Self-described “late bloomer” Claire Cook pens a lively read, perfect for a summer afternoon. By Judy Fogarty.
Exuberant and easy to know, Claire Cook believes that the lives of seemingly ordinary women are complex, richly layered and deserve to be chronicled. By the number of books she’s sold, her readers agree. They claim a first-chapter or even a first-page connection with her genuine, deftly drawn characters.
In her slice-of-life fiction—replete with mid-life insecurities, unrealized dreams and dysfunctional families buoyed by rich friendships—readers see themselves in the characters’ lives. Clair’s poignancy and sassy humor resonate with readers; her theme of reinvention, uplifts and inspires.
Reinvention is a recurring theme, as clearly present in her pages as in her life, as much a part of her fiction as of her personal experience. Claire had always known she wanted to be a writer, but what this wife, mother and successful teacher also came to know in a life-changing midlife moment was that she didn’t want to be someone who had never even tried.
Her first novel, finally undertaken at 45, was the springboard to 10 more, including Must Love Dogs, which was made into a feature film starring Diane Lane and John Cusack.
Her latest Touchstone release, Time Flies, follows Melanie to her high school reunion—after her husband has left her for a newer model. Released just in time for summer, it’s the perfect companion for an afternoon under a beach umbrella with sand between your toes.
When she was here in February for the Savannah Book Festival, Claire sat down with us to talk about her late-blooming life in letters.
Savannah magazine: According to your website, you began your first novel “after a lifetime of fear and procrastination and sixteen years as a teacher.” What did you fear? And what motivated you at 45 to finally undertake what you’d always wanted to do?
Claire Cook: Fear of failure? Fear of success? Fear that I wasn’t really a writer after all? Maybe all of the above? I’d been writing since I was a little girl. I majored in film and creative writing in college, and fully expected that the day after graduation, I would go into labor and a brilliant novel would emerge, fully formed, like giving birth. It didn’t happen. I guess I knew how to write, but not what to write. Looking back, I can see that I had to live my life so I’d have something to write about, and if I could give my younger self some good advice, it would be not to beat myself up for the next couple of decades. Years later, when forty-five was just around the corner and I was sitting in my minivan outside my daughter’s swim practice at 5 a.m., it hit me with all the force of midlife, that I might live my whole life without ever once going after my dream of writing a novel. So, for the next six months I wrote a rough draft in the pool parking lot, and it sold to the first publisher who asked to read it.
SM: What were your honest expectations for Ready to Fall and your writing career? How do they compare to the success you’re enjoying today?
Claire: I had no expectations. I was teaching at one school, consulting for two others, driving my daughter to swim practice and my son to karate, wondering if we all had clean socks and underwear for the next day. Somehow I’d managed to write a novel, and I was thrilled that someone actually wanted to publish it. I didn’t have time to think much beyond that. Even now, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about success or trying to define it. Publishing is a crazy roller coaster of a business, and I just put on my blinders and write the best book I can possibly write each time, and hope my readers will like it and spread the word. It’s really the only part you can control.
SM: You’re consistently praised for characters who are ‘impossible not to love’ (Publishers Weekly). What attributes do you feel your characters share that make readers so immediately and naturally invested in them?
Claire: The comment I hear most often from readers is “OMG, you’re writing my life!” I write about real women—with dreams, insecurities and dysfunctional families—who are trying to figure out what’s next for them.
SM: Does characterization come easily to you? What do see as your natural gifts as a writer and which parts of the process do you find challenging?
Claire: I’m fascinated by people, so my novels are character-driven, and coming up with the characters is absolutely my favorite part. It’s like playing house—I get to create an entire world and then tell everybody what to do. I love writing dialogue, too – once I have the characters, I know what they would or wouldn’t say. I have to work harder at plot and setting, which might be another reason my books are character-driven!
SM: Readers can always expect humor in a Claire Cook novel. What else do you always want to deliver?
Claire: Reinvention is the story of my life, so I think it just naturally finds its way into my books, and I think it’s the common thread. The characters in my novels are all looking for their own next chapters, and often there’s an entrepreneurial twist. Downsizing and home staging in Best Staged Plans, travel and cultural coaching and cooking in Seven Year Switch, buyouts and lavender and clotheslines in The Wildwater Walking Club, makeup in Summer Blowout, sea glass jewelry in Life’s a Beach. The heroine in my last novel, Wallflower in Bloom, is a social media maven, and the heroine in my new novel, Time Flies, is a metal sculptor. I try to choose things I think my readers will be interested in. And again, there’s nothing rarefied about the lives of the women in my novels. They’re trying to find creative ways to survive during these swiftly changing, crazy times, just like the rest of us!
SM: Were you pleased with the adaptation of your novel Must Love Dogs to film? Did you feel it was true to the heart of the book and your characters? Were you involved in the film in any way?
Claire Cook: I had an amazing experience with the Must Love Dogs movie. Gary David Goldberg, who created Spin City and Family Ties, included me every step of the way. I spent a lot of time on the set, and all the actors and producers were so kind to me. They even gave me my own director’s chair with my name on it! I walked the red carpet at the Hollywood premiere and did 35 interviews, including Extra and Access Hollywood. It was the year I turned 50—what a way to celebrate! That movie still plays all the time on TV, and has helped so many new readers discover my novels, which is the biggest gift of all. The movie is more of an unabashedly romantic comedy, and the book is smaller and quirkier, but I think they both have the same spirit, and if you enjoyed one, you’d like the other.
SM: Can you envision yourself attempting a genre other than slice-of-life women’s fiction? Why or why not? And if so, what might it be?
Claire: I don’t think about genre at all. I just write the books that are in my heart, which are the books I’d want to read and that I think my readers would want to read.
SM: What encouragement would you offer aspiring writers or anyone wanting to undertake something they’ve always wanted to try?
Claire: First of all, I’d tell them to read my books, and to visit the Writing and Reinvention pages at ClaireCook.com, where I share everything I’ve learned. Beyond that, these are my top five pieces of reinvention advice: Rise above the negativity. Whatever the motive, lots of people will tell you why you can’t or shouldn’t do whatever it is you want to do. You just have to decide to do it anyway.
You might want to protect yourself a bit in the beginning, too. I didn’t tell anyone about my first novel until it was finished. You don’t need anyone’s permission – just do it!
Be who you really are. The big buzzword these days is branding, but I think of it as authenticity. This is the first job I’ve ever had where I wasn’t pretending, or at least trying to pretend, to be a slightly different person. Who I am and what I write are totally in sync. There’s tremendous power in that!
Confound expectations. If everybody’s doing it, it’s already been done. Put a little surprise in everything you do. Originality counts! Do something nice for someone. It’s easy to get needy when you’re struggling to figure out what’s next, but many of the great things that have happened to me (including a Today Show feature!) were triggered by something nice I did for someone else. People talk; your actions determine what they say. As one of my characters once said, karma is a boomerang.
Get your tech together. Everything you need to know about the world you want to conquer can be found online. Get your computer skills up to speed – fast! Take a class or find a computer mentor. Research. Network. Create an online presence on Facebook and Twitter. The Internet is a great equalizer, and there are so many opportunities out there just waiting for you to take advantage of them!
SM: If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be and what would you want to know?
Claire Cook: Maybe George Eliot, since her “It’s never too late to be what you might have been” is one of my favorite quotes. It’s not so much that I’d like to know anything specifically, I think I’d just like to buy her a glass of wine!
SM: To borrow from Bernard Pivot’s famous questionnaire: What is your favorite word?