Imagine living communally on a farm with other artists. Sally doesn’t have to imagine, she’s done it. Now she’s living in Hamilton, Ontario with her boyfriend, Newfoundland dog and a cat. Two days a week she’s a professor at Humber College and the rest of her time is devoted to writing. This “intuitive writer” first book Love Object was published in 2002 and ventures into the lives of one family and the affects of mental illness. I hope you’ll enjoy Sally Cooper’s perspective on the writing life as much as I did.
Moe: Looking back was there something in particular that helped you to decide to become a writer?
Sally Cooper: As a child I had intense experiences – outer body, waking dreams – and more notably, I craved intense experiences. My grandparents had great gardens where I would read Alice in Wonderland then close my eyes and try to will myself unconscious. At dawn, I’d search around the stone bench under our pear tree for fairy rings. Writing made sense – if I couldn’t will those experiences, I could tell them. So I wrote. And I drew. But I was better at writing, and with writing, I could direct the dream. As a teen I wanted to be a poet-waitress or a librarian. My poems veered from angst to unicorns. I won contests! After university I lived communally on a farm with musicians who jammed in the barn. My voice was off-key and I was shy. My first story came soon after. I can’t say how I knew I was a writer. Like love, I just knew.
Moe: What inspires you?
Sally Cooper: Other writers inspire me, other artists, my friends. Art inspires me, too – paintings, sculptures, photographs, films, songs, stories. And life. Love Objectcame out of feelings I had for the town I grew up in and the people I knew there. Other times an image nudges me or I hear a character.
Moe: Every writer has a method that works for them. Most of them vary like the wind while some seem to follow a pattern similar to other writers. On a typical writing day, how would you spend your time?
Sally Cooper: My writing day varies depending on what I’m doing in the rest of my life. When I worked full-time, nine-to-five, I wrote before work and on weekend mornings. When I’m not working I get up, putter for a couple of hours with my dog, my journal, breakfast, a shower, then write for three to four hours. Sometimes I spend more time but I often pay for it the next day. There is much brooding, some reading and frequent snacking. The time of day changes. Right now I start mid-morning. What’s key for me is establishing a daily rhythm, same time, same place, day after day without interruption to the schedule.
Moe: How long does it take for you to complete a book you would allow someone to read? Do you write right through or do you revise as you go along?
Sally Cooper: I like to write my first drafts in a burst. I wrote the first drafts of both novels in a couple of months then spent years revising them. I used to show my first drafts to trusted readers. Now I wait longer. It took me a few years before I showed a draft of my second novel but the feedback I get is invaluable.
Lately I’m writing more slowly. I’m technically stronger so I build a story’s spine sentence by sentence, trying to see my way clearly through a story rather than writing in a blur. I end up with a stronger, more careful draft. At least I hope I do.
Moe: When you have your idea and sit down to write is any thought given to the genre and type of readers you’ll have?
Sally Cooper: With Love Object I gave little thought to anything beyond the characters and their stories and how to get them down. I opened myself up to the story first. Then, I concerned myself with how to shape it, learning as I went. With the new novel, I’ve made more decisions earlier in the game, decisions about who’s telling the story, where to start, that kind of thing. That said, I am at heart an intuitive writer and with each revision, I question those decisions and often make great changes.
Moe: When it comes to plotting, do you write freely or plan everything in advance?
Sally Cooper: I like to let an idea grow inside me for awhile before I write so I can get a sense of its mystery, the kinds of answers I’m chasing. I do little planning, though. There is a mystery about a story and where it’s going. Each choice one makes, as in life, opens up possibilities. Deciding where a story is going in advance, as in life, invites chaos. I like to let the story reveal itself to me, to follow it down. This method makes for much revising. My new novel, for instance: I started out with 500 pages and pared them down to fifty. Then I wrote hundreds more and cut back again. But I’m an “experiential learner.” I learn by doing and for me, the biggest energy is in writing.
Moe: What kind of research do you do before and during a new book? Do you visit the places you write about?
Sally Cooper: I’ve visited every place I’ve written about, which is easy enough, since my work tends to be set in Ontario where I live, though some places I’ve traveled have made such an impact I’ve had to write about them. A backpacking trip to Europe, for instance, has come up a few times. And New Mexico: I spent a couple of summers in Taos and the desert is finding its way into my stories.
Most of my research, I’ve done as I write, often after the fact. I should change this method. With my new novel, I didn’t do any research until well into the second draft. Since this novel involves a murder trial, I went to court, visited a jail, consulted a Crown Attorney only to find out I’d gotten some key procedures wrong and had to redraft. I didn’t mind. The detours got me closer to the characters. Next time I will start earlier, though not too early. I like to see where the story wants to take me.
Moe: How much of yourself and the people you know manifest into your characters? Where do your characters come from? Where do you draw the line?
Sally Cooper: I never think about how much of myself is in my characters anymore. I used to, though, and I suspect it took me so long to publish because I worried about what people would think of me. I like to believe I’m transparent but writing is trickery, after all. Certainly my fiction hits on my concerns, my deepest thoughts and feelings, everything I know, really, is in my books. As for the people in my life: ask my mother! The core of a character might come from someone I know (or think I know) but once I’m writing, the character becomes a made thing, not real, except in my mind, and yours as you read it. I don’t draw any line, but people keep telling me things, so what I’m doing must be okay.
Moe: Writers often go on about writer’s block. Do you ever suffer from it and what measures do you take to get past it?
Sally Cooper: I’ve suffered from writer’s block. I had one, famously, for three years after I wrote Love Object. I surrendered to it, moved from Toronto to a log cabin in the Mono Hills and found ways to make life fun again. Was I blocked, or did I just not want to write? Is there a difference? I’m not sure. Perspective is key, taking art lightly, playing on the page and accepting that droughts do happen. There are reasons behind our refusals to write. Sometimes it’s best to lay the pen down and explore them.
Moe: When someone reads one of your books for the first time, what do you hope they gain, feel or experience?
Sally Cooper: I want readers to get a hit from the story, a sense of recognition. Some of the best responses to Love Object came from readers who connected to what Mercy goes through when the girls pick on her at camp or to Nicky when he tries on his missing mother’s clothes. I want someone to feel the dream as intensely as I do.
Moe: Can you share three things you’ve learned about the business of writing since your first publication?
Sally Cooper: I learned the world of publishing and book-selling is full of good people who love books. Publishing is a business like any other and it’s smart for writers to be savvy about the process of selling. Oh, and book launches rock.
Moe: How do you handle fan mail? What kinds of things do fans write to you about?
Sally Cooper: I handle fan mail with glee. I’d love to get more. People write to tell me how they’ve interpreted Love Object’s central mystery. Or to ask me what I think happened after the end of the story. As if I know!
Moe: What’s your latest book about? Where did you get the idea and how did you let the idea evolve?
Sally Cooper: Love Object is about Mercy Brewer who witnesses her mother’s nervous breakdown. Her raucous grandmother comes to live with her and the novel explores her coming-of-age as she tries to get to the heart of her mother’s disappearance. It’s set in a fictional town, Apple Ford, in Southern Ontario, in the seventies. I’d started writing a story about a friend of mine who’d committed suicide at nineteen. Mercy was a side character. By the second draft, she’d taken over and he’d changed into her best friend Duncan who, while mildly tormented, is not suicidal.
Moe: What kind of books do you like to read?
Sally Cooper: I like good fiction, short stories and novels, some poetry, artist biographies, true crime, interviews, essays.
Moe: When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?
Sally Cooper: Anything I can get away with. Actually, I’m rather boring. I go to movies, play guitar, practice yoga, renovate my house, travel, hang out with my boyfriend, see friends, bathe the dog, surf the Web.
Moe: New writers are always trying to glean advice from those with more experience. What suggestions do you have for new writers?
Sally Cooper: I’m not the first to say this, but my strongest advice is to read everything, not just what you like and not just what’s easy, from all eras. Write as much as you can. Try new things, in life and in writing. Pay attention. Believe in it and be greedy for words. Travel. Listen.
Moe: If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
Sally Cooper: Probably a small-town librarian with a drinking problem. Or a poet-waitress.
Moe: What is your favourite word?
Sally Cooper: I love them all equally.
Originally published 2/20/2006 at Literary Fiction, BellaOnline.