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Interview: Claire Cook, Author of Seven Year Switch

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The talented and delightful Claire Cook, author of seven novels, graces readers with her newest release, Seven Year Switch! Other works by Ms. Cook include: Must Love Dogs, which was adapted into a Warner Bros. movie starring Diane Lane and John Cusack, The Wildwater Walking Club and Life’s a Beach. Ms. Cook’s books have been featured on Good Morning America and in People, Good Housekeeping, Redbook as well as many other places.

When not writing, Clare Cook is surrounded by the love of family, including two kids, seven brothers and sisters, and one husband, all while residing in Scituate, MA.

First of all, could you tell us a bit about Seven Year Switch? What is the story about, who are the characters, etc.

Just when Jill Murray has figured out how to make it on her own, her ex-husband proves he can’t even run away reliably. After seven long years missing in action, he’s back – crashing into the man-free existence Jill and her ten-year-old daughter Anastasia have built so carefully. They say that every seven years you become a completely new person, and Seven Year Switch is the story of a woman making the leap to the next chapter of her life.

What do you want readers to take away from reading Seven Year Switch?

I hope they’ll feel like they’ve gone on a great vacation without having to leave the comfort of home. And I hope the book will give them hope and inspiration for their own reinventions, as well as a few good laughs!

What was the most fun about writing Seven Year Switch?

I got to take a research trip to Costa Rica for the scenes set there. Tough work but somebody’s gotta do it!

What was the hardest part about writing Seven Year Switch?

The world is such a fun, fascinating place that every day it presents you with lots of reasons not to write your day’s pages. You have to do it anyway, and that’s the challenge.

What kind of research did you do for Seven Year Switch?

Besides the trip to Costa Rica, I also spoke to lots of single moms.

Could you please tell us about your writing process?

When I’m writing a novel, I write two pages a day, seven days a week. When I wake up, I pour a cup of coffee and get right to work.

Robert Frost said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” I have no idea if it’s true, but it works for me! I don’t outline, because it would make it feel like a term paper. I just jump in and figure things out along the way. I have to say that the parts I didn’t plan often turn out to be the best parts of my books, so I’m glad I allow myself to stay open to these surprises.

Do you ever put yourself within your characters?

I think all of my characters contain little bits of me, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to write them convincingly. That being said, none of my characters are autobiographical. The great part of writing fiction is you get to make things up for a living!

Do you have any particular habits that you take part in while writing? By that I mean certain music you like to listen to, foods you like to eat, environment that helps you write better, etc.

I wrote my first book in a minivan, so I think when you’re ready, you can do it anywhere and under any conditions. You have the power, not a special pen or music or bathrobe or office chair. JUST DO IT!

Where do you get your ideas and inspirations?

Ideas are everywhere, so that’s not the hard part for me. I’m fascinated by people, and I’m a huge eavesdropper. If you ever see me at a restaurant, I’m absolutely listening to the conversation at your table.

How did you decide you wanted to be a writer? Were there any authors or books that made you think “Wow, that’s what I want to do – craft stories of my own for others to read”?

I’ve known I was a writer since I was three. My mother entered me in a contest to name the Fizzies whale, and I won in my age group. It’s quite possible that mine was the only entry in my age group, since “Cutie Fizz” was enough to win my family a six-month supply of Fizzies tablets (root beer was the best flavor) and a half dozen turquoise plastic mugs with removable handles.

At six I had my first story on the Little People’s Page in the Sunday paper (about Hot Dog, the family dachshund, even though we had a beagle at the time — the first clue that I’d be a novelist and not a journalist) and at sixteen I had my first front page feature in the local weekly. 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.

What make you take that leap from “wanting” to be a writer, as opposed to “becoming” a writer? Many talk of being a writer and dip their toes in, but it seems there is often a sort of “push” to bring one over that wall.

For me it was a midlife wake-up call. I remember sitting outside my daughter’s swim practice and it hit me like a ton of bricks that I might live my whole life without once going after my lifelong dream of writing a novel.

How do you come up with the names of your characters? It almost seems as though, as an author, you have the continuous fun of naming children!

So true! I think there’s a temptation to get a little bit too creative though, so in my novels, because I write about average people, it’s really important that the names don’t call attention to themselves. And I also think you should never give an ex-boyfriend the satisfaction of naming the love interest after him! Beyond that, I spend a lot of time online at baby name websites!

Were you an avid reader as a child? If so, what were some of your favorite books?

I think you have to be an avid, joyful reader if you’re going to be a good writer. Reading is what teaches you how to write; it’s as if a template forms in some mysterious part of your brain. Nancy Drew mysteries taught me the most – especially how to write chapters that end in a way that the reader won’t be able to put the book down!

If you had to summarize your life and give it a book title, what would that title be?

Better Late Than Never

What are you working on right now? Could you give us a taste/teaser (aka excerpt) from your current WIP?

I’m just finishing a draft of my eighth novel, which Hyperion Voice will publish in summer 2011. It’s about a New England woman who’s a professional home stager at the empty next stage of her own life. She takes a staging job in Atlanta, thinking she can spend time with her newly married daughter, but the daughter takes off and leaves her with her Southern son-in-law.

What are you reading right now?

I am under such a tight deadline for my next novel, that the only thing I’m reading are my own pages. Once I head off on book tour, I’ll start reading everything I can get my hands on!

Who are some of your favorite authors?

The ones who’ve been nice to me!

If you could have lunch and chat with any author, dead or alive, who would it be and why?

I’ve met tons of interesting writers over the years, but I don’t think they’re any more interesting than the readers I’ve met!

What do you hope to accomplish within the next five years?

My first book came out ten years ago, and I’ve been working nonstop since. I would like to think sometime in the next five years I’ll get a nap in.

Is there anything that you would like to add? That you would like readers to know about you or your writing?

Thanks so much for reading my books and telling your friends! I have the most incredible readers, and I’m so grateful for their support. It has truly made all the difference in my career.

Where can readers get in touch with you? Twitter, Blog, Facebook, etc?

The first stop is my website, where readers can visit my blog and find out where I’ll be on book tour. And please friend me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter.

Do you have a favorite excerpt from Seven Year Switch? Could you share that with us, please?

Chapter One

I sailed into the community center just in time to take my Lunch Around the World class to China. I hated to be late, but my daughter Anastasia had forgotten part of her school project.

“Oh, honey,” I’d said when she called from the school office. “Can’t it wait until tomorrow? I’m just leaving for work.” I tried not to wallow in it, but sometimes the logistics of being a single mom were pretty exhausting.

“Mom,” she whispered, “it’s a diorama of a cow’s habitat, and I forgot the cow.”

I remembered seeing the small plastic cow grazing next to Anastasia’s cereal bowl at breakfast, but how it had meandered into the dishwasher was anyone’s guess. I gave it a quick rinse under the faucet and let it air dry on the ride to school. From there I high-tailed it to the community center.

Though it wasn’t the most challenging part of my work week, this Monday noon to two o’clock class got me home before my daughter, which in the dictionary of my life, made it the best kind of gig. Sometimes I even had time for a cup of tea before her school bus came rolling down the street. Who knew a cup of tea could be the most decadent part of your day.

I plopped my supplies on the kitchen counter and jumped right in “In Chinese cooking, it’s important to balance colors as well as contrasts in tastes and textures.”

“Take a deep breath, honey,” one of my favorite students said. Her name was Ethel and she had bright orange lips and I Love Lucy hair. “We’re not going anywhere.”

A man with white hair and matching eyebrows started singing “On a Slow Boat to China.” A couple of the women giggled. I took that deep breath.

“Yum cha is one of the best ways to experience this,” I continued. “Literally yum cha means “drinking tea,” but it actually encompasses both the tea drinking and the eating of dim sum, a wide range of light dishes served in small portions.”

“Yum-yum,” a man named Tom said. His thick glasses were smudged with fingerprints, and he was wearing a T-shirt that said Tune in Tomorrow for a Different Shirt.

“Let’s hope,” I said. “In any case, dim sum has many translations: ‘small eats,’ of course, but also ‘heart’s delight,’ ‘to touch your heart,’ and even ‘small piece of heart.’ I’ve often wondered if Janis Joplin decided to sing the song she made famous after a dim sum experience.”

Last night when I was planning my lesson, this had seemed like a brilliant and totally original cross-cultural connection, but everybody just nodded politely.

We made dumplings and pot stickers and mini spring rolls, and then we moved on to fortune cookies. Custard tarts or even mango pudding would have been more culturally accurate, but fortune cookies were always a crowd pleaser. I explained that the crispy, sage-laced cookies had actually been invented in San Francisco, and tried to justify my choice by adding that the original inspiration for fortune cookies possibly dated back to the thirteenth century, when Chinese soldiers slipped rice paper messages into mooncakes to help coordinate their defense against Mongolian invaders.

Last night Anastasia had helped me cut small strips of white paper to write the fortunes on. And because the cookies had to be wrapped around the paper as soon as they came out of the oven while they were still pliable, I’d bought packages of white cotton gloves at CVS and handed out one to each person. The single gloves kept the students’ hands from burning and were less awkward than potholders would have been.

They also made the class look like aging Michael Jackson impersonators. A couple of the women started to sing “Beat It” while they stirred the batter, and then everybody else joined in. There wasn’t a decent singer in the group, but some of them could still remember how to moonwalk.

After we finished packing up some to take home, we’d each placed one of our cookies in a big bamboo salad bowl. There’d been more giggling as we passed the bowl around the long, wobbly wooden table and took turns choosing a cookie and reading the fortune, written by an anonymous classmate, out loud.

“The time is right to make new friends.”

“A great adventure is in your near future.”

“A tall dark-haired man will come into your life.”

“You will step on the soil of many countries, so don’t forget to pack clean socks.”

“The one you love is closer than you think,” Ethel read. Her black velour sweat suit was dusted with flour.

“Oo-ooh,” the two friends taking the class with her said. One of them elbowed her.

The fortune cookies were a hit. So what if my students seemed more interested in the food than its cultural origins. I wondered if they’d still have signed up if I’d shortened the name of the class from Lunch Around the World to just plain Lunch. My class had been growing all session, and not a single person had asked for a refund. In this economy, everybody was cutting everything, and even community center classes weren’t immune. The best way to stay off the chopping block was to keep your classes full and your students happy.

I reached over and picked up the final fortune cookie, then looked at my watch. “Oops,” I said. “Looks like we’re out of time.” I stood and smiled at the group. “Okay, everybody, that’s it for today.” I nodded at the takeout cartons I’d talked the guy at the Imperial Dragon into donating to the cause. “Don’t forget your cookies, and remember, next week we’ll be lunching in Mexico.” I took care to pronounce it Mehico.

“Tacos?” T-shirt Tom asked.

“You’ll have to wait and see-eee,” I said, mostly because I hadn’t begun to think about next week. Surviving this one was enough of a challenge.

“Not even a hint?” a woman named Donna said.

I shook my head and smiled some more.

They took their time saying thanks and see you next week, as they grabbed their takeout boxes by the metal handles and headed out the door. A few even offered to help me pack up, but I said I was all set. It was faster to do it myself.

As I gave the counters a final scrub, I reviewed today’s class in my head. Overall, I thought it had gone well, but I still didn’t understand why the Janis Joplin reference had fallen flat.

I put the sponge down, picked up a wooden spoon, and got ready to belt out “Piece of My Heart.”

When I opened my mouth, a chill danced the full length of my spine. I looked up. A man was standing just outside the doorway. He had dark, wavy hair cascading almost to his shoulders and pale, freckled skin. He was tall and a little too thin. His long fingers gripped the doorframe, as if a strong wind might blow him back down the hallway.

He was wearing faded jeans and the deep green embroidered Guatemalan shirt I’d given my husband just before he abandoned us seven years ago.

No. Way.

Excerpted from Seven Year Switch by Claire Cook.
Copyright © 2010 CLAIRE COOK. All rights reserved.
Published by VOICE, an imprint of Hyperion.

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About April Pohren

  • Thanks so much for the interview, Blog Critics!


    Go to my site to win a beach bag filled with all 7 of my novels, plus a beach towel!

  • Hi Claire! Your answers were wonderful! What a great contest!! I am going to jump over and check it out!!