Q&A with Carolyn Jess Cooke, author of The Boy Who Could See Demons

Q&A with Carolyn Jess Cooke, author of The Boy Who Could See Demons

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The Boy Who Could See Demons
 is the unforgettable new novel from Carolyn Jess Cooke. Richly imaginative and beautifully told, if you enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and Room, you will love this book.

Below, the author answers some questions about the characters and what inspired her to write this book.

What made you decide to write part of this story from the perspective of a little boy and was it a challenge?

Alex’s voice and character followed closely on the heels of the development of the idea for the book. I was interested in visiting some of the things I’d written about in The Guardian Angel’s Journal and wanted to re-capture the idea of overcoming tough obstacles. Alex is beset by
huge challenges and was a wonderfully charismatic character to write, but ultimately I had to sit back and let him tell the story. I was never quite sure if he would make it. . .

Why did you choose to set it in Northern Ireland?

In many ways Northern Ireland is a central character to the book, but I didn’t plan it that way. Having been born and raised there my initial impulse is usually to opt for more exotic settings, but somehow I found myself returning again and again to Belfast and essentially exploring my own complicated relationship with that place. I wanted to write about Northern Ireland’s shift from a long period of political unrest and violence to relative peace and prosperity, about the healing process. Alex is of a generation that is supposed to be enjoying the new face of Belfast, but as he told his story I discovered that ghosts arising from its past had affected him, too.

What prompted you to choose schizophrenia as your central theme?

It became an almost natural curve of the story once Alex comes clean about his ability to see demons. Instinctively I felt that this was the conclusion Anya might draw about his condition – when I researched the (vast) areas of mental health issues I found that the highly delusional aspect of Alex’s claims (amongst other issues, portrayed in the book) made him a likely candidate for early onset schizophrenia.

This is a dark story, but Alex’s voice is full of fun and life. Is this juxtaposition deliberate?

Alex’s character was vibrant and buoyant from the outset, and this counterpointed the darker layers of his situation. Also, I wanted to be careful not to let the story sag into bleakness. It would have been too easy to let the subject matter darken the tone – I thought it would be clichéd and dull to write about demons in a typically gloomy way. Much more interesting when they’re keen on bread and butter pudding.

Did anything in particular inspire you to write this story?

As my ‘Letter from the Author’ details, this story is grounded in a fascination I had with C S Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. In 2002 I wanted to make a film based on the book and started getting ideas for the music and plot, but ultimately I couldn’t obtain the rights. I was pretty devastated as I loved the story and characters I had devised, but the idea lingered and ultimately inspired the creation of Ruen.

You’re a mother of three young children. How do you find time to write and what advice would you give to aspiring authors in the same position as you?

The saying ‘cut your cloth accordingly’ rings true – you have to do what suits you and your circumstances. I fit my writing around my children and try to ensure nobody feels neglected, and luckily I’ve been writing for so long that I can write anywhere, anytime. I still don’t even own a desk. The most important thing is not actually time to write – it’s confidence to write. It’s astonishing how much writing time can be gobbled up by doubt. Don’t worry whether you’re writing on a napkin or a Mac, whether you’re writing poetry or prose, whether it’s any good – just write. And remember that a vast majority of ‘writing’ happens in the head – don’t be fooled if you ever catch me ironing. I’m actually plotting.

You’re a celebrated poet and novelist; two very different disciplines. Which do you prefer?

I love both equally – honest! I think form is hugely important and worth taking time to explore; even if you are a committed short story writer you should dabble with poetry or novels or screenplays or radio dramas. Exploring the different genres of writing challenges you as an artist and profits your understanding of how a form can be used effectively. There are things a poem can do that a novel cannot – but it works the other way round. I find it very difficult to write both simultaneously; they seem to require different parts of my brain, which is a challenge that I enjoy.

What are you working on now?

Aside from my poetry, I am working on my third novel.

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