Merrill writer John Cotter will read virtually on Saturday
Norwich native John Cotter is one of the humblest, most earnestly polite men you could hope to talk to. This, despite the fact he's an award-winning novelist presently working as the writer-in-residence at the James Merrill House in Stonington — a tenancy of significant distinction.
In an interview earlier this week, there's only one moment when a bit of pride emerges. Even then, it's nuanced by a flash of youthful exuberance — as from a seldom used little leaguer who comes off the bench to hit a game-winning triple.
"When I knew I was coming to stay here, I decided I would only read books that are in Merrill's library," Cotter says. "It seemed like a good opportunity and a way to immerse myself in the surroundings. But, as I was looking them over, it hit me —" the tone in his voice rises with unexpected validation — "Christ, I HAVE a lot of these books!"
That sort of genuine appreciation is reflective of Cotter's life in general and in a context few of us will ever understand.
He's been busy while in the Borough, working on a novel and a collection of short stories. Cotter also finished a final edit of a memoir, "Losing Music," which will be published by Milkweed Editions, probably in early 2023. And on Saturday, Cotter will discuss and read virtually from pages crafted during his Merrill stay. Esteemed author Joanna Scott, a recent resident of the Borough, will moderate.
A journey he couldn't have imagined
But it's "Losing Music" that eloquently and determinedly — and a bit desperately — ultimately reveals Cotter's singular experiences with an ongoing mystery illness that seems to be a hyper-manifestation of symptoms associated with Ménière's disease: dizziness, vertigo, nausea, off-and-on instances of various hearing distortions and even bouts of deafness.
Major problems with the Ménière's diagnosis lay in the reality that experts can't quite determine precisely what Ménière's disease IS or what causes it. They don't know why certain patients get some or all symptoms, or just one or two, or how often they'll materialize. And, to date, there is no cure or even consistent remedies that completely alleviate any of the characteristics.
Now 45, Cotter, who graduated from Norwich Free Academy in 1994, first began suffering what doctors told him was Ménière's disease when he was 30. His first novel, "Under the Small Lights," published when he was 33, was critically praised and won awards. By 35, his illness had progressed to a point where he felt it was "impossible to live with."
Clearly, Cotter is alive and working — and is happily married to the poet/essayist Elisa Gabbert; the two have lived for the last several years in Denver — all of which perhaps suggest a miracle cure or at least some sort of medical breakthrough to lessen his symptoms.
Sadly, that's not the case. There are days — weeks — when Cotter can't hear with any clarity voices or real-life sounds over the rush of noise in his ears. Sometimes he's so dizzy he can't get out of bed; frequently, he walks with a cane. Despite efforts by dozens of medical specialists, fellow patients and wellness professionals, symptoms seem to ebb and flow according to a tide table with no pattern.
Ultimately, he will probably go completely deaf. He says, "When I first got sick I worried I'd have already lost (my hearing) by now, but it does seem to have stabilized for the time being, albeit at a low level. But no one can tell me anything concrete about the progress of this disease — and when they think they can, all you have to do is read the studies they're referencing to discover they can't."
What HAS worked — what writing "Losing Music" accomplished — was coming to a realization and a perspective he couldn't have as a younger man.
"In most illness memoirs — which is what 'Leaving Music' is — readers want to know the patient was cured or that it ends up for the best," Cotter says. "But I couldn't provide this neat, easy story. This situation is more complicated, and it was like jumping on a horse and riding it in 12 different directions."
In a compelling, understated but erudite narrative voice, Cotter's memoir smoothly takes many forms — which was the only way he found to capture his story. Of course, much of "Losing Music" is a biographical narrative. He grew up in Norwich, the son of Linda and John Cotter Sr. His father, who passed away in September, was a prominent attorney and former Norwich city official.
After high school, Cotter, Jr., with aspirations of being a monologist like Spaulding Gray, attended Emerson College on a stage scholarship. He switched to creative writing, graduated and spent a few years in the Boston slam poetry scene. He also directed local plays and graduated with a master's degree in English from Harvard while working at the School of Public Health. It was there that he started work on "Under the Small Lights." To support his burgeoning career were also stints as a ghostwriter, trash collector and teacher. His fiction, essays, criticism and theater began to appear in elite publications such as New England Review, Washington Square, Electric Literature's Recommended Reading, Georgia Review, and Commonweal. He also served as executive editor of the arts and review site Open Letters Monthly. Oh, and, significantly, he met and fell in love with Gabbert without whom, he says, he would not be here.
The strictly biographical part of "Losing Music" is told concisely, with wit and honest self-appraisal, and it serves as a structural sun around which orbit satellite literary devices that might be categorized as evocatively described travel pieces (a hot air balloon festival in New Mexico); journal entries (a sort of Hail Mary journey to the Mayo Clinic); a layperson's attempts to understand the history and complexities of the human ear and, by extension, the history and limited progress of the elusively amorphous Ménière's Disease; and, incredibly, a detailed biography of 17th-century satirist/writer Jonathan Swift — whose symptoms, of all the people Cotter has encountered or read about, most minutely mirror his own.
"It's remarkable, really, that Swift was in the exact same situation," Cotter says, "and a lot of 'Gulliver's Travels' is about what he was experiencing. What's frustrating is that, in all this time, there has no prognosis or treatment or even a community for Ménière's disease because everyone diagnosed with it has different symptoms. Calling it Ménière's is just a way, I think, to put a name on overlapping conditions. In 50 years, we'll find out it's NOT Ménière's disease but several different things. And, so far, for the most part, the motivation is not there in a big way to treat or understand Ménière's because it's physically not life-threatening."
Despite the different stylistic threads to "Losing Music," the reader will discern no hard lines of demarcation. This decidedly isn't a work of meta prose — although Cotter's breadth of knowledge about a wide array of topics and people is amazing and becomes part of the narrative magic. He pinballs from one allusion or contextual reference to the next with the kaleidoscopic ease associated with the film "My Dinner with Andre" or Frederick Exley's memoir "A Fan's Notes" or the Anthony Doerr novel "Cloud Cuckoo Land."
"This was the only way I could see to write the book," Cotter says. "It's like looking at shards of a broken mirror. I was trying to find a way to live with the person I've come to be and remembering the way I used to be. This was a way to deal with the reality, to use each chapter as a rung on a ladder so I could pull myself out of the darkness."
The (literal) spirit of Merrill House?
Cotter literally typed THE END for "Losing Music" and sent it off to his agent and editor during his first days at the Merrill House, and he's since been busy on the novel in progress and the short story collection. He's also taking the time to enjoy his surroundings.
"It's a charming place that makes me very thoughtful," Cotter says. "I wish I had time to read all the books. Between omicron and the blustery weather, I haven't met many local folks, but I did meet two Stonington writers (Joanna Scott and Willard Spiegelman) whose work I've been reading for years. That was a real pleasure.
He also takes walks around the village and got up in the middle of the night during a recent windstorm to walk down to the beach and watch the tumultuous waves. And he's excited, after the residency ends, to stay a few days with his mom in Norwich before returning to Denver.
Then there's Merrill himself. Cotter says, "Of course, it's a pleasure to spend time with James Merrill's ghost, who presides over the house as a benevolent and a helpful spirit. The first morning here I almost slept through the sunrise. But there was a tapping on the wall loud enough to wake me. Was it the heating system coming on or was it Jimmy Merrill saying, 'Come up to the deck, you won't want to miss this'? We may never know."
He says his time at Merrill House has been all he could have hoped for, and explains that, during his travels and over the course of his career, his dad would send him Day stories on the writers-in-residence at the Merrill House.
"He lived long enough to know I'd been accepted for the program, and that's a great feeling," Cotter says. "It makes me proud, and it all comes at a time where I've figured out some things. I've changed so much since I became ill or started writing the book that I'm no longer the person I was.
"I was so terrified of the moment when all my hearing would disappear. I didn't really understand the perspective. I'm no longer afraid. I'm a different person. I knew how I would react (to deafness) then, but I didn't know how HE would — the person I've become."
Something akin to peace
Whatever happens in the course of Cotter's illness — and symptoms have, he says, either leveled out or he has reached a point where physically and psychologically he can negotiate them more adeptly — he's resolute in his determination to enjoy his blessings and the world at large. He credits Gabbert for her unending patience and support, and mentions friends and family members whose empathy have helped him reach a level of acceptance and an ability to appreciate and savor life.
"In the end, writing 'Losing Music' was a way to understand my relationship not just with the illness but with the world," Cotter says. "What I was frightened of losing was the life I'd imagined for myself. We all live in a small moment of time and, though we think we're masters of our fate, I think for the most part we're not. We're subject to many forces we don't understand and that we can't control."
He pauses, possibly looking at shelves full of James Merrill's books. He says, "Life is a huge library and we're only able to read a few volumes. That's where we are, and we each have to find our own meaning and sense of happiness. And that's what I'm doing."
Who: Norwich native and Merrill House writer-in-residence John Cotter
What: Virtual reading and conversation with author Joanna Scott
When: 5 p.m. Saturday
How much: Free
Access: Merrill House YouTube channel or Facebook page accessed via https://www.jamesmerrillhouse.org/eventsandnews.
For more information: https://johncotter.net
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