This month I had the honour of interviewing the lovely Paula Cocozza, Paula is a writer for The Guardian and her debut novel How to Be Human was published on the 9th May this year. You can read my review here: http://ow.ly/Jfrw30dHARR
Before I got into writing, I got into reading. From about the age of 11 I read everything I could get my hands on. Luckily I had a great little library – Goring library in Worthing – between school and home, so I’d stop off on my way back and stock up. I never knew what I wanted to be, but I knew I loved books, so I read English at university and after that decided that I wanted to write. When I graduated, it was 1994, and the World Cup was on. For a laugh I sent a letter to a football magazine asking if I could write for them. They said yes, and I ended up writing about football for the next five or six years. So I was writing from my first job, but I always had in my head the sense that I was not writing the thing I wanted to write. I just didn’t know what it was. From football writing I moved to fashion writing and eventually feature writing – I have worked at the Guardian now for more than ten years. Then a few years ago I realised I had to face up to the very private ambition I had always held – which was to write fiction. I have no idea why it took me so long to reach that point, but it did.
Football to Fashion to Features, you’ve done it all then. What are your ambitions for your writing?
To keep doing it. To write the stories I know as truly as I can.
Which writers inspire you?
I love Hilary Mantel, especially Wolf Hall and Giving Up The Ghost. There is such physicality in her prose. You can feel the body in the words. I find Ali Smith inspiring, because she seems to treat the blank page as a tremendous opportunity for fun. She has a playfulness with language that I really admire. I have a lot of admiration for Henry James, for the way he steps in and out of his characters’ minds so that narration, and writing, itself can seem sinister, transgressive. And recently I have found Elizabeth Strout very inspiring. I’m obsessed with her local repetitions – she writes sentences that if you took them to a creative writing workshop people would underline all the repetitions with some tut-tut remark in the margin, but Strout does it so cleverly. Some of her repetitions are heartbreaking.
I’ve actually just bought Wolf Hall on your recommendation, although I haven’t had chance to read it yet. How much research went into writing How to be Human?
Well, I wanted to make sure that everything I wrote about the fox was realistic and accurate. I knew the relationship between Mary, my protagonist, and the fox would or could seem magical, so I wanted to give it a heavy realist ballast by making sure I knew what I was talking about. I watched endless videos of foxes on YouTube with a pencil in my hand. I read some books by people who had studied fox behaviour. I watched the foxes in my own garden. And I searched Twitter for people who love foxes and asked them to talk to me about them. The story really rose out of the details these people and experts all shared, but at a certain point I had to switch off all the research. I knew enough about foxes in general and needed to pay attention only to my Fox.
I love that you he is ‘your’ fox in the same way that he is Mary’s. What are you working on at the moment?
I am writing a story about a woman who has lost a case of old love letters.
That sounds intriguing! Have you always wanted to write? How did you make the transition from feature writing for The Guardian to writing a novel?
I wrote the novel while I was working at the Guardian (I still work there). So it has not been a transition so much as an overlap. Both jobs involve telling a story in the most appropriate and compelling way, so luckily I have not felt conflicted or in transition.
What do you use to do your writing? Pen+paper, computer, typewriter etc.
I have a small Acer laptop. It was pretty cheap and I’m told by anyone who borrows it that it is annoyingly slow. It makes a whirring sound, and I quite enjoy the fact that I can hear it thinking. I keep different notepads on the go as well: one in which I write down any random idea connected to the work in progress. An ‘instant thought’ pad beside the computer where i scribble down thoughts I don’t want to lose, and a large A3 pad which is under the laptop and which I pull out at the start of each section or chapter, to scope out ideas and possibilities. Any excuse to make sure I have fully exploited the stationery opportunities!
It seems to be a thing for writers and readers alike to love stationary, I adore it! If you could write in another genre which would you choose to write?
Well, I don’t feel that any genre is forbidden me. I could write in any one, and I am choosing the one I want to write in. I guess if I were to do something a little different I might choose fictional memoir, a children’s book or crime. None of those is a burning desire at this stage though!
How often do you write? Do you set yourself a word target or just go with it when inspiration strikes?
I wrote How to be Human on Fridays and in whichever evenings I could nab in the week – basically stealing whatever time I could get. Now both my children are at school (they are aged six and nine), I also have Mondays during school hours. So Mondays and Fridays, plus evenings when I have the words and the time. I’m doing quite a bit of thinking at the moment, so I don’t set a word count, though I might do at a later stage if I catch myself dithering. For How to be Human, I had a three-day break for each of the two main drafts when I went away, locked myself up in a cottage in the middle of nowhere and wrote 10,000 words a time. So I know I can work quickly when I need to and when I’m ready.
Locked away in a cottage writing sounds like every writer’s perfect retreat! What sort of publishing route did you choose and why?
I found an agent I really liked, and then she sent the book out on submission. I chose Hutchinson as my publisher because it was clear as soon as I met my editor (Jocasta Hamilton) that she really got – and loved – the book. So it was a choice based on personality and feeling a connection. I wanted the book to be published physically, not only digitally, and I wanted it to be in as many bookshops as possible.
I can completely get that, although I have a lot of admiration for self published authors I feel like If and when my book is ever published I want to see it in my local Waterstones. How do you market your books? What have been your marketing successes and failures?
Oh crikey, this is the toughest question! If only I knew. There is a marketing and a publicity department at my publisher (Hutchinson is part of Penguin Random House), but an author does have to do a certain amount of publicity themselves. I enjoy using Twitter – it’s a fun way to connect with readers and booksellers. I am also a great believer in the power of a speculative letter, so I wrote to quite a few authors I admired when I had proofs of How to be Human, asking if I could send it to them. In return, there were a few embarrassing silences but also some lovely replies – including a brilliant endorsement from Hilary Mantel.
I bet that was amazing with her being one of your favourite authors! If you could be the original author of any book what would it have been and why?
I don’t think there is one: the book has to come from within, and that can only be true of the ones I write.
What are your views on good and bad reviews? How much do you think the success of books relies on reviews?
Interesting question! Shortly before my book was published, I interviewed Ross Raisin (for the Guardian), who told me that he never reads any reviews. His wife reads them for him.I thought I would do the same, and offered my daughter 50p a week to keep an eye on Goodreads! But the truth is I do look at them, albeit through the gaps between my fingers. Recently I interviewed Max Porter and he said he read as much as he could because he wanted to engage with the experience of publication as much as possible. I think I am somewhere in between. I definitely avoid looking on Goodreads before I go to bed but I’ve been lucky enough to have some brilliant reviews, in The Economist, The Times Literary Supplement, the Telegraph and Guardian among others. I guess they bring the book to broader notice, so in that sense they are important. But someone told me that a person on average needs to see or hear or read about a book three times before they’ll buy it, so I think reviews are probably just a few pieces of a pretty large and mysterious jigsaw.
Thank you so much Paula for taking the time out to be interviewed on my blog, it’s been an honour and a pleasure to have you!
You can now buy Paula’s book How to Be Human at all good book stores! And if you’d like to hear more from Paula and get updates on what she’s doing next you can find her social media links below.
Twitter: @CocozzaPaula [https://twitter.com/CocozzaPaula]