Interview with Patrick Finegan – Author of Cooperative Lives

COOPERATIVE LIVES
Patrick Finegan
Two Skates Publishing (2019)
ISBN 9781733902526
Reviewed by Paige Lovitt for Reader Views (1/20)

Patrick Finegan was born during the latter half of the Eisenhower Administration and graduated during the Carter and Reagan Administrations from Northwestern University and the University of Chicago Law School and Graduate School of Business. He worked more than thirty years in law, corporate finance, management consulting and risk management. He has a wife and grown daughter and has lived in the New York metropolitan area his entire professional life – most of it in the same residential cooperative. Cooperative Lives is his first work of fiction.

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Hi Patrick, thank you for joining us today at Reader Views. To start, tell us a bit about your writing journey – when did you start writing and what was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

I can’t point to anything specific, but I have been working on narrative and persuasive skills my entire life. I was a debater throughout high school and college, became a management consultant, corporate executive and lawyer, and authored hundreds of client reports and professional pieces before devoting time to fiction. What connected these enterprises was love of rhetoric – not merely the formulation of informed arguments, but their delivery in a stirring, memorable fashion.

I am a deliberative writer. I read my work aloud – tweaking, refining, and rewriting until the words roll from my tongue like good oratory. I began this practice 45 years ago, fascinated by the speeches of Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, aware their power lay not just in ideas, but in a magnificent alchemy of words.

My first notable oratorical experience was middle school commencement. The Watergate break-in was a week old. We were mired in Vietnam. The Robert Vesco affair was front-page news, and the Department of Justice had launched an investigation of a milk processing consortium that made substantial and legally questionable contributions to the presidential campaigns of Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon. Rather than celebrate our middle school experience, I delivered a lengthy Op-Ed piece on the imperiled state of American democracy. I then exhorted my classmates (mere 13-year-olds) to rescue it. Several parents and teachers applauded wildly. Others fumed. Two stormed out. Most sat in stunned silence. I learned language had power. Considerable power. The high school debate team recruited me several weeks later.

What is “Cooperative Lives” about?

Cooperative Lives is about the intertwined misadventures of strangers in an upscale New York residential complex. Sheldon is a widower and money manager in 14N. He’s struck by a swerving bus while protecting the wheelchair-bound wife of the unemployed securities lawyer in 8B. In a comatose stupor, he imagines the attorney has resolved an urgent financial matter on behalf of his client in 14P. Doctors believe his insistent raving; so does the co-op. Meanwhile, the client’s funds disappear, and the FBI turns its attention to Sheldon’s asserted advisor, the unemployed lawyer in 8B.

One floor below, close friends of the lawyer and his wife are witting and unwitting CIA operatives in disrupting an elusive Iranian spy ring. The locus of operation is a leading New York hospital, where their daughter is being treated for leukemia. Unbeknownst to the prolific romance writer in 13N, the CIA’s lead investigator is her son. Stir in an overzealous Fox News reporter, a long-forgotten flame, two poorly experienced lawyers, plus an everyday dose of medical mishap, and the co-op becomes a media circus.

Cooperative Lives is a novel about the fragility and resilience of bonds – between family members, co-workers, building staff, lovers and neighbors – when tested by illness, differences of class, race, religion and age, seemingly trivial misjudgments, and unwelcome outside attention. The events take place from 2010-13 – in a world not yet untethered by rampant nationalism and the results of the 2016 election.

What inspired this story?

An abundance of time, courtesy of the 2008 financial crisis. To avoid depression, I skated regularly, studied foreign languages, volunteered at two not-for-profits, and began writing. My first efforts were short stories about the imagined lives of fictionalized neighbors. Surprisingly, they read well. I wrote more. Eventually, I wove the stories together and packaged their collective 138,000 words into a novel.  

You’ve dubbed “Cooperative Lives” “the world’s most contemporary historical novel.” Explain.

Cooperative Lives takes place in 2011-13 – three short, but important years before Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election. Much of the backstory occurs in the 1980s and 1990s. No one knew who Edward Snowden was, or that the NSA had unfettered access to our telephone records. The Islamic State did not exist. The Arab Spring held promise. The United States worked closely with its democratic allies, and white supremacists were considered fringe.

Economically, New York was still reeling from 9/11, the dotcom bubble, the financial crisis, and a string of money management scandals. Its professional and business titans were vulnerable. For many, it was their first experience with genuine uncertainty and fear, with humility. Fortunes imploded, executives lost jobs by the thousands but proved overqualified for new ones, and the crushing struggles of working-class families caught up with the rich. For a moment.

Just seven years have passed, but the New York I described is over. Stock markets are overheated, Western economies appear to be thriving, and a new generation of industry titans has overtaken Wall Street – as seemingly oblivious to the fragility of their entitled lives as the previous one.

Politically, the world has become Orwellian. I don’t know where to begin. Cooperative Lives describes a world which, despite its glaring imperfections, has faded into time but deserves to be remembered. Nostalgia wasn’t an intended theme in 2012 but postponing the book’s publication until 2019 made it so.

“Write what you know” is deemed as almost sacred advice when writing a novel.  How much reality did you incorporate into your novel?

I wanted readers to judge my first novel by its writing, not its research. I therefore chose topics, themes and locales I knew well. Take away the plot, juggle the characters and timeframes, modify several outcomes, and you could reconstitute Cooperative Lives as a memoir.

I am an early-age Stage IV cancer survivor. My younger brother, mother and only uncle were early-age cancer victims. I worked on corporate restructurings in the 1980s, debt and equity offerings in the 1990s, and IT and risk management in the early 2000s. More telling, I lived in the same luxury co-op for 25 years. My neighbors were, as in Cooperative Lives, a “Who’s Who” of New York’s elite – the president of Planned Parenthood, the CEO of Reader’s Digest, a former NBA champion and senator from New Jersey, a money manager, several Broadway stars, and the retired personal assistant to the president of Schubert Theaters. But there was also me, the mixed-race child of a struggling insurance salesman and former fashion artist for Simplicity Patterns and McCall’s. The co-op brimmed with ordinary, non-famous professionals, struggling to provide their families with the trappings of an elite New York lifestyle.

Of course, no one is truly ordinary, not even if they are struggling and non-famous. Not if you pry deeper. And that’s where my novel becomes fiction, in the imagined tribulations and misadventures of “ordinary” people in an otherwise upper echelon community.

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Did you have a preconceived idea about how you wanted your story to play out or did the plot line develop over time?

My goals were modest. I began with a series of loosely connected short stories. I envisioned something akin to Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge but situated in an upscale Manhattan cooperative instead of a remote town in Maine. In the first story, a grieving divorcé locks himself out of his apartment during a blackout. In the second, a wife reproaches her husband for defying a “Don’t Walk” signal in front of their child but is herself killed while obeying it. In a third, an aging fund manager commits an egregious act of negligence but is saved from ruin by the words on a long-forgotten pack of cigarettes. Other stories involved writer’s block, medical malpractice, skiing accidents – a mishmash of characters and topics.

I am unsure what motivated me to transform these stories into a cohesive narrative. Legal training? There were so many unresolved questions. What drove the man in the first story to be compulsive? Did he live alone? Why should anyone care about him? Did the couple in the second story know him? In what capacity? Did the woman have to die, or could she instead have been saved by the aging money manager in the third story? How would that have affected his trading fiasco? Would it help that the woman’s husband was a lawyer? An unemployed lawyer? At some point, the stories morphed from a shotgun commentary on all things New York into a character study of a co-op under siege. The co-op and the streets became muses in that study – a study which, because of its layered short story genesis, crossed genre into suspense, satire, mystery and romance.

How much of the story came as a surprise to you as you were writing? Did any of your characters end up doing something you hadn’t planned on, taking the story in a new direction?

I initially envisioned five or six protagonists. The remaining characters were bit parts – a doctor here, a lawyer there, an FBI agent – introduced and dismissed whenever an episode requiring them opened and closed. But a theatrical adage gnawed at me: “There are no small parts, only small actors.” Good storytelling means imbuing each character, no matter how peripheral, with depth – i.e., making their thoughts, actions and behavior fully comprehensible. Sometimes, that involves digression.

Unfortunately, creating persuasive and endearing bit characters isn’t enough. If you ask readers to invest time in another character, in another seeming digression, and then another minor character and digression, you owe them genuinely satisfying closure. That means weaving every character and story arc, no matter how minor, into the book’s main narrative thread and conclusion.

What began as a collection of seemingly disconnected short stories became so entwined by the final chapter that I rechristened the manuscript Cooperative Lives. It captured the essence of the novel perfectly.  

Who is the most interesting character development-wise in “Cooperative Lives?”

I vacillate between the wives, Hanife and Susan. Their husbands are outwardly unremarkable – stressed business professionals, nagged by self-doubt, financial qualms and the insecurities of middle age. The wives share this angst, but at a distance. Hanife leads a secret double-life as a CIA informant, and Susan feels imprisoned by a marriage she once cherished but now despairs. Hanife is Kurdish diaspora. Susan is African American – a former track star from Georgia who, among the luxury co-op’s older, whiter neighbors, is an outsider. Both married men who were older. In Susan’s case, much older. Both have preteen girls. Hanife’s girl dies. Susan’s girl lives but faces her own trauma. It is impossible to divulge more without spoiling the plot, but I regard Susan and Hanife as the most complex and interesting characters in my novel.

Which character in your book are you least likely to get along with and why?

The glib answer would be a minor character who happens to be jerk or villain. Sanford Hotchkiss, Andrea Lyden, Marcia Wasserman and Stanley Hochstabler come to mind. Stanley is the unfaithful husband of a pediatric oncologist; he moonlights as an insurance salesman, squash pro and gigolo. Marcia is a main character’s ex-wife and a client of said gigolo. Andrea is an ill-tempered, ethically challenged IT director who’s sleeping with the company’s chief counsel, Sanford Hotchkiss. Sanford is a married resident of the co-op with decidedly unclean hands; he’s also a colossal jerk.

The serious answer would be Meryl Scott Rupert, a reporter for Fox 5 Television in New York, and a key player in propelling the plot forward. Politics aside (Meryl works for Rupert Murdoch), Meryl practices the art of innuendo – insinuating conclusions rather than proving them. When she does investigate, she calls on her friends from the shuttered and disgraced News of the World for help with phone tapping. Meryl is seasoned in attacking people ad hominem. We meet her when she crashes a fortieth birthday party and begins an explosive argument with the guest of honor. Not an easy person to get along with.

What do your family and friends think about your writing? How do they support your writing career?

Cooperative Lives remained a secret until all but six chapters were complete. I began writing it as a diversion, a way to occupy myself and preserve sanity during the financial crisis. My wife assumed I was writing articles about corporate finance, perhaps even a book, but certainly not a novel. I chose not to disabuse her.

Until it was published, only three friends acknowledged perusing the manuscript (I distributed at least fifteen). Two readers were pen pals from Germany and Austria. The third was a former law school classmate and present-day playwright who offered detailed criticism of the first four chapters but encouraged me to rethink nearly everything else. I would never have published the book without their collective insight and support.

Once published, I circulated copies to dozens of friends, some of whom read and reviewed it – in many instances unaware the content was identical in places to the unopened or deleted manuscript I emailed them seven years earlier. Once reviews and awards poured in, other friends followed. My fan base is still tiny, but I am encouraged enough to write more.

How did it feel sharing your work with them for the first time?

I was apprehensive. I committed a classic rookie mistake by publishing Cooperative Lives before circulating advance review copies to news outlets and bloggers. I therefore had no idea whether the book would be greeted upon publication with contempt, praise or indifference. I sent copies to friends I hadn’t seen in ages, more as an ice breaker than anything else, an excuse to get back in touch. But among close acquaintances, those I associate with daily or weekly, I hedged my bet, not mentioning the book or my work as a writer unless directly asked. Heaven forbid it was panned! I fretted about not using an alias. I was genuinely fearful of derision. Thankfully, things worked out; the book was well-received. But I still don’t mention the book or writing among close acquaintances. I am just a retired lawyer, a father, a not-for-profit board member, whatever – anything except a self-proclaimed author.

“Cooperative Lives” has received numerous honors in the form of amazing reviews and literary awards.  How have you been handling all this attention? What’s it been like to receive such accolades on your debut novel?

The experience is gratifying. The manuscript sat on my hard drive for seven years. Every time I revisited it, I enjoyed reading it, assuring myself it was well written. It depressed me that I knew no one in the publishing industry, and that so few friends answered entreaties to read the draft. I am, however, maddeningly stubborn. “To hell with agents! To hell with publishers! To hell with reviews!” I thought. I published the book myself, true to the maxim, “Believe in yourself,” yet immensely fearful of becoming a laughingstock in my big city, small world community.

My next task is to package the reviews and awards into a sales pitch for foreign publishers and movie producers. I am a fan of German literary fiction (“Belletristik”) and think Cooperative Lives would resonate with European readers. I also think it would make a successful movie. Without literary praise and recognition, these assertions would have rung hollow. I am humbled by every reader who has taken time to write a review, and incredibly grateful for the credibility they and the awards have given me in promoting my work to a broader audience.

What can you tell us about your publishing experience? 

I enjoyed publishing Cooperative Lives but made every mistake imaginable. The biggest mistake was relying on a seven-year-old impression of the industry. Back in 2013, few authors self-published by choice. Self-publishing was regarded as the province of vanity books and permanently obscure authors. It was also predominantly do-it-all-yourself – with minimal access to reputable editors, cover services, media coverage or marketing tools. Self-publishing was often a last resort.

Cooperative Lives languished on my hard drive for seven years, so self-publishing was indeed my last resort. But if I had researched, I would have learned my seven-year-old impression of the industry was outdated. Self-publishing has become a thriving, economically viable alternative to mainstream publishing – provided authors avail themselves of crucial resources for hire. These include proofreaders, content editors, typesetters, beta readers, illustrators and advance review services. I availed myself of none and am amazed, in retrospect, that my book turned out as well as it did. There is a profound sense of satisfaction from doing everything oneself, but it comes at great cost. My book would have been tighter and better selling if I had retained a content editor, cover artist and marketing service. I seem to learn lessons the hard way.

My second biggest mistake was not circulating advance copies to media outlets and the Library of Congress before publication. Once published, Cooperative Lives became “old news.” The major news outlets were no longer interested; and obtaining a Library of Congress number, important to many libraries, was impossible.

My POD services were Kindle Direct Publishing and IngramSpark. I recommend both without reservation.

What do you like to read and which authors have inspired your own work as a writer?

During grad school, an English literature major shamed me for reading exclusively science fiction. I was a professed expert on Harlan Ellison, Ursula Le Guin, Frank Herbert and Frederik Pohl, but had never read anything by Edith Wharton, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, Somerset Maugham or Anthony Trollope. I spent the next decade and a half reading every Penguin classic I could scrounge, gravitating to contemporary fiction when, at last, I’d exhausted the Penguin library.

I am typically risk averse and a follower. I select movies that are well-reviewed, attend art exhibits that are lauded and read the winners of the National Book Award, Man Booker Prize and Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, plus many of those contests’ finalists. If I browse at a bookstore, I seek the literary fiction section and inevitably select titles that are displayed prominently. With few exceptions, I rely on the opinions of others.

One bonus of entering book contests is they made me curious about books that bested mine. Thanks to defeat, I discovered wonderful books I would otherwise never have considered reading. The same occurs when my book receives an especially interesting review. If the reviewer is a novelist, I order a copy of their work – a matter of professional courtesy. The practice opened my eyes to several non-bestselling titles that were nevertheless marvelous reading.

There are many fabulous writers from which to draw inspiration. My favorite author is Edith Wharton, but I am awed by the contemporary works of Anthony Doerr, Jesmyn Ward, Richard Powers, Eleanor Catton, Richard Flanagan and many other A listers. They are masters of their craft.

Being an author is a full-time job these days. What do you enjoy most about the process? What is your biggest challenge?

The most enjoyable part of writing fiction is invention – creating characters who are outwardly unremarkable but whose personalities, thoughts and activities are as eccentric, intense and varied as our own. Writing fiction and method acting are similar. Their shared goal is making readers or viewers suspend disbelief, making them care about individuals they know are unreal but who feel real because of the deftness in which they are portrayed. Psychic immersion is the key – intuiting how a character perceives himself and the world around him, the choices he makes as a result, and how he copes with grief, adversity and failure. Creating thoroughly convincing protagonists who are not somehow extensions of your own thoughts, opinions and temperament is hard, but it is also incredibly rewarding.

My biggest challenge is keeping the plot in focus. Random thoughts, digressions and back stories are what make characters relatable and, in some instances, addictive. But these mental side journeys risk distraction. They are a difficult balance – furnishing enough introspection to hook you on a character, but not so much as to disengage you from the plot. The eureka moments come when I devise ways to make all that seemingly superfluous information crucial to the plot. It is difficult, often insurmountable, and I’m often forced to jettison thousands of words I slaved over. But that’s the formidable truth. Balancing rich character development with narrative momentum is hard.

Many writers are introverted by nature.  Coming from the legal and corporate world, I wouldn’t imagine that to be an issue with you.  How has your corporate training helped with your marketing and promotion efforts?

In theory, corporate and entrepreneurial experience should help immensely. I am well organized, an extrovert, and experienced in selling. I’ve been packaging, repackaging and marketing services my entire professional life. However, one reason I retired was the marketing side of business was all-consuming, utterly exhausting, and stressful. I’ve grown old for its demands.

At least five more ingredients are essential to a marketing campaign, not just experience and training. They are time, money, zeal, patience and luck.

To be effective, marketing should be nearly full time and sustained. Woe to the author who prefers to write their next opus or has other pressing commitments. In 2014, I joined the board of the Skating Club of New York, one of the oldest and largest figure skating organizations in North America. I run the website, manage the club’s IT, and am heavily invested in the club’s public outreach. That’s 25-30 volunteer hours per week. There are also the estates I manage plus the house I’m renovating two hours’ drive from my apartment. In addition, I have time-consuming avocations, among them skating, studying piano, and studying various foreign languages. Time is precious, so I’ve been loath to devote major portions of it to book promotion. Granted, my sales experience and seeming imperviousness to rejection have improved the effectiveness of my marketing hours, but those hours are a fraction of what I previously devoted to, for example, selling financial and advisory services. Because time is short, I doubt I will ever “make a living” as an author, which brings up the next ingredient: money.

Gaining visibility is expensive. The major news outlets are busy enough with the giant publishing houses. They don’t have the resources or appetite to discover unproven authors. Self-publishing is nevertheless mushrooming, so dozens of fee-based services have developed to connect aspiring writers with lay and professional critics. Paid reviews and paid book contest entries have become a vital way for self-published works to attract public attention. The required investment is, of course, significant. Thankfully, I was a successful finance professional. Without the wherewithal to enter book contests and commission editorial reviews, while still supporting my family, sales would have wallowed in the single digits.

Zeal is the ability to exude total belief and confidence in a product, and the ability to infect others with that same enthusiasm. It is the most valuable tool in a seller’s kit and more important than whether the seller is introverted or extroverted. Push the right button and a zealous believer will light up, touching everyone around them with their passion. Exhibit A?  Greta Thunberg. Where experience helps is in marshalling that passion into talking points, ones that will hook librarians, booksellers and others into gambling on you. Sometimes, you need to be a carnival barker.

Patience is also crucial. Branding myself as an author is a marathon. It won’t be accomplished with one book, no matter how many accolades it wins or how well it is reviewed.

Finally, an important theme of my book is happenstance – how seemingly random occurrences and flashes of good or bad fortune can influence the lives of everyone. The same holds true in publishing. Not all great authors prosper. Not all bad authors fail. Writing, like life, is a gamble.

What’s next in terms of your writing career? Do you have another novel planned?

My forte as a writer is developing relatable, deeply nuanced characters. I hope to build on that strength in a second novel – situated again around New York. I spent the winter hatching characters, some of whom I will employ. I have honed down promising locales and themes but am months away from devising a specific plot. If the stars align, the first draft will be completed this autumn, but life’s myriad distractions may intervene. I anticipate a multiyear project of writing, rewriting, editing and rewriting.

Where can readers connect with you and learn more about you and your work?  (Social media links, website, blog, etc.)

My Twitter account is @pat_finegan and its focus is literary. Much of my online socializing, i.e., family news and friend group activities, transpires on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/patrick.t.finegan, but there is a website devoted exclusively to my writing, http://www.twoskates.com. The website includes links to interviews plus all published professional and reader reviews. In addition, it describes how to reach me or order copies of my book. Readers can also contact me through LinkedIn, Xing, Goodreads, Reedsy Discovery, Author’s Den and the Online Book Club.

Do you have anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Your voice is important. Please remember to vote.

Patrick, thank you so much for joining us today at Reader Views.  It’s been a pleasure learning more about you and your work!

Thank you.

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CONNECT WITH PATRICK FINEGAN!

Website: http://www.twoskates.com
Facebook
Twitter @pat_Finegan
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Read our review of Cooperative Lives!

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