Interview with Patty Yumi Cottrell

By: Carley Fockler

I am now in my third semester of Stetson’s MFA of the Americas program. This program has allowed me to interact and collaborate with many people. This semester I have the distinct pleasure of having Patty Yumi Cottrell as my professor and mentor. She is the author of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace (2017). She is also the winner of the 2018 Whiting Award. Patty has brought a fresh perspective and a huge amount of understanding to the program. In the few months I’ve been working with her, I have felt more confident in my work and have grown more than I thought possible.

The following is an Interview she allowed me to do and share with the public surrounding her movement from writer to teacher:


Carley: What inspired Sorry to Disrupt the Peace? How did you tackle the writing process? 

Patty: I began my novel when I was living in New York City and I finished it in Los Angeles. I had thought about the story for a few years, but always thought it would be too sentimental or melodramatic, perhaps because of the nature of the content (suicide, adoption, race). As soon as I realized I could situate the book as a dark comedy, I felt more confident.

I sat at my desk in Los Angeles. I sat at my desk for many hours, sometimes moving words around, sometimes re-reading what was already in the document, sometimes doing nothing.

I don’t remember what inspired it, exactly. I was a different person then, and I doubt anything that inspired it at the time would inspire me today, except the music of Fiona Apple and the writing of Thomas Bernhard.

Carley: What aspect of writing a novel is the most challenging in your opinion?  

Patty: Everything about writing a novel can be challenging if you don’t begin with the right intention.

Carley: How does reading your work for an audience differ from writing it?   

Patty: When I’m reading for an audience, I’m thinking only of the audience and the fact that people are sitting in a room listening to me talk when they could be doing other things. When I’m writing, I rarely think of an audience.

Carley: How did you move from writer to teacher? 

Patty: I have an MFA in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Post-graduation, I worked at a coffee shop. Years passed then I taught at a school. After I published my book, I was hired as an adjunct instructor at Columbia University and Pratt Institute.

Carley: What has your experience been in teaching creative writing? Have you learned from your students? Has it changed your view on creative writing as a whole? 

Patty: Teaching creative writing has made me a better writer and a better human being. I’ve learned so much from my students who are all deeply gifted writers.

One thing I’ve learned from teaching creative writing workshops is to be more open to criticism from friends, editors, agents, whoever. I’ve also learned how to discern when it might be necessary to dismiss other’s critiques. I think there’s a productive tension there, between complete acceptance and dismissal of what others are saying about one’s work.

Carley: What artist or piece of work has inspired you the most? 

I’ve been a lifelong NBA fan. To be a professional basketball player, one must have strength, agility, intelligence, and confidence. Basketball players go through a lot of ups and downs because the season is 82 games long. Because of this, you have to look at the trajectory of a player’s career, not just one game or series of games. Watching the NBA has inspired me more than any piece of art or artist. But ask me a different day, and I might say something else. This is my opinion at midnight on Tuesday, Feburary 26th, 2019.

Carley: What recent books do you recommend to others? 

A few days ago, I bought a book about gnomes from the late 70’s called Gnomes, and I’d recommend this to anyone interested in gnomes.

Another book I’d recommend to anyone is Pitch Dark by Renata Adler. Here are some words I wrote in the margins of my copy:





Carley: What is the best advice you’ve gotten on writing? 

“Never strive to be contemporary.” A mentor told me that and it’s something I’ve continued to think about. This simple phrase has stayed with me for over nine years. I think he’s right.

Carley: How do you feel about more experimental works of prose and poetry? What examples do you find to be most successful? 

I’m not sure I know what experimental means. Lydia Davis is a gifted and lucid storyteller, yet some people might refer to her as an experimental writer because some of her stories are one sentence. I don’t understand that. In my own reading, I tend to not gravitate towards a work just because it might be experimental, so I’m not sure how to answer that. The most successful work is one that stays with the reader and changes the way they see the world. That’s the most important thing.

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