Cole Alpaugh's newspaper career began in the early 80s, starting with small daily papers in Maryland and Massachusetts, where his stories won national awards. His most recent job was at a large daily in Central New Jersey, where his "true life" essays included award-winning pieces on a traveling rodeo and an in-depth story on an emergency room doctor that was nominated by Gannett News Service for a 1991 Pulitzer Prize. Cole also did work for two Manhattan-based news agencies, covering conflicts in Haiti, Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Thailand and Cambodia. His work has appeared in dozens of magazines, as well as most newspapers in America. Cole is currently a freelance photographer and writer living in Northeast Pennsylvania, where he also coaches his daughter's soccer team.
What inspired you to write this book? Years ago, I’d taken my oldest daughter to see a traveling circus. It was an old, broken down troupe with license plates from down south, but they had an enormous African elephant with a headdress made of pink ostrich feathers. We were walking through the maze of animal cages when we noticed a bird had landed on the elephant’s head and was picking at the feathers. The elephant was prodding it with the tip of her trunk. My six-year-old daughter was amazed by the interaction, and we stood watching the bird trying to steal feathers, perhaps for its nest, while the elephant tried gently coaxing it away. Then, one of the circus workers walked up and, for no apparent reason, cracked the elephant across the side of its head with a long wood bullhook. The bird flew away, and the elephant began to cry, as did my daughter. It made me want to tell the story.
I spent a good chunk of the 1980's and early '90's as a war correspondent for two Manhattan picture agencies. Maybe a glamorous sounding gig when trying to pick up girls in bars, but it was sweaty, awful work most of the time. For what came out to be about a buck an hour, I went on at least a hundred patrols, basically trying to get shot at on three continents. If the patrol you latched onto got into a firefight, you might make four bucks an hour from photo sales. We learned to supplement our income by shooting feature pictures during downtime. Some of the most amazing people are traveling performers in third world countries. In Asia, the circus is revered, even the ragtag bands crisscrossing the most impoverished regions of Burma, Vietnam, and Cambodia. My story -- BEAR -- is set along the New Jersey shore, but most of the roustabouts and performers were based on these people who made their way from village to village, often sending kids ahead to scout whether there'd been any recent fighting. In BEAR, I tried to convey the obvious pride carried by these folks, from the aerialists to the congenital twins in the "freaks of nature" tents. I've seen real magic, the transformation that happens when an eighty-year-old man takes off his rags and puts on a glittering, handmade costume and leads a bear in a dance.
Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp? I suppose it's a message about hope. How important hope is, yet all the dangers that come from opening yourself up to it. In
GARP, John Irving wrote about the sinister Under Toad lurking just beneath the surface. I suppose I'm just another writer who stole a bit of the Under Toad for my characters to deal with. But in every traveling circus I've encountered, sad stories easily outnumbered the good. One of my roustabouts in BEAR spent years perfecting an awesome defense against things that sneak up and cause pain. He learned to sit real quiet and still -- until he became invisible. If they can't see you, nothing can get at you.
As you know, I've had the pleasure of reading your work and feel there's a unique quality to your writing. How would you describe your writing style/voice? Thank you! Well, I had a tough time coming up with a family-friendly passage for readings. I was a little surprised when I noticed how often I used the word fuck and how often my characters fight and piss on each other. In some countries, whacking someone with your shoe is the ultimate display of contempt. I guess those people have never been pissed on.
You wear many hats--husband, father, coach, photographer, writer. Do you plan to make a long-term career out of writing novels? Would you care to buy five thousand copies of BEAR after this little talk? When my now 10-year-old was born, we moved to our vacation home full-time. My wife, Amy, left her job as a bio-chemist, and I went from staff photographer to freelance. We
simplified and downsized our lives so we could concentrate on things more important than paying a huge mortgage. Writing is incredibly satisfying and provides a daily dose of validation. It's the same feeling at the end of soccer practice, when I huddle up my eighteen girls and everyone puts a muddy hand in the middle. I hope to do both until I'm really old. Uh, oh, there's that word hope. I should edit it out.
What's next? My favorite story -- THE TURTLE-GIRL FROM EAST PUKAPUKA -- has entered the query-go-round. I'd love for it to find a home. It's about a tsunami that sweeps across a remote island in the South Pacific, the lone survivor being a young girl clinging to the back of an old sea turtle she'd been caring for. It's a story about trying to find the way back home. There's cannibalism, Fijian coke thieves, and a drunken salvage boat captain named Jesus, who hums Verdi's Rigoletto while blissfully peeing into the wind. To sum up what's next: more piss and hope, I suppose.
You can visit Cole at his website. The Bear In a Muddy Tutu is available in print, on Kindle, or ebook.
--review by Rhiannon Ellis