Coco Mellors
Photo by Zoe Potkin

Coco Mellors: “You have to be present in the process”

Short Profile

Name: Coco Mellors
DOB: 1989
Place of birth: London, England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Author

Ms. Mellors, how would you describe your writing process?

Writing is actually very faith-based work for me. Right now, I'm working on my third novel, and I really, really don't know what's coming next. I don't know the shape the book is going to take until I'm quite deep inside the novel! I'm a huge believer in the unconscious mind guiding work, I believe that the unconscious is working through the story all the time, and even if I'm not consciously writing, I have to allow for things to gestate and then slowly, the story becomes clearer to me.

Is it difficult to resist the urge to completely structure and plan out each story?

Oh, the desire to seize control, to create a plan, to make an outline and stick to it is very seductive, I understand why people like that. Living with uncertainty and living in the unknown is one of the hardest things for all of us, especially for creative work. I have author friends who can’t move forward without an outline, and that’s a valid way of working! But I’ve never really liked outlines, they don’t speak to me because I think the most wonderful thing about writing is that it’s extremely intuitive. I try to work very much as E.L. Doctorow described it: “It’s like being in a car at night with only the headlights, and you can just see what's directly in front of you. And with just that information, you can travel a very long distance.” So I write in the car at night, essentially.

“An ending should always feel inevitable, but surprising. The inevitability comes from the unconscious. But the surprise comes from the fact that you don’t know until you write it.”

It took something like five years for you to finish your first novel Cleopatra and Frankenstein. What was it like living in that state of uncertainty for so long?

You have to really be present in the process! For example, I didn't know how the novel would end until I wrote the ending, I didn't know if Cleo and Frank would stay together, if they would break up, I had no idea. But for me, that kept things alive because it was always open to debate, and I hope that for the reader, that also made things feel unpredictable. In my MFA, we were taught that an ending should always feel inevitable, but surprising. The inevitability comes from the unconscious, like it could only be that way. But the surprise comes from the fact that you don't know until you write it. But of course, there was a lot of doubt through that process! I was often feeling like, “Am I ever going to finish this? If I finish this, is anyone going to care?” But when I would find myself alone with the work on the page, I just loved the process of writing. I'm as happy as a child playing when I’m immersed in what I'm doing.

There’s one thing that was almost fully formed before you started writing the novel, and that was one of the lead characters, Frank.

Yes, I mean, there's this element of writing characters that is just completely magic. It’s inexplicable why some characters appear completely whole to me, like a baby in a basket on a doorstep, you know, you open the door and there they are! Whereas others, I had to really coax into existence. I think, Frank, because he's an advertiser and hyper verbal, he came a bit more easily because I’m also very vocal myself. A lot of his dialogue and his interactions with Eleanor were very accessible to me. On the other hand, Cleo was a more private character, she’s emotionally sublimated, so it took many years of circling her for her to really come alive.

Has that held true for your second novel, Blue Sisters?

Blue Sisters
is told from the perspective of three sisters, and I have to say, all three of them were fully alive to me from the start! It makes me laugh because I have two sisters and they couldn’t wait to read my new novel, but then they realized, “Wait a minute, these sisters aren’t us.” (Laughs) They were really disappointed! I don't know where these sisters came from because they are truly so unlike me and my family. But I had their voices so clearly constructed from the start.

Cleopatra and Frankenstein contains a whopping seven storytelling perspectives — there are many different main characters, each with their own unique backstory. What was the motivation to create such a busy world?

Oh, I'm extremely character driven as a writer. The greatest pleasure of writing for me is bringing characters to life. Obviously with CleopatraandFrankenstein, a more traditional way to have told this novel would have been a two-hander, just Cleo and Frank. But because I wasn't convinced that I would be able to write another novel after this one, and I was just so curious about the other characters in their world, I decided to push myself right to the edge of what my skill set was at that particular moment. I would be pushing myself to figure out: What is a character like Quentin like when Cleo and Frank are not around? Who is this person? It felt like I was going to really have to push myself imaginatively and empathetically to a new place to explore that, and then once I did that, with that character, I just wanted to keep testing myself and seeing how far I could go.

When you say you weren’t you sure you would be able to write another novel after that one, is that because the process of making it was slower than you’d anticipated?

Partly, yes. I mean, it's very counter to our culture to work in the way that I worked on that novel. I started writing the book when I was 25. I sold it when I was 30, and then it came out when I was 32. In that time, so many other things happened in my life: I got sober when I was 26. I met my partner when I was 28 and I embarked on this really beautiful relationship with the person I'm now married to. Because I was sober in those years, I was learning to do all these things for the first time in my life without drinking or doing drugs. So it was an incredibly fertile time in my life outside of writing, there was so much that I was so grateful for and proud of. But I definitely remember going to film screenings or seeing other people’s finished projects and feeling this really deep sense of longing…

“I don’t think it’s a perfect novel, but I think that book was the best I could have possibly done for a first book. So I still stand with it, even with all its flaws.”

Like you just wanted it be finished?

Yeah, I wanted to finish it and I want to share it with people. But that motivated me to keep working on it. And thank God I didn't know how long it was going to take when I started! I would finish it, and then an editor would come back with a draft and I’d have to do another year of working on it… The finish line kept moving further away. But the other thing I have to say about that long process is that ideally, you’re writing a book that's going to stand the test of time. Hopefully this is a novel that can be read in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years time and it will still feel relevant because it's dealing with those universal human experiences.

It’s not a race when something is going to last forever.

Right! I mean, if I'd had another year with it, I probably would have changed a lot more. I don't think it's a perfect novel, I think I can do better. But I also think that book was the best I could have possibly done for a first book. So I still stand with it, even with all its flaws.

Is there also something to be said about the vulnerability of putting out work that comes from your soul in that way? Has that experience been formative for you?

Absolutely. The experience of putting yourself out there is terrifying. And it's the reason that a lot of people never do this, you know? I think for me, I sent the novel out and the thing I was afraid of happening did happen: that everyone said no. 30 different publishers said no. But I also realized that although people were saying no, the feedback was really, really positive. So I was disappointed, but I had this little flame of hope kept things alive, like my idea wasn't dead in the water, so I kept trying. There’s something my father had written above our front door as children, “Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” I read that every single day of my life growing up, and I really believe it, especially for writing. I can always keep learning, I can keep trying, I can do another draft, I can get better. Sometimes it's just about being the last one on the dance floor.