Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, August 8, 2013
Authors Among Us
Joe Coomer: on writing, place and family
by Elke Dorr
How do you proceed if you’re a writer and your first book, published shortly after your graduation from college, is so good it is awarded the Jones Fiction Prize from the Texas Institute of Letters, competing with such renowned writers as Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry? Some writers might simply rest on their laurels, while others become creatively paralyzed, but if you’re Joe Coomer, you pick up your pencil and paper and keep writing.
Since his literary debut with The Decatur Road, a novel set in the hardscrabble hills of Appalachia, Joe Coomer has published 10 additional works ranging from novels to non-fiction to poetry. His work has received accolades from readers and critics alike. The Texas Observer called him “a master of lyric brevity,” while The Washington Post declared he is “clearly an author of serious talent.” Not only has Coomer garnered awards and praise, his novel The Loop was made into the feature film, A Bird of the Air.
Most recently The Decatur Road, begun while he was still an undergraduate at Southern Methodist University (SMU), in Dallas, Texas, has been republished in a 30th anniversary edition under the aegis of SMU’s DeGolyer Library. When the library approached him with a request for his papers, Coomer said he combed through the boxes of notes, papers, and manuscripts he’d been saving for years, “looking for dead mice and old snake skins, hoping to spare the archiving staff.”
Perhaps it’s his Southern background and the fertile storytelling environment in which he grew up, sitting at the dining room table, “listening to the women rather than sitting with the guys watching football on TV,” that partly explains Coomer’s capacity for stitching a story together with humor alongside tragedy, with joy nudging sorrow. All exist in ample measure in The Decatur Road, in the way they so often do in most lives.
On a recent morning filled with fog so thick it could be spooned into a dish, Coomer was at the rambling Victorian house overlooking Stonington’s harbor that he shares with his wife, artist Isabelle Tokumaru. He first came to Stonington, he said, on his old wooden boat, Yonder, a motor sailer he restored and which he keeps moored in the harbor. His experience restoring and sailing the boat are depicted in Sailing in a Spoonful of Water, the book he confesses is probably his favorite.
Coomer’s first view of the town, he recalled, was from his boat, perhaps in 1995 or ’96. “I thought Stonington was the most beautiful town with the most beautiful view.” He vowed then to spend part of “every year of my life in Maine,” which he’s been doing ever since, dividing his time between his home near Ft. Worth, Texas, and Stonington. It was here, in 2003, that he married Isabelle. The two have undertaken the restoration of their home, room by room, over “seven summers,” tackling multiple layers of wallpaper, exposing original, hand-painted ceiling decoration, for example, and filling the home with period antiques.
Returning to Decatur Road, Coomer explained how the book evolved, from those three short stories he wrote for his undergraduate senior thesis to the completed book. After college and while holding a number of part-time jobs, he determined to write a segment of the book each week, a schedule he maintained until the book was completed. The novel features Mitchell and Jenny Parks, husband and wife, and traces the arc of their lives through the metaphor of Decatur Road, and includes a colorful cast of characters coming and going along that road, into and out of the couple’s lives.
Place itself—Decatur and the road that unspools to and from the little town—is as significant a component as the novel’s characters. For Coomer, place is the very springboard for his imagination. It is “always a place,” he observed about what prompts the writing. Having lived in a number of different states as he was growing up, Coomer learned that “people are pretty much the same.” It’s the place he feels compelled to know, he said, and his need to understand it before the writing about it can begin. To that end, he keeps a journal for several months before beginning to write. In it he tries to discover the mood of the novel, he said, adding that it’s a “workaday process,” the writing. “I wouldn’t call it being inspired.”
Figuring significantly in another novel, place became the source of some trouble in Pocketful of Names, set locally on a fictitious island in Penobscot Bay. The little island—named Nine Acre No Ten Island by Coomer—was included by his publisher in an otherwise realistic map on the end papers of the hardback book, causing a number of readers to attempt to locate it. They had no qualms about making their frustration in the map’s inaccuracy known to the publisher, who did not include the chart in the later, paperback version of the novel.
Place is a powerful draw for Coomer. He spoke at length about the barn on his Stonington property as perhaps his favorite place. It’s a “big, wide open space with that view of the ocean,” he enthused, adding that the one-time garage “is a good place for me to work.” He thought for a moment and said, “My place of comfort, though, is being around Isabelle.”
Turning to the influence of family on his career as a writer, Coomer said that his parents allowed him the freedom to read what he chose, though he recalled his mother’s admonition that he probably wouldn’t understand The Thin Red Line, which he chose to read at about 13 years of age. “She was right,” he laughed. He recalled that when he was a teenager experiencing his first romantic break-up, it was reading that helped him get through that turbulent adolescent period. “The great gift reading gives you,” he observed, “is the knowledge that others have been through the same thing.”
When DeGolyer offered to publish the 30th anniversary edition of The Decatur Road, Coomer said he decided to read it once again, since he hadn’t done so in many years. He revealed that as he read the novel, he “would wince and other times I would unexpectedly laugh.” He confessed, however, that he couldn’t finish the book. “It was very emotional,” he said, speaking of his re-reading experience. Overcome by what he knew of its writing, its characters and the ending, he put it down. One of his great joys, however, was that all four of his grandparents were still living when The Decatur Road was first published, he said.
Aside from being a productive and successful writer and a sailor, Coomer’s other passion in life is antiquing. He owns two antique malls in Texas as well as his own 8,000 square foot shop, stocked with finds from Maine. His enthusiasm for auctions and collections was evident as he described buying a box of letters from the 1920s, and finding among them, to his utter delight, a letter written by Alice B. Toklas, companion and amanuensis to Gertrude Stein, in which Toklas refers to writing on Ms. Stein’s behalf. The business side of his life is clearly a pleasure to Coomer: “I like writing,” he offered, “and I like my [antiques] business.”
Returning again and again to his family and the stories associated with them, Coomer made it unabashedly clear how significantly they figure in his life. He told stories about his grandmother and about his librarian aunt; about a recent 22-member family reunion; the family’s experiment in raising 200 chickens for eating, only to discover most were roosters; about the family farmland where several members, including his parents, live and where he and his wife also live in a Victorian-style home he built himself. No surprise, then, that his first novel—now 30 years old—should feature a couple whose shared life over many years is largely about family and place as well as life’s ordinary events shaped by the vagaries of time. It is a story, as one character so aptly describes “all about making the ordinary mystical and the mystical ordinary.”