Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Eileen Cook

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Eileen Cook

Eileen Cook tells Open Book why she loves writing for teens, how she brings her characters to life through dialogue and what it took to finally get her to take the plunge into publishing. Readers the world over are glad she did — her YA and adult novels have taken off internationally. Her newest book, The Education of Hailey Kendrick, was published by Simon & Schuster in January.

Win a copy of The Education of Hailey Kendrick and Getting Revenge on Lauren Wood! To enter, send an email with the subject heading "Eileen Cook" to contests@openbooktoronto.com and tell us the name of your favorite YA book or novelist. Contest closes February 11th.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new YA novel, The Education of Hailey Kendrick.

Eileen Cook:

Hailey is on top of the world at her elite boarding school. By following all the rules she’s become Ivy League bound and popular, she dates the perfect boyfriend and is surrounded by friends. When she finds herself suddenly ostracized due to a prank gone horribly wrong she has to redefine who she is and what she wants from her life. Hailey has to determine how much she is willing to risk for the chance to get what she really wants.

OB:

In this book and in your previous YA novels (Getting Revenge on Lauren Wood and What Would Emma Do?), popularity — and what it might actually mean — is a significant theme. Why have you chosen to take up this subject in your fiction?

EC:

I suspect I have unresolved issues from high school.

Worrying about what others think of you and living up to the real or imagined expectations of other people is an issue that many of us struggle with our entire lives. It’s difficult to really be happy until you’re able to let go of those expectations and be happy with who you are, regardless of what anyone else may think.

OB:

I was struck by the breezy, realistic dialogue in The Education of Hailey Kendrick. Is writing dialogue something that comes naturally to you, or do you have techniques that you use to make sure your characters' conversations ring true?

EC:

Thank you, I love writing dialogue. I’ve worked as a counselor for over 15 years. This trained me to listen closely to what people say, but often even more importantly, what they don’t say. I like to use dialogue as a way to reveal character motivations and relationships, and as a way entertain the reader.

I also must admit to being a spy. Anytime I’m in public I find myself listening in to conversations. Real people are often better than anything on cable TV.

OB:

The characters in The Education of Hailey Kendrick attend an elite boarding school in Vermont. Do you think YA readers prefer to read about characters in situations they can closely identify with, or is the thrill of the exotic more appealing?

EC:

For every reader who loves an exotic book setting, there’s another who prefers books to be set in familiar situations. As a writer, what I find interesting is how the core of the story doesn’t significantly change depending on the setting. For me the setting provides a backdrop that can enhance or amplify what I am trying to communicate with the story, but the setting could be as average as a suburban neighborhood or as wild as a space station. Changing the setting gives me the chance to explore new worlds. I loved researching boarding schools while working on this book.

OB:

Though you've recently written three YA novels, your first book, Unpredictable, was directed towards an adult audience. How does your intended audience affect your writing process?

EC:

People may be surprised how little change there is for me between writing for adults and teens. YA novels are tackling a range of issues with a fresh eye. I suspect this is why we’re seeing a growth in adult readers choosing YA books.

What I enjoy about writing for teens is the intensity. Everything matters so much more as a teen. It may be the first time you’ve had a particular experience from falling in love, to having your heart broken, to having a best friend betray you. When you love someone no one has ever loved like that — and when you hate someone, then they better look out. If you are hurt as an adult you know from experience that you’ll bounce back, but as a teen you aren’t certain. The flip side is also that as an adult you have lost the sense that anything is possible (Let’s be honest, if you are in your 40s it’s pretty safe your chance of making the Olympic figure skating team has passed you by, and it’s also unlikely you’ll move to Europe after falling in love with royalty.) As a teen, the possibilities are endless.

OB:

What is your average writing day like?

EC:

I desperately want to be one of those writers who have a schedule and routine — alas, I am not. Rather than having a typical day I set weekly word count goals, and leave myself the flexibility to have shorter or longer writing days depending on where I am in the story, how well the words are coming on a particular day, and what else may be competing for my attention. I do try to write a bit each day in order to stay connected to the story.

Unlike some writers who feel tortured by their muse and find the creative process painful — I love writing. If I don’t have a project on the go I feel out of sorts and as if something is missing. Sitting down and letting the story take my complete attention is my favorite part of any day. I’ll write in my office, at the beach, at the library — anyplace I drag a notebook or my laptop.

OB:

You have been successful at breaking into the American market, a feat that many Canadian writers have yet to achieve. What has the experience of establishing yourself as a writer been like?

EC:

I was raised with a passion for books and stories. I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since I was quite young. I am humbled and in awe of the amazing people I’ve met on my publishing journey. Writers — unpublished and published, my editor, agent and readers — have all contributed to where I am now.

Canadian writer and spoken word artist, Ivan Coyote, was the one who launched me into the world of publishing. I took a writing course with her and she encouraged me to start submitting things for publication. When I expressed concerns that I might be rejected she told me: “I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you’re already not published. The worst thing that’s going to happen is that you still won’t be published.” She then gave me a look that communicated it was time to pull up my big girl panties and get busy doing what I said I wanted more than anything. It was then I decided not to limit my dreams because of possible rejection.

OB:

What are you working on now?

EC:

I’m currently working on a young adult novel with the working title of Haunting Isobel. It’s my take on a gothic novel. Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca was one of my favorite books growing up, and I always wanted to try creating a modern-day high school gothic story. I also am doing the finishing edits on a series for young girls (ages 8-10) called The Fourth Grade Fairy. It’s about a young girl who comes from a long line of fairy godmothers, but instead of granting wishes for others, she would prefer to grant a few of her own.


Eileen Cook's novels for teens and adults have been published across the world and translated into five different languages. She lives in Vancouver with her husband and two dogs. Her latest release, The Education of Hailey Kendrick was published in January 2011. You can read more about Eileen, her books and the things that strike her as funny at www.eileencook.com.

For more information about The Education of Hailey Kendrick please visit the Simon & Schuster website.

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

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