July 20, 2017

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Q&A: Digging Deep with Debut Novelist Tom Cooper of “The Marauders”

Photo by Sara Essex Bradley

Photo by Sara Essex Bradley

Tom Cooper’s debut novel about what happens to a marshy town near New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill will resonate with environment-conscious teens this upcoming Earth Day (April 22). Featuring 17-year-old Wes Trench, among a vast cast of unique characters, The Marauders (Crown, 2015) has been hailed by Library Journal as “Self-assured and highly entertaining…Cooper’s writing is taut, his story is gripping, and the characters and their problems will stay with you long after you finish this book.”

Adult Books 4 Teens reviewer and librarian Diane Colson caught up with Cooper to discuss his writing process, inspiration, and future projects.

Thank you so much, Tom, for bringing these most singular characters to life. And the setting is so intimately portrayed, such as in this description near the beginning, “They were plunged in dark, moonlight banded across the water, the only sounds the insects and frogs singing in full chorus, the soft slap of waves against the hull.” Have you experienced this yourself?

Most of the book is the result of many revisions and edits. You’d probably think I was a caveman if you read some of my early drafts. Certainly you would think me delusional to be wasting a perfectly good piece of paper. On the other hand, I have a deep love of the Gulf and tried to preserve some bit of nature, a dying bit of nature, in prose. I’ve always admired most the authors who are craftspeople with their prose.

Young people may have heard about the BP oil spill of 2010, but The Marauders reveals how deeply the area was damaged. You show this without going into lengthy exposition on the accident itself, allowing the characters to describe their own experiences and observations. Did you do any research into the effects of the oil spill to construct these scenes?

I did a bunch of research. Books, movies, news articles, but mainly footwork. Many of my college students at the time were born and raised in bayou and they’d tell me many stories. But I myself have never been a shrimper, or trawler, as they call them here. I wouldn’t last 30 seconds. I’d end up in a hospital room, in traction.

Aside from talking with my students, I’ve made many local acquaintances who tell me stories everyday. The story explored in The Marauders is still going on. People signed ridiculous settlements because they had no choice. They would have starved. But a $5,000 check will only get you so far if your whole livelihood has vanished.

Perhaps one of the most magical elements of your book is the characterization. At face value, Lindquist, for example, is little more than a drug-addled old coot. By the end of the novel, he is actually dear to readers. Are any of your characters based on real people?

No, they aren’t. But there are little reflections of people I know. It’s a bit like building Frankenstein. Sometimes there’s a little bit of me too, of course. My close friends have told me, “Oh, that joke there. That’s pure Tom.” So, there are some inside jokes in the novel. You’ve got to get your kicks somehow, right?

the maraudersIt seems like pretty much everyone in the novel is interested in getting high, one way or another. While this results in some comical situations, it also speaks to the fierce hardships that these characters endure. Can you speak about this a little?

I think this element in the book is simply the byproduct of truth. If you’re in a bad place—figuratively or literally—you seek escape, even if it’s only temporary, through altered states. Sometimes mental pain can cause physical anguish, and vice versa. I’ve known people this has happened to. Unfortunately, it’s not like these characters can take a day off to go to a yoga studio or a therapist. They plow on, just like many people in other regions in America. And if it takes a pill or a joint or a beer to make it through a few hours: so be it. That’s life in 2015: We’re turning into a country of underpaid and undervalued service people.

This novel is nicely balanced between bawdy knock-knock jokes and nuanced critiques of corporate greed. Add to that the sensibility of the underdog and the role of 17-year-old Wes and I think this makes a great book recommendation for savvy teen readers. Were you thinking at all about your audience as you wrote the book?

I believe any author is beholden to think about his or her audience. I’m lucky that my brother and my girlfriend are writers as well, and we share a similar sensibility. That helps tremendously. If they don’t like it, then something is amiss and I have to go back to the drawing board. So, I consider entertaining myself first. If I’m not deriving some kind of pleasure—albeit minor—from the actual process of writing, then it might not be worth foisting on people.

Can you tell us what you are working on currently?

Well, there’s been some interest in making The Marauders a television show, so my brother and I are working on that. Everything else has been put on the back burner.

The novel I’m working on is called Southern Hospitality, and it takes place simultaneously as The Marauders. Only it’s set in New Orleans, the city. And two of the main characters are women. In tone and atmosphere I think it’s a close cousin to The Marauders. It’s nastier, I think, and much more disturbing.

 

Diane Colson is a Library Associate at Nashville Public Library, TN.

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