A Conversation with 'These Dividing Walls' Author Fran Cooper
Fran Cooper grew up in London before reading English at Cambridge and Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She spent three years living in Paris, and is now based in London with her fiancé and their three-legged cat. Having heard her discuss her first novel, These Dividing Walls, at a recent reading, I'm so inspired by her curiosity, tenacity and the interesting life she's lived so far. Here, we discuss juggling writing a book with a full-time job, the importance of mentorship and more.
Many people feel that writing a book with a day job is a near-impossible feat. What advice can you give anyone struggling with exactly that? How was it for you, and what did the experience of writing your book with limited time teach you along the way?
Well, full disclosure, when I wrote These Dividing Walls I was studying, not working full-time, so I had it much easier than many people. I'm in the process of editing my second book now, which I have written while working, and it was hard!
It's hard to turn on creativity just because it's Saturday and you're not in the office and it's the only time you have. But my number one bit of advice to anyone trying it is "little and often". At the beginning, I'd despair at how slow my progress was - a finished manuscript felt so far away! But if you do a little every week, it adds up and suddenly you find yourself with something almost book-length.
And don't pressure yourself into never going out, or never seeing friends, or working every evening. There are times when you'll be too tired to write or you just need to go out and enjoy yourself, and in my experience the writing is better for it when you do get to your desk again.
You recently shared the importance of a mentor when it came to writing your book. Can you share a little about that experience, and how the mentorship programme worked?
Absolutely. I was really lucky to be accepted onto The Womentoring Project (you can find them on Twitter) when it started in 2014. I applied to work with Lisa O'Donnell and she was just wonderful. She'd published two books by then and was working on a third, and it was transformative for me to have the advice of someone who actually knew how it all worked.
With the best will in the world, advice from people who don't know about agents, publishers, synopses, pitches etc isn't always that useful. Lisa read my work. She encouraged me to take a leap of faith and start writing a novel rather than just short stories. And she explained to me how submitting works:
In brief, write a novel; edit it until you're pretty happy; research an agent WHOSE TASTE MATCHES YOUR WORK; follow their submission guidelines, and don't sound insane in your cover letter).
These Dividing Walls is described as "successfully walking the fine line between meticulous storytelling and a politically relevant message". How did you find a wonderful balance between the two?
Wow, that's a lovely description. I didn't actually start out to write a "politically relevant" novel at all! But I was living in Paris, and I wanted to show a different side of the city than the clichés we're all so familiar with. I wanted to write something that felt real to me - that was true to the place I was living in. A lot of the protests and political elements in the book are things I really came across - I was quite surprised at the end to stand back and see how political it had become.
The best advice I can give is to write something that you care about. You spend a lot of time with your book and your characters, and it must be very hard if you're writing about people and things that don't make you feel very much.
Feel as much as possible. If you feel something, it seems to me that other people might too.
How did your own relationship with the city of Paris evolve and change through writing These Dividing Walls?
When I started These Dividing Walls I was still living in Paris so it was easy to just absorb everything that I saw around me. We moved to London in 2015, and much of the book was written in London that summer. I tried not to be too nostalgic about the city, not to fall into the trap of only making it beautiful. It is beautiful, of course it is, but it's complex too, and difficult and riven with many of the same problems we find everywhere today. So I tried to remember all those things, to keep true to that version of the city. It's been so nice to hear from readers who know Paris and who feel the book's captured some of that complexity.
These Dividing Walls explores the intriguing idea that, in modern life, we live in such close proximity to others without ever getting to know them. Out of curiosity, has the book inspired you to get to know your neighbours better?
Haha, erm, not entirely. We have some very nice upstairs neighbours in London, but it's such a busy city, everyone's hustling, and it's not always easy to strike up a friendship with the people who see you taking the rubbish out in your pyjamas! We are good friends with the people who live next door, though!
Lastly, what is some of the best writing advice you've been given? And what is the best writing advice you, as a published author now, can give? :)
The best writing advice in some ways is the most obvious. Just write. Just get on and do it, and stick with it, and you do get there, eventually you get there.
The best advice I can give about publishing are two bits of advice that were given to me: 1) don't sound insane in your cover letter (I know I've said that already, but you do hear about some humdingers. Agents are people too! And they're much more likely to read your work if you sound nice and normal!) and 2) don't submit to agents until you've finished your manuscript and you've done as much as you can with it.
If someone replies saying they love the first five chapters and want to read the rest, you don't want to leave them hanging six months while you actually finish the thing!