As a contractor, Joe Cottonwood made it a rule to avoid potential clients with white carpets. He knows he won’t get along with them, that they have unrealistic expectations of the world, and they aren’t going to like Cottonwood’s “rougher,” more “rustic style,” he says. He expects things to get rough, a bit dirty. That’s the ethos that guided him through more than 30 years of remodeling and rebuilding jobs near his home in La Honda, California, and through four novels, four young-adult books, a book of poetry, and his latest offering, 99 Jobs: Blood, Sweat and Houses, a look at the “construction life,” as he calls it.
“I don’t go for fancy stuff,” he says, speaking by phone. “That’s part of my construction style, and it’s also part of my writing style. I’m not looking for pretty metaphors all the time and that kind of thing. I just get to the heart of it. That’s pretty much what my construction is, too.”
The first story in 99 Jobs shows Cottonwood wiring an illegal rental space for a customer in 1989, melting a screwdriver on an electrical panel with a defective circuit breaker. The client wants to stiff him and deduct the cost of the circuit breaker from Cottonwood’s pay, and Cottonwood is only able to collect his full payment by threatening to tell the building department about the rental.
The book is full of personal pitfalls, oddities and small victories. Cottonwood’s clients over the years span a wide swath of humanity. They are troubled working people and petty millionaires, the stingy and the golden-hearted, the stoic and the flirtatious. Most were fine, he assures readers, and at the very least, gave him an opportunity to learn some truth about himself and other people. Even if that means, as it did in one job, repainting part of a ceiling after a client turned a fingerprint Cottonwood left behind into a giant mess.
“Those are the kinds of things you confront,” says Cottonwood. “And you learn what’s acceptable to you and what’s not. Sometimes, you learn it the hard way. You do things you regret, but you come out of it a better person. People test you. Sometimes they’re just shockingly wonderful people, you know, where you don’t expect it. And sometimes they’re shockingly horrible. That’s part of life.”
Cottonwood is hesitant to call 99 Jobs a memoir. Readers do get to watch him go from a young man changing light bulbs for a local college and doing his first construction jobs to a father warning his musician son away from pot (a drug of which he partook in his younger days) and eventually to a grandfather who worries about getting on a ladder. It’s all seen through his eyes, but he doesn’t feel it’s about him. He prefers to think of it as a book about “the humane side of construction.”
“I don’t consider myself the subject of the book,” he says. “I consider the construction life to be the subject of the book. And particularly not ‘how-to’ but ‘who is.’ That’s why I said ‘humane.’ It’s not about what tools to use or how projects go, it’s about the people you meet, the moral boundaries, the personal tests, the physical tests you went up against.”
“When I’m talking to my kid about smoking pot,” he adds, “it’s because he’s helping me with a job. I’ve hired him for the summer.”
In that same conversation with his son, Cottonwood describes himself as a “successful mediocre writer.” He’s being tongue-in-cheek in the context of the conversation, since his son wants to be a musician, and they are debating what it means to be successful. Cottonwood doesn’t believe he is a mediocre writer or that he’s a successful one, at least in the financial sense. He published his first book in 1973 with a small press. He also published his next book, Famous Potatoes, with a small press, but it was eventually picked up by Delta. He now self-publishes most of his work and has seen sales move from paper to e-books. Though he gets fan mail from around the world, he doesn’t produce best-sellers. He strives to break even financially.
“I consider myself successful in that I’m pleased with the work I’ve done, the writing I’ve produced,” he says. “I’m very satisfied with it. I feel like I did what I set out to do with it and it’s well-written, and…yeah, I take pride in it. So it depends on where success is defined. If it’s defined in terms of making a lot of money, no I’m not. But if it’s in terms of what I’ve written, I’m happy with it. And enough people are happy with it that I hear from them, and that makes me very happy.”
Cottonwood’s career has outlasted several sea changes in the industry. When he was more involved in traditional publishing, he had an agent who was an ardent defender of his work. When she passed unexpectedly, he was left a “midlist writer in a best-sellers’ world.” That forced him back into self-publishing and from print to e-books. It was strange, at first, for someone used to building things with his hands to get into e-books. But it was easier when he won a Kindle in a contest and started reading them.
“Everybody says it, and I said it, too: ‘I really love paper books. I don’t ever want to read e-books.’ And then you try one and, ‘Huh, not bad!’ So I think the world’s just going through that change. We, as writers, just need to get used to it,” Cottonwood says.
These days, Cottonwood only works as a contractor when he’s roped into it by friends and acquaintances. But contracting was always the day job, although one he found greatly rewarding. Writing is more a part of who he is, and if he had to choose, he would have been a full-time writer from the beginning. He says there are different satisfactions to writing and contracting, and though the result of both is something he made, the books are more satisfying.
“The reason is, I’m the only person who could have written that book,” he says. “I could build a great, great house, but I’m not the only person who could have done that. That’s kind of why I’m still writing and not still contracting. I’ve only got the energy for one. If I don’t create these characters, they will never exist. So I need to get them out of me. I need to get them out in the world.”
Nick A. Zaino III is a freelance writer based in Boston covering the arts for Kirkus Reviews, the Boston Globe, BDCWire.com, TheSpitTake.com and other publications