Monday, 11 February 2013

Author Visit: Carolyn Jess-Cooke

Happy Monday, all!

Everyone who replies to this post before midnight Sunday 17th February will have their name put into a hat. The name pulled out of that hat will win a copy of Carolyn's fantastic book The Boy Who Could See Demons. 

NB: This giveaway is open worldwide


Hi Carolyn! Welcome to the blog - please make yourself at home. 

Thank you for having me :)

I’ve recently read your second novel, ‘The Boy Who Could See Demons’ and enjoyed it very much indeed. How would you describe it to those who haven’t read it yet?

Thanks a lot, so glad you liked it. I’d describe ‘The Boy Who Could See Demons’ as a quirky psychological drama about a young boy, Alex, from Belfast whose best friend is not only invisible, but happens to be a 9000-year-old demon called Ruen, who’s keen on bread and butter pudding and changes form a lot. When Alex’s mum attempts suicide yet again he becomes involved with child psychiatrist, Anya, who has her own issues after her daughter’s mental illness. Anya must assist Alex in understanding the reasons why Ruen exists in his mind, but she also has to confront the possibility that Ruen is real after all. My work is principally interested in survival and in characters who have tough obstacles to overcome, and in Alex’s case he must overcome his childhood.

Place (Belfast) plays a big role in the novel. You grew up in Belfast - how do you think this has influenced you?

I never thought I’d write about Belfast. I have such complicated feelings about the place and have never found a successful way of articulating my relationship with it at all. It’s a personal thing. I grew up in a council house in a ‘loyalist’ area. A solider was shot dead in a street next to ours and a family thrown out of their home for being Catholic. I heard bombs going off and have many memories of being caught up in bomb scares. I never worked out why it all went on; because I grew up with it, the situation was something I tolerated rather than questioned, at least until I reached adulthood. I moved to Sydney when I was 21 and left Belfast for good at 26, after graduating from my PhD at Queen’s University Belfast. I feel frustrated by the situation there, and yet the place has deep emotional roots and family ties. I think this is articulated in the course of the book.

Your first book is ‘The Guardian Angel’s Journal’. What’s your publication story?

‘The Guardian Angel’s Journal’ started life as a poem that I couldn’t finish. I was very frustrated by it and recognized that the problem lay in the form – it didn’t want to be a poem, but it wanted to be something. I’d attempted novels when I was in my teens and had written a ‘practice’ novel in 2008, but when the idea for the book – about a woman who dies and comes back to earth as her own guardian angel – developed I wrote a sample chapter to take to a networking event with editors and agents in London, which literature organization New Writing North invited me to in July 2009. I didn’t hear anything and followed up the publishers and agents I’d submitted the first chapter to in early September. One of the agents said she didn’t have the sample and could I send the first 50 pages? I sent her this, and she wrote back within 24 hours saying she liked it and could she see the rest? Well, I hadn’t written the rest but I didn’t want to say that – so I asked her to give me a couple of weeks, cleared my schedule, begged my mother-in-law to mind the kids and wrote like hell. 11 days later, I finished it. The day after, my agent – Madeleine Milburn – signed me up. By November 2009 I had a 2-book deal with Little, Brown/Piatkus and about 10 foreign languages. Every week Maddy would be emailing to say ‘oh, I just got you a deal in Romania’. I just could not believe it. 

Do you have a writing routine? 

It changes all the time. I have four children aged 6, 4, 2, and 6 months, and they get top priority when it comes to my time. My mother-in-law kindly babysits when she’s not working, so I’ve just worked very intensively for the last few months on a new novel. I’m taking the next wee while ‘easy’, which for me translates as a handful of poems a week and much scribbling in my notebook of new ideas. Basically I write as and when I can, though I imagine when my children are all at school I’ll settle into a daily routine with a lunch hour, etc. Right now my life involves so much juggling that it would probably look like utter madness to an outsider, but I can’t not write.  

How long did it take you to write ‘The Boy Who Could See Demons’? You must have done quite a lot of research for it. 

The first draft took 3 weeks, the rewrite, about 4 or 5 weeks, with 8 months between the two versions (Jen: Wow!). I did tons of research, including interviews with top psychiatrists and a visit to an inpatient unit in London. I used to be an academic and have a lot of research experience, which has enabled me to research my novels efficiently and quickly. I have a good sense of who to ask, what to read, where to look and, particularly, when to stop, though I found I could have researched this topic forever!  

If you had a demon - or several - what would they look like? 

I think they’d look beautiful on the outside and would sympathetically tell me I’m a complete failure at every given opportunity.

Your poetry collection ‘Inroads’ is published by Seren. Could you perhaps give us a snippet of one of the poems?

Certainly! I pruned down the collection from its original state quite a bit, so that the ones that remain in there are my favourite. But ‘Yesterday, I failed’ is particularly special, because it came out on paper in a single draft after a really awful incident where I, um, failed badly at something. It’s probably the closest poem to my voice, too. It’s quirky and tragic and playful. Every time I do a poetry reading there’s a moment where the audience doesn’t know whether to laugh or sigh for me. Invariably, they end up laughing. Here’s an extract:

I failed, and the failing was great thereof.
I failed all the way to the sulphur cliffs of cynicism, then bungee-jumped.
I shot a hole in one in failure.
I failed and changed the course of history.
I failed admirably, catastrophically, unremittingly, relentlessly, 
deliciously, spaciously, and with the dexterity of the common 
I did not merely stall, pause, or change my mind –
I failed, like any serious attempt at oil painting in a wind machine.
I failed, but the crops did not.
I failed in a field, and filed as I fooled.
I walked right up to failure, kicked it in the shins, and insulted its mother.

Do you find you have to be in a different state of mind to write poetry rather than prose (I know I do, so I’m projecting here a little ;)). What’s the difference in the way you’d approach a poem vs prose?

Absolutely, it takes a different state of mind. Or rather, writing a novel consumes me so entirely that I can barely function. It is just so intense that constructing an email during that period proves difficult, never mind a poem. So yes, I have writing periods for each.

What are you working on at the moment, and what are your plans for the future?

I just finished my third novel, which blew my mind, though now I’m on tenterhooks as I await my agent’s response to it. In a while I’ll turn my attention to finishing my second poetry collection, BOOM!, which is coming out next year, and also promoting the US version of ‘The Boy Who Could See Demons’ which comes out this August. It’s a little different than the UK version…

Intriguing...! Thanks for stopping by, Carolyn, and all the best with the new novel!


Twitter: @cjesscooke


Everyone who replies to this post before midnight Sunday 17th February will have their name put into a hat. The name pulled out of that hat will win a copy of Carolyn's fantastic book The Boy Who Could See Demons. 

NB: This giveaway is open worldwide


  1. This sounds very good! But,if I win, I am going to save you money. My daughter is currently in England working and having a good time. This is book I think we would both really like. I will let her read it first as she keeps saying she has nothing to read.Easier to ship to her out side Cambridge than me in Canada! But Carolyn,how do you figure what went bump in the night? Was it the kids or perhaps Ruen came to visit? It sounds tremendous! And perhaps I should try your first as well! Have fun all.

  2. Well, lost the first entry! But, I would really like to read this one. I think knew Ruen way back when. I think I met him in the bush and swamp behind the house I grew up in. Perhaps grade 1 we could have been friends! Have fun all!

    1. You didn't lose the first entry, Michael. As it says next to the comment box, your comment needs to be approved by me before it appears, to stop spam. :)

  3. This looks like a great book! I would love to win it and not have to wait until August to read it.

  4. Anyone who has 4 kids ( as did I) and can write what sounds like a terrific book has my utmost respect!

  5. I love this "‘The Guardian Angel’s Journal’ started life as a poem that I couldn’t finish. I was very frustrated by it and recognized that the problem lay in the form – it didn’t want to be a poem, but it wanted to be something." Words do often take on a life of their own!

  6. This sounds great! Please add me to the giveaway *crosses everything*

  7. This looks like such an interesting book! Please add me to the list.

  8. Please add me to the would be a treat to read it early.

  9. I love the sound of this book - fabulous interview. Thanks for the contest!

  10. looks lovely! *fingers crossed*

  11. This book sounds v. interesting; definitely going on the ever-growing list!

  12. Thanks for entering, everyone! The name pulled out of the hat was Rebecca Hazelton.

    If you didn't win, I do recommend checking this book out; it's a cracking read! x