Originally from the South Shore of Boston, Cooper Lee Bombardier now lives and writes in Halifax, Nova Scotia. A member of the WFNS, he participates in the Writers in the School program. His writing has appeared in a number of journals, magazines, and anthologies, including The Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, Out Magazine, The Remedy: Queer and Trans Voices on Health and Health Care (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016), and Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Speculative Fiction from Transgender Writers (Topside Press, 2017), which won the 2018 American Library Association Stonewall Book Awards Barbara Gittings Literature Award. He recently talked to us about writing and art, his current projects, and the first time he was paid for his writing.
How long have you been writing? What drew you to writing in general, and fiction and non-fiction in particular?
I’ve written in some manner since I first had language. I’ve thought of my writing as an actual creative practice since the early 1990s and chose to focus on my writing as my central creative outlet and my profession over eight years ago. As long as I can remember I’ve written and made visual art to record my experiences and observations in the world; to attempt to understand them and make meaning from them. I’ve written to see queer and trans embodiment like mine in print when I haven’t seen stories that reflect mine out in the world. For some time, I thought that I would need to write fiction to tackle the subjects most compelling to me, but interestingly, the closer things were to my actual life in fiction when I was an MFA student the more unbelievable they came off to my cohort. Then I took a nonfiction course with Tom Bissell in 2011 and he really opened my mind to how much space there was for creative nonfiction to be as weird as I needed it to be. I accepted that most of the projects I was focused on at that time were about my pivotal life experiences anyway and leaned into the craft and concerns and controversies of nonfiction. Now that my first book—a memoir—is nearly complete, I find writing fiction to feel like a vacation from scrutinizing every personal failure and joy of the past and trying to render it into a piece of art.
What’s the biggest misconception about being a writer?
My misconception? Probably that things shouldn’t take me as long as they do.
Others’ misconceptions about being a writer? I’d say that people often think a “writer’s life” should look a certain way. It doesn’t. A writer does the work of writing: they write, submit work, get rejected, get published, write, teach, etc. Some do it full time because they have the resources available to them to do so, others squeeze their writing time in on the subway to work and back home again, or in the wee hours while the children are asleep. There is no one way to be a writer, and the most important thing is doing the work.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
It’s not a sexy answer: write and read a lot. Take your writing seriously by scheduling your writing time every week and stick to it. Volume and consistency and doing the work is key.
In addition to being a writer, you’re also a visual artist. Do you see connections between your two practices?
Absolutely, although my visual art practice has been somewhat backburnered while I am busy with two book projects. But coming back to visual art always feels like an opening up of brainspace and consciousness for me, in fact, it can feel rather meditative. It is a great place to go creatively if I am feeling particularly bogged down in my writing. I have some visual projects that I’d like to tackle sometime in the near future.
Do you workshop your material with other writers? Do you have a writing group?
I do workshop with others, but I do so very selectively, because I know myself well enough at this point to see when lots of feedback becomes a distraction or another form of procrastination for me in certain projects. I recently was in a week-long creative nonfiction workshop lead by the great public intellectual Sarah Schulman at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and what is always great about working with Sarah, aside from the fact that she is an incredible and generous teacher, is how she intentionally selects her workshop attendees. She brings together a high caliber of thinking and writing ability and life experiences in her workshops. I got to get feedback on a nascent piece, just notes really, and was able to produce almost 20 pages of work that week, which for me feels huge.
I am not currently in a writing group. I am, however, in the process of trying to form a small writers’ group that would serve more as a social support and accountability group. As I mentioned, getting tons of feedback is not always what I need, and furthermore, I teach, so I always have a boatload of student work to comment on, which is very time consuming because I take it very seriously and put a lot of energy into the feedback process. What is more useful to me in an ongoing capacity is to have other serious writers to strategize, process, and share advice with, as well as to set goals and help hold each other accountable. Writing is a lonely process, furthermore, no one is sitting out there tapping a foot and making you do the work. Supporting each other around these parts is crucial.
What’s great about writing in your part of Nova Scotia?
I’m a real come-from-away (although my ancestors have been in Nova Scotia at least since the early 1600s) so I am still a newcomer and still trying to learn about readings and meet other writers. The writers I’ve met so far have been incredibly generous and welcoming to me, for which I am enormously grateful.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
I spent an inordinate amount of time over the winter watching series after series of “Nordic Noir” style murder mysteries on Netflix.
Do you remember the first time you were paid for your writing? What was it like?
Yes, it was late 1997 and I’d recently finished a six-week spoken word tour of the US with Sister Spit, the legendary punk feminist group founded by Michelle Tea and Sini Anderson. Twelve of us travelled in two vans, sleeping shoulder to shoulder in sleeping bags on the floors of strangers across the country, performing every night in a different city or driving through the night between gigs. Any money made from our gigs went to gas and paying for us to eat one meal per day. I’d quit my three cooking jobs and sublet out my San Francisco room to go. I sold chapbook zines at shows to make coffee and beer money. Weeks after the tour ended, Michelle handed me an envelope with $80 in cash and I was thrilled. “We get paid?” I shouted, as it never occurred to me that we’d get anything other than the incredible life experience that such a shoe-string, punk rock tour would bestow.
Where do you like to write? Do you have a dedicated writing space, or do you prefer to move around?
Right now, I mostly write at my desk in the tiny home office I share with my wife. However, with the glut of new construction overpowering the North End, and the insistent jackhammering of shale and bedrock happening from 7 am to 5:30 pm each day, I am interested in finding a good café to work at.
What are you working on right now?
I’m taking a short break from my first memoir to work on a collected works manuscript which is comprised of essays on my experiences of living in a transgender body that I’ve had published in various places over the past 20 years. I’m also working on a YA novel idea, and plan to come back to the final push on the memoir early September.