Thursday, October 15, 2020

C.J. Cooke Interview - The Nesting

Photo Content from CJ Cooke 

CJ Cooke grew up on a council estate in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She started writing at the age of 7 and pestered publishers for many years with manuscripts typed on her grandparents’ old Remington typewriter and cover notes written on pages ripped from school jotters.

Finally, in 2009, her hard work paid off, and her debut novel, The Guardian Angel’s Journal, about a woman who dies and comes back as her own guardian angel, was sold at a four-way auction at the Frankfurt Book Fair to Piatkus as their 2011 superlead title. The novel was published under the name Carolyn Jess-Cooke in 23 languages, and was an international bestseller. Since then, she has published two poetry collections, a creative anthology (titled Writing Motherhood) and three further novels, with a fourth, The Nesting, due out in October 2020.

Also a poet (published under Carolyn Jess-Cooke), CJ’s prizes for writing include a Northern Writers Award, an Eric Gregory Award, a Tyrone Guthrie prize, and she has twice received a K Blundell award from the Society of Authors. She holds a PhD in literature and film, and is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Glasgow, where she researches the impact of motherhood on women’s writing and inclusive approaches to literature. Based in north east England for many years, she now lives in Glasgow with her husband, four children, and a dog named Ralph, who thinks he’s human. CJ is currently working on her new gothic thriller, due out in 2021.

In March 2020 CJ Cooke set up the Stay-At-Home! Literary Festival, in partnership with the creative writing incubator, Paper Nations, in response to Covid-19, and as a venture to provide people with accessible, eco-friendly engagement with literature.

Who or what has influenced your writing, and in what way? 
Persistence and constraint are the two biggest factors that have impacted my creative life. I’ve been writing since the age of 7 and I was sending letters to publishers by the age of 9. I still have one of the responses, dated May 1991. I’m naturally persistent about things I’m passionate about, which is a necessary attribute as a writer, perhaps moreso than talent… But it’s more than persisting with publishers, of course; you also have to persist with the development of your craft. I’ve been writing over 30 years and I’m still pushing myself to get better with every book – I imagine I’ll be pushing myself until I’m no longer able to write. Constraint has been transformative, too – as an example, I worried enormously when I was pregnant that a new baby would mean that I couldn’t write anymore. And of course, family life is tremendously full-on, but it has made me become much more focused and efficient at managing the time that I have. I began my writing life as a poet, and the discipline of using less space to say more, and making every word and sentence pull its weight, transfers to my writing ethic more broadly in terms of ensuring that I’m not just working hard, but working smart. 

In terms of writers, Sylvia Plath had an enormous influence on me as a young writer. Later, Sharon Olds, Roald Dahl, and Franz Kafka. Filmmakers also influenced my writing, particularly Jane Campion, Christopher Nolan and David Fincher. 

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published. 
Getting emails from readers to tell me that the book resonated with me. Often they share very personal details and I privileged that they feel moved to share their story with me. Just yesterday I had an email from someone who had read I KNOW MY NAME - which depicts childhood trauma – and the author of the letter detailed their own experiences, and the ways in which the novel made them feel validated. I can’t quite capture how much that means to me. So much of the focus in the writer’s life is on sales figures and Amazon rankings, but connecting with another human being is the reason I do it. 

What do you hope for readers to be thinking when they read your novel? 
I want them to experience the world of the story through all their senses, as though they were living and breathing inside it. If they don’t, I feel I’ve failed in quite a fundamental way. I want the reader to find their own space within the novel to make meaning and interpret events; I don’t like everything wrapped up too neatly for the reader. I like them to be thinking about the novel a week, a month, and hopefully even a year later. 

In your new book; THE NESTING, can you tell my Book Nerd community a little about it. 
The Nesting is a gothic thriller set in Norway. Lexi is a 28-year-old woman from North East England at the end of her tether; she’s homeless when she comes across an opportunity to work as a nanny to two little girls. They’re in Norway, where their father is building a high-concept, eco-friendly summer home. The children have lost their mother, apparently to suicide, but Lexi finds evidence that she was being abused before she died. And the house and remote location is haunted. Lexi has to figure out how to stay alive before someone – or something – comes for her next. 

The emotional story of the book is the story of grief, and the relationship between Lexi and her charges, and how this helps her overcome her own childhood trauma. 

What was the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book? 
Mental space! I work full-time, I have a family, I have a busy life, and very often my brain is too full of to-do lists to be creative. My youngest child is autistic and for a long time I couldn’t leave her, as she was non-verbal and very attached to me. She’s 8 now, and still very attached to me, but she’s verbal now and so we can communicate. This means that I can go on a writing retreat and she can still FaceTime me and tell me about her day. For The Nesting, I went on four research trips to Norway – once for 2 weeks – and that time away, in the physical setting of the book, was absolutely crucial to getting into the headspace for the story. It was a transformative experience. 

What part of Lexi did you enjoy writing the most? 
Lexi came on the page pretty much fully-formed, and I adored her – she is traumatized and quirky and funny. In my mind she had this wonderful wit that I hadn’t anticipated, and I loved how honest and guileless she was. She was a joy to write. 

If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why? 
What a fabulous question! I think I would introduce Tom from The Nesting to Alex from The Boy Who Could See Demons. He’d probably build Alex his dream house. 

What’s the most ridiculous fact you know? 
That bees like to sleep inside flowers holding each other’s legs. 

Best date you've ever had? 
I spent my 24th birthday on a boat off the coast of Australia and saw humpback whales up close – it was probably the best day of my life (until I got married, obviously! J) 

If you wrote a journal entry today, what would it say? 
I had a nap today and it was FABULOUS. 

What event in your life would make a good movie? 
My childhood – growing up poor on a council estate in Belfast during The Troubles. 

What decade during the last century would you have chosen to be a teenager? 
Honestly, the decade that I was a teenager – the 1990s. We had the best music, and the best movies, of any generation since cinema and music began. And there were no mobile phones or social media. 

What is one unique thing are you afraid of? 
Brown envelopes. 

What was the best memory you ever had as a writer? 
Writing by a fjord in Norway inside a chocolate factory. 

  • I went to the public library but it was too loud. People were staring and it felt like being branded with hot irons. The books were full of stories that shouted at me and I worried they might fly off the shelves and hit me. Difficult to explain these kinds of things when a librarian is leaning over you asking why you’re hyperventilating on the floor. 
  • I remembered the look on my mother’s face when she met him. She was all timid, couldn’t get her words out. He was middle class, which is a bit like saying he was from Middle Earth, wielding a sword that turned blue at the prospect of charging orcs. My mother finds middle- class people – or in other words, anyone with a mortgage – intimidating. 
  • At first she thinks she’s looking at a ceiling lamp, a kind of Frank Gehry-esque ceiling lamp, cone-ish in shape, about the size of a medicine ball and patterned with art deco swirls in peach and mauve. With horror, she realizes what it is, and takes a step back in case its inhabitants wake and come seething out in a frenzy. 
  • The road climbed steadily up the side of a shark-fin mountain range, so that we were driving along a stone ridge looking down over a fjord with postcard-blue water. A white dot moving through the middle of it turned out to be a cruise boat, but the water was so still that the boat looked like it was a zip being pulled up a sheet of turquoise velvet. On the other side of the gorge were black zigzags of rock speckled with snow, rich green fields, and gushing waterfalls crowned with rainbows. 
  • Long before my mother’s dysfunctionality re- arranged the wiring of my brain I was the Wednesday Addams of every playgroup, a collector of dead insects, precociously obsessed with winding up any overly-smiley adult with whom I came into contact by telling them that Satan was my father, or replying to their benign, who’s-a- pretty-girl questions by deadpanning ‘I eat souls’. 
  • The house was bracketed by thick woods inhabited by wolves, bears, and probably witches, near to the towering cliff that overlooked the fjord. At night, when the girls were finally asleep, I’d tiptoe outside to look at the silhouetted forest, the shimmering fjord, and galaxies that jewelled the sky. The woods became conscious with owls, foxes, bats. Moonlight fell on elaborate spider webs and glinting demon eyes hiding in the shrubs. It was at once mesmerizing and slasher-movie sinister. 
  • There are cataracted slabs of ice here and there, some of them several inches thick, but for the most part the river runs fresh and clean through the trough of pebbled earth carved out over millennia. The insistent movement of the river is startling, even touching, amongst so much stillness – the land’s vibrant pulse. 
  • ‘The nøkk act on behalf of Mother Nature. They punish humans who overstep the mark. They might make shallow pools deepen and drown people who abuse nature. I’ve heard of crops that turned poisonous when the earth was not given proper stewardship.’ 
  • For her the world is still a place where tragedy can be outdone by triumph. Where sorrow can be quenched by noble acts, and the long shadow of death can be outshone by love’s light. He is duty bound to protect the world in which Gaia lives, this world of untarnished hope and unicorns, for as long as he can. 
  • Aurelia keeps her distance from Tom, as though he’s radioactive or clutching a live grenade, and paces unevenly by the window which is beginning to blister with rain. Six months ago they stood in this very room, emptied of its contents and blooming with fungi. They looked out at the view of the woods and endless sky and glittering fjord. Let’s buy it, Aurelia said. It’s perfect. And so he did. 
Writing Behind the Scenes 
I began writing The Nesting by putting together a short synopsis – this to me is a really great way of capturing the tone of the story, the ‘trailer’ for it. My agent reacted so positively to it that I started writing the first 3 chapters from that point, and after that I got index cards and began plotting and brainstorming the beats and shape of the story. I like this approach – it’s a very flexible form of planning, and I would periodically return to the cards and add or change elements of the story to accommodate plot lines that I’d experimented with and wanted to integrate. Experimentation is everything – you try things out, and sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. 

I got funding from the Arts Council of England to go to Norway. On my first trip, I went to Oslo to interview John Arne Bjerknes, the Co-director of the Nordic Office of Architecture. As The Nesting involves the building of a summerhouse in a remote part of Norway, I needed to get details about the logistics of this (for instance, how might someone acquire concrete and iron girders while in the Norwegian wilderness), what governmental consent would be required, and even some architectural guidance to inform the descriptions of the build. The next trip was for 2 weeks, and this time I travelled on a boat from Bergen, through the Arctic Circle to the Russian Border, and back down to Bergen. I went during winter, when it was pitch black for 22 hours a day, and I went alone, which was brilliant and a little daunting at times. I visited Viking graves, saw the Aurora Borealis, visited tiny Arctic fishing villages, and immersed myself in Norwegian folklore. I wrote over a third of the book while on the boat. 

The last trip was to Ålesund, which is close to where the book is set and where Aurelia in the story spent time as a child. I visited the fjord that the imagined summer home overlooks and wrote in a chocolate factory there. Although the book is only briefly depicted in the story, for me it was important to know a little more about Aurelia’s childhood and it made a huge difference being there in person. I’m a convert now to going to wherever my books are set, wherever possible.

The woods are creeping in on a nanny and two young girls in this chilling modern Gothic thriller.

Architect Tom Faraday is determined to finish the high-concept, environmentally friendly home he's building in Norway – in the same place where he lost his wife, Aurelia, to suicide. It was their dream house, and he wants to honor her with it.

Lexi Ellis takes a job as his nanny and immediately falls in love with his two young daughters, especially Gaia. But something feels off in the isolated house nestled in the forest along the fjord. Lexi sees mysterious muddy footprints inside the home. Aurelia's diary appears in Lexi's room one day. And Gaia keeps telling her about seeing the terrifying Sad Lady…

Soon Lexi suspects that Aurelia didn't kill herself and that they are all in danger from something far more sinister lurking around them
You can purchase The Nesting at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you C.J. COOKE for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of The Nesting by C.J. Cooke.