Tag Archives: Fran Cooper

A Q and A with Fran Cooper, Author of These Dividing Walls

26 Apr

Towards the end of last year I was lucky enough to be sent a proof copy of Fran Cooper’s These Dividing Walls. I say lucky because it turned out to be one of my top 5 reads of last year (you can read my review here). Amongst all the press saying how brilliant it is – it is brilliant, by the way – its release next week will garner, you can also expect the word prescient to appear a good deal.

And if all that wasn’t enough, the cover is lovely too!

dividing walls

 My luck, it seems, knows no bounds as Fran Cooper has agreed to a quick Q & A with me about These Dividing Walls, Paris and her writing. Enjoy!

 

1       Although These Dividing Walls finds its origin in short stories you’d written about the inhabitants of an apartment block, it’s very much a complete and rounded novel rather than a collection of linked stories. How did this become the bigger story you wanted to tell?

In 2014 I applied for and was accepted onto the Womentoring Project. Lisa O’Donnell (author of The Death of Bees and Closed Doors) became my mentor, and she was the first person to convince me I could write a novel. Or rather, tell me I should write a novel. Her confidence was infectious, so I just thought why not? I had so many characters already floating around in my head, so I took the plunge and started weaving their stories together.

 

2       There’s a broad range of characters in your book. Who did you find the hardest to get right? Who was the most enjoyable to write?

Ooh, such a good question. Funnily enough, César Vincent flowed most easily for me – he just appeared fully formed one night, and I think he probably needed the least editing, even though I’d never really written a character like him before. It was really important to me to get the character of Anaïs right; to give her her own story and space without her becoming just another clichéd new mother. She probably changed the most between drafts one and two!

 

3       What’s the best editorial advice you were given when writing These Dividing Walls?

To not go from 0 to 100mph over the space of a single chapter! That was the most useful advice for me – it gave me the freedom to give each of the characters the space they needed and deserved.

 

4       There’s something a little conspiratorial about the style of the writing, a feeling at times of things being whispered over fences. How conscious were you of your reader in the process of writing? Is this something you enhanced in the drafting or a more organic occurrence borne out of the story’s set-up?

I’m not sure I thought about a “reader” in the abstract sense of it while I was writing! I was living in Paris when I started the book and performing short pieces from it at open mic nights in sweaty bars and basements, so I suspect that conspiratorial sense may have come from that – the fact that, in the early stages, I was sharing these snippets with people, whispering the characters’ secrets as if they were real secrets. But, looking back, it’s also the way I’ve always written. I love the idea that you, as a reader, get to know more about characters than they do themselves. I’ve always enjoyed reading work like that myself.

 

5       Your love of Paris as a city is evident in the writing, a sense of joy in the depiction even of the less salubrious quarters. Were there places you simply knew you wanted to include in the narrative? Are there any off-the-beaten-track places in the book that you’d advise a tourist to seek out? 

Paris was a very magical city for me – truly the place I feel I came of age, became my “real” self as it were. And there are certainly some very magical and off the beaten track places that I had in mind writing. The rue des Thermopyles might be one of the prettiest streets in the world. The Arènes de Lutèce blow my mind – you’re walking around the 5th arrondissement and suddenly stumble across a Roman arena with kids smoking and old men playing pétanque. And the Petite Ceinture (an abandoned railroad that runs a ring around the whole city) is an extraordinary, otherworldly place to explore (though you have to hop a fence in order to get onto it!).

 

6       Although it feels to some extent like Edward and Frédérique’s story, there are many lives running through this book. Were they intended to be the nucleus around which everything else revolves?

To me, the building is the nucleus. It’s what – physically and metaphorically – holds everyone together. Certainly, Frédérique and Edward were there from the beginning, but I didn’t think of them first and then add everyone else around them.

 

7       It’s interesting that Edward provides a foreigner’s experience of events. Was it always your intention to have, specifically, an English perspective?

Yes, absolutely. I wanted a fresh pair of eyes through which to see everything – and, for myself, I wanted the caveat that much of the book was seen through an outsider’s eyes. He remarks on things that I’m sure a French person wouldn’t bat an eyelid over. Edward’s arrival was not only a catalyst for much of the book’s action, but he was also a way to capture some of the joy and befuddlement I myself have felt as an expat!

 

8       You were mentored as part of the WoMentoring Project. How much of a difference did this make to your writing? If you were to pick one thing, what’s the biggest lesson you learned from the experience?

See no. 1! This was a game-changer for me. It gave me the confidence to just go for it. When you’re not in this world and don’t know how it works, it can be very daunting. Having someone who’s done it before point you in the right direction is an absolute godsend, even if they’re just telling you that it’s important not to sound nutty in your cover letter. That’s my biggest piece of advice to people now – don’t write a nutty cover letter when submitting your book! You hear about some real corkers…

 

9       The possibilities for the residents of Number 37 to appear in their own stories are endless. Have you considered taking any of the characters further on their journeys? Or are you working on something completely new? Is there anything you can tell me about it?

Ahh, I haven’t really thought of doing that, though I wouldn’t want to say definitively that I’m done with all these characters and their individual stories. I’m in the process of editing my second book now, which is, in some ways, very different. But I think the themes of community and secrets are probably just as strong.

 

10     There’s often something of an overnight feel around a debut novel, though of course there are years of writing behind it. What has the path to publication been like for you? What are you looking forward to, or perhaps viewing with trepidation, for the months to come?

I’ve been enormously lucky. I have a wonderful agent and a wonderful editor (who was the person who actually signed me, back when she was working as an agent!) so my path to publication has been guided by very diligent, careful and caring hands. I don’t think anything can prepare you for the idea of your book actually being in the shops though. I wrote the vast majority of These Dividing Walls at home, in my pyjamas. Writing is an enormously intimate process. And then suddenly, it’s off, out in the world… I think it’ll take me a good long while to get my head around that.

 

Finally, I’d just like to say congratulations. I enjoyed These Dividing Walls immensely. It was one of my top 5 books last year, and I’m sure it’s going to win you many fans!

— Thank you so much for your kind words! As I say above, you spend so many hours alone writing these things thinking “god, am I talking complete rubbish? will anyone get this?” so to hear such a lovely, enthusiastic response is enormously heart-warming!

 

 

These Dividing Walls is published by Hodder & Stoughton on the 4th May 2017 ISBN: 9781473641532

 

You can find Fran on Twitter @FranWhitCoop

My especial thanks to Veronique Norton for arranging this Q & A.

My top five reads of 2016

10 Jan

I was surprised to realise that I didn’t revisit any books in 2015. I don’t mean those books I read and then read to Mrs Van but old favourites. To make up for it this year I managed two: Chinua Achebe’s wonderful Things Fall Apart and Sylvester Stallone’s compelling Paradise Alley. You might think we’re looking at opposite ends of the spectrum there but actually there’s a good deal of similarity in terms of character arcs. And if you are thinking that we’re looking at opposite ends I’d urge you to be surprised and seek them both out. Good stories are good stories no matter who tells them.

I also said I was going to try and read more diversely in 2016 but in the end I don’t think I did. Gender-wise, three quarters of my reading was written by women but probably only about 10% of my reading was ‘non-white’. I think this year I should just aim to read a bit more than last year. That would be a good place to start.

I gave up on three books last year (two more than the year before). One of those books got shortlisted for the Costa First Novel award and another is, I think, currently in the Times bestseller lists. So what do I know! This is I think proof positive that you should never feel guilty about letting a book go. If it’s not working for you there will be something else that does. The only thing I’d say is don’t shoot it down for other people. There were also three that I finished but didn’t really get on with (and two of those have done very well for themselves, thank you, so again – what do I know).

But what about those I did like! Before I get into top tens and top fives let me mention Sceptre’s excellent short story collection How Much The Heart Can Hold. It’s a superb collection, well worth getting hold of and the kind of thing I’d love to see more of as a reader. It’s a great showcase for seven writers whose work you’ll likely be seeking out after reading their particular takes on the various aspects of love.

As ever, whittling down to a top ten is a difficult business. In fact, it was hard enough to get down to a top thirteen, but that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. There were two or three absolute standout books for me (yes, I think this time a top three would actually have been quicker) so the tricky knot to unpick was which of that collection of seven or so brilliant books would creep into the top five. Laline Paull’s The Bees (which is undoubtedly Mrs Van’s favourite of the year), Shelley Harris’s Vigilante (which is probably Mrs Van’s other favourite of the year), Claire King’s heart-breaking Everything Love Is, Rebecca MacKenzie’s In A Land Of Paper Gods, Rebecca Mascull’s Song Of the Sea Maid and Janet Ellis’s singular debut The Butcher’s Hook all almost made the top five (see how I got away with a top 11 there!). I would wholeheartedly urge you to add these to your reading lists if you’ve not picked them up yet. They are all very different but they are all very, very good.

And so, in the order that I read them, here are my top five reads of 2016.

Back in January I had the great good fortune to meet up with The Chimes by Anna Smaill. It was the first book I read in 2016 and even then I knew it would have to be a very special year for it not to feature in my top 5 come the end. The world-building, the awareness of language, the characters, the story itself, it’s all supremely handled. It’s wholly accessible too. I’d have no problem recommending The Chimes to young young-adult readers. Anna was also kind enough to do a Q&A with me.

February brought a recommendation from Isabel Costello (author of Paris Mon Amour and curator of the literary sofa), Mend The Living by Maylis De Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore). Isabel can always be relied upon to turn up an excellent French novel in translation and this was no exception. It is an extraordinarily powerful read, a forensic examination of what the heart is and what it represents. No surprise it was longlisted for the Man Booker International award.

On to July and I finally got my hands on a copy of The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. Definitely the prettiest book this year (the cover is gorgeous) it’s also a sumptuous read. The language is delightful, and so very quiet. It’s a sibilant whisper at your ear, at once engaging and unnerving. Waterstones made it their Book Of The Year 2016.

October brought a very special book my way. It’s not actually out until April 2017 but I can’t wait to hear what everyone else makes of it. These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper might well prove to be one of those light-the-touch-paper-and-stand-back books. I’m guessing the word prescient is going to crop up a lot too. What I can tell is that it’s excellent. The characters are delightful or infuriating or charming or terrifying, each in their turn, and the story Fran Cooper weaves in and around them is glorious. I read it to Mrs Van recently and it was great to see her head nodding or shaking in all the same places as mine  did, and that page 183 had the same effect on her too.

November finally brought me round to We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, a book I’d been aware of for a while. The thing I was most glad about is that I’d managed to bypass all the hype that surrounded this book and its twist so that, when the twist came it brought with it all the impact the author surely intended. It’s one of those moments that acts like a fillet knife, peeling the book’s flesh all the way back to the bone so you can’t help but re-examine it. It’s not all about the twist though. The story is compelling and heart-breaking, the language is sublime, the way the whole novel hangs together is truly a thing to behold. It’s quite masterful.

 

 

Five very different novels this time, though each is expertly constructed and skilfully told. There is no doubt you’re in safe hands as a reader and that’s a luxury that really allows you to inhabit the stories, to get up close and feel the things these characters feel. Here’s to more of this in 2017!

Van has finished reading… These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper

19 Oct

There’s a treat coming your way in the shape of Fran Cooper’s These Dividing Walls. In her own introduction, Fran says that she wanted to write about the real Paris rather than the image so many of us hold. I’ve never been to Paris but, having lived abroad for a time I can appreciate the distinction. I can also say that the Paris Fran Cooper shows us feels entirely real to me. It’s as much a character as the people who inhabit these pages, not dressed in her finery (or at least not always) but quotidian and vivid, and wholeheartedly laissez-faire.

The Walls of the book’s title are those that separate the inhabitants of number 37, a property made of two buildings – one a little (but only a little) more sheeshy than the other. There’s not much that escapes the attention of these proximate neighbours, though there’s plenty to distance them personally. And no matter how inquisitive they are there’s always a little secret to be kept here and there.

As to the characters themselves, they are superb. You will of course like some more than others – as you’re meant to. Perhaps you will, like me, give a little ‘yesss!’ when something happens that you’ve been hoping will happen to one or two of them (good or bad I won’t say but, if you’re wondering Fran & Emma, p183 of this proof!). Some may even feel like people you’ve actually met. I wish I could go through each one and tell you what it is I liked about them, what I hoped or feared – that’s how close I felt to them – but that would be to give the game away.

Although Fran Cooper tells us in her introduction that elements of These Dividing Walls started life as vignettes read at a Paris spoken-word club, don’t imagine this is one of those linked-short-story-collections-thinly-disguised-as-a-novel novels. This is a proper, layered start-to-finish novel with characters in action, evolving storylines and emotional journeys. There’s nothing unnecessary or incidental about events and interactions.

Any writer will be familiar with the exhortation to show-not-tell but in These Dividing Walls Fran Cooper gives us a perfect example of how an almost-telling style of writing can work. It verges on the conspiratorial, inviting the reader over to the wall with a glass in hand to listen in, points to certain things with a whispered ‘would you believe it?’ It makes a resident of us, and in so doing we’re invested in every drama, be they small or large.

Beyond the fact of the book’s location, beyond the premise that frames the characters we meet I think Fran Cooper has a lot to say about the way we live today, about the things that scare us and how we react to them. It makes the point, too, that events are never as far beyond us as we imagine, that the things happening around are often made up of ordinary people, and that people are never really all that ordinary.

Fran Cooper’s These Dividing Walls is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year. It transported me to a sultry Paris arrondissement in the summer. It made me laugh, it made me smile, it brought a lump to my throat more than once and even made me cheer quietly. I really hope you’ll give it the chance to do the same for you. Make a note in your diary for April 2017.

 

These Dividing Walls will be published by Hodder in April 2017 ISBN:9781473641532

You can find Fran Cooper on Twitter @FranWhitCoop

My thanks particularly and especially to Emma Herdman at Hodder for knowing I’d love this book and allowing me to review it.