Jody Cooksley: The Small Museum

Jody Cooksley won the Caledonia Novel Award 2023 with her chilling gothic mystery The Small Museum. Set in the competitive world of scientific discovery in Victorian London, it reveals much monstrous darkness lurking behind locked doors. The Small Museum  is published today by Allison & Busby.

Hi Jody! Many congratulations on today’s publication of your debut The Small Museum! How are you celebrating and what exciting plans have you made to meet your readers and promote your novel?

I’m looking forward to a launch event at my local Waterstones this evening. Helen, Allison & Busby’s publicist, has set up a lot of podcast, radio and YouTube interviews as well as articles and events and there’s a blog tour starting this week, which is all great fun as I get to talk about books all the time.

What’s been happening with you since you won the Caledonia Novel Award 2023 with The Small Museum, and can you tell us a bit about why your agent Charlotte Seymour is such a great fit for you and your novel?

Winning was an incredible boost for my writing. Knowing that such well-regarded literary professionals liked the story was wonderful. Charlotte shares my love of gothic and haunting literature and had great insight into the text: she pinpointed a couple of areas to expand and polish that were exactly right and made the story so much better. I’m looking forward to working with her on future texts.
I already had plans for a sequel to The Small Museum and winning spurred me on to write it. By the time I claimed my prize of a writing retreat at Moniack Mhor, I was in the final drafting stages and the retreat was really productive. As well as writing I’ve been working with Allison&Busby, who bought both books, on publicity and communications about The Small Museum. I also work full-time in a busy day job and have teenage children so I haven’t had too much sleep in the last year!

What inspired you to write The Small Museum, and what came first for you: plot, setting, characters or something completely different?

I’ve always been fascinated by the 19th-century urge to discover, collect and sort the natural world, because for all their progress, Victorians were in many ways really frightened of the new evolutionary science and what it meant for religion and for the whole human experience. They were very competitive about finds: there were cut-throat claims on fossil discoveries and sometimes people created outright fakes to fit their theories. It’s a really rich context for fiction and one that I knew would provide me with the opportunity to explore dark and twisted motivations for character. A visit to The Hunterian Museum in London inspired me even further, made me research cabinets of curiosity and gave me the ideas for the chapter titles.
Amongst your varied cast of extraordinary characters, which one did you enjoy writing the most, and why?

I think that’s a tie between Maddie and Grace. Maddie because she turns out so much stronger and better than I’d originally imagined her, and Grace because she is so deliciously evil that she seemed capable of anything I could imagine her doing.

You transport us very skilfully into the unsettling Victorian world of Madeleine and Lucius Everley – it’s full of scientific discoveries, disturbing secrets and a trial for a horrifying murder. How important to you is getting the historical facts right, and how did you research all the finer details?

When writing historical fiction, it’s really important that the context is completely accurate, giving a backdrop for the plot and characters to grow within. I already knew quite a bit about the period and its science but I re-read many of the seminal texts to give me a starting point for Lucius’s extreme thoughts and behaviours. I visited a lot of museums with Victorian collections as well as visiting period houses and the locations that feature in the novel.
Which part of the process, from first draft to publication, have you enjoyed the most, and is there anything you wish you’d done differently?

I always enjoy editing the first draft, the moment when the whole story arc is in place and it’s time to begin to fine-tune the plot and make the sentences more beautiful. It’s my favourite part of writing as the hard creative grind moves into a more playful phase. This time I also enjoyed that last round of edits as I had Charlotte with whom to discuss the process. I’m very glad I held the book back from submitting too early, by the time I entered the Caledonia Novel Award I had edited and polished the text several times, so I’m not sure I would do much differently.

What were the best – and worst! – pieces of advice you were given as you began writing your novel?

The best advice was probably hearing the saying, "You can’t edit a blank page". As writers we can get so hung up on text sounding exactly right that we can’t move on so it’s better to write a first draft and edit it afterwards. Having written a few novels now I know that the text will always come good on the third or fourth draft, however much of a mess it seems, and that helps to keep up the pace of writing. Someone once told me that the best writers get up early before the rest of the household and get their drafting in before anything else happens – it was the worst advice for me and made me thoroughly miserable because I’m a natural night owl and am definitely at my most creative in the middle of the night.

Which novelists have influenced your writing, and what are your go-to recommendations in both historical and gothic fiction?

I’m a huge fan of the Victorian novelists and I love strange and creepy tales. Sheridan le Fanu was my first in the gothic genre when I was a teenager and I still re-read his works, he’s a master of tension and short story. Thomas Hardy, Wilkie Collins, Dickens and Zola are favourites that I often re-read and I’m fond of Browning’s dramatic monologues. Current gothic writers I admire are Diane Setterfield, Bridget Collins and Jess Kidd. I was really delighted when Tonya Mitchell, author of The Arsenic Eater’s Wife, described The Small Museum as "perfect for fans of Jess Kidd" because her works are really enjoyable page-turners with memorable characters.

You signed a two-book deal with Allison & Busby - what can we look forward to from you next?

They bought the sequel to The Small Museum, which will come out in hardback next summer, just as the paperback releases. The audiobooks are currently being narrated. I’ve been working on a third, unrelated, Victorian gothic that I hope will be finished by the end of this year and I have several ideas for others in the same genre.

And finally, what advice would you give to anyone thinking of entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2025?

I would encourage anyone serious about their writing to enter. It’s such a well-respected award that many of the shortlisted authors receive attention from agents and publishers as well as the winner. Before entering, edit the text to make sure it’s as polished as possible to make the writing stand out. Good luck to this year’s entrants, I can’t wait to read the shortlist samples on the website.
(Author photo by Lillian Spibey)
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