Tuesday 31 May 2011

The Speculative Spotlight | A Word With Elspeth Cooper (Part 1)

It's been an almighty while since we did one of these, hasn't it?

Well, in my absence, I figured all the other bloggers kinda had it covered. But upon reading Songs of the Earth a couple of months ago - my full review of which will be going live, at long last, sometime tomorrow - there were questions I don't mind saying I wanted answers to; questions only Elspeth Cooper could answer. Questions which, furthermore, I wasn't sure anyone else would ask, if I didn't step up to the plate.

So I did! :)

We talked for a good long while, Elspeth and I. She's really a lovely lady - not to mention a tremendously promising new genre novelist. She has cats, and a Kindle, realistic expectations, and a refreshingly frank and frankly refreshing perspective on the business of publishing. This from a woman whose fantasy debut has been likened to The Name of the Wind - and not just by optimistic marketing muchacos.

But let's get the ball rolling in earnest. In this first half of our chat, Elspeth and I get right into it, discussing the role of social media as it pertains to the industry today, particularly to the new novelist. Thereafter, there's talk of e-reading, book hoarding, and neither last nor least, the sort of great expectations Songs of the Earth has been burdened with.

Or is burdened the right word? Are unbidden comparisons to some of the greatest success stories of recent literary history a blessing, or a curse?

Let's find out!


Hello there, Elspeth. 

Hello Niall! Thanks for taking the time to interview me. There's a long-time-listener, first-time-caller joke to be done here; I've had you on my blogroll for yonks. 

Why that’s very kind of you, Elspeth. And on the ol’ Twitter, too! Why earlier today you were telling me you’d downloaded a sample chapter of FAITHFUL PLACE to your Kindle on the back of a certain someone’s recommendation. To wit, I wish you good reading. 

But there we are already. My oh my, things have changed a great deal of late, haven’t they? With blogs reaching farther and wider than ever, myriad social media bolstering authors new and old... don’t even get me started on the awesomesauce of e-reading. 

So how is it, coming into the industry at a time like this, with everything in flux? Exciting, or terrifying? 

Coming into this industry at any time is exciting and terrifying, period. Only the ratio between the two varies.

The internet has made everything so much more immediate, and with social media like Facebook or Twitter we can reach literally thousands of people we'd never otherwise know. This can be fantastic if you catch the mood of the moment with an interesting or provocative post: viral marketing campaigns have been very successful, because there's always someone awake and at the keyboard/Blackberry/iPhone, somewhere in the world. But it also lets you make a fool of yourself on a global stage, and when that goes viral, oh boy. Because not only does the internet never sleep, it never forgets. Once upon a time, a bad book review in the press on Friday was wrapped round Saturday night's fish supper, and then landfill by Monday. Not any more.

To me as a newbie, the whole e-book thing is quite daunting. There's so much going on: piracy on the rise; agents getting bullish about royalty rates; customers complaining that the price is too high and accusing publishers of using "agency pricing" as a way to bolster sales of dead-tree-books; you can't open a newspaper (do people still do that?) or click on a news site without seeing another story about someone selling 100,000+ copies of their novel on Kindle and flicking the vees at traditional publishers... Scary scary stuff.

Fright-o-meter: E---------|-T

But the flipside of all this is the tremendous opportunity this state of flux presents. Someone once said that an obstacle is just an opportunity in a dirty mac (I paraphrase). Take Kindle as an example: you can download a free sample of a book you're thinking about buying, like I just did with that Tana French. How cool is that? Once upon a time I would have had to get dressed, go into town and loiter furtively in Waterstones to read a few pages and get hooked. Now I can browse from a deckchair in the garden. I don't even have to change out of my jammies! It's effortless. And the easier it is, the more likely a sale will occur; it's just a couple of clicks.

Fright-o-meter: E-|---------T 

It’s never been easier to be a reader, agreed, nor more exciting. There’s a lot to celebrate, a lot to be grateful for. But to be an author and stand to make something of a living from your efforts... has it ever been harder, I wonder? For even as social media and e-publishing and so on appears to narrow it, I fear the gulf between us widens with every year. With more choice, an upswing in cynicism, ever more competition, and demand after demand on your time in the hope you might make a mark in some imagined mindshare; these are terrifying times, too. 

And into this climate, enter Elspeth Cooper. 

Why don’t you tell us a little about yourself, Elspeth? 

I was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1968. I grew up something of a solitary soul, completely happy in my own company, or with my nose in a book. My parents encouraged me to read, and I quickly developed a voracious appetite for stories and storytelling - even in primary school, my "What I Did on My Holidays" essays were six or seven times the length of anyone else's. Looking back, of course, this should have been A Clue.

Although I excelled academically, I chose not to go to university. I did my A-Levels right in the middle of the teachers' strike, and I was frustrated and bored with formal education, so I eschewed the college scarf and Lennon specs in favour of a job with a local software house, which somehow became a 20 year career in IT. I'm not quite sure how that happened.

I've always had a creative streak. Gardening, cooking, carpentry, cross-stitch - anything that lets me make stuff or grow stuff. But what I really wanted to do was create stories. I never imagined that I'd ever be published - quite frankly, I didn't think I was good enough - but there was a flame burning way down inside that never went out. And I fed it words. Every book I could get my hands on, and long hours of my spare time, scribbling and scribbling, falling further in thrall to What Happens Next.

A couple of years ago, my worsening health meant I could no longer sustain a job with a long commute, and I escaped the world of IT to become a full-time writer. I live in Northumberland with my husband, two cats, and every book I've ever bought. 

You’ve not gotten to the point yet where you have to start parting ways with old favourites, then, or else buying houses with room enough for all your beauties? Elspeth, I envy you already! 

Anyone who attempts to part me from any of my books, even the ones I didn't enjoy very much, is likely to get hurt. We're fast approaching breaking point, though. The shelves are full, and there's little room to put up more. Much as I hate the idea, I may have to start thinning the herd... 

So we come to that eternal question, the thrall you spoke of a moment ago: what happened next? How did you go from devout scribbler to published author? 

My route to publication wasn't one of endless rejection, heartache and strong liquor. It was more a case of chronic self-doubt, editing 'til your eyes bleed, and sheer good fortune.

I'd been kicking around some ideas for a story since about 1992 or 1993 - I'd go and check but the files are all on 3.5" disks and not one of the numerous computers in this house has a floppy drive - but I hadn't really got far beyond some names and places and the odd disconnected scene. I hadn't even admitted to myself that I was thinking about writing a book.

The catalyst was breaking up with my then-fiancé in late 1997. In the midst of all that rage and hurt and sleepless nights I started writing as a form of therapy. I wrote about a young man, naked in the dark, with a force inside him that he didn't understand and could barely control, and it was getting stronger. I didn't know who he was or how he'd got there, but I knew I had to find out.

Over the next decade the story progressed in fits and starts. The closer I got to the end, the more motivated I became to finish it. Up to this point, no-one had read it but me, because I was so afraid it was rubbish. I put some samples up on a couple of writers' websites, and the feedback blew me away. People liked what I'd written. One lady - who's a friend to this day - complained that the story was so engrossing she'd let a pan of rice boil dry on the stove for one more page. She still won't let me buy her a new pan.

Mixing with other writers gave me the confidence to give the manuscript a good hard edit, and in 2009, armed with my trusty Writers & Artists Yearbook, I drew up a shortlist of eight agents who handled fantasy and got to work on submissions. The first one rejected me, but with a complimentary handwritten note. The second one rang me at work and requested the full manuscript. Two days later he offered to represent me, and I accepted. Two weeks later Gollancz offered me a three-book deal.

And the other six agents? They all said no, but by then it was far too late! I sometimes wonder if any of them have realised what happened, and are kicking themselves... 

I’m sure they are, Elspeth. Certainly Gollancz seem beside themselves to have you a part of their storied roster. It’s not every book that comes adorned with such a bold statement as that in caps on the cover of the ARC of SONGS OF THE EARTH. 

Speaking of which, how does it feel to have written the fantasy debut of 2011? The bar’s been set dizzyingly high, hasn’t it? 

I nearly swallowed my tongue when I saw it. No pressure, right? Wow. I mean, this is just some stuff I made up in my spare time. Voices in my head. In any other line of work I'd be medicated for that.

Obviously, it's a sign of how much Gollancz believe in me and my book. As an author, that degree of faith is overwhelming. Reassuring, supportive, but still overwhelming. If I try to be dispassionate and look at it in purely business terms, as a debut author I represent a significant investment for them, and they're working hard to make sure it pays off, which in its own way just cranks the bar up another few notches. *Shades eyes, squints at sky* Is it snowing up there?

I can't help but feel I've got a target painted on my back now, too. I worry that if someone doesn't like the book (and someone won't) they'll use that line as a stick to beat me with. "Call that the fantasy debut of 2011? You must be joking" etcetera. It raises expectations, and not everyone in the market is going to feel those expectations have been met when they read the book.

But really, being totally sensible about it, it's just words on the cover. What counts is what's inside, and people can make up their own minds about that. 

I’ll readily confess: the day before we started chatting, I wrote up my own review of SONGS OF THE EARTH for TSS, and was almost exactly as predictable - if in a different direction. A proclamation along those lines... it must be affirming, in a sense - as you say - but a target is exactly what it will seem, to some. If that’s how Gollancz hope to sell your debut, then the question has been begged, you know? It’s over to critics and reviewers to zero in on what makes it so, or not so, or something entirely its own when removed from the hyperbole. 

I suppose it’s all you can do in such times, to take the long view, as you intimate, Elspeth. Because of course, there will be criticism. Already there’s been criticism, and we’re months out from release yet. So now that your baby’s a book and the book’s poised to sail the seven seas, if you will, how ready do you feel for that? How has the letting go gone? 

Is a debut author ever truly ready? I've never been here before. It's all new and daunting and exhilarating and freakin' terrifying all at once, like riding a rollercoaster for the first time. The last 15 months or so have been the slow crawl to the top of the first hill, then at the turn of the year we hit the apex, six months to go, and now it's hands-in-the-air-oh-dear-god-I'm-gonna-die-wheeeeeeeee! all the way down to June. If you see what I mean.

I think I'm as ready as I can be. There's no point working myself into a tizzy about it, is there, because there's nothing I can do to influence how the book will be received. It's up to the readers now.

Letting go wasn't as hard as I thought it might be. I knew when the story was finished and ready for submission, because it resonated; I got that quiet, contented "Yes" in the back of my mind. So when it came to the edits that Gollancz requested, I was able to be quite detached and objective, almost as if I was looking at someone else's book. It wasn't "my baby" any more. Baby's all growed up and on his own. 

Well fare the wean well on his travels!

Of course, now the real work starts – isn’t that what they say?


But wait! There's more!

Except I'm saving the rest for Thursday, because honestly, Elspeth and I talked a lot.

In the meantime, stay tuned for my review of Songs of the Earth tomorrow - and come back the day after, when The Speculative Spotlight returns. Among the discussion to come: Elspeth expounds on how the personal feeds into the professional, we talk contemporary women's fiction, planning, chilli chocolate...

...and oh! The book, too. ;)


  1. How did Faithful Place pan out anyway, Elspeth?

  2. I loved the extract I read - it's been added to the Must Buy Soon list.

  3. An excellent interview with answers both interesting and, seemingly, heartfelt. It seems I may have to add yet another book to my teetering, soon to kill me To Read pile.