Debut Author Snapshot: Patty Yumi Cottrell

Posted by Goodreads on March 6, 2017
Patty Yumi Cottrell

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In the dark and funny debut Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, a woman returns to her childhood home in Milwaukee to investigate her adoptive brother's suicide. All the while she attempts to support her dysfunctional family that she was estranged from until her brother's death. And remember, it's a comedy.

Before this novel, author Patty Yumi Cottrell says she used to write "really bad poetry that ripped off Ashbery. It was awful." Luckily she moved on to write fiction in her late twenties. She grew up in in Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Milwaukee and now lives in Los Angeles. Fun fact: She's an NBA fan and is "obsessed" with Russell Westbrook.

We asked Cottrell to tell us about her first novel, her influences, why she regrets calling the book an "anti-memoir," and why her writing routine includes the theme song to the TV show Murder, She Wrote.

Goodreads: You've described your debut as an "anti-memoir." What do you mean by that?

Patty Yumi Cottrell: Looking back, I think I've changed a lot as a person from when I began the book a couple years ago, and first started describing it, up to the present moment. I can no longer stand by that phrase I used back then. My novel is a work of imagination. There's plenty of space for the reader to supply his or her own meaning. The experience of reading a novel is always more powerful and moving if I know nothing about the writer's life or his or her background. Having said that, I've been curious about the lives of writers, like Thomas Bernhard or W.G. Sebald or Kobo Abe or Sei Shonagon, but they're all dead.

GR: As someone who is a Korean adoptee yourself, how closely do your characters mirror yourself and your family?

PYC: I am a Korean adoptee, that's true. I was born in Korea, and I lived at an orphanage for several months. I'm pretty fortunate because I have contact with my biological family. I have three older sisters in Korea, which is cool. One sister speaks English, so we talk a little.

I have a brother who was also adopted from Korea. He now lives in Seattle. He works in advertising and film. I love my parents. They're supportive, understanding, and they don't resemble or mirror the parents in the book beyond the fact that they live in Milwaukee.

My narrator, Helen, has no relationship with her parents; they're detached from her life. Maybe some readers will think her parents are the most astute people in the book. Who can say? Helen tries to be cheerful and supportive, but her support ends up ruining things for everyone. I don't think we mirror each other. I mean, I've had misunderstandings with people in my life. I've experienced aversion, coldness, loss, anxiety, depression, and disgust. I have been confident about things and then delusional and misguided. All of that informs what I write about, so I'd say the emotion in the book comes from a real place that is tender and vulnerable.

GR: Helen refers to herself as a detective, and she says she needs to find clues. Are you surprised people have called your book a mystery or detective story?

PYC: So far I think one person called it an unconventional detective story, and I would agree with that. It's a mystery in the tradition of Kobo Abe mysteries (The Ruined Map, Secret Rendezvous), in the sense that there's an investigation at the center of the book, and that's what propels the narrative. Helen thinks of herself as a detective looking for clues, but she has more in common with Elliott Gould in the film The Long Goodbye than any kind of competent detective.

I like this question because it reminds me how much I used to love Murder, She Wrote, the television show. I listened to the theme song thousands of times while I was writing. It made me happy. At first I had this idea that I would try to write a combination of Murder, She Wrote and the Larry David show Curb Your Enthusiasm. I didn't come close to doing that, but those two television shows were in the back of my mind.

GR: What writers are you influenced by, and how do those influences show themselves within Sorry to Disrupt the Peace?

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PYC: Sheila Heti, Ticknor: This short novel has some of the finest, most precise sentences I've ever encountered in contemporary fiction. The narrator's voice is obsessive, neurotic, and delightful. He walks to a friend's house, carrying a pie, and talks to himself. Ticknor made me want to write a voice-driven novel. I think our narrators have a lot in common and would perhaps get along (!).

Amina Cain, Creature and I Go to Some Hollow: Amina is an incredible writer. Her prose is lucid, spacious, and elegant. I don't usually like beautiful things, but her writing is beautiful in a different way. There can be something harsh about it. So after I read her writing, I gave myself permission to try to write harsh and beautiful sentences.

GR: We love the dark humor throughout the book. What's your theory on using humor as a storytelling device?

PYC: The humor in my book arose naturally because the narrator has limited awareness and understanding of what's going on. Some people use humor to help the medicine go down, and in some ways it carries the reader along, especially if the humor is unexpected and surprising. In other ways humor is woven into the fabric of my narrator's mind. I tried to envision clearly the way she sees the world. Her viewpoint is tilted at an odd angle, so things are going to be funny at times. My editor referred to her as a dry comedian. Helen is a comedian in the tradition of David Gates's Jernigan, Jade Sharma's Maya, or any of Thomas Bernhard's narrators. She's selfish and self-absorbed, and she makes everyone around her sort of miserable. That type of situation can be funny and painful and true.

GR: What's next for you as a writer?

PYC: There's some peace that comes with finishing a project and seeing it through to its endpoint. I'm working on some short stories and thinking about my next book. One of my favorite parts of the writing process is the stage in which I'm reading, looking at art, listening to music, and walking. For me, that's the most generative time.

Read more of our exclusive author interviews on our Voice page.

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