February 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Prolific YA Author Eileen Cook Opens Up About “With Malice”

Cook_EileenThe SLJTeen Live panelist chats with SLJ about what inspires her as an author and her latest thriller, With Malice (HMH, 2016). When 18-year-old Jill Charron wakes up in a hospital room recovering from a broken leg and a traumatic brain injury, she has no memory of how she got there. She doesn’t remember anything about her study abroad trip to Italy six weeks ago with her best friend Simone. Bombarded by accusations from the media about what happened in the car crash that killed Simone, the teen tries to piece together what really occurred and how she was involved.

You are such a prolific author—from middle grade to YA and from romances to thrillers. Where do you get your inspirations from? What inspired you to write With Malice?

I often have no clue where an idea for a book begins. Ideas pop into my head, a snippet of overheard conversation, something in the news, a discussion with a friend, an old photograph—you name it—they show up and slowly begin to morph into their own thing. I believe there are millions of ideas out there all the time. The trick is to pause long enough to hear them.

It took me a long time to become more patient with ideas. I used to get them and then run to my computer to start writing as if I was afraid they would get away from me. Now I slow down, turn the idea over in my head, ask a lot of “what if” questions. What would make this situation worse? What if this character didn’t know X or Y? What if this new thing suddenly happened? If I give ideas a bit of a chance to grow, they evolve into much more interesting concepts.

There were a few things that came together to form With Malice. I’m fascinated with long-term friendships and how they survive and evolve, or don’t. I’d also worked for years as a counselor assisting with people with injuries and illnesses. I had done a lot of work with individuals with brain injury and taking the opportunity to explore identity and relationships when you can’t trust your own memory was exciting.

I’d done a semester abroad while in college. It was an amazing experience, but there is something very disorienting about being so far away from home and your own culture. I felt it would give Jill an extra push to explore her friendship if they were out of their current element. I was planning a trip to Italy, so I decided to set a part of the book there. As I prepared for the trip I started to read more about the Amanda Knox trial, and that motivated me to add the pressure coming from the media—where everyone else is deciding your guilt or innocence based on very little information. I wanted to see if I could re-create that sensation of where you don’t know what you should believe.

Thrillers have long been YA lit staples, with the recently deceased Lois Duncan as queen. What is it about that genre that gets teens reading, and why do you return to it again and again?

I loved Lois Duncan’s books. Down a Dark Hall was one of my favorites, and if people haven’t read it, it’s well worth a read. Thrillers, and mysteries in general, let readers participate along with the main character in trying to figure out what is really happening. I believe there are a few reasons teens enjoy them. Teens are used to reading subtext. Parents often don’t tell teens the full truth because they worry about how they’ll cope with something. People at school can have their own agenda. Teens are brilliant at sorting through what they hear and balancing it against what else they know. Also they love drama and high stakes, and thrillers deliver plots that keep them turning pages.

I enjoy writing them for the simple reason that I love reading them. Having a chance to write in the same genre of some of my favorite writers is really fun.

with maliceThere were many twists and turns in With Malice, and Jill from the get-go is an unreliable narrator. How did you keep track of the all the threads without giving away too much of the ending?

I would like to say this was easy, but the truth was that there were plenty of times that I wrote myself into a corner. There were a few occasions where I would flop dramatically across the sofa and wail: “There’s no way to fix this book!” Then I would pull myself together and tackle it again. I kept careful notes of what happened in the book, who knew what, when they knew it, and if they were being honest about what they knew.

This book was a great example of how important rewriting can be. The first couple of drafts of this book were more simple and as a result less satisfying. One thing I really enjoyed about Jill is that while she is unreliable, she isn’t doing it on purpose—she honestly doesn’t remember what’s happened. She is trying to figure out, along with readers, what she’s really capable of doing. At the end she has to make a decision (and so do readers) as to what really occurred in Italy. There are no easy answers, but I liked that.

What is your writing process like? Do you outline every chapter before you begin? Do you always know the ending of the story before you start?

The very first book, I made up as I went along, but I found that process frustrating. I slowly started to outline more before writing, but what I find interesting is that while outlining works for me, I know a lot of writers who find it stifles their creativity. Now I usually spend two to three months in the start-up phase of a book. I research various things, work on an outline, write diary entries from various characters to get in their head, and generally drive people around me crazy as I try and figure out the story.

The truth is that writing a book is never easy. You either spend a lot of time in the outlining stage trying to get the story right or you write a draft and then have to spend the same amount of time fixing all the wrong directions that you chose. In either case, the truth is you will also likely need to do at least a couple drafts before you’re done. There is no secret [formula]—other than figuring out what works for you and what doesn’t.

In terms of process, I usually get up early and walk the dogs before settling in with a cup of tea and getting to work. I’m not creative before 8 a.m. or after 10 p.m. I usually have three or four hours of writing/creative time before my brain gives up. I spend the rest of my day doing more business things, marketing, teaching, research, etc. Also looking at random things on the Internet, yelling at my dogs to stop digging in the yard, and drinking endless cups of tea.

What advice would you give aspiring authors?

The most basic advice is to read and write a lot. Books are great teachers, so give yourself permission to read as many as you can. Also keep writing. You get better the more you do it. It can be discouraging at first because the idea in your head is perfect and shiny and wonderful and your first draft is not. The secret is to push through that process.

My practical advice on learning story structure is to pick a book you like. For each chapter, take an index card and write down: who is in the chapter, where it takes place, when it takes place, and then a bullet point list of the key things that happen. Then when you have a nice stack of cards, highlight things that go together—for example maybe various subplots or character names. Then you can lay them out in a line on the dining room and see how the story was built and consider how it could have been done differently. I did this several times, and it helped me understand how stories came together. When I then did the index cards for my own books I could see gaps—places where subplots got dropped [or] characters disappeared for too long or chapters that had no real purpose.

What are you working on next?

If I’m honest, I am the happiest when I have a book project underway. During the periods when I’m not writing I feel a bit adrift and purposeless. I love the day-to-day process of trying to get an idea from my head onto the page and seeing how it evolves and changes.

My current book involves a young woman who gives fake psychic readings for money. This has given me an excuse to do a whole bunch of random research, [and] I’m getting to be pretty good at reading Tarot cards. I can’t tell you too much about the book at this point, but it involves a missing girl and a bunch of lies that cause more trouble than the main character ever imagined possible.

Eileen Cook will take part in the “Thrills & Chills” panel on August 10, 2016, during SLJ‘s fifth annual SLJ Teen Live! (formerly SummerTeen), an online conference highlighting the biggest upcoming YA books and important issues impacting your teen materials and programming. You’ll hear directly from authors and innovative librarians in an engaging, conversational format, with live Q&A with the audience.





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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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