Interview with Michelle Cook
I am joined today by the fabulous new author, Michelle Cook whose debut novel, Tipping Point launches this month. Thank you for joining me today, Michelle.
1 Please tell my readers a little about yourself?
Thank you for having me over for a cuppa, Val. These cakes you baked are delicious J.
I live in Worcestershire, UK with my husband, two young children, and an ancient cat called Lyra. As a day job, I work for the NHS. One of the brilliant things about the NHS is the people who work for it are so diverse. This to me is one of life’s joys. I’m a nosy parker, so relish finding out about different lives people have led, and places they’ve lived. It’s fertile soil for a writer.
Outside of that, I enjoy walking, music and comedy, and I’m an avid reader myself, though sometimes life with small children has other ideas. I often stay up too late and read or write into the night, but it’s always worth it.
2 What inspired you to become a writer/author?
When I was ten, my teacher set us a piece of homework to write a short story in the style of Gerald Durrell. I wrote a slapstick about two talking kangaroos breaking out of a zoo. I don’t think I mentioned this in the piece, but they were definitely cockneys. Had I been older, I might have thought of them as the marsupial Kray twins, with milder manners. The teacher read my story out in class, which was embarrassing and exciting in equal measure.
As I grew up, I put creative writing aside and concentrated on maths and science, which I still love. I continued to write occasionally—a bit of journaling, short stories, and a couple of letters published in local papers.
Two years ago, I picked it up again, and this time I couldn’t stop. There was something about the story, which eventually became Tipping Point, which kept me going through the inevitable ups and downs of writing a novel.
3 What is the best thing about being a writer/author?
For me, there are moments where I have a scene develop so clearly in my head. Not always the words, but the feelings and tone. Sometimes when you come to write it, the words form how you want them to, and you recreate that scene entirely the way you imagined it. That’s the best thing.
4 What is your writing routine like?
It can be quite sporadic, if I’m honest. Sometimes family life takes precedence and I have a day job which can be quite demanding. Still, writing can take over my life when I’m in the zone. I would write the day long, given the choice. During the planning of Tipping Point, I would often drive all the way to work without realizing while I was working through plot points.
Right now, I have one day to myself a week now the kids are back at school and that’s writing day. So, it’s drop the kids, cup of tea, laptop on and go. That’s supplemented by nighttime sessions when everyone else is in bed. My ideal would be to approach it as a 9-5 with walks in the country to break it up. Maybe one day…
5 How much time is spent on research?
I’m dreadfully impatient, I’m afraid. Before I began writing Tipping Point, I did a lot of research into climate change and near-future forecasts. After the rudiments are done, though, I work best by breaking off to research what I need as the story demands rather than a large initial chunk.
6 How much of the book is planned out before you start writing it?
Having said I am impatient with research, I really am a planner! I generally work best with an outline, and for Tipping Point I planned down to scene level. This kept me going on the days where I didn’t like my writing at all. A couple of times, I skipped ahead and wrote scenes I was excited about, then went back and filled in the gaps feeling more motivated. I’d never have been able to do that without a detailed outline, so it’s a strategy I’m going to stick with in future.
7 What do you think is most important when writing a book? Characters, plot, setting, etc.
Not a helpful response, but I think it’s all vital. Setting should feel ‘real’, even in fantasy, or the people and events will exist in a vacuum. With Tipping Point, I really wanted to write a story strong on both plot and characters, because you often only see one or the other in a story like mine. There are so many trade-offs to be made between driving plot and allowing your characters to grow. It’s a tricky balance to strike.
8 What is your latest book about?
Tipping Point is an eco-thriller, set in a dystopian near-future England. It tells the story of 18-year-old Essie Glass, grieving for her family, who were killed in a terrorist attack two years before the story opens. Meanwhile, Earth’s climate continues to collapse and a powerful elite controls the population with propaganda, intimidation and surveillance. When Essie joins a group of underground activists, she discovers a conspiracy to suppress green technology that could reverse the climate disaster. She must decide whether she’s prepared to risk everything to expose it.
9 What inspired it?
The story was born out of frustration at our refusal to tackle some really urgent global problems. It seems to me that when we should be working together, the world is busy making decisions to do just the opposite. When I set about writing the novel, my aim was to explore those themes, but also to write a cracking adventure for Essie. She gets into some serious scrapes. You’ll have to read the book to find out if she gets out of them…
10 Why did you pick the genre or genres that you write in?
I don’t think I’ve ever made a conscious choice on genre. I just write my stories, and this is how they come out. My brain tends to the downbeat in general, so I suppose I was always going to end up marketing a dystopian thriller at some point!
I did have a happy short story published in Writers’ Forum earlier this year, all about a secret love affair between residents in a nursing home, so it’s not all doom and gloom.
11 How did you go about getting a publishing deal?
I’d been querying Tipping Point under a different title with agents for a few months, getting nowhere fast. I’d just tweaked the opening chapter and changed the title when, in June of this year, I took part in #Pitmad—a Twitter-based pitching contest. I got an invite to submit from Darkstroke Books, which was a real stroke of luck. I submitted three chapters and a synopsis to them, then they got back to me requesting the full manuscript. A rather nervy (on my part) Zoom call led to an offer of publication.
I was immediately comfortable with their approach as an indie publisher that focuses on darker-edged fiction, which my story fits well. Their independent status means they have flexibility in their approach to publishing and a real personal touch, which I like. There’s a fantastic family of supportive authors at Darkstroke who have been happy to help and advise a publishing newbie. It’s the best of both worlds for me.
12 Any new books or plans for the future?
I’m juggling two ideas at the moment: a sequel to Tipping Point and a dark urban fantasy about angels. I don’t usually work on more than one project at a time because I’m an all-or-nothing girl, so there’ll probably be a crunch time soon where I go with one to completion. But which one…?
13 What authors have been an influence on your writing?
When I was a teenager, I devoured everything Stephen King wrote. That man can spin a story! I suppose that’s where my preoccupation with the dark side began. Later, I’ve become an enormous fan of Kazuo Ishiguro. His talent for characters and voice is incredible. I love David Mitchell’s ability to weave clever story strands and Matt Haig’s soulful writing. If I could combine all these elements, I’d be the writer I want to be.
14 What writing advice would you have given yourself when you started?
Don’t give up. I wasted a lot of years thinking I wasn’t good enough because a fully-formed book didn’t trip off my typing fingers. But the truth is nobody’s first draft comes out perfect. A novel is the result of a long and occasionally painful process of revision and improvement. There are so many facets to this: form, flow, characters, story arc, themes, tone. First drafts aren’t even half way there! It’s a long haul, but if you take joy in the process, that will almost certainly reflect in your writing. So, I would have said just don’t give up.
15 What writing advice would you give to an aspiring writer or a new author to the block?
Apart from don’t give up, I’d say make writing friends. Fellow authors are your best resource. For critiques, advice and just all-round cheer-leading. I joined the online community scribophile.com and met a fantastic group of talented writers who helped me get better in every way. Now we have the pleasure of cheering each other on as we get published. The other authors at Darkstroke have also been amazingly supportive—it’s a real family!
16 What has been your favourite book so far this year?
A couple of books from stablemates at Darkstroke have really stayed with me. Charlie Tyler’s Cry of the Lake is a deliciously dark and twisted tale. And The End of The Road by Anna Legat is a moving take on global apocalypse which is, I confess, a weakness of mine.
17 What is your all-time favourite book and why?
Oh, that’s a tough question! Just one? I’d have to go with either Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro or Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. Ishiguro never hits a wrong note for me. Never Let Me Go is eerie and heart-breaking, imaginative in an utterly believable way. I read Wuthering Heights late—in my thirties—and I was completely blindsided by its darkness and passion. It wasn’t the historical romance I was expecting, and I loved it for that.
18 What genre do you read most often?
I’m quite eclectic but I love thrillers, fantasy, magical realism and spooky stories. Or something which explores complexities of relationships. I always enjoy something dark and claustrophobic, which also makes me think.
19 What are you currently reading?
I’ve just started How to Stop Time by Matt Haig and I’m already completely besotted!
20 Anything else you would like to add?
Just wanted to say thank you again! I had lots of fun with these questions. When I finally get my act together with a blog, Val, you must come and visit me there. I make a mean brownie.
Also, everyone should buy Tipping Point, of course! It’s released on 22nd September and is a cracking read 😉
A tale of loss, manipulation, and the search for the truth
What would you risk to turn back the tide?
Essie Glass might have been a typical eighteen-year-old – had life not dealt her an early blow. Struggling to come to terms with the loss of her family in a terrorist attack, and left with nothing, Essie’s not kidding herself about her world. She wants change, and she’ll be honest about it, whatever the cost. From behind her keyboard, that is…
After all, this is England, 2035. Earth’s climate continues its accelerating collapse. A powerful elite controls the disaster-weary population with propaganda, intimidation, and constant surveillance.
By all appearances, Alex Langford is a respected local businessman – until Essie discovers that he’s a murderous conspirator who’d see the planet die for his fortune.
When their paths collide, Essie must decide: how much is she really willing to pay for her honesty?
Her choices, and the events she sets in motion, pit her against both enemies and supposed friends as she risks more than just her life to thwart them.
Will she succeed in revealing the truth? And will she survive?
Michelle lives in Worcestershire, UK, with her husband Daniel, their two young children, and a cat called Lyra Belacqua. By day, she works for the NHS, a job which she has almost as much passion for as fiction.
Her first joyful steps into creative writing were at the age of ten, when the teacher read out her short story in class. A slapstick tale of two talking kangaroos breaking out of a zoo, the work was sadly lost to history. Still, Michelle never forgot the buzz of others enjoying her words.
More recently, she has had several flash pieces published, was long-listed for the Cambridge 2020 prize for flash fiction, and placed first in the February 2020 Writers’ Forum competition with her short story The Truth About Cherry House. Tipping Point is her debut novel.