Q&A: CJ Cooke, author of “The Lighthouse Witches”
Two sisters are missing on a remote Scottish island. Twenty years later, we find one, but it is still the same age as when it disappeared. The secrets of witches have spanned centuries in this spooky gothic thriller from the author of the famous Nesting.
We chat with author CJ Cooke about his latest book, The witches of the lighthouse, plus writing, book recommendations and more!
Hi, CJ! Can you tell our readers a bit about yourself?
I am a poet, novelist and publisher from Belfast, Northern Ireland. I have lived abroad for most of my adult life – Sydney, England, and now Glasgow, Scotland – but I still haven’t lost my accent… I work full time as an academic at the University of Glasgow and I convene our wonderful MLitt Creative Writing. I have four children aged 9-14, a dog named Ralph, and I’m currently learning to run for over 3 minutes, with the frankly hilarious goal of someday running a marathon. I love houseplants, the arctic, Scotland, rosé wine, and anything gothic and weird.
As the year gradually ends, how has your 2021 been?
He had ups and downs! I just finished writing the first draft of my 2022 novel, which is a wonderful feeling, and I also just received a big box of my author’s copies of The witches of the lighthouse, which is even better.
Quick flash tour! Tell us about the first book you remember reading, the one that made you want to be an author and that you can’t stop thinking about!
When I was about 4 or 5, my mom gave me an audiobook subscription for The narrator, which was a magazine and tape (remember that ?!) that you ordered from the grocery store. It was in 1982… I guess these are the first stories I remember reading, because they made a huge impression on me – in fact, I just found out that one of the folk tales that came to me. ‘has inspired The witches of the lighthouse was told in The narrator, which I find amazing. I really think those formative years – and especially the stories that impact you – will mark you for the rest of your life.
I have been writing since I was 7 years old, but I would say that the book that marked me the most is On writing by Stephen King. I read it in my early twenties and think it was the first time I felt my writing could be more than a secret love affair. I still teach King’s book to my students.
The book I keep thinking about is Lisa Jewel’s The family upstairs. It is an absolute and sublimely Gothic masterpiece, although it is presented as a detective story.
Your new novel, The witches of the lighthouse, released on October 5the 2021! If you could only describe it in five words, what would they be?
Witches, lighthouse, folklore, bones, changelings.
What can readers expect?
A gothic one-sitting play of fiction with the feel of a haunted Scotland graveyard on a hazy November evening, with something – or someone – moving in the corner of your eye, and a murder of crows that suddenly takes off.
Where does the inspiration for The witches of the lighthouse comes from?
I think it comes from various places – I thought a lot (and still think about) the difference between parenting a teenager and parenting a baby, and yet the speed at which a baby seems to grow into a teenager feels like a boost. So the story of Liv and her 15-year-old sapphire in the book grew out of that thinking. When we moved to Scotland in 2019 I heard about the Scottish Witch Trials. I’m very interested in the lives of women, and this slice of history is very concerned with what happened to women – and it also has huge relevance to the present moment. Gradually, this reflection took shape. Finally, I was invited to teach at the University of Iceland in 2019, and while I was there – and thinking a lot about the book and how I was going to incorporate all the different ideas that I had. – I came across 14e spell books of the century, which blew me away. As I delved deeper into the history of magic and its impact on women in particular, the story came out of the shadows.
Can you tell us about the challenges you encountered while writing and how you were able to overcome them?
Oh boy – there were a lot of challenges. This book took me almost 2 years to write, and I hated it most of the time. Really hated. I think I only really started to suspect that it might be okay once I saw the finished copies of the book… I struggled a lot with the different plots, as I was afraid of complicating it too much and changing it too much. kind. I honestly thought I missed the story. But I edited it inches from its life until I was happy with the way things turned out – which was literally an hour before I had to submit it to my editors!
Are there any favorite moments or characters that you really enjoyed writing about or exploring?
Although she plays a small role in the book, I loved writing Cassie. She has such courage and – without revealing too much – I would have liked her to attack Brodie …
I loved writing the lighthouse too. It is based at St Mary’s Lighthouse in Whitley Bay in the North East of England where I lived for almost 8 years. I spent many days there, walking in and around the field, trying to imagine what it would be like to paint it. I also loved writing about the little boredom that Liv and her daughters are staying in. I imagined it as a place both sad and comfortable, a stone’s throw from the wild seas. Would love to stay in such a place!
What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever received?
Great question. Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages” – in which she advises writers / everyone to handwrite for three minutes first thing in the morning – have proven to be transformative in my writing, as they have gradually pushed to hear and trust my own instincts.
The worst writing advice I hear is ‘show it, don’t tell’. It’s ridiculous. You have to say certain things to the reader. You just need to know when show and when to say, although this skill takes time and experience.
What’s the next step for you?
I’m about to publish my book 2022, which takes place in a mother-baby house in Scotland in the 1960s. And for 2023, ideas are starting to germinate, like the first ripples on the surface when the Kraken wakes up …
Finally, do you have any book recommendations for our readers?
Loved Catriona Ward’s The last house on Needless Street, by Camille Bruce You let me in, Cheri Jones’ How the penguin sister sweeps her house, Bernardine Evaristo Girl, Woman, Other, and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My sister, the serial killer.