One True Thing

Life's questions, big and small

Author Claire Cook: The Master of Midlife Reinvention

Is your stuff weighing down your dreams?

Best Staged Plans is a great summer beach read that tackles the familiar themes of taking chances and pursuing live-long dreams. Here's more from author Claire Cook:

Jennifer Haupt: How have you reinvented yourself as a writer through the years to stay fresh?

Claire Cook: Reinvention is the story of my life, so I think it just naturally found its way into my novels. After a lifetime of fear and procrastination, and sixteen years as a teacher, I finally wrote my first novel when I was 45. At 50 I walked the red carpet at the Hollywood premiere of the adaptation of my second novel, Must Love Dogs, starring Diane Lane and John Cusack. I hear from so many readers, via my website and Facebook and Twitter, who are searching for what's next for them, and it feels so great to be able to honestly say, through my own life and the lives of my characters, hang in there -- midlife rocks!

Every novel is a completely new adventure, a chance to live a new life vicariously. 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, single motherhood and travel in Seven Year Switch, friendship and lavender and clotheslines in The Wildwater Walking Club, divorce and makeup in Summer Blowout, living in a FROG (finished room over garage) and sea glass jewelry in Life's a Beach, etc. 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.
I am so incredibly lucky to get to make up stories for a living, and I never forget for a minute that this is the career I almost didn't have the guts to pursue. So it always feels fresh to me, and the day that it doesn't, I'll find something else to do!

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JH: If you could reinvent yourself as something other than a writer, what would that be?

CC: Been there, done that! I spent decades hiding from the thing I most wanted to do. I was continuity decorator of a radio station, a dance aerobics choreographer, a landscape designer, a teacher. I am finally doing what I was born to do.

JH: Do you live out some of your fantasies through your characters?

CC: I think you have to be able to identify with all of your characters in order to write them convincingly. I also think that stable, happy lives are wonderful to live, but really boring to read or write about. Transitions are messy, and also where the fireworks happen. So, on one hand, yes - inhabiting a character's life is like playing house. But, it's being a novelist that still feels like a fantasy to me, and a pretty amazing one at that.

JH: In Best Staged Plans, Sandy is a professional home stager. What's your favorite room in your home and why?

CC: Sandy and I both live in an almost identical 1890s Victorian. It's such a cool house that I kept most of the details for Best Staged Plans. If I had to pick a favorite room, it would be the family room, which my husband and I created by knocking down the wall between the kitchen and the front parlor, and exposing a beautiful old rough brick chimney. It's the heart of the house, cozy and comfortable.

JH: It's well-known that you wrote your first novel in your minivan outside your daughter's swim practice. Where do you most like to write now?

CC: Writing my first novel in my minivan outside my daughter's swim practice at 5 AM before I went to work as a teacher taught me that even in the busiest life you can always find the time to do the things that matter. It also taught me that place isn't really important; when you're finally ready, you can do it anywhere. I've made a conscious effort to keep that attitude; the only place that matters is the place inside my head. So I'm lucky enough to have an office with a beautiful view of a perennial garden, but I keep the shades down and my blinders on, and I just get to work. I can write anywhere.

JH: After eight novels, how do you decide what's next?

CC: For me, it always starts with the characters, so I think about the kinds of lives I haven't explored yet. Then I mine my own life for interesting bits and pieces, as well the lives of everyone who's brave enough to be friends with a novelist.

I also listen to my readers, who often see my next book before I do. Just before I began writing Best Staged Plans, I was rushing around trying to get some packages mailed off, and I dropped my reading glasses into one of them as I was taping it up. So I posted a funny comment about it on Facebook. The response was amazing -- hundreds of people jumped in often with their own reading glasses stories, and then everyone started saying, "There's your next book, Claire." So that was my jumping off point.

Professional home staging seemed like an interesting career to explore - it's creative and flexible, life experience is an asset, and it's a growing field. And then I thought, what if the heroine is a home stager who is struggling to sell her own house? Her husband is dragging his feet, and her borderline adult son moves home and turns the basement into his "bat cave"....

Then I add things I've read or overheard at the gym or from the next table at a restaurant, and things I imagine, and somehow from this hodgepodge of elements, a book starts to take shape. It's as if I put everything into an imaginary paper bag, shake it up, and pull out all the pieces in a new order. I guess you could call it my Shake ‘n' Bake method for writing a novel.

I think every book presents an opportunity to give back, so as I'm writing, I stay alert for those, too. While researching Best Staged Plans, I was surprised to find that not having reading glasses is one of the biggest obstacles to disadvantaged people over 40 re-entering the workplace, so I also started a Readers for Readers page at ClaireCook.com, to help people get their outgrown reading glasses into the hands of people who need them. And because there's a thread about homelessness in the book, I'll be speaking at an event for WE CAN, a group that supports women in transition on Cape Cod, and at the International Dress For Success conference in New York City.

JH: What's the one true thing you learned from Sandy?

CC: That we all have too much stuff. Admit it. Get rid of it.

Claire Cook lives in Scituate, Massachusetts, on the coast between Boston and Cape Cod. She has two kids, one husband, one dog, and seven brothers and sisters scattered across the country. Her eighth novel, Best Staged Plans, is a June Indie Next pick and received a starred Library Journal review. Check out her writing and reinvention pages at ClaireCook.com and hang out with her on Facebook and Twitter.

 

Jennifer Haupt is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. She has written for O, The Oprah Magazine, Readers Digest, and The Christian Science Monitor.

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