His writing has been compared to John Irving's beautiful prose, and his debut novel, The Bear in a Muddy Tutu, to Sara Gruen's bestseller Water for Elephants: Cole Alpaugh is a novelist, an award-winning journalist, and a photographer. His stories are unique, his characters bitter-sweet, and his narrative a mix of melancholy and humor, which is, ultimately, the oxymoron of human existence. There's a special sensitivity that goes in Cole's writing, and if you'll read on in the interview, you'll see why. So, as they say, "without further ado," please welcome Cole Alpaugh.
|© Cole Alpaugh|
CA: I hardly knew what a camera was the day I walked into my first newspaper internship back in college. It was a daily on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and the managing editor - this little bulldog of a guy who was a dead ringer for Lou Grant, if you remember - took me to a cabinet with beat-up gear and said 'here ya go, kid'. I was afraid to remind him I was there for a job as a reporter, worried there had been some mistake and I would be out of a job and credits. Turned out he knew what he was doing. He'd had a hard time finding photo interns. I learned what an f stop was, how to bounce flash, and how to push process Tri-X my first day. Back then, though, the secret to all good press photography was the art of the burn. You weren't happy until half your picture was black. But I also learned that the first person picked for assignments involving plane tickets was the person who could both write and shoot. It's different now with digital do-everythings. Back then, most reporters were lucky to pull off a head shot in focus. And as much as the photo staff didn't want to do a reporter's darkroom work, they sure didn't want them back there mucking around with their chemicals.
EEG: How would you describe your photography style?
CA: I loved spot news from the start because of the chaos and because it didn't involve politicians and businessmen shaking hands and passing checks - the dreaded grip and grins. I had police/fire scanners with me every hour of the day and night. I could beat the first trucks on scene even at fires 30 miles out because so many departments were all-volunteer. Listen, and I swear this is true: I begged my way into doing a ride-along with a cop on the overnight shift, years before the TV show Cops. It was supposed to be for one week, but the first four days was nothing but pulling over a few drunks to encourage them to drive home slower, and rattling doors to make sure they were locked. We got a call on the last night for a dead body in a garage. Turned out that a fraternity had broken into a crypt and stolen the mummified remains to use as a hood ornament. Actually, they strapped her to the windshield. When the idiots got bored of driving around, they put her in a garage across from their house and scattered porn magazines at her feet and lit candles. They tried to make it look like a cult thing, instead of a frat thing. Ten minutes after wrapping up the investigation, there was a bank alarm. The cop is pretty casual because they went off regularly. But we do 100+ across town, then he pulls in to circle the bank building that's in the middle of a mall parking lot. He shines the car spotlight on the back door and gets out to check the locks. As soon as he reaches for the handle, there's an explosion of metal and wood, and he's running back to the car with his gun drawn. Turns out there was a robber inside the bank, and his lookout had taken a shot at the cop. Man, I was hooked. I began watching the war photos coming in over the AP wire, and decided that was what I wanted to do. Turned out that most Manhattan photo agencies were more than happy to sign young, aspiring photogs up and pay half their ticket to war zones.
My photo style? Grainy, natural light that attempts to sum up days or years of someone's life in one harsh instant. That's what I would always be going for, anyway.
EEG: Tell us about the following picture you took. It's fantastic, you really caught the action!
|© Cole Alpaugh|
Newspapers force you to be relatively competent at a lot of things, all for lousy pay. One day it's soccer, the next day it's a mall fashion shoot. My specialty was photo essays. Or at least those were most satisfying. I was also lucky to work at papers willing to devote a lot of space to pics. It's not the same to have a series of pics in an online edition. You had to see them together, in different sizes on a broadsheet page to feel the flow of a story.
EEG: Your writing spawns beautiful imagery, poetic in a terse way, and your characters are pained, searching, unique: your first novel, The Bear in a Muddy Tutu, is about a traveling circus, a dancing bear, a journalist whose daughter has been kidnapped, a girl missing her dead father ... they all join together in a melancholy, sad and emotional journey that leaves you daunted, speechless and longing for more. the premise of your second novel is equally unexpected: "A giant wave rolls over tiny East Pukapuka, annihilating everything but an old sea turtle and the ten-year-old girl clinging to its shell. The child is plucked from the currents by a salvage captain named Jesus, who hums Verdi’s Rigoletto while blissfully peeing into the wind and would rather swap the blubbering snot machine for spark plugs than help her find home."
Where do you get your ideas? Is it an image, something you see, a sentence you read, a person you meet, a tune you suddenly hear ... ? You combine exotic settings with memorable characters, bizarre and enchanting at the same time.
CA: Jeez, thanks, Elena, that's too kind of you ... I used to travel to places where human life had very little value. Places that might be beautiful if not for the poverty and suffering. It always seemed that when people have regained some normalcy, had buried their dead and moved on in their lives despite meager circumstances, another firefight breaks out and their animals were slaughtered. Or another child is shot. I suppose I try to capture those emotion in my fiction. There is always hope, but be careful not to celebrate. Something awful is always lurking. Haiti is the only place I've been that I can't imagine every having been beautiful, by the way. I've done off and on charity work for Haitian kids. We send money for soccer balls. Nothing special. A lot of aid groups provide food and medicine, but so many kids in Haiti have no childhood. They are scroungers since the earthquake, but it wasn't much different before. Girls were sold as housekeepers, and boys roamed the city in packs. During rebellions in the mid-80's, I stayed with a man who ran a home for orphan boys. All two dozen of his boys had been prostitutes. Eight-year-old boys ... older and younger. We send them soccer balls to play.
EEG: Wow. That just left me... speechless. A soccer ball seems so little, and yet it becomes a special way to find back the lost childhood.
Tell us about DASH IN THE BLUE PACIFIC, which will be released next year. Also, the ocean seems to be a recurrent theme in your novels, and I'm betting it's not a coincidence?
I love DASH. I'm really proud of it, and can't wait to share it. A jetliner goes down in the South Pacific. There's one survivor who washes up on a remote island, is hidden from rescuers by people who need him for a specific task. The man's closest ally is an alcoholic former god, who is half fish and might not even be real. It's a fun story, sometimes sad. The wonderful and brilliant Catherine Treadgold from Coffeetown Press is working on the final edit with me. It's out next spring. My favorite place in the world is standing at the very edge of land, looking out over an ocean. I'm a surfer and bodyboarder. My wife and I are moving to Hawaii's Big Island when our daughter is off to college in a few years. I love the power of the ocean, and try to tap into the enormity of it, and how insignificant it can make you feel. There's an addictive rush to riding a ten-foot overhead wave and sometimes being crashed and tumbled, sometimes certain you'll never breathe again. The ride is a similar feeling in ski racing - I've raised two wonderful ski racing daughters - but much more organic than skiing, more connected. Right before the first wave my wife and I rode together in Hawaii, this big greenish brown head popped up out of the water between us. It was an old sea turtle checking us out. We'd hiked to find a hidden spot from some old guide book. There we were in his world, and he hung out with us between waves for the entire session. And of course I used him in TURTLE-GIRL, bringing him into my world, while trying hard to show my respect.
EEG: Ha! I'll have to come visit when you move to Hawaii, then. And who knows, maybe once you'll move there, you'll come up with a story about a skiing team...
Thanks so much for being with us today, Cole!
Cole Alpaugh is the author of three books (The Bear in a Muddy Tutu, The Turtle-Girl from East Pukapuka, and The Spy's Little Zonbi), one in print (Dash in the Blue Pacific, April 2015), and two more in the makings. You can follow Cole's work on his website, blog, and twitter (@ColeAlpaugh).