Thursday, 16 June 2011

INTERVIEW: Elspeth Cooper

Here at Falcata Times, we just love the chance to try a new author, so when this title from Gollancz landed we jumped straight in. We were so impressed with this debut (Songs of the Earth also reviewed here) that we couldn’t wait to interview Elspeth and discovered a few things of interest.

Presented here, for the first time is our chat where some of the revelations included bribery by muffin, paw print covered manuscripts alongside a penchant for dark chocolate…

Falcata Times: Writing is said to be something that people are afflicted with rather than gifted and that it's something you have to do rather than want. What is your opinion of this statement and how true is it to you?

Elspeth Cooper: As far as I'm concerned, this statement is absolutely true. It is a compulsion, but it's one I rather enjoy. If I don't write when I want to I get twitchy and restless, as if I'd rather be somewhere else. I carry a notebook and pens (plural - in case the first one runs out) around with me whenever I leave the house.

Those times in my life where I wasn't actually committing words to paper for whatever reason, ill health or what have you, stories were still unfolding in my head, characters were still talking to me. I get no peace from them, the bastards.

FT: When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?

EC: It never occurred to me to be anything else. I have revelled in writing since I was old enough to be given homework assignments like "What I Did on My Holidays" - my stories would be seven or eight pages long, when my classmates were struggling to manage a page and a half. Not because I was making stuff up, I just had to "tell the story" if you know what I mean. Set the scene. Take the reader on an adventure.

If I had to pin it down to an age, I'd say it was probably about 14, when I made my first attempts at novel-length fiction.

FT: It is often said that if you can write a short story you can write anything. How true do you think this is and what have you written that either proves or disproves this POV?

EC: Short stories are great for teaching you to write tightly, with not a wasted word. In many ways, they're harder than writing a novel - less room to move. Every writer should try them, if only as an exercise to learn that discipline. But becoming proficient at short fiction does not guarantee that you can sustain a story over 100,000 words or more, managing multiple POVS or story arcs, keeping up the pace and tension or developing characters over time.

Having said that, I can't write short stories to save my life - I am not comfortable painting intricate miniatures; I'm more the Rolf Harris type, working on twelve-foot canvases with a 6" brush. The one and only short story competition I won had a word-limit of 10k and by crikey I used every one of them. No surprise I ended up writing epic fantasy, then.

FT: If someone were to enter a bookshop, how would you persuade them to try your novel over someone else's and how would you define it?

EC: I'd offer them home-made muffins - or if bribery failed, threaten them with my walking stick. Not that it would fail, mind; I bake exceedingly good muffins.

Seriously? I'm not sure. I believe very strongly in my abilities, I'm just not particularly good at selling myself. I'd probably lurk round the 3 for 2 table at Waterstones and say "Looking for a third book to go with those two? Try this; what have you got to lose?"

FT: How would you "sell" your book in 20 words or less?

EC: "100% organic fantasy adventure, guaranteed free from artificial ingredients, magical jewellery and elves." That line got me an agent.

FT: Who is a must have on your bookshelf and whose latest release will find you on the bookshops doorstep waiting for it to open?

EC: Joe Abercrombie and Pat Rothfuss, no question. I've not had time to read much lately, but The Name of the Wind kept me occupied during a miserable week in hospital last September (acute pancreatitis - not recommended) and I couldn't put it down. I want to write like Pat when I grow up.

I'm currently reading The First Law for the fourth? fifth? time in preparation for sinking my teeth into The Heroes and I haven't tired of it yet.

FT: When you sit down and write do you know how the story will end or do you just let the pen take you? ie Do you develop character profiles and outlines for your novels before writing them or do you let your idea's develop as you write?

EC: I am a very organic, free-range sort of a writer. I abhor detailed planning, and the idea of sitting down and writing profiles kills the character stone-dead for me. Planning to the nth degree, with charts and timelines and chapter summaries on 3x5 index cards pinned to the wall is my idea of purgatory.

I generally have a rough idea of beginning and end and a few high points to hit along the way, but how I'm going to get there is a function of where the characters take me. Think of an old-fashioned stage conjurer inviting you to pull his handkerchief from his pocket. Out it comes, and there's another one tied to it, and that leads to another, and another . . . That's usually the way stories develop for me, scene by scene, or chapter by chapter.

Sometimes as the book evolves I realise I have to go back a bit and fill in a missing scene or two, or move stuff around, but I do it all on feel and gut instinct. Possibly not the most efficient way to go about things, but I'm comfortable with it. And it seems to be working so far.

FT: What do you do to relax and what have you read recently?

EC: To relax I like to read, watch movies, go for a soak in the bath. I love being outside - summer mornings before the rest of the world wakes up are just priceless.

Recent reading: apart from the aforementioned The First Law trilogy, Best Served Cold was the last book I read. I have had zero time lately for anything but writing, editing, proofing and stressing. My to-be-read pile is downright intimidating.

FT: What is your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?

EC: If you're expecting me to say American daytime soaps or trashy romance novels, or something of that nature, I'm going to have to disappoint you. Anyone who knows me knows I like indulgent bath products, expensive bedlinen and really good dark chocolate. Anything more secret than that is between me and my husband ;o)

FT: Lots of writers tend to have pets. What do you have and what are their key traits (and do they appear in your novel in certain character attributes?)

EC: Cats, what else? I currently have a tabby and white brother and sister that we adopted from the local animal shelter last February. Their previous owners had named them Tigger and Tinkerbell (and yes, I stand at the door and shout for them using those names - I have no shame). Tigger is a muscular, neckless chap with a wake-the-dead purr when he feels like being affectionate, and his sister is an attention-seeking, squeaky-voiced ball of fluff.

They're too new to have made an appearance in any of my books, although madam's paw-prints are all over the page proofs . . .

FT: Which character within your latest book was the most fun to write and why?

EC: In SONGS, Aysha was huge fun to write. She's sexy and up-front - the kind of woman who'll come right out and say what others dare only think - but complex under the surface. It's very hard to pick favourites. It's like asking a mother which of her kids she likes best.

FT: How similar to your principle protagonist are you?

EC: Physically, not at all - Gair's 6 foot 5 of prime bloke, and I'm, well, not. Although I do own a longsword.

Emotionally, we both love horses, are content in our own company or reading a book, and both love being outside in the high, wild places of the world. Mountains, moorland, coasts, cliffs, that sort of thing. In terms of temperament, his introspection, his honour, his absolute sense of right and wrong, came from my husband.

FT: What hobbies do you have and how do they influence your work?

EC: I love cooking, reading (obviously), watching movies - I often write with a big epic movie on the TV, volume turned right down low or switched to soundtrack-only. That's great for working through a sticky patch, or getting a scene that just doesn't want to come, or for getting into the mood for a big set-piece battle, say. I used to enjoy gardening and cross-stitch, but my MS has rather put paid to those. I fatigue really easily, and have lost some sensitivity in my fingertips that makes handling needles and thread difficult.

Oh, and I loved going pillion on my husband's motorbike. That was close to how I imagine flying feels.

FT: Where do you get your idea's from?

EC: Everywhere. Ideas spring into my head based on things I've read or seen on TV, a song lyric, an overheard conversation on the bus, something that's happened to me. It's all grist to the mill. For instance, I came up with the idea of the Song whilst standing on the patio with a cup of tea early one summer morning. The sun was only just up and there was still dew on all the plants. Everything was so quiet and still, I swear I could hear the garden growing, and there was the Song, right there, fully-formed.

FT: Do you ever encounter writers block and if so how do you overcome it?

EC: For me, there's no such thing - I think it only exists if you believe in it, sort of like the monster under the bed. I get sticky patches, days when the words just won't come, and I usually find that changing my writing environment does the trick. I go downstairs with the laptop and put a DVD on, like The Last Samurai or Gladiator. Or I sit on the patio in the sunshine with my mp3 player and noise-cancelling headphones, or go back to paper and pen.

If all else fails, I put the writing away and do something else like read a book, anything to stop thinking about it. It's amazing how often the solution comes to me in the shower the next morning.

FT: Certain authors are renowned for writing at what many would call uncivilised times. When do you write and how do the others in your household feel about it?

EC: Guilty as charged, m'lud, especially when I still had a full-time job. I wrote the opening of SONGS at oh-my-god-o'clock - I actually wrote through the night for a week solid, because I was going through some personal problems at the time and that was how I dealt with it. Writing as therapy. Like I said, it's all grist to the mill.

Now that writing is my full-time job, I find I'm most productive in the afternoon and evening, so I do emails, social networking, household chores etc in the a.m. and start churning out the words after lunch. Of course, sometimes the story has its own ideas and I'm at my desk at sparrowfart . . . My energy levels being what they are, it's best to catch the tide when it's running and make the most of it.

As for the other people in the house, there's only my other half, and he could sleep through a hurricane so it's not a problem. He encourages me to write whenever I feel the urge, and not to think about the clock. I tend to keep more civilised hours these days, though, as I need my kip.

FT: Sometimes pieces of music seem to influence certain scenes within novels, do you have a soundtrack for your tale or is it a case of writing in silence with perhaps the odd musical break in-between scenes?

EC: I don't have a specific soundtrack. Some days I prefer silence, other days I just set the mp3 player to random. Sometimes I need specific music to set the mood for a scene - the Gladiator score for a battle, or the Kingdom of Heaven soundtrack, or classical pieces like the Concierto de Aranjuez. I'm really into Tudor choral music at the minute - Tallis, Byrd, Palestrina etc.

FT: What misconceptions, if any, did you have about the writing and publishing field when you were first getting started?

EC: Very few, actually. I'd been a long-time subscriber to Writers' News & Writing Magazine, so I was probably more clued-up than the average novice writer, though I hadn't realised just how arcane publishing contracts were until I saw one in the flesh!

FT: If music be the food of love, what do you think writing is and please explain your answer?

EC: Writing is the food of the soul, for me, anyway. Creating a whole other world, peopled with individuals who live and breathe and feel utterly real, is satisfying at such a fundamental level I can think of no other way to describe it. Actually, anything truly creative has a similar effect: planting my garden, building the pond and seeing it thrive, laying out the patio . . . it's dirty, sweaty, hard work but at the end you have something to be proud of that will pretty much outlive you.

FT: What can you tell us about the next novel?

EC: The next one to be published will be TRINITY MOON, the sequel to SONGS OF THE EARTH. The scope of the story broadens, and Gair finds his personal trials have to be set against a much bigger picture. He's got to go south, into Gimrael, which is a pretty dangerous place to be a northerner with all the religious tension just coming to the boil. Unfortunately, nothing goes to plan. Meanwhile, in the far north, events are unfolding which mean the Empire is teetering on the brink of war and it doesn't even know it yet.

In many ways it's deeper and darker, more complex than SONGS. There's new characters, more is revealed about the Empire's history and the scope of the disaster that faces it, and every triumph, however small, is marred by tragedy: physically, emotionally, spiritually. Da-da-DAAAAH!

FT: What are the last five internet sites that you've visited?

EC: Umm: Google,,,, and Sainsburys to do my grocery shopping. Incredibly boring, eh?

FT: Did you ever take any writing classes or specific instructions to learn the craft? If so please let us know which ones.

EC: Does A Level Eng Lit count? I never took creative writing classes, but I did earn a place on a Northern Arts writers' retreat thingy in the Lake District when I was a teenager. And I bought (and laughed like a drain at) How Not To Write A Novel. As I mentioned up there somewhere I have a subscription to Writers' News & Writing Magazine and I was a heroic reader before my publishing contract, so I guess I learned most of my craft by osmosis. Either that or I'm unspeakably gifted ;o)

FT: How did you get past the initial barriers of criticism and rejection?

EC: You'll hate me for this, but I've never really suffered any rejection. The first agent to read my opening chapters said "Well written, but my list is full." The second one requested the full ms and signed me up within 48 hours of receiving it. The six others I'd submitted to all rejected me, but by then it was too late, too late, I tell ya, muahahahaha etc. Ahem.

As for criticism, as a member of a couple of writers' sites (YouWriteOn and Authonomy - where I still pop up from time to time) I came across a few people who really didn't like what I wrote, but nobody actually came out and said it was crap. Even if they had, I'm a big girl: if there's something in what they say that I can learn from, great.

Ask me again when the reviews come in for SONGS.

FT: In your opinion, what are the best and worst aspects of writing for a living?

EC: Best: I no longer have to leave the house at 7am, commute 2 hours, work a full day, then commute two hours home, five days a week. I can sit outside in the garden on a nice day, or listen to music if I feel like it. And if I want to go to work in my jim-jams, I can.

Worst: I'm happy in my own company, but sometimes I do get a bit lonely, or the cat annoys me with her demands for attention (she sits on what I'm trying to read, or parks herself between me and the keyboard) or I long for human conversation - when that happens I usually ring my mum for a moan. Facebook and Twitter can be dreadful time-sucks too.


Anne Michaud said...

Elspeth is SO right about short stories - you can learn so much about how to seek the right word and cut the frivolous.

Good job as always, Gareth. Very interesting interview and very interesting author:)

Angela Addams said...

This is a great interview and the cover of her book is so awesome.