Author Q & A with Betty J. Cotter
February 1, 2022
Hello and welcome to February. Today we are rounding out our first series of author interviews with a Q&A from novelist and teacher Betty J. Cotter. Betty lives in Rhode Island and holds an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her essay “The Smock” appeared in Issue #5 ~ Autumn 2021.
We asked Betty to tell us some unique or surprising detail about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of her story. Her response was as follows:
“The Smock,” like many of my essays, started out in my journal. I had read a review of “All That She Carried” by Tiya Miles, about a cotton sack passed down by an enslaved woman to her female descendants. I wondered, What textiles will survive from the 20th century? I began riffing on aprons (“They are rich ‘sacks’ containing stories – pockets full of stories”) when I suddenly wrote, “My mother’s maternity top. She was wearing it when she slapped Andi. When she was carrying me. Why would she slap Andi? Dreadful! Yet I once slapped Perry – feel equally dreadful about that.” So I pretty quickly knew what the piece would be about, but I spent a few days exploring the issue – “thinking about pregnancy as confinement,” my mother’s anger, the contrast with the “gaudy, happy print” of the smock itself. Then, as I began to write the piece, I put the smock on. Wearing it gave me a feeling of creativity, closeness to my mother, even forgiveness toward myself. But by the time the essay was done, I felt depleted, writing, “these memoir pieces like ‘The Smock’ take a lot of juice out of me.”
One of our questions (and a common conundrum for many writers) is how to know when a piece is finished. We asked Betty how she decides a piece has found its final version.
Her response: “Most of these short nonfiction pieces that I write are in revision until they get published. I wrote “The Smock” over five days in June, sent it to two places, revised it again in August, and sent it out three more times. I have a piece that I wrote in 2018 that has been revised many, many times, rejected by a dozen publications, and finally received a “maybe” this summer after I cut it substantially. There is a feeling in my gut that I get when I think the piece is as good as I can make it. I spent seven years working on my novel Sisters in Exile, and during that time I changed the point of view from third person to first to third again and the verb tenses from past to present. I also realized I had started at the wrong point and wrote an entirely new Chapter 1. The key is not to lose interest. As long as I am invested in the work, I can spend years on it.”
We also asked Betty how the pandemic has affected her writing. Her response is as follows:
“This may sound callous, but the quarantine turned out to be a fruitful time for me. I know the pandemic has been horrible and many people struggled with social isolation, but when I lost my summer class (I’m an adjunct at two colleges), it opened up my writing time. I began a concentrated period of re-reading some of my favorite authors, including Anne Morrow Lindbergh, May Sarton, and Virginia Woolf. I had more time to compose, revise, and just think. Because I missed my favorite coffee shop, my husband set up a table for me in the backyard we call the “Meadow Cafe.” I rotated from the meadow to our patio to my upstairs office, and these options gave me a renewed sense of inspiration during the quarantine.
“The mail also became my connection to the world; I began an intense correspondence with two friends. With Tara, a friend from graduate school, I exchanged letters about reading, writing, and feminism, and we even read some of the same new books. Arline, a former newspaper colleague, shares some of my cultural experiences and memories, having grown up in a working-class household, and we exchanged stories about our past as well as present days.
“I also decided to subscribe to more magazines, literary and commercial; between the letters and the magazines, I always have something to look forward to in the mailbox. The result of all this reading, writing, and corresponding? I’ve had more publications in the last year and a half than I had in the previous decade. I’ve vowed I will never teach in the summer again. I’m also cutting back the number of classes I teach during the year. I feel like I’m finally having the writing life I always dreamed of.”
That sounds like a positive outcome and leads nicely to our final question. We asked her what she thinks of when she hears the phrase “The Good Life?”
Her response: “The title of the magazine really drew me. Americans think of ‘the good life’ as material, but to me it’s contemplative. The ability to reflect on our experiences and respond to art, nature, and other people in deeper ways is what makes us human.”
Betty is the author of the novels Roberta’s Woods (Five Star, 2008) and The Winters (which earned her a Fiction Fellowship from the R.I. State Council on the Arts). The first chapter of her novel Moonshine Swamp was selected for the premiere issue of Novel Slices (2020) and nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Thanks, Betty, for being a part of our autumn issue and for participating in this Q & A!
~The Good Life Review Team