage personality, and so it felt entirely natural to provide him with some of my own word collages as his art, and to invent a hero for Jack, named Bill, whose girlfriend Jack chases and whose personality Jack tries to ape. Bill spurs Jack to write a grand collage play, they collaborate:

“Where’s your bible?”

I found it and paged through Leviticus.

“And the two kidneys, and the fat that is upon them.”


“And the caul above the liver. It he shall take away.”

Bill typed steadily. “See if you can find some, like, ‘Thou shalt.’ We want some of that. Give me the book.” He opened a series of books on the table and looked quickly from one to the other, typing whatever his eyes fell on.

A heap of broken and the barn fell
Our pains are answer to our prayers

She plays his room again, alone
Where thou has ridden, there must thou

In a nod to those afternoons, I snuck a little of the actual method into Under the Small Lights too. Writing it, I kept a stack of some favorite books on the desk (Cavafy, Gaddis) and, every few pages, I would open them and drop random lines into the text. Those lines didn’t always survive revision, but the practice kept my spirits up. And—to the horror of my turn-of-the-Century-self—I’m convinced my thefts are undetectable. That is, when they’re suppose to be. Other times, I make less effort to hide them.


Bill pinched his face, glowered expressionist.

“So should I read from Emerson?” he asked, pulling out the book of essays I’d grabbed at the last minute.

An innavigable sea washes with silent waves between us and the things blah blah. Grief, too, will make us idealists.”

He nodded. “‘Grief will make us idealists.’ Are we idealists?”


“I’m not so sure.” He looked out of the window at the gray line of shops that hitch Boston to its suburbs: Staples, The Ground Round.

“Sure we are,” I said where the road split three ways.

“Yeah. Of course we are.” He sat back hard and turned his head.

The sky had the pale wash of drugs wearing thin.

“We’re writing a grand play in verse,” I said, “that will assure us fame.”

There are invented authors in Under the Small Lights, too, and parodies of plays, and titles that don’t exist. And those afternoons cutting up books don’t exist anymore either, because I can only seem to remember the deliberately fictionalized version now. Just like you remember photographs in place of events, I’ve destroyed those afternoons by preserving them. But writing a book has been more satisfying than scissoring one, mostly.


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