Michelle Cooper Answers Ten Terrifying Questions

by |August 6, 2010

The Booktopia Book Guru Asks

Michelle Cooper

author of

The Montmaray Journals and The Rage of Sheep

Ten Terrifying Questions


1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?

Born in Sydney, raised in Fiji and various country towns in New South Wales. I attended far too many schools, ranging from a single-roomed schoolhouse in a gold-mining town, to a Catholic high school where girls were a recent and unwelcome addition. I was very glad to finish with school. University was much more interesting.

2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?

When I was twelve, I wanted to be a vet. When I was eighteen, I wanted to be a grown-up. Ideally, a glamorous, fascinating and knowledgeable grown-up (I’m still waiting for this to happen). When I was thirty, I finally decided to take writing seriously and put everything else aside so I could concentrate on writing a novel.

3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?

I used to believe in God. Now, I don’t.

4. What were three works of art – book, painting, piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?

I read Rumer Godden’s Miss Happiness and Miss Flower when I was seven and I loved it so much, I wanted to jump inside the book and become best friends with the main character. I think it was the first time I understood that books were actually written by human beings, rather than simply popping into existence by themselves, like flowers. That’s when I first started to think about becoming a writer.

Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant was a later inspiration. She writes with such skill and compassion that even her villains seem sad and real, people you sympathise with and want to understand, even as you’re horrified by their behaviour. This novel taught me a lot about creating well-rounded, believable characters.

There were a whole lot of other books that shaped my writing life, including some very badly written books. I figured that if they could get published, and my writing was better than that, then surely I had a chance.

5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?

Ha! I have no other artistic avenues open to me. I can’t sing, I lack the motor co-ordination to play an instrument or dance, and I have no talent for drawing or painting or photography. Writing is the only thing I can do.

6. Please tell us about your latest novel…

The FitzOsbornes in Exile is the second book in The Montmaray Journals trilogy, which is set in 1930s Europe. The first book, A Brief History of Montmaray, recounted the coming of age of Sophie FitzOsborne, an impoverished princess whose island kingdom of Montmaray was threatened by Nazi Germany. In The FitzOsbornes in Exile, Sophie’s family struggle to regain what they lost at the end of the first book. There’s lots of political intrigue and international diplomacy, a Crazed Assassin, stately English houses, a bit of romance, some ferocious Girl Guides and a pig called Estella. Also, Sophie gets to wear some fabulous ballgowns in this book.

7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?

I hope they’ll get lost in the story for a few hours, and enjoy spending time with the characters, that they’ll giggle at the jokes and get a bit teary in the sad parts. They might also learn some interesting facts about European politics in the late 1930s. I also hope they’ll want to read the next book in the series.

8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?

Ooh, so many writers! Anne Tyler, obviously, because she is such a brilliant novelist, as well as Margaret Atwood, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Mary Renault and Jane Smiley. J. K. Rowling, who battled depressing circumstances to achieve publication, and then introduced the joy of reading to so many children. And investigative journalists, from Jessica Mitford to Paul McGeough, for their careful, often dangerous, work gathering important facts, and then for presenting this information so lucidly.

9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?

I’m not all that ambitious. I’m thrilled any time I walk into a bookshop and find a copy of one of my novels, even when it’s squashed on the bottom shelf up the back of the shop, hidden behind a pile of Twilight paperbacks, so you can see that I’m easily satisfied. When I’m writing a book, I just hope I’ll manage to finish it. I do try to get all the historical details correct, to make the characters as real and engaging as possible, to move the story along smoothly and have all the sub-plots link together into some sort of coherent whole – but I’m so full of self-doubt and anxiety that I never think I’ll actually achieve any of these goals.

10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?

Read eagerly and widely, including books you don’t think you’ll enjoy. Maybe you’ll discover you actually do like science fiction, or historical romances, or children’s books. At the very least, you’ll be able to work out what not to do in your own writing. Try to figure out how your favourite writers manage to do what they do so successfully, then attempt to do this yourself.

Write as much as you can, and don’t worry if your writing isn’t perfect. It’s never going to be as wonderful as the story you initially imagined, but your seventeenth draft will be a lot better than your first draft. Don’t show it to other people until you’re satisfied it’s as good as you can possibly make it. Don’t listen to your readers’ editorial advice unless they actually know what they’re talking about. Don’t stress too much about being published by a certain age, and don’t think that being published will suddenly make writing easy for you (in my experience, publishers’ expectations and deadlines just make writing more difficult). Be persistent and stubborn, but don’t forget what a pleasure writing can be. Above all, don’t pay too much attention to tips for aspiring writers. Every writer is unique – you’ll figure it out for yourself.

Michelle, thank you for playing.

Thank you, Booktopia Book Guru!

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

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