Interview with 2023 Winner Jody Cooksley

Jody, many congratulations on winning the Caledonia Novel Award 2023 with The Small Museum! We were also delighted to announce that you have now signed with our competition judge, Charlotte Seymour, who loved your gothic thriller. What does winning the Caledonia Novel Award 2023, and being signed by Charlotte, mean to you?

Thank you so much! It’s incredibly exciting to have won such a prestigious award. I’ve seen how winning has impacted other writers in previous years and I’m really thrilled to have been chosen. Writing is a solitary process, and often you’re drafting something that you really believe in, but you have no idea if anyone else will like it or if it will ever be read. It’s validating to have such amazing feedback from industry experts saying they enjoy the writing too and I’m incredibly grateful to the whole Award Team for the work they do all year to give new writers such a special platform. I’m also really looking forward to going to Moniack Mhor; it’s a wonderful prize.
I know that the Caledonia Novel Award attracts high quality entries and having read the other shortlisted extracts I can see the competition was tough this year. The shortlist is all excellent and I’d love to read the novels in full. Being signed by Charlotte and joining the amazing list of writers at Johnson & Alcock is incredible, I’ve had to pinch myself a few times this week! Having the support and advice of someone so well respected in the industry has given me confidence in my work and hope for my writing career.

Accurate historical context and settings are clearly important to you – your novel is packed with authentic details. Do you enjoy the meticulous research, and when you are writing, do you prioritise fact over fiction?

I do think detail is important in historical fiction, settings have to transport the reader fully or they simply don’t work. I’m very at home in the Victorian period and have studied its literature as a postgrad so the contexts and themes of the time are second nature when I’m writing. I spent some time researching surgery and medicine in the late 1800s, visiting institutions and museums, and re-read some of the seminal texts on evolutionary theory so I knew what I wanted to include. Once I sat down to draft the story, fiction absolutely took over. I drafted once for plot and character and then edited several times to add in detail and refine the settings.

Keeping on top of the narrative threads in your novel must have called for a lot of planning! Are you a very disciplined writer, and how did you maintain momentum and build suspense as you plotted and wrote The Small Museum?

I think we all veer between being plotters or pantsers when we write! I always start with a detailed plan for the narrative arc and the key actions for the main characters, and then I really try to plot the story by chapter, to give it the necessary pace. Inevitably there is shuffling around with plot, sometimes threads don’t work, or characters misbehave, and new ideas might come in the middle of writing, necessitating more changes. The editing phase is where I make sure all the threads of the story are developing at the right pace. I have to be disciplined about the time I spend writing as I have a full-time day job, so to make sure the story stays with me all the time I write for at least thirty minutes every day, regardless of what else I have on the agenda or what time of day I can manage.

At the heart of your engrossing thriller is the strange, detached relationship between the chilly Lucius Everley and his new wife Madeleine. Which character came first for you, and which did you most enjoy writing?

Madeleine is the core of the story, and in many ways it’s a coming-of-age tale. She’s little more than a child at the outset, when she marries a virtual stranger and the action sees her change through the experiences of finding her sister, becoming a mother, bereavement, being charged with murder and ultimately discovering what she wants and needs from life when she is saved. I lived these experiences with her. Although it is fun to write unpleasant characters like Lucius and his horrible sister, they were always just extra characters in Madeleine’s story.

How long did The Small Museum take to write, and is the version you submitted to the Caledonia Novel Award 2023 very different from your first draft?

It took around nine months to write and then about the same amount of time to edit. I work full time and have teenage children so I don’t generally start writing until around 9 or 10pm, writing into the early hours if the words are flowing. It helps that I don’t seem to need much sleep! The first draft of a novel is always quite basic for me, I like to plan and pace the action and the interplay between characters and then go back and add the padding and make the writing prettier. I will continue to edit a text until each sentence sounds exactly right. The only thing that stays broadly the same is the dialogue. I hear the characters speaking and the words are theirs, they usually come out right the first time.

And what comes next for you and your new agent? How has the process been so far, and why was Charlotte the ideal fit for you and The Small Museum?

I knew from the first conversation that I wanted to work with Charlotte to bring the book into the world. We share a love of the gothic genre, as well as a passion for telling women’s stories and we enjoy many of the same writers and texts. She seems to know the book as well as I do and has probably read it as many times now. Charlotte has already brought expert insight to suggestions on expanding elements of the story. I’m hoping that we’ll find a publisher who loves the book too. Knowing that someone so well respected in publishing loves the story has given me the confidence to plan a sequel, I’ve already started working on it and I’m looking forward to the process of drafting whilst having editorial support and advice on its progress.

Which novelists influenced you and inspired you to write, and why?

I’m a big fan of the classic Victorian novel, particularly Zola and Hardy, and have definitely been inspired by the social themes they tackle through the means of psychological drama between characters. I have always found elements of the gothic appealing – from Edgar Allan Poe to more modern twists on the genre like Patrick Suskind’s Perfume or John Fowles’ The Collector. As a student I remember reading Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu (an often overlooked Victorian writer and a master of creepy settings) and thinking that one day I would create something as chilling. In more recent years, Laura Purcell’s wonderful novels The Silent Companions and The Corset reassured me that the gothic genre was still popular.

Which novels have you enjoyed recently, and what is at the top of your “dangerously high” TBR pile?

I read widely and enjoy quite a range of writing styles. Over the last few months my favourites have been Bernadine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman, which features a brilliant portrayal of a rogueish antihero that you can’t help rooting for, and Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, a unique story of obsession that is exquisitely written. The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave was my favourite read last year. Top of my TBR pile are Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger and Joanna Quinn’s The Whalebone Theatre. Sometimes I panic that there will never be time to read all the books I want to read! I like poetry too, though I can’t master the art form, and this month I’ve also enjoyed Manorism, Yomi Sode’s powerful debut collection.

You run a literacy outreach programme with local schools and libraries in your area – can you tell us a bit about that?

My day job as Director of External Relations for Cranleigh School encompasses our outreach programmes, and we focus on literacy because it’s the single biggest factor in social mobility. Fostering a love of reading and books is vital for primary school age children. There are several primary schools in our local area and we work one of them in partnership with the National Literacy Trust to improve reading engagement and literacy levels. My team also runs the Awesome Book Awards, a literary award for debut children’s writers where readers aged 7 to 10 vote for their favourites from a shortlist of five. It’s a great award with lots of author interviews and reading fun for the thousands of pupils who get involved every year, and we fund bookpacks for all local schools to get involved.

And finally, what made you decide to enter the Caledonia Novel Award 2023, and do you have any advice for anyone thinking of entering next year’s competition?

I read Elizabeth Macneal’s The Doll Factory, which I enjoyed, and I realised she had won the competition previously. I started to look into the award and could see it attracted a really high calibre of entries. I never dreamed I would win! My advice to anyone entering would be not to rush your book. It’s better to have a perfectly edited entry for the following year than to rush entry, as the judges have so many scripts to read that your entry needs to be the best it can be.
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