I met Ellen Cooney through this wonderful thing called the Internet, and as often happens, I found that she and I shared two key things – a love for animals and a homesteading experience of sorts. Take a few minute to read about her book, her ideal writing space, and her best advice for writers.
It’s my ninth novel, The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances, with a pub date of August 5, 2014. The publisher is Houghton MIfflin Harcourt. It’s about a young woman coming out of a rehab program, feeling as if she just hatched herself from a big, gooey egg. She needed to find something to do and, impulsively, she signs up for a dog-training program at a very unusual animal sanctuary on the top of mountain. She actually knows nothing about animals. The dogs who become her students are all rescues from abusive situations—the dogs are major characters here.
2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?
They all played the single biggest, most important role. I was precocious with words as a little kid. I never became a writer; I just was one always. I taught myself to read as naturally as anything and read my first novel when I was tiny. It was Black Beauty. I was so awestruck, I was terrified of writing stories, for I felt I could never do anything that wonderful. I wrote my first poem when I was seven, and through my childhood and adolescence, I published lots of poems in little local places and had lots of my plays put on in my schools. I never read children’s books after Black Beauty and The Wizard of Oz books. I was lucky to have a natural ability with reading comprehension at a pretty high level early on. I read and read and read. The small, working-class town I grew up in had a great library with what I called “the wall of literature.” All the greats were there and so was I.
3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?
Everything starts for me with an instinct about a new thing to write, usually because something’s been bubbling below my surface and begins to come up. I get a sort of vague feeling that’s part idea and part feeling, then my practice is to start randomly writing sentences about any old thing that pops into my head, like I’m a pianist just playing around. I write every day. I don’t make outlines or even plan ahead except for wondering, “where am I going with this?” To answer I have to be sitting at the keyboard of my desktop. I delete tons of stuff until something starts taking hold. My routine is to work in the morning after I’m good and awake and I’ve walked my dogs. I tend to rewrite the morning work in the late afternoon. When I feel I’m more than halfway through the first draft of a novel, I just go with it. I am 62 and I’m probably too old to pull all-nighters. But sometimes I do.
4. Who are you reading now?
I always have a few anthologies going on, and since I’m preoccupied with promoting my new novel, short things are best for me. I’m reading, slowly, slowly, savoring every line, Collected Poems Of Muriel Rukeyser. Also, a collections of pieces from New Directions called Terrestrial Intelligence, W.S. Merwin’s recent book of poems The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, and the exquisitely crafted, unforgettable stories by Amy Hempel in her Collected Stories. My most recent novel was Wonderland by Stacey D’Erasmo, which I love and highly, highly recommend.
5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?
In no particular order, and I’m excluding Black Beauty regretfully: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, because I’d never read anything like it before and I feel it branded itself in my mind; Flush, the first thing by Virginia Woolf I ever read, at fifteen, which started me on a lifetime of examining and loving her work, including a master’s thesis and a collection of just about everything she wrote, and finally, James Joyce’s Dubliners, which I picked up in a used bookshop in my early twenties and was even more stricken with awe than I was with that first experience I had with reading fiction. I was on the verge then of realizing I am a fiction writer, not a poet or playwright, which is something I seem not to have had a choice about. The stories in Dubliners, especially “The Dead,” are giants to me. They are proof that there is a possibility of perfection in this world.
6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?
I don’t. Basically, I don’t have any balance with anything. I don’t really understand what a platform even is, but I suppose I have one, as I blog on Tumblr and have a website, and I’m on Facebook. I tried Twitter at the suggestion of a publicist and hated it. I don’t actually do any building. What I’m comfortable with is in place. My method of writing posts and things is, if I think of them as something it’s time again to do, I’ll do some. I also maintain pages on Goodreads and Amazon. I had thought I wouldn’t like the whole web thing, but I actually have a pretty good time having some internet presence.
7. What is a typical day like for you?
I live in rural-coastal Maine, having moved here nearly twenty years ago from a crowded, busy life in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I no longer teach, which I’d done a great deal of. There is no typical day for me! Basically, I write, I read, I do the chores I have to do—and when you live in the country, there are tons of chores—I run the errands I have to run, I hang out with and walk my dogs, and everything really depends on what stage I’m in with whatever I’m working on.
8. Describe your dream writing space?
Honestly, incredibly, I have it. I am in right now. My wife and I built our own home, as homesteaders. Well, she did the building and I moaned and groaned and cooked and kept going to the lumber yard and Lowe’s. She’s not “a builder” professionally; she’s in research science. It’s her hobby. We have a house that’s one of a kind because she designed it. My writing room is on the second floor of the part of our home that was once the original cabin, expanded now to be part of a larger structure. Most of our home is open-space, but my room has walls and a door and two windows that look out on trees, trees, trees. Sometimes I cannot believe this. On the other hand, we worked incredibly hard, and during the building process I was miserable enough to last forever.
9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?
It wasn’t a “critique.” I’ve never receiving one I found hard, as I feel that my work is going to get all sorts of comments. Everything I’ve written has received a wide range of responses, literally from, for the same piece, “this is awful,” to “this really, really works.” I’m used to being given love and hate for, say, the same chapter. But the one thing that made me crazy was a newspaper critic who claimed, without proof, that in one of my earlier novels I had copied something from another writer—a writer I’d never read. When I looked up that writer and found the thing I was accused of stealing, I was shocked to see there was no similarity whatsoever. How did I respond? I didn’t. Oh, I composed some dozen letters of push-back over a period of about a week. but then I deleted them all. I’m very glad I did.
Be who you are. Never write anything to please someone else. Never make changes to a manuscript to satisfy someone else; make changes to a manuscript only if you know in your mind and your guts that the revisions suggested by another person truly make your work better, and make you a better writer.