From a small Michigan town to Vancouver and other cities in between, Eileen Cook is a world traveling dog lover and mystery writer who has been conjuring up books for years. Cook’s latest book is The Hanging Girl, and it is a brilliant mix of fake psychics, murder, and small town life. Wanting to learn more about Cook’s career, her approach to teaching writing, and her latest book, I’m thrilled that I had the chance to interview her for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were books you loved reading? Are there any that you still revisit?
Eileen Cook: This is a hard question because there’re so many great books out there. As a kid I loved Ronald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory etc), The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and anything by Judy Blume. I recently re-read The Phantom Tollbooth which was one of my favorites as a kid. I went into it very nervous, afraid that it wouldn’t be as good as I remembered it. I’m happy to report I still adored it.
I started reading Stephen King very early and I still make a point to read everything he publishes. His book, On Writing, is one that I’ve read so many times I could quote from it. In my writer fantasies he and I become fast friends and hang out over coffee/tea and chat books.
Yanes: When did you know you wanted to become a professional writer? Was there a moment in which you realized that a normal job wouldn’t work for you?
Cook: I always loved books and stories. My parents have a homework assignment I did in second grade where we were supposed to practice writing sentences and instead I strung mine together to make a story. The teacher wrote on it: I’m sure someday you’ll be an author. This is proof that teachers are both inspiring and partly psychic.
The first time I can remember thinking that writing books was something I wanted to do was when I was eleven or twelve. I’d gone to the library and picked up a book by Stephen King, Salem’s Lot. The librarian tried to discourage me from reading it- declaring it too scary. I remember being offended because I was a very mature kid and I understood the difference between make believe and real. I figured how scary could it be? Turns out – really scary! I slept with the light on for weeks. I thought it was amazing that this writer had made something up, something I knew was fiction, and yet it felt so real that I had a real emotional reaction. That’s when I knew that is what I wanted to do. I wanted to create stories that made readers feel real emotions.
However, I did have to make a living, so I worked for years as a counselor. I specialized in working with people who had been through catastrophic injuries or illness. I was able to go down to part time and eventually I was fortunate enough to be writing full time.
Yanes: You have lived in a small town and now live in a big city. How did these different environments shape you as a writer? Given that you now live in Vancouver, what is your favorite restaurant in that city?
Cook: I grew up in Traverse City Michigan, which is a beautiful small town right on Lake Michigan. I had a great childhood with lots of time on the beach and good friends/family. And I was desperate to leave. I wanted to move to London or New York. I dreamed of being in a band (this despite having less than zero musical talent), or an actress, or a writer. I spent most of my teen years wanting to be someone else and somewhere else. But that time in a small town gave me space and time to daydream- a handy skill for a writer.
After university graduation I moved to the Boston area, I’ve also lived in Belgium and have made Vancouver, Canada home for years now. At my core, I’m a city person. I love the diversity of people, the ability to be anonymous and the range of stimulus that comes with a larger city. I believe ideas come by allowing yourself to be open. You never know where they will come from – an art gallery, an overheard conversation, a newspaper article, or a conversation with someone outside of your typical circle. You never know where life will take you – but I love having Vancouver as a home.
If you are a foodie than Vancouver is paradise. From swank places to hole in the wall dim sum joints that are to die for- you can find it all here. Choosing one place is hard, but I’ll admit my comfort place to go is called Carmello’s in West Vancouver. We’ve gone there for years, the staff greets us by name, and they have pasta to die for.
Yanes: You are an instructor/mentor at the Simon Fraser University Writer’s Studio Program. What are some common mistakes young writers tend to make?
Cook: I absolutely love working with other writers. I learn so much about my own writing by trying to assist someone else unearth their story. In addition to the SFU program, I do one-on-one mentorship through The Write Potential. (https://www.thewritepotential.com)
Each writer comes with strengths and areas that are more challenging for them. Some of them rock dialogue, but struggle with pacing. Another creates amazing characters, but they’re weak on conflict. However, there are two common mistakes I see frequently in almost all new writers. The first is not trusting themselves enough. They aren’t confident in their voice, so they lean toward trying to sound like an author they admire. They’re too hard on themselves and when someone rejects their work, they take it as a personal rejection.
The second mistake is that they don’t trust the reader enough. They really want the reader to understand what they are trying to communicate – so they tend to give far more backstory than is needed or have character’s state explicitly what is in their head or repeat information.
Yanes: Your recent novel is The Hanging Girl. What was the inspiration for this novel?
Cook: The initial inspiration came after I went to a conference put on by The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. They’re a group of people who use science to investigate various topics- including psychics. The session I went to covered how easy it is to fool someone into believing you have psychic ability. I found that fascinating and filed away the information knowing it would be useful for a character.
The second bit of inspiration came after talking to a good friend about lies. I started to think about a character who tells a lie (for a good reason) and how that leads to more lies, until she’s in so deep that she has no idea how to get free. I think many people have told a lie to try and make a situation better that ended up leading to more trouble. (Hopefully not as much trouble as it got the main character, Skye, into!)
Yanes: The Hanging Girl centers on a fake psychic/tarot card reader. What steps did you take to accurately understand faking psychic abilities?
Cook: One of the things I enjoy about the writing process is the chance to do research. I love learning things. Sometimes this can become a procrastination technique (I’m great at dinner parties because I know all sorts of random things. Did you know you’re more likely to be killed by a falling vending machine than by a shark? Truth.)
For this book I felt if I was going to write a character who read tarot then it was something that I needed to understand; especially because reading the future was so important to Skye and her mom. I got a deck of cards, read several books on reading tarot, and also had my cards read by various psychics. I wouldn’t say I’m very good at it – but I did like learning about the history of tarot and the meanings of different cards.
As I mentioned earlier, I went to a conference by The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. They had an entire session on how to fake psychic abilities. The speaker discussed that the way our brains work that can make us susceptible to what people say and how small bits of information can be manipulated. After I left the conference I got some books on how to do cold readings and practiced on my friends. The skills to fake psychic ability are very similar to those of a counselor – listening not only to what’s said- but what’s not said, reading body language and making leaps in an effort to understand someone.
I lean toward being a skeptic- but I’ll freely admit I want there to be real magic in the world, so I’ll never say it isn’t possible.
Yanes: Were there any characters or ideas in The Hanging Girl that took on a life of their own?
Cook: This question makes me realize how parents feel when someone asks them which of their kids they like the best. I like all the characters for different reasons – even those who don’t behave very well. I feel somewhat to blame for their behavior since I wrote them.
The main character Skye is certainly right up there at the top of favorites. I admire her for being a fighter. Things haven’t always been easy for her. Her dad’s not in her life, her mom was really young when she was born, and financially they don’t have much. Skye doesn’t always make the best decisions, but she’s active in trying to do something to make her life better. I respect people who take action. Many people are unhappy with their current situation, but it’s when they’re willing to do something to change it that interesting things happen. Granted- Skye perhaps doesn’t always do the right things- but no one can say she isn’t willing to do what it takes to make a change.
Yanes: When people finish reading The Hanging Girl, what do you hope they take away from it?
Cook: Most of all I hope they found the book enjoyable! That the hours that they spent reading were fun and provided them with whatever kind of escape or break they needed. In terms of ideas I wanted to explore in the book, I believe there are very few people who set out to do bad things. What there are a lot of are people who make excuses to do something they know isn’t right. They figure they are either doing it for a good reason, or it will only be this one time, but one thing can lead to another and before you know it you can be in a situation that has spun completely out of control. I wanted to write about a character who’s a good person, but finds herself in a bad situation, and then has to figure how she will respond.
Yanes: Reflecting on the time you invested in writing The Hanging Girl, how do you think you’ve improved as a writer?
Cook: I find with every book I learn more about the craft. This is both exciting (look! I’m getting better!) and discouraging (look! I have so much still to learn.) I would say the biggest leap I’ve made in the past two books has been around plotting and creating twists and turns for the reader.
Creating a complicated plot requires a lot of pre-planning. One thing that I’ve learned is more patience. I used to get a book idea and run to the computer as if I were afraid it was going to get away from me if I didn’t nail it down. Now I’m willing to let an idea sit longer, and like wine it gets better with age. Giving the idea some space allows me to see angles and solutions that aren’t visible at first glance.
Yanes: Finally, what are you working on that people can look forward to?
Cook: To be honest I am always happiest when I have a project on the go. I love the process of making things up. My current project is called YOU OWE ME A MURDER. It’s a bit of a homage to Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. (You may have seen the Hitchcock film.) A chance encounter on a flight to London England between two young women leads to murder. The main character must determine how far she’ll go to get herself out of that situation.