Coffey, former PW co-editorial director, has penned a book about baseball, co-edited another about the Irish experience in America (a companion to a PBS series), and published three books of poetry. The Business of Naming Things is his first collection of short stories.
Why is the difficult relationship between fathers and sons a recurring motif in your stories?
This book began as a memoir, with my trying to search for some kind of identity. Having been adopted, this is where my search began. When the issue of who your parents are is ambiguous, it can render unstable one’s gift for parenthood—in my case, fatherhood. Many of these stories deal with fathers and sons, and my experience, of course, is as both. I came to understand that, rather than truth telling with the facts, having the freedom to write these fictional stories allowed me to find my footing and a kind of moral center.
How did writing poetry evolve into writing short stories?
When I look back at the poetry, I see earlier stages of searching for a kind of identity through language. In my first book, Elemenopy, I was looking to pay homage to early mentors. It’s quite experimental and apes some of the procedures of those folks who were writing against experience. They were using language not to be confessional or to reflect personal experience, and that gave me license to produce text that was interesting but that didn’t have anything to do with my life. My second book, 87 North, was a way to connect to where I grew up in upstate New York. I had lost my adoptive parents then, and I was trying to conserve their experience, our experience together. The following book, CMYK, was very much about doing with language what the visual arts were doing aesthetically with their materials: not necessarily telling a story, but working more abstractly. When I found out who my birth parents were in 2006, I didn’t write any more poetry. I was interested in story—what was my story? So the poetry prepared me for what I’m doing now.
What would you like readers to get from your book?
I’d like to give them an example of the things you can find out about yourself in literature or in language—one more vote for fiction as a way of knowing yourself.
And, finally, can you talk about what your life is like after 26 years at PW?
I’m trying to settle into a new way of being. I was worried that not having the structure of getting out this weekly magazine 52 weeks a year would leave me a little adrift, but I’m finding that the demands of life in general are such that you have to remain busy or else things will overwhelm you.