Author Bernard Cooper’s memoir “The Bill From My Father” (Simon and Schuster, 2007) reflects upon an actual bill for $2 million, the itemized cost of his upbringing, that he received from his lawyer father Edward when he was 23.
Cooper discusses the story with Eduardo Santiago on the deck of Cafe Aroma on Sunday, July 20 at 3 p.m.
Cooper is an esteemed writer, the recipient of the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Award and an O. Henry prize and literature fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He candidly discusses his odd relationship with his father — the $2 million bill that was not a joke — and reflects upon how it has helped him to understand and find meaning in his own history, which is a testament to the inner balance he has achieved in his life.
“It was certainly unpleasant and surprising to receive it at 23, awful and funny at the same time,” Cooper said. “I became interested in what his motivations were, to try to understand what was behind it, what sense of entitlement had driven him to do it.” Cooper said he only became preoccupied with his father’s motivations when he shared the “bill” with his friends. Some thought it tragic and others hilarious. Cooper said his emotions were much more complicated than indignation.
In the decades after receiving the bill, before he wrote his memoir, he began to think about what it is parents and children owe each other, literally and figuratively. “The book became not about passing judgment but just trying to understand the strange, troubling and sometimes sweet relationship with my father,” Cooper said. “I certainly thought a lot about him.”
Cooper is the youngest of four siblings. As a further window into his father, Cooper related that his two older brothers died while he was writing his book and that his father sued their widows for return of any monetary gifts given to the brothers. When Cooper asked his sisters-in-law, after they had read his book, whether it was fair or unfair to his father, they answered, “It’s not unfair enough!”
But for Cooper, his relationship with his father became a kind of meditation on memory and a way to find peace knowing the realities of what occurred while balancing strong paternal loyalties.
Cooper said he has long been interested in how visual artists use language as part of their creative template — how a story or a concept gets compressed and distilled into a form. “I became intrigued with the craft of writing, what would make or break a sentence — how an entire world could be compressed into a short space.” It is this interest in economy and compression that drives his writing.
He said that short story writing is his favorite form because of the necessity of describing so much in a finite space. “I start with an idea, something that haunts or nags,” he said. Then, with the characters that develop, he reaches a “necessary sense of abandonment” in which their voices take over. “So much happens spontaneously,” he notes, “that is where the invention is.”
Cooper has published two other memoirs, “Maps to Anywhere” and “Truth Serum,” a novel called “A Year of Rhymes” and a collection of short stories entitled “Guess Again.” His work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, Gentlemen’s Quarterly and The Paris Review. He is an art critic for Los Angeles Magazine and was a visiting writer in nonfiction at the famed University of Iowa’s writer’s program.
Cooper’s interview with Santiago is free to the public. Most events to date have been standing-room-only so come early to get a seat.