Carolyn Jess-Cooke

Carolyn Jess-Cooke

This interview was conducted via email so it’s only available as text.

Thanks for agreeing to this interview for Dark Matter.

Thanks Nalini! Glad to be interviewed 🙂

What inspired you to take up writing as a career?

I have always, always wanted to be a writer – or rather writing was something I’ve always done; I still have drafts of the letters I wrote to publishers at the age of nine or ten, begging them to publish my little novels. I’ve had various careers, including a Senior Lectureship in Film Studies at Sunderland University, but I gave up tenure recently to write full-time – a dream come true.

How do you get an idea for a book?

I carry a notebook with me all the time and am always jotting down ideas. I think stories emerge out of questions I have, and my work is a way of answering those questions: what if I died and came back as a guardian angel? I write about the things that fascinate and stimulate me.

Do you plan out the whole book before you write it?

I’ll say that I attempt to do that, but I much prefer writing out of curiosity. When I’ve it all mapped out the writing process it’s boring because I already know what happens!

Describe a typical writing day.

I have absolutely no typical writing day. I have 3 small children, all pre-schoolers, and I write when my husband or mother-in-law is able to babysit or when they’re all asleep. Usually I’ll get a 2-3 hour block of time to write in; a writing day is a rarity, but when I get it, I work hammer and tongs from about 9am-3pm and throw a tantrum if I don’t churn out 5000 words in that time.

What writing rituals do you have?

I much prefer spontaneity over ritual, but chocolate is a constant companion. Some writers advocate a long walk to mull over plot detail; I much prefer stirring a cup of cocoa.

What do you do when you have writer’s block?

I force myself to write anyway. I don’t have time to be blocked. There are times, however, when I need to ‘fill the well’ and recharge my imagination, so I’ll play the piano, go on a day trip with my kids through the woods, or to an art gallery.

How do you balance writing and your other full time job?

I recently downscaled from the manic juggling act of a full-time job as an academic, mothering my kids, and writing to writing and mothering. Balance is ever an issue, and something always has to give. In my case, it’s probably the housework…

Are your books or characters autobiographical?

I don’t know, is the honest answer; not intentionally. Recently I bumped into someone I hadn’t seen in years and remarked how much they reminded me of a character in my novel; now I’m wondering if I subconsciously based the character on that person!

What advice can you give to writers starting out?

Write and write and write. And then write some more. When you have something finished that you are bursting to show someone else, find an agent.

How do you go about getting a book published?

There are various routes; I’ve published a poetry collection and four academic books as well as a novel, and each took different approaches. The publishers of the poetry collection invited me to submit my manuscript to them; I emailed the publishers of my academic books directly; and my novel was sold by my agent. I would recommend an agent above all other approaches.

Which living author do you most admire and why?

Mary Oliver, the American poet. Her work uplifts and inspires me on a par with being transported to a lush New England meadow at the height of spring; equally so, I admire that she refuses to publish work that does not serve what she calls a ‘spiritual purpose’.

How does your family feel about you writing? And everything that comes with that non-traditional lifestyle?

They are tremendously supportive. My mother-in-law is to be commended for being our one and only babysitter; without her, I never would have been able to write half of what I have done. My husband will probably never understand how indebted I am to him for his support; writers tend to become zombies when in the thick of a writing spree!

Is there anything you would like to add to your Wikipedia page that you would like fans to know?

That motherhood has defined my writing. Wikipedia and websites list awards and publications, but the real accolades, inspiration and motivation lie beyond all that in a much more domestic setting that would probably come across as boring.

What would you like to tell us about your first novel, The Guardian Angel’s Journal?

It’s about a woman who dies and is sent back to earth (and in time) as her own guardian angel, returning to the moment of her birth and watching on as her mortal self makes all the mistakes she regrets. Her ‘behind the scenes’ perception of life and humanity gradually changes her view of life and love, and she tries to change things; such as the breakdown of her marriage and the downfall of her son. I should mention that the book began as a poem I started writing on a train about life after death, prompted by a recent death in the family. I couldn’t finish the poem, couldn’t work out the answer I was looking for by writing it. Maybe if I had finished that poem, the book would never have emerged.

Why choose such a difficult subject (child abuse, being an adult survivor) as the subject of your first novel?

There are two reasons for that: firstly, I like to write about what I know, and I know what it’s like to be an abused child. Secondly, I believe that there are always second chances, that no matter how bad you may have had it starting out in life, there is always a way to overcome it. I refuse to believe that circumstance is the author of destiny.

Your characters in Journal are so real, so believable, and the background of abuse in orphanages is well researched. Do you have a personal connection with someone who has lived this experience?

I never lived in an orphanage, but I drew upon a lot of childhood memories in writing the book.

How do you maintain such compassion for characters like Margot whilst also expressing Ruth’s feelings toward Margot?

I adored Margot, and for many reasons. My compassion for her was simply because she had so many imperfections and contradictions, revealing flaws that many of us would show if examined the way she is by Ruth. And I think most of us are our worst judge; Ruth is often disgusted by Margot, precisely because she regrets a lot of things. But her journey is one of self-understanding and respect; she learns that regret and retrospective chance are not necessary, because there are always second chances.

Did you intend Journal to be a study in good versus evil and the consequences of choices?

I focused on choice a lot when I was writing it, because essentially it’s at the heart of the conflict on several levels. Ruth regrets the choices she made as Margot and wants to change them, but because Margot has free will – and because Ruth is told that free will is divinely protected – she can’t achieve what she wants. I also wanted to explore the ways that the small choices in life are often what count; it’s never the grand plans that Margot makes which define her life, rather the ones she considered to be little and almost insignificant.

Without giving away the ending of the novel, can you give some explanation for why you stayed true to your original premise and didn’t go down the path of rewriting history?

It was about Ruth’s journey, her realization that the goal she had wasn’t as important as learning to accept, and about realizing why she was told to love Margot when she set out as her angel.

The Guardian Angel’s Journal has been or is being translated into 11 different languages. Do you have any concerns about translations losing your original intent or cultural misunderstandings occurring?

Now being translated into 17 languages! I did worry about this, but fan emails from Italian and German readers assure me that the translation is wonderful.

I see great potential for Journal to be used as a study for support groups for survivors of abuse and/or their families. How do you feel about that?

That would mean so much to me; I was very careful about the portrayal of abuse and its effects, because I would never want to alienate anyone with that experience. Rather, I wanted to create a connection and understanding with survivors. In many ways, the reasons I loved Margot/Ruth was because of how far she comes after suffering such a terrible life. She stumbles drastically along the way, but ultimately she overcomes a great deal.

It’s very exciting that Journal hit number 5 on the Italian bestseller list one week after opening. Are there any similar developments in other parts of the world?

So far the book has only been out in Italy, the Czech Republic and Germany for a couple of months, and I haven’t had reports back about its Czech and German performance, though I am getting a lot of fan mail!

What can you tell us about your next novel, due out next year?

It’s about a woman who inherits a mansion that has been destroyed, with only its huge front door left standing, its two pillars sculpted into the shape of angel’s wings. When she goes through the front door, she enters a world of memories; these enable her to prove that her husband is innocent of a crime for which he has been convicted, but also reveal that she illegally adopted her daughter many years ago. She is positioned between the two: save her husband or risk losing her daughter. And, of course, there’s a guardian angel.

Jeremy, a reader, wants to know Do you think you will visit the moon or another planet as a holiday in your lifetime?

Well I would love to! I’d prefer Jupiter, though. Apparently it protects earth from being destroyed by meteors…
Thank you very much for your time for this interview. Good luck with your future endeavours. I am looking forward to reading your next novel.

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