Pamela Cook’s third novel is an enticing blend of the serious and the romantic, with vet Charlie Anderson finding more than she bargained for when she investigates a breakout of the deadly Hendra horse virus at a small town on the NSW coast. We spoke to English teacher turned writer Pamela Cook about transitioning from teaching to writing, her work for a global literacy charity and what sparked the idea for her latest novel.
Better Reading: Can you tell us a little about your new novel Close to Home and how you came up with the idea for your vet character, Charlie Anderson?
Pamela Cook: The original idea for the novel came from a conversation with another parent at a Pony Club event. Hendra has been a big issue in the horse community for a number of years now and there was a lot of controversy when the vaccine was first made available. The discussion about whether to vaccinate or not became quite heated and it made me realise what an emotional issue it was, fraught with conflict. And therefore perfect for a novel! As writers we often ask ourselves, ‘What If?’ So I asked myself, ‘What if Hendra broke out somewhere completely unexpected? What would happen?’ Of course a vet would need to be involved so I created the character of Charlie Anderson who works for the Department of Primary Industries. Charlie is based in Lismore, since Queensland and Northern New South Wales are the areas where hendra has been centred. Charlie is posted to the south coast to deal with an outbreak of the virus which is in the one place she never wanted to visit again – Naringup, the town where she spent her teenage years. Charlie’s story develops from there when she is forced to deal with estranged family members and finds an ally – and love interest – in the local Parks and Wildlife officer, Joel Drummond.
Better Reading: You published your first novel in 2012 and Close to Home is your third – an impressive turnout for a new author. How did you manage that?
Pamela Cook: It’s been a total whirlwind! When Blackwattle Lake was well received by readers my lovely publisher Vanessa asked what else I had to show her. The answer was a big fat zero – at least in the Rural Fiction/Romance genre. I had around 20,000 words of something set near a beach with two characters – one older woman and a younger one but I no idea how they were connected and no plot! So I decided to go back and see what I could do with it. That was around March 2013. I wrote furiously for the next few months and submitted a revised draft to Hachette by the end of June. Then it was another few months of solid revision to get it on the shelves by December. Close to Home has been a slightly longer (and calmer) process. Luckily I work well under pressure – in fact I’m useless without a deadline! Having great writing buddies to bounce off and ask for feedback helped enormously and I have a very supportive family.
BR: Your bio describes you as a ‘city girl with a country lifestyle’. How much is a rural life important to your writing?
PC: When I wrote my first novel I wrote it as general Women’s Fiction but as it was set on a horse property it fitted perfectly into the Rural Romance genre. I spend a lot of time with our horses on a property just south of Sydney and we are lucky enough to have our own little patch of heaven on the south coast. I’ve always found being in the country a great way of clearing my head, and writing about rural areas, the bush and the coast comes quite naturally for me. So although I don’t live in the country full time it’s where I get a lot of my inspiration from.
BR You were previously a secondary school English teacher. How much has your life changed since taking up writing?
PC: I started teaching writing to adults while still teaching secondary school and although I loved teaching the kids I fell totally in love with teaching creative writing. So I was doing my own writing and helping other writers develop their own voices and projects – something I still really enjoy doing. I got to the point where I really wanted to focus on that and decided to concentrate on it full time. I do miss the kids and really miss the interaction with colleagues but I love being able to spend my days doing something I love so much and since I have a great bunch of supportive writing buddies I don’t get too lonely.
The main problem is the lack of schedule and timetable. I have very poor time management skills so it’s easy for me to spend hours procrastinating especially on twitter and facebook. That’s why I need deadlines! Since my first book was published I’ve been concentrating on my own writing and have only taught a few workshops but I do have some online courses I’d like to promote more and get back into doing more teaching. I just need to organise myself better. Dividing my time more effectively between writing, the social media side of things and family commitments is something I need to get better at.
BR: Has your previous career helped with your writing?
PC: I became an English teacher because of my love of books. Back then I never even considered writing – although I’ve always written poetry and kept journals. Teaching literature and trying to engage kids in books means you’re always dealing in words which is nice – although not all your students agree. A teacher spends a lot of time marking and I got to the point where I wanted to do something more creative so I enrolled in a Master’s in Creative Writing and never looked back. So being a teacher definitely influenced my love for reading and my desire to write.
BR: You are an Ambassador for not-for-profit, Room to Read. Can you tell us a little about that?
PC: I first became involved with Room to Read through my writing. My writing group, The Writers’ Dozen, wanted to produce an anthology of our work and decided to find a not-for-profit so that when we self-published the book we would recoup our costs and donate the rest to the charity. Room to Read was setting up a Chapter in Sydney around the same time. It was very serendipitous! We sold enough copies of the book, Better Than Chocolate, to fund the building of a library in a Nepalese village. I loved the ethos of the organisation – World Change Starts With Educated Children – and decided to join the new team in Sydney as the Students Helping Students Coordinator. It was the perfect fit for me given my teaching experience.
Room To Read has the twin goals of improving literacy and gender equality in the nine developing countries in which it operates. As the mother of three daughters and someone who is passionate about reading and writing I was – and continue to be – hugely impressed by the work it does. A few years ago I was lucky to be able to visit India and see how the programs operate in remote schools in Rajhastan. Since being published I’ve become a Writer Ambassador for the organisation and am more than happy to let people know about the fantastic work being done. You can find out more at www.roomtoread.org and on their facebook page.
BR: Which Australian authors, past or present, do you read and most admire?
PC: Going right back to my childhood, Australian books were always my favourites. Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and Blinky Bill were top of the list. I loved Seven Little Australians.
Australian literature was my absolute favourite subject at Uni and vividly remember reading Lucinda Brayford by Martin Boyd and The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead. Kenneth Slessor’s poetry always struck a chord with me and Les Murray’s poems are among my favourites.
I adore Tim Winton. Cloudstreet is a masterpiece and The Turning is a work of genius. Kate Grenville’s writing is so beautiful and I also love Geraldine Brooks. The Book Thief by Markus Zusack is a work of sheer brilliance. A newer writer I admire is Favel Parett. Past The Shallows is heartbreakingly beautiful and When The Night Comes haunted me for days after I finished it.