As Natasha Cooper she is best known for the Trish Maguire series. Now writing under the name NJ Cooper, her edgy crime fiction features her new heroine, forensic psychologist Karen Taylor. As an ex-publisher and past Chair of the Crime Writers’ Association, NJ Cooper has a wealth of experience on both sides of the publishing fence. She answers the You’re Booked Q&A.
Reading interviews you’ve done in the past, one of the answers you gave really stood out: “Q. What do you regret most? A. Allowing fear to make me take so much crap for so long when I was younger.” Can you elaborate on this, and how or who hardened you up to start putting yourself as a writer first? Was there a turning point that pushed you from working in publishing to becoming the author you wanted to be?
What I really meant when I said that is that I was so frightened of offending other people – or sacrificing the chance of getting what then seemed their all-important approval – that I would never stick to my guns in any conflict. Looking back, I now can’t quite understand how I can have been so wet. But in the old days if I had an idea and someone else rubbished it, I would assume it was a bad idea, not that they could be wrong. I allowed far too many people to make me question my own judgment. Now, I have fully accepted the obvious fact that no one idea – or novel – will appeal to everyone else, and that the most important thing is to stay true to your own vision, working with and for the kind of people who can share it.
On the other hand, in spite of my old lack of confidence, there were a few really huge decisions I took without even considering anyone else’s opinion. I knew I was right, and that’s a wonderful feeling. One of those decisions was to write fiction. I’d been working on what became my first published novel while I was still in publishing, getting up at six to put in a couple of hours writing before going to the office. When I left the job in a rage at very short notice, I knew what I wanted to do next, even though I kept it quiet for a while.
You strike me as extremely generous, kind and giving – was it a struggle to be selfish enough to put the demands of pleasing friends, family, colleagues etc. to dedicate time to your career as an author and put yourself first?
That’s extremely kind of you! When I started writing, I lived alone and so there was no major conflict. The hardest aspect of it was to persuade family and friends that writing at home is just as much work as going to office, and that routine is crucial. My daily programme has always seemed self-indulgent to the point of absurdity (waking naturally without an alarm clock, leisurely breakfast with The Times, long bath with a good book, an hour or two for writing, lunch alone or with a friend, little lie-down, more work and so on) but it allowed me to let my imagination take its own time to get through all the barriers thrown up by the critical and self-doubting parts of my brain, and that’s very important for any writer.
Of course you worked in publishing for ten years before becoming a published author – were you always writing or dreaming of being a writer? Was it necessary to have that experience before you jumped the literary fence?
I had always dreamed of being a writer, and, indeed, before I got my first publishing job I had started several novels, but all had foundered on my lack of confidence. Working in publishing showed me that most writers were not the demi-gods of my imagination, but perfectly ordinary people who were prepared to lay themselves open on the page and work and work and work until they got it right.
I think that (maybe this is controversial) some women are either conditioned or hard-wired to be selfless, do you think female writers have to push harder to succeed in such a commercial, competitive industry?
I think you’re right that women have to push harder for acceptance in this, as in so many other worlds. There are many reasons why. Some have to do with the fact that male attitudes, interests, preoccupations, tastes, and methods of working are still considered to have greater legitimacy and importance than the female versions. But it’s not just that: drive and confidence are considered admirable in men; in women they are often misconstrued as unattractive aggression. It is very difficult!
I don’t want to impinge on your personal life, and you don’t have to answer this, but did you have issues with being open with your sexuality – and did addressing these issues somehow dovetail into a turning point for you making that leap from working in publishing to being your own person, as an author?
I don’t mind this question at all, but the answer won’t be very helpful. I was such a late starter that I had no idea what my sexuality was until after my first novel was published. Looking back, I suppose it is possible that the huge surge of confidence I had when the novel earned me so much money (which is, after all, the most tangible form of approval there can be) allowed me to understand that I was gay – which had never crossed my mind until then.
You said in a Q&A Vera Britten was a heroine because she lived through so much and fought to be taken seriously – have you had to fight in the publishing world to be taken seriously? The industry it seems can be so much about self promotion and I guess can be intimidating waters to navigate?
In fact, I never did have to fight to be taken seriously in publishing. It happened – rather to my surprise. I think I’ve had to fight myself and my own doubts much harder than I’ve had to fight anyone else. In fact I may have fought a bit too hard in some of my early fiction and silenced my real voice in favour of something I thought had more legitimacy.
As above, publishing can be celebrity-driven, sales-driven and pretty cut throat. But not all writers I imagine think in such a commercial way – is there room for sensitive souls in an increasingly tougher, market-driven industry? What tips would you give to aspiring writers who don’t necessarily have business driven minds?
Most of the tips I would offer are all about balance: stick to your guns when it matters but always listen to advice; keep your own particular voice but think hard before you resist suggestions from experts; don’t slip into arrogance but keep your self-belief. And work and work and work.
Overcoming fears seems a central theme in your interviews – how crucial is it for authors to put their biggest fears (of rejection, of failure) on the line?
If an author is too self-protective, he or she is unlikely to be able to reveal enough to make a novel work. As a writer, you have to peel off all your emotional armour, and it can be very painful. The most important thing to remember is that nothing is wasted in a real writer’s life: everything you experience from misery, fear and disaster to triumph and delight will inform your characters and what you write about them.
Why did you switch from writing historicals to the crime genre?
I switched from historicals for two reasons: one was that I had reached 1968 in the family series I was writing and that seemed too modern to count. The other reason was that I had been writing about young women whose only passport to real life was marriage. And I wanted very much to write about a woman who could be self-sufficient, emotionally and practically. I was also becoming much less interested in how people fall in love than in how they sustain it, how they manage the relationship, why it goes wrong, and what the consequences of failure might be. Crime seemed the ideal genre in which to explore what happens after ‘Reader, I married him.’
Working in publishing, you clearly have a love of books and writing, and you’re very prolific reviewing and writing features, taking part in festivals (especially Harrogate!) and promoting reading – is it difficult to balance the solitary acts of writing and reading with the very active and public promotional act?
When I had my first novel published, I found public-speaking very hard, and it took a while before I was confident enough of my judgment of other people’s work to write reviews. Now, I couldn’t imagine spending all my time glued to my computer. I love getting out and meeting readers and talking.
You seem incredibly grounded, in that you know what’s important in life – good books, good friends, good wine! How important is it to get a balance in life when I guess writing can be a pretty all-consuming affair?
Some stages of the writing process can be completely overwhelming, and I think authors simply have to accept that they need to withdraw then and work. Sometimes it’s hard to remember anything outside the book, and occasionally your mind is so absorbed in it that ordinary dexterity disappears too. You drop things and walk into things and forget to iron your clothes. You just have to go with it, and hope your friends and family can accept the strange zombie who wanders through their days.
Having dyslexia is a huge challenge for a writer, do you think those challenges made you the success you are today – in that you had to work that much harder – especially coming from an academic family?
I think dyslexia had all sorts of unexpected benefits for me, although it did not seem like that when I was struggling to find a place where I felt that I fitted. Finding reading so hard meant that I had to become a pretty accurate observer of other people to try to work out what on earth was going on around me, and that’s enormously useful for a writer.
What do you think drives you to tell stories and to write?
The main impulse that made me want to write fiction was the need to understand: how do people become what they are? What makes them do what they do – to themselves as much as other people?
I love the idea that it was your grandmother who really encouraged you and believed in you to write – what was she like? How important do you think it is for writers to have that kind of emotional support and belief?
My paternal grandmother died when I was about ten but her influence on me was huge. She had had a few novels published in the 1920s and 30s before becoming a painter. She was vigorous and colourful and altogether wonderful, with a fantastic range of stories about her ancestors. One of them, a woman living near the docks in Hull in the early 19th century, once faced down the Press Gang, who were bludgeoning and kidnapping men to serve in the navy. This ancestor grabbed a frying pan and ran out into the street, shouting ‘Out, women! Out. And rescue your men.’ The Press Gang disappeared in terror. I thrilled to stories like that!
I guess all writers approach their work differently, but is it fair to say their heroes and heroines are alter-egos? Is Trish Maguire your alter ego?
All a writer’s characters have something of the writer in them, even the nastiest of villains. No one heroine of mine is entirely me, but I have liked them all. Trish Maguire is, for the moment, resting, and my current loyalties are all with my new character Doctor Karen Taylor. Her profession of forensic psychology takes her deep into other people’s minds and characters – just where I most like to be.
You work hard to support crime fiction – as a reader and writer – why do you feel the genre is worth fighting for? Especially when there is so much more value placed on literary fiction – would you consider literary fiction?
I’m not sure that so much value is placed on literary fiction beyond a tiny circle of interested people. If that were the case, why would so many literary writers turn to crime? I think crime is the ideal genre in that it deals with all the great human questions, including the battle between good and bad that we all fight (at some level) within ourselves all the time. And the stories are exciting.
Working in publishing, and as a book reviewer, means you’ve been exposed to a lot of work – how important is it for aspiring writers to read, read, read, as well as write, write, write?
All aspiring writers should read as widely as they possibly can. You would never expect to succeed as a musician if you had never heard music. It always surprises me when people who don’t enjoy reading novels think that they can write one.
What would you say to an aspiring writer faced with yet another rejection slip to encourage them not to give up on their ambition or dream?
I would suggest putting the reject typescript away for a few months, while reading as many of the successful novels in your particular genre as you can. Then take out your own book again and reread it, looking for the aspects of it that don’t measure up to the published novels you have been reading. Don’t copy the other authors, but use the way they manage their ideas and words to show you how you could improve your own.
Find out more about NJ Cooper – click here.