Fairy Tales, Magical Realism and Mysteries of an Island With C.J. Cooke
About C.J. Cooke
As someone who started writing at the age of seven, Carolyn Jess (known as C.J.) Cooke has been spinning tales of wonder for a long time. Her writing is magical, filled with such depth and feeling, with underlying themes of family and motherhood–something I know a little bit about–that I wanted to learn more about her, for she is arguably one of the best Scottish authors of the twenty-first century. An accomplished writer and poet, C.J. has twelve titles to her name, including an anthology, a poetry collection and an international bestseller The Guardian Angel’s Journal, her debut novel from 2011.
Since then, she’s continued to spin enchantingly dark tales of wonder and excitement, coupled with the nuances of family, including motherhood and sibling relationships. Which is exactly what she did with her latest novel, The Lighthouse Witches, published in October 2021 to great acclaim. You know that a book is going to be a good, chilling tale when it begins with, “They bind our feet and ankles, tear off our clothes, and douse us with alcohol.” I was immediately drawn to the visceral darkness that Cooke writes about so well; phrases like, “Stevens’ knife is held to my throat, his face so close I can smell his disgusting breath,” invites you on a journey to the other side of the world, a small island called Lon Haven in Scotland, where mysteries and long held secrets involving witches unearth for a mother and her children, and the bond that ties people together and what tears them apart. Think of it as an invitation to explore deep, dark worlds on the page while learning more about remote Scottish islands at the same time. Her book has been called “spellbinding,” “truly scary,” and “shivers-up-the-spine spookiness” and I couldn’t agree more.
When she’s not writing novels, she teaches creative writing at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, writes poetry, and is a mom to four children. All in all, she’s an unstoppable force whose literary accomplishments are worth drooling over, and not just for her books, but for the way she tells stories. Below, she gives us a bit more insight on her creative career, her dream brunch date, and so much more!
Here’s what C.J. had to share:
Tell us a bit about your journey to becoming an author. Was this the career you always knew you wanted?
I started writing at the age of seven and produced a number of little novels, plays, and a poetry collection by the age of fourteen. Writing was just something that I always did, and I started approaching publishers at the age of nine. Career-wise, I wanted to be a filmmaker–writing, directing, and acting in my own films. I had planned to leave school at 16 and go to film school in London, but when I found out the fees were £10,000 a year (not including London living costs) my plans were scuppered. I was raised by a single mother on a council estate in Northern Ireland – I had no way of paying the fees.
I had better luck academically – I received scholarships and did a PhD in film studies, then went on to enjoy an academic career in film, then creative writing. I feel very lucky to have come full circle, back to my first love!
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given, with regards to careers and success?
When I was sixteen, I did a short stint with the BBC Drama Department, and a script editor there told me that they kept a poster in their office that said ‘Rewrite, then rewrite again’. It really instilled the idea in me that no first draft is perfect, and that everything can be fixed further down the line. This has really kept me going through the hard days!
What books are on your reading list right now?
I’ve just finished Burntcoat by Sarah Hall which was sublime. I’m currently reading a proof copy of Sarah Pinborough’s new novel Insomnia, as well as The Ruin of all Witches by Malcolm Gaskill, and Kindred by Octavia E. Butler.
When you’re writing – where do you write? What is the setting?
I have two offices, one at home and one on campus at the University of Glasgow, where I’ve taught for the last seven years. I tend to write mostly on my sofa, and occasionally I’ll book an Airbnb in Edinburgh for a few days – when I can get childcare – to really immerse myself at crucial points in the writing. Ideally, I like to be alone, with limited Wi-fi, by the ocean, but most often it’s on the sofa with a dog trying to get on my lap, a child asking for toast, and my airpods to keep out as much noise as possible.
How have you been staying connected to your friends/family/community during COVID-19?
It was very tricky for a while, as I imagine it has been for everyone. Zoom and WhatsApp have been lifesavers at times. We even managed to Zoom with my great-grandmother-in-law. But it has certainly changed things and made me want to invest more in my cherished relationships.
Do you have exciting projects coming up? If so, please tell us.
I’ve just finished my 2022 novel, which remains untitled but is set in a mother and baby home in the Scottish borders in 1965. Think ghosts, haunted woodland, strange fungi, rebel mothers, fairy tales and revenge, all happening in and around an old gothic mansion.
What is your dream brunch date? Where and with whom?
Shakespeare. Outside the Shakespeare & Co Bookshop in Paris in November, or perhaps in Montmartre, with crépes.
What is your ideal comfort food?
Now that I mentioned it, I think crépes with chocolate and banana.
Which authors inspire your work the most?
I love poets Maggie Smith, Ellen Bass, Warsan Share, Kaveh Akbar, Sharon Olds, and so many others. I’m inspired by countless prose writers: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Tara Westover, Maggie O’Farrell, Sarah Moss, Sarah Hall, Hana Yanagihara, Ben Okri, and many more.