Speak Its Name: Hi JoAnne, thanks for agreeing to the interview, I’m glad to have you here. Can you give short introduction about yourself?
JoAnne Soper-Cook: I was born at a very early age (*groan*) in a small fishing village in Newfoundland, in the middle of the worst blizzard (I’m told) that they’d had in decades. I think that probably was an indication of things to come. I published my first short story in 1975, when I was 8 years old. It was called “The Magic Elf” and was, if I remember correctly, a work of surpassing literary brilliance…actually, it made me famous on the playground for exactly 2.5 days, and then the other kids went back to beating the snot out of me as usual.
I edited my high school paper, and wrote syndicated op-ed pieces for the now-defunct Robinson-Blackmore newspaper chain, which published all the local papers for the whole island. My first novel, WAKING THE MESSIAH, was published by Breakwater Books in 1999, and was followed by an entirely forgettable fictional biography of Napoleon. I’ve had various ups and downs since then, but I’ve been lucky in that I seem to be able to find an audience for my work these days, which hasn’t always been the case.
SIN: You’re one of those writers who are active both in the m/m & gay genre as well as the literary genre, having published 4 literary novels before you joined the m/m fray. How did that happen?
JSC: I had recently gone through a very long, dry spell when I hadn’t been able to get anything published. I suffer from major depression and so I was convinced this was the death knell. I’d always written slash fanfiction – usually in the Due South and CSI fandoms – and so, when my friend Jennifer LeClaire suggested I try a novel, I decided to take her up on it. She was wonderfully supportive, reading what I wrote as I went along, offering suggestions and improvements. I’d have never written an m/m romance if it hadn’t been for her.
Then I met a wonderful, generous and incredibly talented author who writes under the name Erastes. When she found out I’d just completely my very first m/m romance – the unlikely love story of two Prohibition era gangsters, entitled BUT NOT FOR ME – she encouraged me to submit it for publication. She stood by me throughout the entire process – hand-holding me, encouraging me, propping me up, and giving me pep talks. I owe my m/m publications to her, as well as to some of the wonderful people I met on LiveJournal – such as Alex Beecroft, Chris Smith. I’m always encouraged and inspired by the level of support and good fellowship I’ve found among the m/m writing community.
SIN: Is the writing, that is, the process/preparation between literary and m/m any different?
JSC: Not for me. I mean, everybody’s process is different. I won’t go into it, because nothing is more boring than listening to someone talk about their writing process, but for me, it’s still writing. I still do the same research, and where I write mostly historicals, there’s usually a lot of research to be done. But I don’t mind that. I used to be an academic, so research is par for the course and I’ve always enjoyed it.
SIN: When it comes to historicals, which periods interest you the most? Why?
JSC: I have always been fascinated by the Napoleonic period – Napoleon I – and mostly that’s because of the man himself. I think he had to have been an incredibly dynamic personality, the sort of person you either hate on sight or fall madly and passionately in love with, forever.
World War Two is another time period I enjoy. My grandfather served in the artillery in the British army, and so there was that military tradition in my family. I was exposed to a lot of what they call “men’s adventure” novels when I was still a teenager, written by people like Hammond Innes and Alistair MacLean – these gritty, come-hell-or-high-water sort of novels where you have a group of heroes who are pitted against incredible odds and anything that can go wrong, will. In fact, that was the first type of novel I ever attempted. I wrote it on an Underwood typewriter that my parents had given me for Christmas when I was 13. It was about 40 pages long – a real epic piece, you know – and had to do with Major Kesselring and the Brenner Pass. I had all these maps spread out – I absolutely have a map fetish, love maps and atlases and of course Google Earth – and I plotted out where they were going, the terrain and such. That one got passed around my classroom during maths lectures, I can tell you.
The late Victorian period is another favourite, and this goes back to my love of the original Sherlock Holmes stories by A.C. Doyle. The period around the Whitechapel murders up to the early Edwardian era interests me quite a lot. I think the Victorians – the fin-de-siecle Victorians, I mean – were quite advanced in terms of the technology they had and the sorts of goods and services they had access to. I write crime novels set in this period – the Inspector Philemon Raft series is set to debut this June, with WILLING FLESH – and so the forensics of it interests me. I mean, they certainly didn’t have what you see on CSI. Fingerprinting was in its infancy – they were still measuring people’s limbs to determine their potential for criminal behaviour. Phrenology was considered a science, for God’s sake!
I’ve recently developed an interest in the Great Depression era in the United States – before and after Prohibition – and the mythos of the ‘beer baron’, these bootleggers who were really just murderous hoodlums with a lot of money behind them. John Dillinger is a figure of great fascination to me: he was something of a folk hero to many people. He was seen as a Robin Hood type. Right now I am working on something which has a Dillinger-esque character, a man who sees himself as a hero because he takes what he wants – really, he’s a very damaged person who desperately needs the kind of unconditional love we all dream about. He’s being chased by someone who is just as clever as he is. I have an idea where that one is going and I know the ending already, and it’s unconventional and happy. It’s a happy ending.
SIN: You get to host a dinner party with 3 historical people of your choice. Who’s at the table, and why?
JSC: Napoleon Bonaparte, John Dillinger, Vlad Dracul, a.k.a. Vlad Tepes. They all fascinate me in different ways. I think it’s the power. I do appreciate and I think at some level understand the allure of power – the power to enact enormous changes. I don’t know if I’d want that sort of power myself, but I am always interested in what makes such people tick. I mean, there is such a mythology that’s grown up around Napoleon, but I think personally he was rather different than people have come to expect. Most of the biographies you read concentrate on his considerable skill as a military leader and, later, an administrator; one wonders what he was like as an individual. I wonder what sorts of things he laughed at, what he might have found funny. He did apparently have quite a puckish sense of humour that extended to practical jokes on many occasions, and he wasn’t above laughing at himself. I think power changed him, but I also think that, once he had lost that power forever, he regained something of the person he truly was. You can see this in his interactions with young Betsy Balcombe during his final exile on St. Helena. He became a playmate for her and she really, truly adored him.
Dillinger, as I’ve said, because of this Robin Hood perception of him. He is someone, like Napoleon, who excites enormous debate. He endured horrible abuse as a child and I wonder how far that might have contributed to who he eventually became.
Vlad Dracul – I’m writing a fictionalised ‘treatment’ (I don’t know any other word for it, really) of Dracula that’s set in a steampunk universe – for many of the same reasons. Who was he, really? Much of the “vampire” mythos ascribed to him can be attributed to Bram Stoker, but I’m interested in whether such ideas existed about Vlad before Stoker got hold of them, and to what extent. The novel I’m writing has him cast as a sin eater – you know, the person who was the community scapegoat, who came and performed a certain ritual over the corpse that was believed to take the dead person’s sins away. There was an enormous amount of superstition and fear around such a person – who would have been a pariah in the community. Doubtless a critical theorist would argue that Vlad Dracul’s Othering at the hands of scholars is a fait accompli, but that’s not what I’m trying to do. I suppose in all these cases I am looking for a reason why the person became who they were.
SIN: You can ask a historical person of your choice three questions that they have to answer truthfully. Who would that be, and what are the questions?
JSC: Napoleon, probably. Would you have done anything differently, and if so, what? What is your biggest regret? Did you have sex with Tsar Alexander I? (LOL)
SIN: (I bet they did!) What are you currently working on?
JSC: Right now I am trying to get the sequel to HEARTACHE CAFE finished, a novel called VALLEY OF THE DEAD. We – my publishers and I – hope to continue the story of Jack Stoyles and his cafe. HEARTACHE CAFE introduced him, and now we’re asking readers if they’d like to accompany him on some new adventures. In this book he takes an unexpected journey to Egypt, but I won’t give it away. Jack is a hard-boiled kind of guy. He’s sort of a cross between Casablanca’s Rick Blaine and Sam Spade. He’s always getting beaten up! But he keeps coming back for more – and there are always sexy men waiting in the wings.
In addition to VALLEY OF THE DEAD, I’m writing a thing called FAMOUS LAST WORDS which is a cops-and-robbers caper set in the 1930s. I like to call it “one fucking thing after another.” I’m also at work on THE LOVELY BEAST, a steampunk reimagining of the Dracula legend, with some original twists. Victor Frankenstein is one of the Brides.
SIN: Writers very often struggle getting the work/life balance right – how do you manage?
JSC: I was laid off from my regular day job in June of last year, so that helps enormously. Ultimately I will have to get another job, unless I win the lottery or something. I’m a great believer in ‘write while you can’ and so I’ve become expert at grabbing little bits of time throughout the day. I am always on the lookout for those little windows of time. I have no children, and my husband is enormously supportive, a better cook than I am, and he enjoys doing housework. You could say I’ve got it made.
SIN: Which are authors you admire? What’s the book you would have wanted to write which was written by somebody else?
JSC: Margaret Atwood was the reason I started writing. Her work just leaves me speechless with admiration. I would have loved to have written “Oryx and Crake” or “The Handmaid’s Tale.” There’s a lot of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stuff that just moves me to tears. The last line of “The Great Gatsby” is, I think, one of the most perfect lines ever written. Erastes’ “Tributary” just blew me away, utterly. Her work manages to be solid and yet incredibly beautiful at the same time, which is so very, very difficult to accomplish. Kazuo Ishiguro’s” Never Let Me Go” is definitely a book I would have loved to have written.
SIN: Unfair question, I know, but which is the favourite book of yours and why?
JSC: This changes from time to time but right now it’s a currently unpublished book called Em. It was inspired by Peter Lorre’s character Hans Beckert in the 1931 Fritz Lang film M. My character is a chemically castrated child rapist/murderer and it’s told from his point of view, but this is no Dexter. I’m not asking readers to identify with him. The novel is about the ways in which we treat our children, and how this affects human society. A recurring line, spoken by Hans (a survivor of the most heinous childhood abuse you can possibly imagine) is “This is how we make monsters.” It’s set in my home town and the city of St. John’s is a huge presence in the book – always looming above people, always very forbidding, very urban and gritty, full of dark spaces, which is something you get in German Expressionist film a lot. I’m very proud of this book.
SIN: How do you get characters to “talk” to you?
JSC: My problem isn’t in getting them to talk; it’s in getting them to shut up! At any given time I’ve got several dialogues going on in my head, not to mention the new characters who come along tapping on my subconscious going “Hullo? I have a wonderful story you need to tell.” It’s rather like that opening scene in Karin Fossum’s novel “Broken”, where all the characters are stood up in her driveway, waiting for her to tell their stories. I write the way Method actors act, by becoming the character – so if I’m writing an Inspector Raft novel, then I am Philemon Raft. I mean, I go about as if I were him; I see the world through his eyes. This morning I went for a walk as Jack Stoyles from the HEARTACHE CAFE series. He notices things I don’t. So it’s very Method for me. It’s Method writing.
SIN: How long does the planning take compared to the overall writing?
JSC: I don’t traditionally plan novels, with the exception of the crime novels, sometimes – if it’s a particularly thorny murder or series of murders with overlapping elements, then I make enormous charts that get posted on the walls of my study. I use sheets of white bristol board (poster board) for this, but recently I found out you can get wallboard that’s actually that whiteboard stuff? What is it? Greaseboard? You know, you write on it with erasable markers and you can wipe it off and start over – so I haven’t stopped pestering my husband to redo my study with that on the walls. I usually write up the names of the main protagonists, the murder victim(s), the most likely suspects, along with forensic evidence found at the scene, etc. I ‘process’ the murder scene mentally and then write out what was there, and I do my own forensic experiments. For my literary novels I don’t plan them. I prefer to let them unfold organically. I’m a great believer in what Alice Munro said, that when we begin to write “things rise up and attach themselves.”
SIN: Do you research as you go along?
JSC: I research as I go, yes. The only reason for this is my absent mindedness. If I don’t research as I go I will forget about it. My editor usually goes over my research very carefully and will give me notes on any extra research that needs to be done. I have a really, really amazing editor, Judi David, who catches everything I miss.
SIN: Best and worst piece of writing advice you ever got?
JSC: Best piece of advice I ever got: perseverance rewards talent. This was said to me by a literary agent who ultimately declined to represent me, but that piece of advice has stood me in such good stead. I really appreciated that he said that.
The worst probably came from a professor when I was in my second year at uni. She told me that I couldn’t write worth a damn and would never be able to write. She refused to give me an “A” in her course no matter how hard I worked. She said that unless I wrote the way she herself wrote, it wouldn’t be any good.
SIN: Thank you for the interview and good luck with your current projects!