Monday, September 5, 2011

Interview with Cara Cooper

Cara Cooper was born in South Kensington, and now lives in south London. For fifteen years she worked in the civil service, her roles included being a conference officer at the QEII conference centre in Westminster, and a Diary Secretary to three different Secretaries of State. Weekends often find her tramping around London where there is always something new - recently she turned the corner and there was a naked bike ride! Covent Garden is inspirational and one day she plans to write a Georgian historical although research at present has only got as far as sitting in coffee shops consuming dangerously high levels of caffeine. So, Cara, coffee cup in hand, do tell us how you sold your first book, and if you had any rejections before getting that exciting call?

I had my first success with a short story for a teen magazine now sadly defunct called, 'Loving'. I was practically dancing on the ceiling because it finally meant that I could persuade someone that my scribblings were worth buying. Many years before, I'd written the first three chapters and a synopsis for Mills and Boon and sent them off. They said they liked what I'd done and could they see the rest. The only trouble was, I hadn't written any more! Being totally naive, I thought I'd made it and dashed off the rest only to receive a very standard rejection. That was a blow and taught me never to make assumptions but always to keep on trying. Now, I accept rejection as part of the deal and I never throw anything away. Years later I submitted and had accepted a couple of short stories to People's Friend. Success breeds success and noticing that they published pocket novels which I could buy in my local supermarket, I bought and studied half a dozen of them before having a go myself. They accepted my first, 'Safe Harbour' without revisions, thank goodness, and I have never looked back. D C Thomson have taken a further five novellas of mine, some under the People's Friend imprint, others as My Weekly pocket novels. The latest, TANGO AT MIDNIGHT, like the others has just come out in large print published by Ulverscroft.

Where is your favourite place to work?
I have worn a very large bottom-shaped dip in the sofa in my lounge where I work with a laptop on my knees (great for warming them up in winter!) My black and white moggy often sits next to me on a cushion and earns her keep as a useful arm rest. I am though happy to work almost anywhere and find changing location can really help to kick-start the imagination. My husband bought me an ipad for my birthday together with a natty little keyboard dock so you can stand the ipad up anywhere, plug it into the keyboard and off you go. I have written in the dark in the car on November evenings waiting for my daughter to finish her 11-plus tutorial sessions and in coffee shops where a cappuccino and a chocolate tiffin are my drug of choice! The writing brain is a curious thing because although I find in coffee shops the buzz of strangers does not distract me, at home I have to have solitude and silence. If there are people in the room at home I just pack up my ipad and go and work with the spiders in the shed at the bottom of the garden. I also sometimes go to a writing retreat in the country - no telly, no internet, perfect.

Do you have to juggle writing with the day job? What is your work schedule?
I work full time as a human resources manager for a charity but I am very lucky in that my office is just ten minutes from home. This means that once the family have set off for school and work there is one glorious hour each morning when I have the house to myself in which to write. To plot or not to plot? Are you a planner or do you just dive in? Oh my, I wish I was a plotter! I dream of having beautiful coloured post-it notes neatly placed, or mind-maps, or character schedules all typed up before I begin and I must have tried every possible method of controlling my butterfly mind. But, it won't have it and I really find that the way I write best is just to sit down with a blank screen and get typing, working the story out as I go along. This means that synopses are the devil's work as far as I'm concerned. I always get into trouble with them. At the moment I am writing a serial for People's Friend which is a new process for me and where you work very closely with an editor. I keep having it gently pointed out that my synopsis has gaping holes but they are lovely people to work with and are putting up with me so far.

Which authors have most influenced your work? And which do you choose to read for pleasure?
I have hugely wide reading tastes and love browsing bookshops and coming out with half a dozen that have taken my fancy. The shelf in our bookcase broke under the weight recently so I am trying to buy a few more ebooks these days. Among authors who I always snap up when their new ones issue are the crime writer Ruth Rendell. Her novels are fascinating in that you very often know who has committed the murder from the start but hers are more whydunnits than whodunnits and I think the psychological angle and the way she digs deep into character's motives is fascinating. It's also useful for any author to study even though hers aren't exactly romance! Stephen King is another author whose writing I love because it feels very intimate - almost as if you have him in the room sitting opposite you telling the story. I like reading around books too, and discovering what has inspired authors. For this reason, just after reading 'Fingersmith' by Sarah Waters which is a real tour de force of plotting and characterisation, I read 'The Woman in White' by Wilkie Collins which inspired her novel. As far as romance writers are concerned, my favourite is Marian Keyes.

What is the hardest part of the writing process for you?
Finishing. I like a crisp ending and often agonise over whether I've achieved it, going back and rewriting to get just the effect I want. If I'm satisfied with it, then hopefully the reader will be. I also think that with many things in life, finishing is 90% of success. It's so easy to begin something, so easy to ride on that wave of starting something new but often difficult to finish it and accept that you cannot make it any better but that you have to send it off into the big wide world and risk possible rejection.

What advice would you give a new writer?
When stuck for ideas, make a point of noticing things around you which can spark your writing. In order to do this, you HAVE to be exercising your writing muscle regularly, and you will find that things that you see on television, read in the news or just see walking around will trigger the idea for a scene, a character trait or a whole novel simply because your imagination, like an antenna, is receptive to those opportunities. So it was when, one winter's morning I woke up to find that in the night it had snowed so hard that trains were confined to sidings and international airports were closed. Everybody who had planned journeys had them turned upside down. This gave me the starting idea for, LEAVING HOME where my heroine's bags are all packed for a new life in New York. When she is delayed by a few days her choices are turned upside down. If I hadn't been open to looking on the weather disruption as a writing opportunity it might have passed me by. I think this is the same process which means that when you end a love affair, every song on the radio seems to have relevance - it's simply that you are super-aware, things have meaning-and that is a useful trait to be able to cultivate to inform your writing. My second piece of advice is to try writing out of your comfort zone. I have dabbled in the following: science fiction; historical; paranormal and crime and have sold short stories in all those genres but even had I not sold them, I enjoyed doing them and kept my writing muscle exercised.

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, how do you cope with it?
Not so much writers block but insecurity as to whether what I'm writing has any merit at all. The only cure is to keep writing. I used to finish a piece of work, send it off to a publisher and wait before starting something else. Sometimes you can wait a very long time so now I always start something new as soon as I've finished and dispatched something to a publisher. Or I'll have two or three things on the go so that if I experience writers block working on one thing, I can visit another and come back almost having given my writing brain a holiday from a difficult manuscript. Short stories I find are a great way of clearing writers block if I'm stuck on something longer. Also, being out and about and doing something new is a perfect way of clearing a blockage. My latest novel from Ulverscroft, TANGO AT MIDNIGHT was inspired by going to tango lessons.

In what way has the RNA helped you or your career?
The RNA has helped hugely. Writing is an incredibly lonely business. You have to be antisocial, locking yourself away to dredge something up from nothing with only four walls and the hum of a laptop for company. Family and friends tolerate me chatting about writing, but it's difficult for people to understand who aren't writing themselves. The RNA has given me writing friends who I chat to at their wonderful conferences, it has led to me hearing of opportunities and new publishers and it has given me the London chapter meetings to attend. I have seen others who have gradually gained success and gone from being unpublished to published and we all face the same demons and experience the same terrific highs when things go well. The RNA is a wonderful organisation with helpful, hugely knowledgeable individuals and their new writers scheme which I went through is a very practical way of helping people along the rocky road to publication.

Can you tell us something of your work in progress?
For me, one of the things that will really unblock the imagination and get a story going is location. A place I have visited that has certain resonances will seep into my consciousness so that I almost have to write it out of my system to be free of it. Very often on holiday I will be inspired. I take loads of photos and keep things like maps, train and ferry timetables, ticket stubs and concert programmes so I come back with a portfolio of memorabilia to inspire me. I also like to work on more than one thing at once so that I can chop and change and refresh myself. So, at the moment I am working on a serial set in Italy as well as a pocket novel located in a manor house in deepest rural France. The French story had to be written following a week's stay as a member of a house party in a manor house which oozed echoes of the past and had me thinking it would be perfect for a ghost story..... I'm 10,000 words in and having great fun with it.

Cara blogs at


Chris Stovell said...

Hats off to Cara for packing so much in! And such excellent advice too. Lovely interview.

margaret blake said...

Lots of useful information here, Cara. I am so pleased that your writing career has taken off.

I am so admiring of the way you juggle your career, family and writing. You are such an inspiration.

Lots of luck, Margaret

Cara Cooper said...

Thanks Chris, I always think you're a long time dead so you might as well get as much done while you can!

Those are kind words Margaret and many congratulations to you on all your books and finding time to blog, walk the length and breadth of Britain etc etc!

Scarlet Wilson said...

Fab Cara - loved your interview!

Anonymous said...

Inspiring interview, Cara, well done!


Cara Cooper said...

Thanks Scarlet and Sam, hope someone finds it of use!

Jean Bull said...

What a great interview, Cara.
I always bring back tickets, leaflets and postcards from my holidays and make a scrapbook with my jottings which sometimes get turned into a story. However, I hadn't thought how useful timetables could be with characters catching trains and boats, what a good idea!
Best Wishes,

Sandra Mackness said...

I love the thought of a portfolio of memorabilia, Cara. It's also good to hear you like working on more than one thing at once. I'm with you there.

All the best

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Enjoyed the interview, Cara - and I'm so glad you're another writer who likes working on different things at the same time!

Jan Sprenger said...

Great interview. You're much more organised than I am! Maybe there's a lesson in that.

Also, note to self: read Cara's books.


Cara Cooper said...

Thank you Jean, Sandra and Rosemary I'm pretty sure you guys also do short stories and I love them as a means of experimenting and getting me out of a stuck groove. Hey Jan, you know I'm not really that organised but it's nice to have you help me create the illusion!