No laughing matter
Former comedian delivers a darkly alluring first novel
People who know Teri Coyne's work as a stand-up comedian are going to be very, very surprised by her intense, emotionally wrenching first novel, The Last Bridge. There are many good words that could describe Coyne’s story of 28-year-old Alex “Cat” Rucker, an alcoholic waitress who fled her rural childhood home as a teenager then returns to confront her family demons 10 years later, after her mother’s suicide. “Page-turner,” perhaps. Or “psychologically compelling.” But “funny”? Most definitely not.
“People ask, wow, where did that come from?” Coyne says with a characteristic laugh during a call to her home on Long Island’s North Fork. For some years Coyne managed a technical writing and training team at a New York law firm and divided her time between an apartment in Queens and the 110-year-old house she bought and renovated on Long Island, while performing and writing on the side. The favorable early buzz about her first book has not entirely freed her from needing a job, but she now works as a consultant and spends more time at her North Fork home composing an early draft of a second novel. “I am drawn to the darker side of humor,” Coyne says. “I was inspired and influenced by comedians like Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks. But when I performed, I certainly wasn’t intense and dark like this book.”
The Last Bridge developed from a kind of vision Coyne had after abandoning standup in order to tell a larger story than she could in her comedy routines. “The book started with an image in my head of a mother taping garbage bags to the wall, a shotgun and the opening line of the book: ‘Two days after my father had a massive stroke, my mother shot herself in the head.’ Once I heard that voice, I couldn’t stop. I wrote the opening line and it just started coming. Looking back, it started at a time in my life when I was exploring this concept of what makes a family, what makes a person a parent. Is it blood or is it choice? Are we the product of our experiences? Or are we the product of our choices? As I started to write this story, it became very clear that that was really what I was trying to explore.”
The exploration did not go entirely smoothly. “Clearly when it takes you 10 years to write a book, you’re not in a big hurry to get something out there,” Coyne says, laughing. “This was my first book. I was learning the process of writing a novel while I was working on it. My goal was not publication but rather to make it the best story I could make it. That meant spending a lot of time writing and rewriting and focusing on getting the tone right.”
Interestingly, Coyne says that she had to leave her house to write the most difficult parts of the book. “When I was working on something that was really, really emotional it was easier for me to just go sit in a public space because for some reason I’m not as distracted in a public space.”
Although she can’t listen to music while she writes, Coyne uses music to get into the writing. She developed playlists for each character she was working on. “Every character has a song and that song just puts me immediately into the head of that person,” she says. Her playlists are on iTunes and her website.
Coyne’s early struggles to learn her craft were not helped by the nature of her central character, Alex, otherwise known as Cat. “It’s very difficult to write a character that you know your reader is not going to like right away. Cat is not a very likeable person in the beginning. But I felt very protective of her. I had to find a way to keep readers with me until I could show who she really is. Anger is not a real emotion and Cat’s anger is a disguise for something deeper. I had to find a way to show what that anger is covering.”
Part of what Alex is covering—or running from—is an abusive relationship with her father. Coyne’s unnerving portrait of that relationship draws on research she did with victims of abuse and from her own family history.
“Cat is not me,” Coyne says, “and none of the characters are reflective of people or characters in my own life, but some of their qualities are composites. That said, I made them all up, so they really are me. I dedicate the book to my father. He had a drinking problem and he had abusive and violent behavior. I struggled with that, as did all the people in our family. There’s this very private thing that happens inside of the family and then there’s this public life you lead in school or outside of the family. You learn very early that your family situation is not something you share outside of your family.”
“I had a lot of friends who had siblings who were kind of the black sheep or developed drug problems or drinking problems,” Coyne recalls. “People thought these people were broken, that something was wrong with them, that they were weak, that they didn’t have any ambition. But the older that I got and the more that I talked to people and saw what really happens to people who come from abusive families, I saw that these are not weak people. These are people that are masquerading a tremendous amount of pain. As I started to learn more and understand more, I started to really see that we have these notions or conceptions about people who are troubled that often aren’t really honest about what that person is really going through. It’s very, very important for me to shed light on that.”
As a result of this passion for bringing light to a difficult subject, Coyne’s empathic and ultimately redemptive first novel has struck a chord with early readers in ways that have completely amazed her. “It has been a lifelong dream of mine to get a book sold and published,” she says. “It’s a phenomenal thing that has happened to me. But I have to say I am in total awe of the reading community. It has just really blown me away how passionate readers are and how they do go out of their way to make contact with me and how dedicated they are to getting the word out about The Last Bridge. It’s really impressive and inspiring.”
The feeling, it seems, is completely mutual.
Alden Mudge writes from Berkeley, California.