Raised on Nancy Drew mysteries, Claire Cook has wanted to write ever since she was a little girl. She majored in theater and creative writing at Syracuse University and immersed herself in a number of artistic endeavors (copywriter, radio continuity director, garden designer, and dance and aerobics choreographer), yet somehow her dreams got pushed to the side for more real-life matters -- like marriage, motherhood, and a teaching career. Decades passed, then one day she found herself parked in her minivan at 5 AM, waiting for her daughter to finish swim practice. She was struck with a now-or-never impulse and began writing on the spot. By the end of the season, she had a first draft. Her first novel, Ready to Fall, was published in 2000, when Cook was 45.
Since then, this "late starter" has more than made up for lost time. She struck gold with her second book, Must Love Dogs. Published in 2002, this story of a middle-aged divorcee whose singles ad produces hilariously unexpected results was declared "funny and pitch-perfect" by the Chicago Tribune and "a hoot" by the Boston Globe. (The novel got a second life in 2005 with the release of the feature film starring Diane Lane and John Cusack.) Cook's subsequent novels, with their wry, witty take on the lives of middle-aged women, have become bestsellers and book club favorites.
Upbeat, gregarious, and grateful for her success, Cook is an inspiration for aspiring writers and women in midlife transition. She tours indefatigably for her novels and genuinely enjoys speaking with fans. She also conducts frequent writing workshops, where she dispenses advice and encouragement in equal measure. "I'm extraordinarily lucky to spend my time doing what I love," she has said on countless occasions. " The workshops are a way to say thank you and open doors that I stumbled through to make it easier for writers coming up behind me.''
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In our interview, Cook shared some fun and fascinating anecdotes with us:
"I first knew I was a writer when I was three. My mother entered me in a contest to name the Fizzies whale, and I won in my age group. It's quite possible that mine was the only entry in my age group since "Cutie Fizz" was enough to win my family a six-month supply of Fizzies tablets (root beer was the best flavor) and half a dozen turquoise plastic mugs with removable handles. At six I had my first story on the "Little People's Page" in the Sunday paper (about Hot Dog, the family Dachshund) and at sixteen, I had my first front page feature in the local weekly."
"In the acknowledgments of Multiple Choice I say that even though it's probably undignified to admit it, I'm having a blast as a novelist. To clarify that, having a blast as a novelist does not necessarily mean having a blast with the actual writing. The people part -- meeting readers and booksellers and librarians and the media -- is very social and I'm having lots of fun with that. The writing part is great, too, once you get past the procrastination, the self-doubt, and the feelings of utter despair. It's all of the stuff surrounding the writing that's hard; once you find your zone, your place of flow, or whatever it is we're currently calling it, and lose yourself in the writing, it really is quite wonderful. I've heard writers say it's better than sex, though I'm not sure I'd go that far."
"I love books that don't wrap everything up too neatly at the end, and I think it's a big compliment to hear that a reader is left wanting more. After each novel, I hear from many readers asking for a sequel -- they say they just have to find out what will happen to these people next. I think it's wonderful that the characters have come to life for them. But, for now, I think I'll grow more as a writer by trying to create another group of quirky characters. Maybe a few books down the road, I'll feel ready to return to some of them -- who knows?"
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In the summer of 2004, Cook took some time out to answer some of our questions about her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
I get asked this question a lot on book tour, and I'm always tempted to say anything by Jane Austen or Alice Munro, just so people will know I'm well read, and sometimes I'm even tempted to say something by Gogol, just so people will think I'm really, really well read. But, alas, ultimately I tell the truth. The Nancy Drew books influenced me the most. I think they taught me a lot about pacing, and about ending chapters in such a way that the reader just can't put the book down and absolutely has to read on to the next chapter. I also think these books are responsible for the fact that I can't, for the life of me, write a chapter that's much longer than ten pages.
There's another variation of this question that I'm asked all the time on book tour: Who are your favorite authors? I always answer it the same way: My favorite authors are the ones who've been nice to me. It's so important for established authors to take emerging authors under their wings. Two who've been particularly generous to me as mentors and friends are Mameve Medwed and Jeanne Ray. Fortunately, they both happen to be very talented -- and funny -- so if you've somehow missed their books, you should read them immediately.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
You might be starting to notice that I have a tendency to tweak the questions a bit. I think of it as the what-a-great-question-but-here's-the-one-I'd-love-to-answer approach. Hope it's okay to change this to my ten favorite books by authors who've been nice to me:
Mail by Mameve Medwed
Host Family by Mameve Medwed
The End of an Error by Mameve Medwed
Julie and Romeo by Jeanne Ray
Step-Ball-Change by Jeanne Ray
Eat Cake by Jeanne Ray
Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett
Little Children by Tom Perrotta
Lucy Crocker 2.0 by Caroline Preston
The Mystery at Lilac Inn by Carolyn Keene (couldn't resist getting a Nancy Drew book in!)
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I love all kinds of music, but I rarely listen to music while I'm writing. I get too pulled into the lyrics, and that distracts me from the words I should be writing. My son has a great collection of chant music (think Benedictine monks), and sometimes I'll put on one of those CD's, or some classical music, really low, so I can just barely hear it. But mostly I wait until I'm finished writing and music is my reward for pages rendered.
When I'm not writing, I listen to Eva Cassidy a lot. I find her voice, her choice of music and the story of her tragic death just as her career was taking off all very moving. I've listened to Bonnie Raitt for so long she feels like an old friend. Susan Tedeschi is from the same area as me and I love her great bluesy sound, and in my teaching days, I taught several of the Aerosmith kids, so their dads' music has a special place in my heart, too.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I love to give books about writing. Carolyn See's Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers is a particular favorite, as is Annie Lamott's Bird by Bird.
I'm a judge for the 2004 Thurber Prize for American Humor, so I've been reading some very, very funny books lately. I've actually started making a list of the ones I want to give as gifts to family and friends. Sorry, the judging is secret, so I can't give the titles away yet....
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I wrote my first novel in my minivan outside my daughter's swim practice at 5 in the morning. After that, I can write anywhere and under any conditions -- it's just such a thrill to be out of the car! I do give myself a daily page quota when I'm working on a novel. I even record the page numbers on a calendar so I don't cheat. I've found that every day of my life presents me with dozens of perfectly valid reasons not to write. My kids, my house, my hair. And occasionally even more glamorous things like interviews and movie deals. So, for me, the only way to actually write a novel is to get really disciplined with myself. I write two pages a day, every day, or I'm not allowed to go to sleep. It gets ugly sometimes, but it works.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
My first novel was published at age 45 after decades of being afraid to take the risk of writing a novel. Looking back, I think I fully expected that the day after graduating from college, a novel would emerge, fully formed, like giving birth. When that didn't happen, I felt like an imposter. I did lots of other creative, interesting things, and brought up two great kids along the way, but my unrealized dream to write a novel was always in the background, quietly eating away at me. Being a novelist is the thing I almost missed. But, all's well that ends well, and I'm thrilled I finally got up the nerve to do it. So many women have written to say that my story has been an inspiration to them, and I hope that's true.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
I'm not sure most writers want to be "discovered." The goal, it seems to me, is to have your books discovered by individual readers who will spread the word to their family and friends, who will spread the word to their family and friends.... And then, because your books have done well, your publisher will want your next book, and you'll get to write it! I think most writers want their books to be famous while they hide out at home, writing away in their pajamas!
But, once again, I haven't answered your question, so let me try. I'd have to say that I've heard from so many emerging writers that I don't think I could pick just one. I wish them all the talent, luck and tenacity they'll need to get their books discovered!
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
I think it's really important to mentor other writers once you've been lucky enough to have some success yourself. Not too long ago, however, it dawned on me that if I had coffee with every emerging writer who asked, I'd never get my own writing done. So, I offered to do a free writing workshop at my local library, and 125 people showed up! (Maybe it was the free part...) We had a great time, and a couple of patterns emerged.
One, I think many writers don't spend enough time researching the world they're trying to break into. Books like Writers' Market are invaluable tools to help you figure out how to approach an agent or an editor, how to write a query letter, how to format your manuscript, etc. Two, you have to stay open to constructive criticism and be willing to hang in there draft after draft until your manuscript is as good as you can get it before you send it out. Then, once it finds a home, you'll do it all over again! I'm amazed how many people think you just whip out a draft and --presto! -- it's a book. Which leads to my third point: I've noticed is that a lot of emerging writers jump from project to project at the first sign of boredom or rejection, or because they've come up with an even better idea. Lots of writers can start a book -- but you'll never get it published unless you FINISH it!
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