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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Writing with a Purpose: Author Interview with Geoffrey Cook

What made you decide to write your first middle-grade novel?
My ten-year-old daughter Madeline inspired me to write this book. When she was in the first grade, I began reading to her at bedtime almost every night. We read the first 3 books of Harry Potter, The Princess Bride, and soon I began to read middle-grade books for pleasure myself, like The Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, most books by Roald Dahl, and A Wrinkle in Time.

Around this time, my wife began telling Madeline bedtime stories about a little girl who lived on a volcano. She named her Veronica after her mother’s middle name. Veronica’s adventures were Maddy’s adventures: a lost tooth, a win at softball, a skinned knee.

Maddy loved Veronica. I would tell her a new story on the twenty-five-minute ride to school each morning. Over time, the stories got more involved. I imagined Veronica’s volcanic world and even drew a map.

Eventually I began to write the stories down. And that turned out to be a more interesting process than I imagined. There is a transformation that takes place in creating a story for a child. The poet Rumi understood it well:

When a man makes up a story for his child,
he becomes a father and a child
together, listening.

Story transforms the storyteller. You must be the child to experience the sense of awe and wonder, and you must be the adult to write it down.

Was there any particular author you read that made you think, I could write like that?
The author who influenced me the most was Simon Winchester and his book Krakatoa. He showed the man-made fallout and opportunism following an eruption can be worse than the eruption itself. That insight inspired my villain – the man in white. Veronica is warned in chapter one: “When the volcano does blow, true colors will show. Nature is nature, it’s always right. But man can be evil and man can be right. And man can be blinded by a terrible night. An evil is coming, he’s coming in white.”

Beyond serving as the model for my Mount Mystery, Krakatoa also included a helpful “Further Reading” section, which helped guide my research into volcanoes. I read The Malay Archipelago, Twenty-One Balloons, Ring of Fire by the Blair brothers, and many other books and short stories about volcanoes and volcanic regions.

I wanted Veronica and the Volcano to be more scientifically grounded than Twenty-One Balloons while having no less wonder and adventure, and I think even more. There is a mystery at the heart of the universe that I think is the source of all wonder, and I wanted to bring that mystery to the fore in Veronica.

How long did it take you to write your book? How many rewrites did you do on it? Who helped you with the editing?
It took a little over three years: one year to write and two years to edit. I am probably a better editor than writer. I ran an editing business for a little over seven years.

During the editing, I tried to learn everything I could about volcanoes. Of course, I did all of this on the side, as I was working and continue to work 60+ hours a week as CEO of a public company (NASDAQ: MEET). I was not working on the book every day, every week, or even every month, but I fit it in whenever I could.

During the editing process, I probably did a full edit at least half-a-dozen times, while also adding details, color, and backstory based on my research. I gave early drafts to friends of my daughter, and I asked two editors I sourced online to read it and provide feedback as well: Scott McCormick and Amy Betz.

Throughout the process, my intended reader was my daughter Madeline. I also consulted with her on place names, and she invented many of them like Mount Mystery, New Lava City, Mount Kaboom, and the Cinnamon Forest.

What is the hardest part of writing for you? Starting? Creating a scene? Dialog? Tension, etc?
I struggled with purpose. I am writing this why? What changed about the protagonist—for better or worse—from the beginning of the story to the end beyond her going on a fantastical adventure? How much can a ten-year-old child be realistically expected to have changed over just 7 days, however remarkable those 7 days may be?

I found the answers to these questions in the ending of the story and in Veronica’s relationship to the boy in the story. The shift is not dramatic, but it’s there. Veronica starts off sweet, innocent and trusting, cocooned in her family’s love and in a larger community of townspeople who might as well be her uncles and aunts. By the end, some of the innocence is gone but her sense of wonder and inherent goodness is intact.

The adults are not always good, but that’s not an excuse to be bad. Innocence may not be able to survive trauma but a fundamental sense of goodness can, and this sense of goodness is inherently linked to the mystery, beauty, and power of nature.

We have all experienced rejection. Give me an example of how you learned to write past it.
This being my first book, my writing career is too early to have faced a lot of rejection. But having built up multiple businesses from the ground up, I am no stranger to rejection. Ultimately, you need to have faith in the reason you started working on something in the first place, so the stronger that grounding the more able you are to deal with the slings and arrows. The trick is not being discouraged by negative feedback and being able to tell the difference between unwarranted criticism and that which is spot on. There’s a lot more of the former than the latter.

Violet Moon is your imprint, correct? What made you choose the indie route? What was the most challenging part about putting together the book?
It never occurred to me to go the traditional publishing route. I am an entrepreneur by trade. My businesses have always been about disrupting gatekeepers, so doing it myself seemed natural. Also, the few people I know who went the traditional publishing route painted an ugly portrait: a publisher does not guarantee success. Only a handful of published titles are going to get real attention and resources from the publisher.

If you must do most of the marketing yourself anyway, what is the advantage of the traditional route? I simply wanted to tell a story with no thought of commercial viability. I had my imagined reader (my daughter), and I didn’t need a gatekeeper.

Whether it would sell 100 copies or 100,000 mattered less than my happiness and my intended reader’s happiness with the work. My highest praise came from my daughter. I gave her the finished book, and she read through it in 2 days!

Had I gone the traditional route, I never would have had the book illustrated. I would have left that to the publisher and no publisher would have ever illustrated it so richly. But this story demands illustration. Who doesn’t want to see the volcano? I wanted Veronica to deliver illustrations reliably to the reader, with at least 2 illustrations per chapter. The indie publishing route made that possible.

I had the great fortune of connecting with the illustrator Gabrielle Shamsey who completed nearly 100 hand-drawn color illustrations for the book. I met her through a local art class Maddy and I were taking together. I asked the art teacher for a referral to an illustrator, and he suggested Gabrielle.

Thank God he did. Her illustrations define the story. I edited Veronica again and again trying to make the text worthy of her pictures.

What do you know now about writing that you wished you had known sooner?
When I started, I had no concept of where it would end up. At first, I thought it might even be just an extended poem. I simply started putting sentences together and researching volcanoes because my daughter loved stories about a little girl who lives on a volcano. Before I began, I think I assumed you write a story, edit it as you go, proofread it a couple times, and voila, you have your book.

But I found that while you must do all of that, you’re still only one-third of the way there. I was not done until I could read every page of the story without materially improving it. I don’t know how many books I will write. If this is the only one, it had better be the best book that I am capable of writing now.

What is some of the best writing advice that you’ve received or could give?
I very much enjoyed On Writing by Stephen King and Story by McKee. I wish I had read them both earlier. After reading each, I edited the work and found many more areas to improve. From King I learned to cut even further than I typically cut: the fewer the words the better! I also developed an absolute distaste for adverbs modifying verbs related to dialog (except when I do it anyway ). I also learned I had an unhealthy reliance on the em dash.

Story helped me find answers in my ending that allowed me to flesh out certain areas of the text and gave me some comfort in the overall structure of the work.

I have a lot more to learn about the craft, but one thing that helped me write Veronica is immersion in poetry. While writing Veronica, I read more poetry than I had ever read in my life up until that point. I was hoping some of it might rub off on my prose and some of the themes might work themselves into my characters. I read a lot of Rilke, Rumi, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, etc. Many of the poets I discovered on the podcast On Being by Krista Tippett.

Are there any other points about writing that you would like to add?
I wrote this book in bite-sized chapters that could be read by the child or read aloud by the parent at bedtime in less than fifteen minutes per chapter. Having been stuck many times reading 30+ pages of Harry Potter beginning at 9 pm, I wanted Veronica to easily fit into a bedtime routine.

What is the next book that will be coming out? Can you give me a short synopsis?
In Book 2 of Veronica, the extinct supervolcano Crater Lake will re-awaken, and it will be up to Veronica to save the town. 

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