“Fiction,” Stephen King says, “is truth inside a lie.” “No wonder truth is stranger than fiction,” said Mark Twain, “fiction must make sense.” George R R Martin, author of “A Game of Thrones,” says, “I like my fiction to be unpredictable; I like there to be considerable suspense.”
A story is a story is a story; apologies for peculating Gertrude Stein, by the way. If the story is good, the age of the reader needn’t matter, it will entertain. The take away will differ among readers, but age matters less than do the quality of the story and the imagination of the reader.
I read “Moonfleet,” by J Meade Falkner, when I was thirteen years old. An unremarkable teacher thought it suitable for teens; she assigned it for a high school English Literature class. Skulduggery and smuggling, along the southern coast of England, thrilled me; it introduced me to backgammon, too. The novel well suited a newly minted teenager that never went to class.
At nineteen, I, again, read “Moonfleet,” for something to do; it was before I returned to school after three years of remarkable life elsewhere. The take away, this time, was with how Falkner could assemble such a great story. If only I could, but never would. The novel well suited someone about to exit his teens and would go to class, unfailingly.
Almost fifty years and ten thousand books later, I, again, read “Moonfleet.” The third reading, for this essay, was most satisfying. Along the way, Steven Spielberg and John Hughes showed how teens had gripping adventures, often outfoxing adults; “E T” and “Home Alone” are examples. This time, “Moonfleet” well suited an elderly reader; despite his earned doctorate, despite nearly forty years of university teaching and despite more than six thousand hours of lecturing.
The conclusion, from this sample of one, is that a good story is, indeed, a good story. Age matters little. The take away varies among readers, which confirms the worth of the story.
Eileen Cook, author “With Malice,” says, “A young adult (YA) novel is written from the point of view of a teen; that is, a reader fourteen-to-nineteen years old. Some readers may be advanced, reading “With Malice” at twelve or thirteen years old; other readers may be adults.
“Not only teens read YA novels; adults certainly do, too,” she says. Adult readers find value in the story and understand it’s told from the perspective of a teen. “YA novels are not after-school specials.” Thus, adults can identify with the story and characters.
“What I like about young adult literature,” Cook says, “is there is such a wide range of books, today. Some books might be, for lack of a better term, sweeter, appealing to the youngest YA readers. Other books might tackle a more difficult or challenging issue,” as does “With Malice.” There’s a YA story for everybody, of any age.
“The biggest compliment,” says Cook, “is for a reader, of any age, to call his or her friends and say, ‘You must read this book so we can talk of it.’ She wants “With Malice” to act as a conversation starter.
Grub Street (GS) What turns you on?
Eileen Cook (EC) Relaxation is my turn on.
GS What turns you off?
EC Selfishness turns me off.
“With Malice” is a story of identity. The focus is eighteen-year-old Jill Charron. She wakes up in a US hospital; one leg is in a cast, her face stitched. She believes she’s in Italy. There’s a six-week hole in her memory. She doesn’t recall the accident. Maybe the accident wasn’t an accident. Jill may face a murder charge. Her wealthy father hires a lawyer and a press team. As she heals, bookish Jill struggles to piece together the missing weeks. That’s a long time for an eighteen year old; more so, as the missing time contains three life-altering events.
Wanting to write of friendships led Eileen Cook to “With Malice.” “In university,” she says, “I took a course on Shakespeare and loved it. He’s a remarkable storyteller. Friendships, which are twisted and otherwise different, inhabit his stories. I took three more courses on Shakespeare, from the same instructor.
“Friendships are complicated and much happens beneath as well as on the surface,” says Cook. Long-term friendships root in the idea each person plays a role. If role expectations don’t match or go unfulfilled, the friendship is in turmoil or ends.
One friend is outgoing; the other is shy. One friend is good at something, knowledgeable or skilled; the other one is has complementary knowledge or skills. One friend picks the movies; the other friend drives and pays to park the car.
“When the roles shift or a traumatic event must be dealt with,” says Cook, “it can be hard on a friendship. Many friendships don’t survive the shift; some do. That’s what interested me.”
With Malice” was a podcast, on National Public Radio (NPR). “NPR aired a true crime podcast,” Cook says, “dealing with a murder trial in the 1990s. I think there were thirteen or fourteen episodes.”
Cook was plotting “With Malice,” as she listened. “I was interested to see if I could pull the scenario into a book,” she says. “In ‘With Malice,’ the reader is getting this story, in an episodic way, as Jill gradually discovers what happened during the six weeks she lost.
“Characters, in the crime podcast, chime in with his or her perspective on what happened. In the same way, Jill tries to unwind what really happened; so, too, are other characters in the story. As the reader, you must figure out the accuracy of the perspectives.” What motivations might other characters have to interpret what happened, as they do?
“As I listened to one episode, of the podcast,” says Cook, “I would think, ‘That poor young man, the fellow charged with the murder. He was railroaded. He’s innocent.’ Then, as I listened to the next episode, I thought, ‘He’s as guilty as sin.’” The roller coaster, of guilty, not guilty, got Cook moving.
She discussed and debated with others that also listened to the podcast. “My point,” says Cook, ‘was if you believe this character or that individual, as related to the crime, you can’t believe some event or another took place.”
Some of her friends agreed and others didn’t. “This is what a good story does,” she says. That is, it allows the reader or listener to decide what’s what and change his or her mind, as the story moves along.
GS What’s your favourite phrase or word?
EC Veracity is my favourite word.
GS What’s your favourite curse word?
EC Dammit is my favourite cuss word.
In “With Malice,” Cook uses the acronym, WTF. “I’m trying for honesty, on the page,” she says. “A question I asked myself, when writing and weighing every word, is if this word or that word works best here. Instead of ‘walked,’ for example, could the character ‘amble,’ ‘shuffle’ or ‘stride’?”
Cook works with Sarah Landis, the editor. “She fabulous,” says Cook. “She and I agree honesty on the page is the main goal.” Few eighteen-year-olds would say, “Gosh,” “Darn it” or “Gee Willikers”; many would say WTF.” Landis helps Cook keep this right.
“If a curse word fits and the characters don’t use it, am I cheating,” says Cook. “WTF has feeling behind it. Besides, ‘fudge ripple’ is hard to keyboard, repeatedly.
“Sometimes, a cuss word is a cheat for not finding the right word to express an emotion another way.” Cook tries to find the right word for the necessary emotion. “Sometimes,” she says, “the cuss word is exactly what the character would say or think.” As a writer, she must be honest with her characters.
“Teens are using words and phrases, such as WTF, all the time,” says Cook, “whether their parents know or approve. There are parents who are librarians or teachers, say, that don’t want their children exposed to such [language]. I respect their right to make that decision, but I have a right and responsibility to my readers, too.” If a cuss word fits, use it; try to avoid using fudge ripple, too often.
Word choice is a decision for the author to make. He or she must avoid uncalled-for details, as much as possible. Keep the writing as simple and direct as possible, without stifling creativity. Still, the writer must make his or her point. Language is the tool for putting that decision into action.
“What word might a character use,” says Cook. “How would a character respond? What I must do is to decide and go with my decision.”
If she makes the right decision, uses the right words, the language won’t seem awry or offensive to the reader. If Cook makes a wrong choice, the reader may find her words abrasive or stumble and, perhaps, stop reading the book. The balance is delicate, although necessary to achieve.
“I’m lucky,” says Cook, “that I teach creative writing at The Writer’s Studio, of Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver, British Columbia. One of the topics, much discussed with my students, when we look at dialogue, is how the language must match the character.” By talking of dialogue, student and teacher, learn how to write better dialogue.
“My characters aren’t my hand-puppets,” says Cook. “A writer can’t simply open and close the mouth of a character. If a writer thinks he or she is a ventriloquist, great, but chances are his or her characters would not say what’s written for them.” Not in a specific time or place, anyway, and readers can tell.
“Write poor dialogue for characters and the reader,” says Cook, “will catch it. She or he will wonder what’s wrong. Was something missed? Is the author under- or over-writing?
WTF was in italics. “Jill was thinking WTF,” says Cook. “She didn’t say it, aloud, as such.”
GS What is your least favourite word?
EC Anxiety is my least favourite word.
Many adults, today, read books targeted at teens. “My books are for grown-ups, too,” says Cook. “I don’t think there’s any reason an adult can’t or shouldn’t read [an ostensible] YA novel.” There’s no sanction.
At one time, not that long ago, there was a scarcity of books for adolescents. “When I was growing up,” says Cook, “there weren’t many, if any, books for young adults (YA). I went from Nancy Drew directly to Stephen King.” Few novels, until recently, targeted a YA or a teen audience.
Cook finds the teen years fraught with conflict and drama. “For me,” she says, “those years, the teen years, are a wonderfully hot mess of a time. So much is changing. The teen tries to figure out who she or he is and how to stand on his or her own feet.” The teen years are a rollercoaster ride.
“Teens don’t have a full set of necessary skills or the experience to do what she or he must do to grow up,” says Cook. “There’s a great push and pull between what the teen wants to be, that is, an adult, and that part of him or her that wants to remain a child. From the perspective of a writer, this is wonderful.”
Betrayal is a theme in “With Malice.” Her sense “is that teen readers don’t have much, if any, experience with betrayal. The first time someone betrays you, it’s a confusing mess,” says Cook. The teen isn’t sure she or her can survive the heightened, fast changing emotions, for example.
Jill Charron, the main character in “With Malice,” experiences a horrible betrayal. “It’s the first such event in her life,” says Cook. “Jill doesn’t feel the betrayal is survivable.”
Survivability involves support from family and friends. Jill Charron has much available support. Does she recognise what help she has around her?
“I think teens, including Jill, are in an age when it depends,” says Cook. “Sometimes your support system involves women and men, family, that you don’t feel you can ask for that help.” Yet, anyone of any age should expect to give and receive family support.
“In many or most circumstances, the family is a reliable source of support,” says Cook. “Yet, the teen doesn’t want to ask. She or he doesn’t want the family to think of him or her as dependant, as a child. The teen thus thinks, ‘I have to do this on my own.’” This is seldom the case, though.
Everything is changing for teens, during those years. “They’re in an age,” says Cook, “when friends and friendships are shifting. This is especially true around high school graduation, when friends scatter in all directions.
“That’s a huge shift. Your best friend, for a long time, moves away. He or she might go to university, across the country,” or marry.
What is the role of social media? “Social media and texting, all the technology, is wonderful and horrible, at the same time. It’s wonderful because everybody can keep track of friends and family as well as maintain social relations across time and space.
“The problem, with social media, is it’s not face to face. Social media make it much easier to reach out, but much can be lost in the transaction, as most information is not verbal; there’s no opportunity to include facial expressions, emoticons, notwithstanding, postures and so forth. Whatever is keyboarded, moreover, is not retractable.”
Cook is grateful she didn’t go through her teen years taking pictures eventually posted on one or another social media site, with or without her permission. “There are many events, of those years, I’m glad are not documented, for posterity,” she says.
GS What occupation, other than author or writer, would you like to try?
EC Librarian is a job I’d like to try.
GS What occupation would you not like to try?
EC Lawyer is a job I would not want to try.
In 2012, Cook wrote a novel called, “Unravelling Isobel.” The main character, Isobel, is an eccentric, cynical and spirited teenager. Her mother remarries; she met her new husband on the internet, three months earlier. Isobel moves, with her mother, into the home of her new, evil stepfather; it’s a sprawling gothic mansion. Her handsome new stepbrother, Nathaniel, also lives in the mansion. Suddenly, Isobel and Nathaniel are living in the same house. They are the same age, 17. They find each other attractive. Isobel and the normally off-limits Nathaniel begin a love affair. There are ghosts, a family curse and many plot twists, too.
Cook wanted to explore the lives of Isobel and Nathaniel, especially their friendship qua romance. Because their parents made a new life, a new family, must Isobel and her stepbrother come together? Did their lives have to change? Did their joint and separate goals re-form, necessarily, after their parents married?
“After ‘Unravelling Isobel’ published,” says Cook, “I received an e-mail from the mother of a reader. She said, ‘My daughter was reading this book. I read the book, too. It was fantastic. [My daughter and I] had this big discussion about how she felt about [me] getting remarried. I’m recommending ‘Unravelling Isobel’ to my daughter’s school library.’
“The e-mail gave me a wonderful warm, fuzzy feeling,” says Cook. She had not finished that email when another arrived, with a loud ping. It was from a different parent.
“This parent,” says Cook, “told me she also picked up ‘Unravelling Isobel’ because her daughter was reading it. The mother thought the book disgusting. She hated it. She was going to try to ensure the book never saw the light of day, again.
“I thought, ‘Oh wow, well that was interesting.’” The mothers had opposing views on the same book. Life is a perspective.
“Parents have a reaction to all books read by their children,” says Cook. “Parents are concerned that if their child reads about a topic, the child will perhaps imitate what he or she read in the book;” That the story will taint the child, in unknowable ways. Unfortunately, we now live in a world dominated by the internet; teens are aware of topics, some parents believe taboo, before the parents know it.”
Parents should ask their children if they need up-dating. “Teens are aware of eating disorders or kids dealing with LGBTQ issues,” says Cook. Reading of such issues is a great way to explore, safely; to understand and, perhaps, empathise.
Her hope, in writing “With Malice,” is the reader will think, smugly, they know what’s happening. “Then, a chapter or three along,” says Cook, “the reader will have to re-think what she or he thought was happening. I hope this happens a few times, throughout the book, for the reader.
Cook says she loves novels that make her think and re-think her take on the story. “‘Gone Girl,’ by Gillian Flynn makes me re-think, repeatedly,” she says. “So does ‘The Girl on a Train,’ by Paula Hawkins.”
A novel is a balancing act, not revealing too little or too much. “I want readers to think, ‘I can’t believe that happened,’” says Cook. “The art of the surprise is tricky; it must be consistent with the character.”
GS What sound or noise do you love?
EC I love of the sound of pages turning.
What defines an adult reader? “Someone over twenty years of age,” Cook says. “There is no upper limit to the age of adult readers of my books. Anyone should find ‘With Malice’ a great mystery story.”
Her books are for adult and young readers. A good mystery is a good mystery. A good thriller is for everybody.
“I also think,” says Cook, “that, for many of us, thinking back to that time, right before high school graduation, is a worthwhile exercise.” This is especially true, when an older reader realises how most everything has changed.
“If an adult reader reads my book because they enjoy a good thriller and a good mystery,” says Cook, “I’m glad. I hope she or he also finds the characters interesting. Maybe my characters existed in the teen years of his or her life.”
What makes “With Malice,” a thriller for an adult reader? “In many ways, it’s the same for adult or young adult readers,” says Cook. She thinks the story prompts questions that persist beyond the teen years, as well. For example, “How well do I actually know the other people in my life.” Are they who or what I believe they are?
Is my judgement good? The scariest question “With Malice” might prompt is, “How well do I know myself?”
“We all have a narrative way of thinking,” says Cook, “in terms of, say, ‘Oh, I’m the funny person.’ ‘I’m shy.’ ‘I’m this way or that way.’ For me, as the author, this is what’s interesting; I must describe, for the reader, how the characters think and act.
“Ideally, the reader can identify with my characters,” says Cook. “At first, readers may think, ‘That is not the way I see myself.’” It’s a challenge for Cook to push the reader to self-examination.
“Sometimes the reader doesn’t want to admit much about his or her person,” says Cook, “even internally. Part of ‘With Malice,’” she says, “for the older as well as the younger reader, is the focus on a personal lack of certainty.” Jill Charron, the protagonist, tries to find more certainty and gain insight, as she faces memory loss and a murder charge.
Will booksellers, on line and as well as the remaining brick and mortar stores, list or shelve “With Malice” in Adult as well as Young Adult? “I certainly hope so,” says Cook. “The story appeals to all readers. Any reader, of any age, that finds the story appealing will buy and read ‘With Malice.’ The most I can ask from a bookseller or librarian is say to a customer or user, ‘Oh, you liked ‘Girl on a Train,’ you might like, ‘With Malice.’”
New book categories are popping up all the time. “There are Young-adult and adult listings,” says Cook. “There’s New Adult, too.” The competition among book categories is intense.
“The challenge,” Cook says, “is less on line than in the remaining brick a mortar stores. Will the salesperson know the range of product and its appeal? Will he or she walk the customer from adult to YA, to find another interesting story?
“I’m confident ‘With Malice’ appeals to both adult and young adult readers. Sometimes its appeal will be the same for adult and young adult readers; sometimes not. I do think ‘With Malice’ might appeal more to women and girls, though.”
Women and girls read stories focused on females or males. “With Malice” is the story of an eighteen year old young woman, Jill Charron. Males mostly prefer stories focusing on males.
“There are some exceptions,” says Cook, “such as ‘Hunger Games.’ The appeal of those stories seems universal. “Hunger Games” luckily found a way to split evenly by gender.
“In ‘With Malice’ there is a great deal of internal thought and feeling going on,” says Cook. “I’m not certain it is necessarily going to drive many males. I hope I am wrong.”
At the end of “With Malice” there’s a question. “I leave it to the reader to decide on an answer,” says Cook. “There’s an answer in the book. Jill Charron says what she thinks happened. Yet, the question and her answer are somewhat ambiguous. There’s much room for the reader to think of and decide.”
A more definitive ending may have spoilt the story. “I went back and forth on that,” says Cook. “I didn’t want an unsatisfying ending. There is nothing worse, for a reader, than getting to the end of a book and feeling as if she or he missed something.” She doesn’t want readers to think she or he missed a plot point, say, or there must be a chapter that doesn’t exist.
GS What is something you like to collect?
EC I like to collect old, vintage typewriters.
Cook was an only child, mostly. “I had a brother that passed away when I was young,” she says. “As a result, I received much attention from my parents.” There were times when she wished for a sibling. “In the end, the attention I received made up what I thought I might be missing.”
Only children grow up in an adult world. “I certainly had a great deal of adult contact and influence, as an only child,” says Cook. “I was expected to engage, with adults, and did.
“In my childhood home,” she says, “the worst sentence I could utter was, ‘I’m bored.’ My dad would find something for me to do. I cleaned out the garage a few times before I learned never say a word regarding boredom.”
Only children learn to fill time, creatively. “I became adept at making up stories, creating toys out of cardboard, forts and such,” says Cook. “It was great training for a writer.
“To this day, I love my own company, best. I have many friends I enjoying being around. I’m not a hermit. Still, I enjoy taking myself out for dinner,” says Cook.
GS What city could you lose yourself for hours to explore?
EC New York and London are cities where I could easily lose myself.
When Cook was growing up, her father was an accountant; her mother was a medical laboratory technologist. “I would tell my father I wanted to be a writer, when I grew up,” says Cook. ‘He would say that was good, but you would need a real job, as English factories are letting [employees] go these days.’ When I sold my first book to a publisher, I told my father, ‘the English factory is hiring, today.’”
Stephen King was a huge influence on her decision to write as well as her writing, today. “I can accurately recall,” Cook says, “the first time I had the thought that writing was what I wanted to do. I was eleven or twelve years of age. I was at the library.
“I come from a family of readers. We’d go to the library every week and load up. I always brought home an armful of books.
“One visit, I decided I wanted no more books for children. I wandered out of the children’s section into the adult section. There I found a book, ‘Salem’s Lot,’ by Stephen King, which intrigued me.
“I read the back of the book. The story seemed interesting. I added it to my stack of books and headed for the checkout.
“At the checkout, the librarian said, ‘I don’t think you should read [‘Salem’s Lot’]. It’s a nasty book.’
“This, of course, aroused my appetite. It instantly elevated ‘Salem’s Lot’ to a book I wanted to read. I must read.
“I found my mom in the library. She read the blurb on the back of the book and said I could read it. My mom never stopped me reading anything.
“It’s going to be scary,” her mother said. “I remember,” says Cook, “feeling insulted. I thought that I’m eleven. I understand the difference between make-believe and real life. ‘Salem’s Lot’ is a made-up story. How scary could it be? The truth of the matter is it’s darn scary.
“‘Salem’s Lot’ terrified me. I had to have the light on, in my bedroom, for a long time. I was certain I was going to die at any moment. Still, sometimes, I stopped to realise, ‘Nobody was actually harmed in the making of this book.’
GS What item must you have with you always?
EC I must always have a notebook and pen with me.
“As I read ‘Salem’s Lot,’ no matter how it scared me, I thought Stephen King was a magician. I thought he had a magical spark,” says Cook. She wanted a trace of that spark.
“It’s the same,” says Cook, “with a child watching a magician on television, say. She or he finds a hat and tries to figure out the trick. As I read ‘Salem’s Lot,’ I knew, at that moment, I wanted to write. That’s the first time I distinctly remember having that thought.
“What impressed me, most, was King. He made up a great story. He is honest that he writes fiction; still, his stories are great. I felt a true emotion, fear, as I read ‘Salem’s Lot.’” This is good.
She didn’t necessarily want to write horror or breed fear in the reader. There are other emotions that move readers. Cook wanted to write and that was that.
“There was homework assignment, in second grade,” says Cook, “which reinforced my idea of being a writer. The teacher had us cut photographs and such from magazines. Then, we were to write a sentence about the photographs, say, ‘The man has a blue tie on.’
What a great assignment. “Yes,” says Cook. “I strung all my sentences together into a story, of a sort. It had a beginning, middle and an end.”
The influence of Aristotle, his advice to write three acts, is everywhere. “The teacher wrote on the bottom, of my assignment, ‘You know, Eileen, I’m sure someday you’ll be an author.’” She was right.
“My parents,” says Cook, “framed that assignment. They gave it to me when I published my first book. I still have it, of course, but I have no recollection of actually doing that assignment.”
Luckily, cook fell into in a family of storytellers. “Every morsel of news,” she says, “was spun into a story by my parents and, especially, by my grandparents, on both sides. Stories were always told in my home, as I was growing up.
“Stories made life more interesting,” says Cook. This is reminiscent of the movie, “Wonder Boys.” James Lear is always spinning stories. To seem more interesting, Lear tells a tale of how his mother had to become a dancer, “that kind of dancer,” after the mannequin factory closed.
“I got into trouble, with my parents,” says Cook, “when they tried to explain the difference between a lie and a story. It’s a fuzzy point, sometimes. I was always looking to spin a better story.” “All fiction,” Stephen King says, “is truth spun inside a lie.”
Cook likes the idea that a good story evokes emotions in readers. “Some books move readers to tears,” she says. “Readers may be turning the pages, thinking a character should not open a door. ‘Don’t do it,’ a reader might think. The story is fiction, but the emotions are true, honest.”
Disney emotionally traumatised generations of children with “Old Yeller.” “So true,” says Cook. “The trauma of that movie is still with me. What of ‘Bambi,’ too. Sometimes the wish to evoke emotions goes too far. “Stephen King isn’t doing anything new, only better.”
King is not a fan of adverbs. “It’s a good reminder,” says Cook, “for me to go back, through my writing, and clean up the adverbs. Still, there are other times when I desperately need an adverb.
“Stephen King is obviously a big influence on me,” says Cook. “On a completely different spectrum Judy Blume, author of books for children and young adults, is also a huge influence on me. King and Blume are two sides of a very different and interesting coin.”
GS What inspires you?
EC People inspire me.
How does Cook write? “I have a schedule, a routine, of a sort. First, though, there’s a disclaimer. What works for me will not necessarily work for others.”
When she first started writing, seriously, Cook read many interviews of writers. “The write would advise to do this or that for sure-fire success,” she says.” The advice was all over the place.
“Jennifer Crusie, for example, creates collages before she starts writing,” says Cook. “She cuts pictures from magazines, say, and draws free hand, too. She tries to figure out the storyline, visually. Then she writes from the collage.
“I created collages,” says Cook. I busted glue-sticks as I spent several days making a collage of story I wanted to tell. In the end, I realised a collage was not my strong suit.”
Other writers advised, strongly, to outline the story before writing. “I devised a small project plan for my first book,” says Cook. “I would write bits and pieces into the plan, as I could.” She was working a day job at the time. “My outline moved along sporadically.
“Eventually, I realised an outline, honestly, was not for me, either,” says Cook. “I do outline a bit, today.” A few notes here and there; perhaps she defines a character. “No large-scale outlining, though.
“I teach creative writing. My advice to students is always, ‘Do what works for you.’” Create a collage, develop an outline or do as Raymond Chandler did, start to write and see where it takes you.
“I do set some firm goals,” says Cook. “I try to write two to four hours, Monday to Friday, and at least an hour or so on Saturday; maybe Sunday, too. I try for so many words a day, but that’s less important than staying connected to the story, every day.
“I can’t do too early in the morning. When I was working full-time, I tried to get up early, say at 5 am. All I would do was stare blankly at the computer screen until I had to go to work.
“Now, I write full time. I get up and feed the dogs. Then I start to write.
“I learned not to beat myself up if I don’t realise a daily goal. Some days, the words come easy. I don’t always reach the goal,” says Cook. “For my first two hours of writing, the results are decent.” After that, her quality steadily declines.
“My goal is to do at least a little writing every day,” she says. “This keeps the story active in my mind. I think of the story and writing as a balloon on a string. I like to keep the string pretty close.
“If I write in fits and starts, I find it harder to get back to the story,” says Cook. If she’s away from the story for a few days, she has a much more difficulty getting back on track. “Re-reading a few pages of what I wrote, before I begin to write, usually gets me moving forward, though.”
GS What’s your favourite piece of clothing?
EC My Michigan State University sweatshirt is my favourite piece of clothing.
“No wonder truth is stranger than fiction,” said Mark Twain, “fiction must make sense.” Cook starts each novel with an idea. “I fool around with my initial idea for a while. Then I do a bumpy outline and write the story, from beginning to end.”
Another way of looking at how she starts a novel is having “a destination in mind. Maybe I’m going to Montreal. Along the way, there are many distractions,” says Cook. “When I arrive in Montreal, later than I hoped, of course, I think, this isn’t where I wanted to go; I wanted to go to New York City.
Thus, I re-write. I re-think the story destination. I pick a new destination and start the journey anew.
“When I started writing,” says Cook, “I would just sit down, at the keyboard, and write that an event happened; say, the accident Jill had in Italy. Then I’d go blank.
“Now, I have some idea of my destination, when I start writing; this is a sort of outline. The journey is another matter. I head off, in what I think is the right direction, there are many distractions and missed forks in the road.
“I’m always open to changes in destination or events along the way. I’m open to how the story ends, even if it’s not what I originally thought.” Sometimes the story takes on a life its own.
“So, yes, I do some outlining. I know I said I don’t outline, much, but I need to know where the story is going. I like to have an idea of where the end might lie, when I start. Still, I’m open to what I think is the end may not be when I reach it.” Her bumpy outline does not control all that takes place in her novel.
As author Nora Roberts says, ‘You can’t fix a blank page,’” says Cook. “For me, it’s get the pages down.” Then go to back to fix what needs fixing. “I like to plough through the first draft,” says Cook. “A first draft is for figuring out where I’m going. I give myself permission to figure out this or that as I write or in another draft.”
Usually, she thinks the first draft is brilliant. “I then put the manuscript aside for a few weeks.” The manuscript percolates.
When she comes back to the manuscript, the brilliance has dimmed. “I say, ‘this is terrible. What was I thinking?’ Then I re-write the story from beginning to end,” says Cook.
She likes to stop writing in the middle of a scene or a chapter. “That makes it much easier for me to jump in and get going,” says Cook. “I read over what I wrote, for a scene or a chapter; that gets me rolling, again, in the right direction, at the right speed.
Re-reading and revising too far back lessens the quality of the middle and end of the book. Cook is prone to re-write earlier chapters, say, if she re-reads too far back. Later chapters may receive less attention, if she’s not careful.
“When I start writing, each, day, I try to re-read maybe a page or two back, not much more. The reason I limit the re-read is I can get analysis paralysis. I will have the most kick-ass first chapter you have ever seen. Yet, it’s taken me six months to write it,” says Cook.
“For ‘With Malice,’ I went through two big revisions,” she says. “If you read the first draft, of ‘With Malice,’ you’d see it didn’t take place in Italy, for example. The result was different, too. There was a separate antagonist qua villain responsible for everything.
“The first draft, of ‘With Malice,’ was one story. Later drafts were largely a different story. I rotated the point of view to focus more on Jill Charron. It was a matter of asking what happen versus starting with the accident and working the backdrop.” The latter is most effective.
Originally, the villain was a male. Cook is glad she changed it. A male villain would have made “With Malice” ordinary, which it is not.
GS What is your favourite indulgence?
EC Homemade bread is my favourite indulgence.
George R R Martin, author of “A Game of Thrones,” says, “I like my fiction to be unpredictable. I like there to be considerable suspense.”
“A student,” says Cook, “recently said to me, 'don't you think, if you had worked out [the story], first, you could’ve saved yourself a lot of time?’ The answer,” Cook says, “is yes or, at worst, probably.” She had to write the book one way, first, to realise there was a better way.
“The first version was solid,” says Cook. “There wasn’t anything horribly wrong with that draft. Yet, it wasn’t the book I wanted to write.”
John Irving, author of “The World According to Garp,” among other best-selling novels, reputedly writes his stories backward. “I heard him say that in an interview,” says Cook. “He starts with the climactic scene and works his way to the beginning.” He seemingly adds a conclusion last.
“Irving might as well have said he sprouted wings and flew around town in the afternoons,” says Cook. “I didn’t think his style was possible. I don’t think it would work for me. I’m not willing to try, either.”
Even though she outlines, a bit, and has a destination in mind when she starts a story, Cook thinks, that, as a writer, she’s a pantster. “I’m not a full-fledged outliner. I like to write by the seat of my pants.”
The distinction is an old one, between a stringer and a lumper. A stringer outlines, fully, carefully, before starting to write; say, Daschle Hammett. A lumper piles all her or his ideas on the desk, next to the keyboard. Then she or he starts to write, with an idea of a destination. The lumper pulls ideas or themes from the pile, as he or she writes; say, Raymond Chandler.
“One of my students,” Cooks says, “was frustrated because she’s a pantster, a lumper, not a stringer or outliner. She doesn’t know where the story is going. Sometimes, she says, she feels she should know where her story is going because other students, in her class, know the destinations of their stories.
“When this student tries to outline, she loses interest in the story,” says Cook. ‘Where’s the fun, says the student, when I know what’s going to happen.’” A good story should be an adventure for writer and reader, alike.
Elizabeth George is the outliner of all outliners. “I heard her speak,” says Cook. “The outline for a chapter, George said, could run fifty pages.” The outline may be longer than the resulting chapter.
“George outlines every character, what they know, say, versus what they may be revealing. She puts red herrings in the outline of scenes. For a complete book, her outline can run hundreds of pages.” Again, this likely longer than the entire book. “Then she writes the final book in one draft.”
“There’s no way I could do that,” says Cook. “I’m getting hives thinking about her outlines.” Too much outlining may be possible.
“Despite limited outlining, my stories develop. I start with an idea, say, of the central character. I am the gawd of my story. I have a sense of where it goes, where, how, why and when. When I’m trying to force the story along or I’m taking the story in the wrong direction, I get writer’s block.
“I don’t believe characters write themselves, as do some authors.” Cook believes she’s discovering the characters. “Still, this means that sometimes I must get out of the way.”
“When a character is in trouble, I learn the most about him or her,” says Cook. The public mask, worn by everyone, characters in a novel included, slides off, a little or a great deal, to reveal new information about the character. “This is when the reader and writer learn the most about the characters, in a novel, as well as our friends and family in everyday life.”
A good story involves an onion of identity. “What a fiction writer does,” says Cook, “is take characters and put them in horrible situations and remove the masks they wear, normally. If the writer is doing his or her job well, the characters fall into increasingly horrible circumstances, revealing more and more.” The writer thus peels away the layers, of the character, to reveal the characters, fully and factually.
“Characters are undefined, as the story begins,” says Cook. “Characters have no metal, as my grandmother would say. The writer tests his or her characters, as the story moves along.
“Along the way, my characters face circumstances; they prevail or not,” says Cook. “At the end, most of the layers of the onion peel back.” The reader and the writer figure out the metal of each character.
“I keep notes on characters, as I write. A little predestination, in the form of notes, mixed with the unexpected, exposes the metal of my characters.” She also let the characters go, sometimes.
Cook was a counsellor. “I ask my characters questions, as if I were interviewing her or him for treatment,” says Cook. “If a character has difficulty talking about mom, I follow up on that, as I would as a counsellor.”
GS What are you reading right now?
EC I’m currently reading “The Nest,” by Cynthia Sweeney.
How do the one hundred or so books Cook reads each year not influence her work? “I don’t know if I can know,” she says. “Certainly, when I’m writing, I try not to read books too close to what I’m writing. If I’m writing a young adult mystery thriller, I can’t read young adult mystery thrillers. I pick something else.
“I also think, to some degree, being influenced by other writers is part of what we do as we try to develop a style, find our own voice,” says Cook. “I know, certainly for me, the first books I wrote sounded a great deal like books I loved.
“It took a while to find my voice,” says Cook, “my own measure, of the story I’m telling.” The more we read, the more we learn. “For someone that teaches creative writing,” she says, “I think the best way to learn to write is to read.”
Reading is the only way to learn. “Yes,” says Cook, “to read critically and ask, why is it I like that book? Why couldn’t I put that book down? Why did the author decide to tell that story? Why did the author decide to tell the story from the perspective or one character and not another?
“As the reader wonders of the answers to these questions, she or he comes to appreciate the millions of decisions that go into a good story. Why, the author might wonder, is the reader merely flipping pages, not reading?”
There’s an old adage that stealing from one is plagiarism. Stealing from many is scholarship. Making something new or different, out of what you stole, is creativity.
“That’s fantastic,” says Cook. “I think it’s fundamentally true. I think that, as storytellers, we stand on the backs of others.” This is especially true, she says, when writing a film script. “There is much to be learned from other writers.”
GS What is something about you that would surprise readers?
EC I love to knit.
“The skill of writing is to create a context [where readers] can think,” said Edwin Schlossberg. That Eileen Cook practices this goal for her stories, especially “With Malice,” is clear and unquestionable. She demands her readers think, from beginning to end; otherwise, most of what she offers becomes invisible. There is her worth.
Daphne du Maurier said, “Writers should be read, but neither seen nor heard.” Stories revolve around characters, not authors. In “With Malice,” Eileen Cook lets her characters go; she stays out of the way, an invisible hand guiding the action to its destination.
“In Ireland,” says Colin Toibin, author of “Nora Webster,” “novels … have a strange force. The writing of fiction … can affect life … more powerfully and stealthily than [can] speeches or even legislation. Imagined worlds can lodge deeply in the private sphere, dislodging much else, especially when the public sphere is fragile.” These are the effects of “With Malice,” although the public sphere is robust.
Eileen Cook supposedly writes for a young adult reading audience. That’s what her publisher claims. The truth is her books are for adults, too; for everyone with an imagination.
Writers must sell books. Publishers and sellers like to buttonhole books and authors. Booksellers follow the wishes of publishers.
Thus, books by Eileen Cook list under Young Adult (YA). Seldom do her books list under Adult. Each of her books easily could be both.
A problem for writing and all creative acts is the suits that run the business, be it recording, publishing or other media. As the suits hunch over tablets, closely examining spreadsheets and EBITDAs, they don’t notice how their narrow mindedness shrinks profits. Their lack of imagination and knowledge of creative product dooms books, indeed, all creative acts, to the bin of overstocked items, well before the time is right.
“Coming to a garage sale near you” should boldly appear on the cover of most novels, given how the suits degrade the creative. Buttonholing books and authors has deeply negative effects for authors, publishers and booksellers. Most important, it denies readers much pleasure.
For Cook, she loses access to adult readers that would enjoy her stories. Her books are less readily available to adults, through unintentional, but effective, censorship. Thoughtless suits, keep readers from simple pleasures.
Psychologist Jean Piaget argued there’s a child in every adult. In every child, he believed, there’s an adult, too. Becoming an adult involves maturity, the ability to respond to life events in a suitable way, which has a slender link to age in years.
Adult women or men, that is, those with maturity, have a practical, worldly wise way of getting, grasping and using information. Information comes from ideas, experience and the senses, each tinged with emotion. An adult can thus handle the doubts of everyday life better than can a child. Road rage is not the act of an adult, but of someone that’s immature.
Age and maturity begin to disconnect in the middle teenage years. There are many fourteen year olds living in fifty-three year old bodies and vice versa; gender doesn’t have a card in this deck. Age in years is a weak measure of maturity and adult status. Response to life signals the maturity of a woman or a man.
Thus, it’s no surprise a mature reader finds pleasure and enjoyment in a story of and for ostensibly young adults. Cook told how reading “Unravelling Isobel” ignited conversations between a mother and a daughter; each rewarding in a different way.
Mostly, maturity means finding ways to get the most out of life. A good story, well written, such as those by Eileen Cook, is one way to get a great deal out of life, no matter your age. Reading “With Malice,” by Eileen Cook, which, as do all good stories, transcends time and place, may set you free.
GS Is there a mistake you made, when you began authoring, which you now regret.
EC Trying to write what I thought would sell, rather than I wanted to write.
GS What’s your favourite ice cream?
EC Mint chocolate chip is my favourite flavour of ice cream.
Click here to watch Eileen Cook talking of writing.
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Interview edited and condensed for publication.
dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.
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