I’m absolutely beside myself right now. I have just gotten my hands on an exclusive. Oh Boy! Is this a big one! Jackie Roberts interviewed the author of her story, Jeff Cottrill. You know, Jackie – the main protagonist in the soon-to-be-released novel, Hate Story! It hasn’t been printed anywhere else! This. Is. Historical!
Put your seatbelts on! This is going to be quite a ride!
Jackie Roberts: [flicks on Olympus recorder] Thank you for being available, Jeff.
Jeff Cottrill: It’s a pleasure, Jackie.
JR: First of all, I’d really like to discuss the role of cinema references in Hate Story, and then go into detail about the animal symbolism throughout the novel.
JC: Sounds good to me.
JR: And later on, maybe we can talk about your portrayal of the Twitter generation and how you juxtapose it with the preteen bullying culture of the 1980s, and how popular music plays a part in that, and then… and… [trails off]
JR: [sighs angrily]
JC: Is… are you okay, Jackie?
JR: Yeah. [sighs again] No. I don’t know.
JC: What’s going on?
JR: Nothing. [long pause] You know something, Jeff? You really made me look like a huge dick in that book.
JC: Did I?
JR: Yes you did! You made me look like such a jerk. Jesus.
JC: I’m not sure I agree. I thought I approached you with a lot of compassion and empathy.
JR: Come on. I look like this socially stunted, movie-obsessed, child-hating weirdo who’s always insulting people on social media like some third-rate Dorothy Parker. I come off as this coward who can’t express herself honestly to other people unless there’s a keyboard in front of her.
JC: You think so? The funny thing is – I told people while I was writing Hate Story that you were the first fictional character I’d created whom I’d actually hang out with if she existed in real life.
JR: Give me a break. Really?
JC: I mean it. One thing I like about you in the first half is that, even though you’re getting all this nasty online trolling and criticism, you don’t play victim about it, the way some people do. Instead, you’re like, “Yeah. Bring it on, dickheads,” and you fight back. You don’t suffer any fools. Including yourself.
And a couple of beta readers who saw the early drafts – they said they’d want to be your friend too.
JR: I… seriously?
JC: Oh yeah. They said you were very interesting and relatable.
JR: [pause] But… but I don’t think I was very likeable.
JC: [deep breath] You know, I don’t understand this bizarre obsession that most publishers these days have with “likeable” protagonists. And I have to express “likeable” in quotation marks because the whole concept is so subjective, I don’t know how anybody can discuss it as a definitive, measurable thing. Somebody you find “likeable,” I might find boring and stiff, for all you know. I do think you’re a likeable character, Jackie – just not in that shallow Hardy Boys kind of way that people in the industry appear to mean.
JR: But will readers agree?
JC: I suppose it depends on the reader. I deliberately designed you to be the opposite of another dull Harry Potter or Nancy Drew type. And I very consciously did not want another calm, worldly, professional investigator hero who Always Knows The Score and whatnot. Haven’t we seen that character a million times already? I thought it would be far more interesting to put an amateur in that role and see what happened. Especially someone who didn’t always pick up on common social cues. I wanted a protagonist who was very smart in her own way, but who let her emotions spur her into making foolish decisions. This was important to me, as it has a deep thematic connection to the story – which is about people on the Internet trusting their gut instincts over logic and reason.
This is why I valued an arc of solid growth and learning over the standard “likeable” traits and facile heroism. I wanted a protagonist who made big mistakes and then learned big lessons from them.
JR: Yeah. Thanks loads, Jeff. Those mistakes put me in a lot of embarrassing situations.
JC: Sorry about that. I was thinking of the story. It is a black comedy, after all.
JR: But don’t you want the reader to root for me, at least? That seems to be what most readers want these days – and why the likeability factor seems to be necessary.
JC: [another deep breath] To be honest, this whole notion that protagonists have to be “likeable” – that they never make mistakes or do anything that the reader might disagree with – is completely new to me. And as a reader, I feel that it insults my intelligence. As a writer, I find it severely limiting, suffocating, and dishonest. And it’s not just me, by the way: I’ve seen other writers, and even one literary agent, complaining about this on social media.
Maybe it means I’m out of touch, but some of the most fascinating and unforgettable characters I’ve experienced in books (and plays, and movies, and TV) have been deeply flawed people. Sometimes those flaws are exactly what makes them relatable. Sure, a lot of people read for escapism, but denying characters their faults and eccentricities is a gross misrepresentation of human nature. Besides – surely one of the joys of both reading and writing is to see the world through the point of view of a person you normally wouldn’t “like,” isn’t it?
JC: Think about it, Jackie. Think about all the unique, memorable protagonists you’re kicking out of the canon by adopting “likeability” as the main standard.
Is Holden Caulfield “likeable”? I bet most people would say no – but many readers have still found aspects of him strongly relatable over the generations. What about Raskolnikov, or the Underground man? Alex DeLarge? Frederick Clegg? Martha and George? Any of the protagonists in Mordecai Richler’s novels or David Mamet’s plays? Any of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes?
JR: I see what you mean. [pause] There are also many great movie and TV antiheroes… like Scarlett O’Hara, Michael Corleone, Travis Bickle, Archie Bunker, Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White…
JC: Now you’re getting it. And Seinfeld was an enormous hit for nine seasons, even though all the main characters are high-functioning sociopaths.
JR: Not to mention all the lead characters in classic British sitcoms – Basil Fawlty, Eddy and Patsy, Blackadder, David Brent, Bernard Black, Father Ted Crilly, Fleabag… in fact, one thing I’ve always liked about British comedy is the way it makes you empathize with awful people. Even root for them, sometimes.
JC: There ya go. Just think of yourself as the Canadian Fleabag.
JR: Uh. Thanks, I guess.
JC: I mean, you’re a frickin’ saint compared to some of these folks, Jackie. But what all of them – and you – have in common is that they make big mistakes. As an imperfect person, I find it much easier to relate to flawed characters who make mistakes. Roger Ebert, whom I know you admire, called film “an empathy machine.” That goes for books too – and it goes even more for flawed characters than for “likeable” ones.
Honestly, if you’re a reader who can’t handle a protagonist that isn’t always “likeable,” within such a limited scope, I seriously have to question how well read you are. Characters need to have faults and weaknesses; otherwise, how are they supposed to grow and learn? Isn’t that what we want?
JR: [thinks about it] Yeah. I guess you’re right.
JC: So you’re okay with the way I depicted you in Hate Story now?
JR: Not really, no.
JC: Well, I’m afraid the ship has sailed.
JC: Anything else you want to ask me?
JR: [checks phone] Oh, fuck. I’m late for work again.
JR: You’re not going to write this into something too, are you?
JC: I kind of just did. [pause] So, you wanna hang out sometime?
[JR grabs recorder and dashes out of the room without answering]
Zoom Book Launch Information: Hate story will have its global launch on March 22, 2022. If you would like to attend, here is the link. https://www.facebook.com/events/653111776124415
Jeff Cottrill is a fiction writer, poet, journalist and spoken-word artist based in Toronto, Canada. He has headlined in countless literary series throughout Canada, the U.K., the U.S., France and Ireland over the last twenty years. His performance style is influenced by slam conventions but subverts them with wit, ironic humour, and a satirical tone.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Jeff has continued his spoken-word career via Zoom. In 2021, he had poetry and flash fiction published in several international anthologies, including Paper Teller Diorama (New York), Sinew: Ten Years of Poetry in the Brew (Nashville), Globalisation: The Sphere Keeps Spinning (Sydney, Australia) and Things Fall Apart: Mischievous Machines (Leeds, U.K.).
Other short fiction and poems by him have appeared in The South Shore Review and The Dreaming Machine. He holds a Master of Arts degree in English from the University of Toronto, as well as a certificate in creative writing from Humber College. Jeff is the former Literary Editor of Burning Effigy Press.
Hate Story is Jeff’s seventh or eighth attempt at a first novel.
Jeff likes writing, movies, travel, and puppies.
Dragonfly Publishing: https://www.dragonflypublishing.com.au/
Hate Story Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Hate-Story-a-novel-101921662249264
Lisa’s (from Dragonfly Press) interview with Jackie: https://www.lisawolstenholme.com/post/interview-with-jackie-roberts
Guest Post at Life With More Cowbell: https://lifewithmorecowbell.com/2022/01/25/guest-post-jeff-cottrill-on-the-inspiration-for-hate-story/