Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Cheryl Cooper

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Cheryl Cooper: Blue Butterfly Books

Cheryl Cooper's debut novel, Come Looking for Me (Blue Butterfly Books), is a work of historical fiction with an interesting history of its own. Cheryl launched herself into the writing of her manuscript during the 72-hour novel-writing marathon held at the Huntsville Festival of the Arts in 2004. She left that weekend bleary-eyed but with a first-prize manuscript that she was committed to seeing through to completion. Released this fall, Come Looking for Me has captivated readers from Muskoka and beyond, making the list of Top Ten Sellers at Toronto's Ben McNally's Books in November.

Here, Cheryl Cooper talks to Open Book about the origins of her novel, her writing process and the biggest challenges of writing historical fiction.

Open Book:

Tell us about your novel, Come Looking for Me.

Cheryl Cooper:

Whenever I’m asked this question I usually say, “Come Looking for Me is a story of love and friendship, courage and treachery, triumph and loss on the high seas during the War of 1812.” But to provide you with a bit more detail, it’s about a mysterious young English woman named Emily, who risks a war-time crossing of the Atlantic, hoping for a new adventure in Canada. But she never arrives. She is captured by Captain Thomas Trevelyan — a man who, unbeknownst to Emily, is hell-bent on revenge against her family — and held prisoner aboard his ship, the USS Serendipity. During a raging battle, Emily escapes overboard and is rescued by the British crew of the HMS Isabelle. However, she soon discovers that she has only exchanged one form of captivity for another, and is still in danger as England escalates its fight against the United States on the Atlantic.

While on the Isabelle, Emily strikes up unlikely friendships with a number of the seamen, but finds that life on a warship is full of deprivations to which she is unaccustomed. Amidst heartache and tragedy, she struggles to find her place among the crew, until a turn of events reveals her true identity. And by the time Trevelyan’s ship once again appears on the horizon, she risks losing the only man she has ever loved, and falling into the hands of the only man she has ever loathed.

OB:

Come Looking for Me is set during the War of 1812. Why did you decide to immerse this novel (and yourself) in this time period?

CC:

Mainly because I love the era in which Jane Austen wrote her novels, and having been inspired by her writings, and by the 2003 movie Master and Commander (set in April 1805, six months before the Battle of Trafalgar), I wanted to write a novel set at sea, but saw that a great deal of literature had already been set during the Napoleonic Wars. More importantly, I wanted a connection with Canada. The War of 1812 met all of my imaginary criteria.

Having said that, if someone had told me a few years ago that I would one day write a book set almost entirely on warships during the War of 1812, I would have replied, “Are you mad?” In public school, I never had any interest in the War of 1812, perhaps because my teachers had little enthusiasm in teaching it. They naturally concentrated their efforts on Sir Isaac Brock and Tecumseh, as well as Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, and that was fine, but, at the time, it did not seize my imagination. If only my teachers had focussed on the naval battles of the War of 1812, and the poor souls that lived, worked, fought and dreamed on the floating timbers of those great old sailing ships, then I am certain I would have sat up much straighter on my classroom chair.

Knowing so little about this war before writing Come Looking for Me was yet another reason for choosing it as my setting, and thankfully, during the years I spent researching, I discovered that it was a fascinating war in a fascinating period of history.

OB:

The central character in your novel is Emily, who has left a life of few possibilities in England and hopes to start afresh in Canada. Tell us about the process of getting to know this character and bringing her to life. Did she evolve gradually, or appear fully formed in your imagination?

CC:

I believe that all authors’ characters evolve to a certain extent as their story unfolds, but Emily, more than any other one of my characters, was quite faceted and vibrant in my mind when I began writing. I wanted her to be adventurous and fearless, and to possess a strong desire to break free from the fetters of her life, but, given her background and the circumstances of her birth (of which I can say no more without giving away some of the plot), I also wanted her to have compassion for the plight of the men — old and young, officers and ordinary seamen alike — with whom she lived side-by-side on the ship.

OB:

You began Come Looking for Me during a 72-hour novel-writing marathon at the 2004 Huntsville Festival of the Arts. (And your manuscript ended up winning first prize!) You went on to spend a number of years developing and fine-tuning the novel, but how did this initial burst of writing contribute to the end result?

CC:

I think one of the hardest things new authors have to contend with is justifying all the hours (and years) they must dedicate to a work of historical fiction. I had a young family and responsibilities, and found it difficult being constantly torn away from my imaginary world of 1812. For me, writing has always been easier than the thinking and plotting that are necessary precursors. But how does one justify sitting or lying on the couch, imagining scenes and dialogues between characters, without causing their family some concern about their mental state?

Being able to write for three full days (and nights) without interruptions was incredibly productive. I often had to stop the flow of writing to do a bit of research, but at the end of the marathon, I had completed 75 solid pages of work, and I had a clear idea of the direction my story was going to take. Furthermore, I was given the encouragement that I so badly needed from the six marathon judges to keep going and finish the book. To any new writer trying to find time to plot or begin a novel, I would highly recommend participating in a novel marathon. It certainly helped to set me on the right track.

OB:

What was the most challenging aspect of writing your first novel?

CC:

Aside from the labour-intensive research, I would say giving a unique speaking voice to each and every one of my characters, and maintaining that unique voice throughout. I had many characters on my ships: captains, officers, marines, carpenters, sail-makers, doctors, able seamen and so on. Most of them hailed from different parts of Britain or Canada; some of them were educated, others were not. But they all had their own way of speaking, and each one addressed Emily in a different manner. A week before my manuscript was slated for the printers, my associate publisher and I combed through my manuscript pages, line-by-line, to make sure that each character’s voice had stayed consistent.

The other great challenge was making certain that every word of dialogue I used had actually entered the English language in 1812. You might be surprised to learn how many words that we use in our everyday language did not even exist in the early years of the 19th century, or, if they did exist, had completely different meanings back then. As the publication date for my book was nearing, I discovered more than a few words that had to be corrected. In doing so, I faced three challenges: I had to find a new word that was equally strong; the replacement had to exist in 1812; and then, having found a good candidate, I had to make certain I had not already used it on the next page! It was not an easy task.

OB:

Describe an average writing day for you.

CC:

I make a pot of coffee, lock myself away in my home office, slip on my iPod, making certain that I am tuned in to either classical music or the movie score from a period piece, and begin work by editing my most recently written scene. When — and only when — I am satisfied with it do I push on to the next scene or chapter, frequently pausing to consult one of the many research resources piled up around my laptop. In creating a new scene, I like to get my ideas down first, and then I go back to add colour and flesh to each sentence, and make certain that either the best lines of dialogue, or a note of suspense, or both, come towards the end. Most days I am fairly productive; however, there are those when my writing hours are spent either chasing the smallest of historical details, or resting on the couch, creating new scenes and conversations in my mind, because my lower back is in knots, and therefore not interested in co-operating by sitting at my writing desk all day long!

OB:

You currently live in Muskoka. How does this location — either in terms of the environment, the community or both — affect your writing?

CC:

Muskoka is a great place to live. It’s easy to meet people here, to get involved in the community; and, it’s not only a beautiful place, but also, for the better part of the year, a peaceful place. It’s hard not to find inspiration in our rocks and lakes, lofty pines and open spaces. But, more importantly, Muskoka is an arts-rich community, and, in the creative writing department, several writers and authors reside here year round. As a result, we have writing groups and workshops galore where one can go for camaraderie, support and constructive criticism.

OB:

Historical fiction has always been popular, but readers and writers seem particularly interested in its possibilities lately. Why do you think this is?

CC:

I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that we North Americans watch a great number of movies, and in the past 10 or 15 years, several critically-acclaimed productions with historical content have had a major impact not only on the big screen, but also on our popular culture. Braveheart, Rob Roy and Titanic all come to mind. More recently, I can think of countless offerings, with big name stars, that have done exceedingly well at the box office, and effortlessly given their audiences a fascinating glimpse of history: Inglorious Basterds, Pride & Prejudice, Saving Private Ryan, Gladiator, Troy, Atonement — hey, even Pirates of the Caribbean. When we have thoroughly enjoyed a particular movie, we often go looking for the same story in its book form (if it exists), or for books with similar themes and settings.

OB:

What books are you reading at the moment?

CC:

For research purposes, I have three books on the go at present: Donald R. Hickey’s The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, John Latimer’s 1812: War with America, and J.B. Priestley’s The Prince of Pleasure. But, for pure interest’s sake, I have Roy MacGregor’s Northern Light and Pierre Berton’s Arctic Grail waiting patiently for me on my nightstand!

OB:

Do you think that you will revisit the characters or the time period of Come Looking for Me in future books, or do you have an entirely different project in the works?

CC:

I have two novels, placed in more contemporary settings, which are works-in-progress, and I do hope to return to them at some point, but for now with all this naval, Regency, and War of 1812 research fresh in my mind, I am happily working away on a sequel to Come Looking for Me. I am also contemplating writing a book on the adventures of my CLFM privateer, Prosper Burgo, his ship, the Prosperous and Remarkable, and his band of ruffians. I have become very attached to my CLFM characters, and am in no way ready to bid them farewell.


Cheryl Cooper was born in Toronto and now lives in Muskoka. She holds degrees in English and education, and her articles and stories have appeared in numerous Canadian periodicals.

Cheryl makes her book publishing debut with Come Looking for Me. She completed the first draft of this work of historical fiction in three days of non-stop writing to win first prize in the 2004 Huntsville Festival of the Arts “Novel Marathon.” After several more years of research and writing, her greatly expanded and refined first novel is published by Blue Butterfly Books.

For more information about Come Looking For Me please visit the Blue Butterfly Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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