Cory Taylor: Freelance writer and author

image-corytaylor200Cory Taylor is a freelance writer from Brisbane, best known for her children’s books, including Rat Tales #1 and Rate Tales #2. Her first novel, Me and Mr Booker will be released in March this year.

She is also an award-winning screenwriter and teaches art theory at the Queensland College of Art. In 2010 one of her short stories was selected for inclusion in the Best Australian Writers collection.

Me and Mr Booker is already receiving a lot of interest in literary circles. The book’s main character, Martha, is 16 and living in a small town with her mother. She’s in a rush to grow up, for something to happen, and starts a relationship with a much older married man. Her attraction to the charismatic Mr Booker leads her on a journey into adulthood, and ultimately to heartbreak.

Click play to listen. Running time: 26.33

Me and Mr Booker

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
Thanks for joining us today, Cory.

Cory
It’s a great pleasure.

Valerie
You’ve clearly had a very long interest in writing. Can you take us back to how it all started? How did you get interested in it? What made you decide to pursue this as a career?

Cory
The truth is it does go back to high school, and an influential teacher. I had the great fortune to be taught by a poet called Geoff Page.

English was the only class I was fascinated by. It was the only class I looked forward to. Everything else about high school I’ve forgotten. It started there. I started writing juvenile poetry when I was at school. I had no idea what the writing career involved, but I was hooked, I think, probably at that age.

When I went to university I studied history. I didn’t really think about it as a career until after I had finished university. The film business in Australia was taking off, and I really have a great love of film. I had this fantasy that I could write for film, so I did. I did that for a number of years, as you probably know.

Valerie
It’s interesting that you say you never really thought about it as a career until after university. Do you know why that is? I do hear that a bit from different writers.

Cory
Very honestly I’d never met a writer. I’d never met anybody who actually called themselves that, or claimed to make a living from it. I think if you grow up around people who do this, and who seem to survive it probably gives you some confidence early on.

Valerie
Yes.

Cory
But because I had never met a writer I suppose I just thought one has to do the conventional thing and get a proper job.

Valerie
Right. Yes.

Cory
I mean the great advantage of film was that it paid. So, that was an attraction, I suppose for film. But no, I didn’t have the courage, to tell you the truth, to just abandon university and start writing, because I didn’t know anybody who’d done that.

Valerie
You went into screenwriting, but obviously now you’ve gone into young adults, children’s books. You must do academic writing as well? Is there a style you prefer, or that is easier, or that you just gel with a bit more?

Cory
Those are three different questions. Fiction writing is absolutely the thing I love the most.

Valerie
Right.

Cory
Not because it’s easier. Academic writing is probably the easiest. I try not to do any of that. I did it for my PhD and thought, “Nah, I don’t want to do that.”

So, fiction writing is absolutely it.

Non-fiction I love writing, because it’s a kind of a rest from fiction. I mean I think the thing about fiction writing is that you can constantly surprise yourself. You can do that with other forms of writing, but the surprises you get from fiction are just so good that it draws me back again and again.

Valerie
What do you mean by you’re constantly surprising yourself? What does that mean?

Cory
You’re essentially going into areas- and I mean I think you sit down to do it because you’re going in to areas that you don’t know anything about. You’re lead into those areas by some perverse kind of curiosity to see what’s there. If you dig deep enough you’ll find something that you really had no idea would come up. It’s completely fascinating and quite addictive.

Valerie
When you start a story you’ve got something that’s compelling to explore, do you know it’s going to be a book? Do you think, “I’m going to write a book now,” and start? Or do you just start and see whether it turns into a short story, or a book, or whatever?

Cory
Yeah, I mean I suppose I’m pretty clear at the beginning whether it’s going to be a short story or a longer piece, because I think they’re such different things. The longer pieces are such marathons, and the short pieces are so great, because you can actually probably in a week know what they’re about.

So yeah, I mean the short stories are much more contained in that way, and they reward you a lot quicker, because really if they’re going to work they’re going to work in the first draft.

Valerie
Yes.

Cory
There’s going to be something there that you know is singing a bit, and then you can work on that.

With a novel I guess it’s a much greater risk, so you just launch into it and hope for the  best.

Valerie
With your novels, with your fiction- some writers have it all plotted out. Some writers just start and see where it goes. What do you do?

Cory
I’m in the middle, or I try and plot it out and hope that it doesn’t go that way, well, because if it does it just feels like you’ve thought it through before. And if it doesn’t you just use that plot as a spring board for something, like I said before, something you didn’t see coming. And, that’s when it’s really fun, I think. Yeah.

Valerie
Tell us a bit about Me and Mr. Booker. How did this come about?

Cory
Me and Mr. Booker is story that I had been thinking about for a long, long time. Somebody asked me the other day was it is easy to write? I replied that had I known how to write it twenty years ago I would have. So, no.

In the end it came semi-formed. It did feel like something that I had thought about for a while. It was something that I had played around with as a film, and then shyed away from again, because of the material. The material itself was very difficult. It was very difficult to know how to talk about that story.

The thing that really nailed it was finding that voice, finding the voice of that girl. And once I had that, and once I was confident that I knew how she spoke and how she thought about her life, then I could follow her through the story. That sounds a bit weird, but I know other writers say that. Once you have that sort of confidence in a character, they do actually lead you down the pathway, for better or for worse.

Valerie
Your main character is Martha. She’s 16, living in a small town with her mother. Were you, at 16, living in a small town with your mother?

Cory
Pretty much, yeah. It’s quite a common experience. I’m always drawn to these suburban stories, and in film too, these small suburban stories of young people caught in situations that they really can see no way out of.

I did have that suburban upbringing, my mom and dad split up when I was in high school, and were going through troubles before that. I went to an average high school, where I thought everybody else was far more normal than I was. Everybody else’s parents seemed terribly happy, and little did I know, because you discover years later, that’s all an illusion. But yeah, it comes out of that suburban adolescence.

Valerie
Of course, everybody wants me to ask was there a Mr. Booker?

Cory
I think all of your characters, I’m not shying off that question, I think all characters are an amalgam of a whole lot of people that you’ve known over a long period of time. Mr. Booker, yeah, there was somebody that I based that character on, for sure, and then embellished and intensified us both by other people that I’d known. So, he’s an amalgam character, like everyone else in the book.

Valerie
Well done!

Inevitably, people are going to make comparisons with Lolita, I’m sure that happens all the time. Where you influenced by other books like that?

Cory
I can’t tell you how flattering that is as a comparison.

Well, I was, and I did go back. Because of my difficulty in finding my way into the story, I did go back and read Lolita. A book’s that probably had more influence was The Lover by Marguerite Duras. I think I wanted to flip the story around, and tell it from the point of view of the girl. I think we see, we are quite familiar with the feelings of older men for younger girls, and it almost seems common sense, or natural. But I don’t think we are so familiar for the reciprocal feelings of girls for older men. Lolita was the starting point in that sense, you know, “How about, what if…” “What if we flip it around and tell the story from the other side?”

Valerie
You talk about The Lover, now you’ve spent a lot of time in Japan, and you’ve written about Japan. Tell us about how that interest in Japan started and why it’s so fascinating to you?

Cory
Well, my husband is Japanese, so there’s the major kind of point to make. We met in the classic sort of way. I went to teach English in Japan. I was writing for television at the time, desperate to do something other than that. I had read somewhere that teaching English as a foreign language was just the last resort of the desperate. I went to Japan in my late 20s, met my husband. He was actually married at the time. I shouldn’t confess that on the radio.

We had a great time, but obviously it wasn’t going anywhere, and I came back. But Japan, ever since has been a great part of my life. My husband then came to Australia, which he adores. But we’ve had three kids, we’ve gone back to Japan so often. Looking back, it has been such an important part of my life, and somewhere that I would like to spend more time, now that the kids are all grown up.

Valerie
When you write about, whether it’s screenwriting, or fiction, or whatever it is, do you have to switch hats? Do you have to do anything to get into a particular zone to write, say, a children’s book versus something else?

Cory
I think so. My kids books definitely came out of a period where own kids were young. So, in a sense they were addressed to them, and I was so intensely sort of involved in them at that age. I’m not sure that I can actually do it now, the kids books. It might be something I have a go at, at some point, because I just adore kids books and I’ve got no excuse to write them now, or read them.

With screen writing it’s a completely different exercise because it’s so collaborative. I mean that’s another reason I just love writing fiction, because you’re responsible for everything on the page. If you foul it up, it’s completely your fault. If it’s great, then you can hang onto it, and not have other people come in and mess around with it.

So, they are different exercises in that sense, but I’m not sure I’ll go back to any of those forms now that I’ve experienced the joy of writing this book.

Valerie
In that case then it’s kind of sounds like an evolution in your writing journey.

Cory
Yeah.

Valerie
What do you think the next part of that evolution is? What kinds of books do you think you’ll be writing next?

Cory
I just want to keep writing fiction for as long as I can. I mean you panic at the end of one book and think, “Well, that’s it. I’ve said everything I wanted to say.” You do, and you think, “Oh my god,” you know? “I’ve got to do another one, and another one, and another one. Where is that going to come from?” And then strangely enough things percolate up, ideas that I’ve had years and years ago that jump back at you and want another go, you know?

Valerie
Are you writing your next one now?

Cory
I have started the next one. I suppose out of fear and trembling that if I don’t I never will.

No, it’s because you do think there’s some many things that you wanted to say- well, in my experience the first novel I had to lose half of it at some point. So, there’s a lot of material there that belongs in another book. So hopefully they’ll find a home in the next book, or the next one after that.

Valerie
Now that you’re writing the next novel, tell us about your daily writing routine. Do you have routine? Or do you- is there a ritual?

Cory
I tired desperately to keep to a routine, but the flooding in Brisbane has completely fouled it up, because I work at the state library.

Valerie
Oh.

Cory
It hasn’t reopened. Mainly I work there for the air conditioning.

My best hours are between 10:00 and 2:00, I’ve discovered. I’m not an early morning person, or a late night person. I leave home because there’s so many distractions at home. I mean anything is easier than writing, so hanging out the washing is a pure joy, if you can delay going to work.

Valerie
Yes.

Cory
I really do have to go away, to get away from all of those other possibilities. Then I’m at the desk, at the library, and the rule is I don’t get up until 2 o’clock, or I’ve hit the 800 or 1,000 word mark, or whatever it is that day, depending on how hard it is.

Valerie
You set yourself a goal of a certain number of words?

Cory
I try. I try for 1,000 a day. I rarely get there. But if I’m 800 and it’s 2 o’clock I think, “That will do.” Then I will probably come back to it in the afternoon, just to have a look at what I’ve done in the morning. I try to do that.

Valerie
Right. So, then pretty much you put it away after 2 o’clock. You look at it in the afternoon, but then you put it away, get on with life, and restart again the next day?

Cory
Yes, it’s a very short working day when I talk about it, isn’t it?

Pretty much, but it’s always bubbling away.

Valerie
Yes, of course.

Cory
That’s the fascinating thing. Yeah, so I’m at the desk for four hours, and the rest of the time it’s percolating and then you sit down to it the next day and you find that you’ve thought through to the next point, which is great, if it happens. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, but often it does.

Valerie
With Me and Mr. Booker, I know you said that it had been brewing for many years, but once you finally decided, “I’m going to do it,” how long did it take you?

Cory
Probably the first draft took eight to nine months. It was a bit of a mess. I can’t remember exactly the chronology, but I probably sat down to do a rewrite, and that happened quite quickly, probably two months on the rewrite.

It was a pretty savage rewrite because the first half of the book worked fine, the second half of the book got lost. It was probably a rewrite of the second half of the book. And that happened quite quickly. As I said, it was Martha who saved it, because once I tapped back into her I could find a way through, which was just a joy.

Valerie
When you say it was quite a savage rewrite, do you mean in terms of the actual plot, or the character development? Or, what really changed?

Cory
There were too many- I had to lose a character, which is very challenging. Then the second half- the first half of the book was completely driven by the affair between Martha and Mr. Booker. And then I think in the first draft the affair kind of finishes halfway through, and then it’s the kind of aftermath.

It was my editor who actually said she didn’t think it worked, and I knew that it didn’t really work, because the whole momentum of the book was the affair. So, I went back and rewrote the second half of the book, so that the affair had not really finished yet.

It was in many ways very hard, because it was so painful. The whole thing was so painful. All he wanted to do was for Martha to leave and get away, but she had to stay for the purposes of the story. She had to stay for the purpose of getting to the end of the affair. She had to stay. So, that was really hard. I guess I worked so quickly because I wanted to get it over with.

Valerie
Obviously then it’s quite emotionally draining. Is it something that you can switch off from, like, at 2 o’clock?

Cory
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely, because it’s fiction… thank heavens. I mean you are living only vicariously through these people. So, yeah.

I can’t imagine what it would be like if you had to live with them 24 hours a day. In a sense you do, but you do know that they’re fictional. I think the moment I get confused about that it’s probably time to give up.

Valerie
As you’re writing, during your eight or nine months, and now obviously you’re starting on that journey again with a new novel, do you keep it to yourself, or do you get feedback from certain readers? How does that work? Is it very isolated? Or do you actually seek feedback during the writing process?

Cory
Not really. I try to get a really strong grip on things before I show it to anybody. I talk about it, because I find that when I try to tell the story- this is something I learned in writing for film as well- the more you tell the story the more you condense it for somebody just in conversation, the stronger it becomes.

In a way you’re sort of defending it, or you’re telling it to yourself and seeing if it stands up. So, I talk about it in that sense. I’m a bit guarded about it, because you want to keep some of the surprises. Having said that though, I have sort of bounced the idea off my editor, the editor at Text and got feedback from her. But I wouldn’t be showing it to anybody apart from her at this point, you know?

Valerie
Can you tell us a bit about what your next novel is about?

Cory
Yeah, it’s a little bit of a departure, but really inspired by the character Victor in Me and Mr. Booker. It’s a older man who has become a bit of recluse, and panics around Christmas time every year. He sets off on this journey to atone for his sins, if you like, because he’s treated his family quite badly. In the process kind of lives an untruthful life. It sounds very serious, but he’s also hopefully quite a dark comic character.

So off he sets and of course nobody really wants to see him. His visits fall a bit like a lead balloon. He has another motive for his visit, because he does have a dark secret, and part of his journey is a journey into the past. So, he’s writing this kind of memoir journal as he goes, which is digging deeper into something that happens to him during the war, which he hasn’t really ‘fessed up to.

Valerie
Is there more research involved in this book for you?

Cory
Well, again, this is a story that’s been hanging around for a long time. It’s something that I worked on as a screenplay. It’s an area that I’ve been interested in for a long time, so the research had already been done. I reread a couple of historical works that I had read before, just to refresh my memory. But it’s been sitting there for a long time.

I’ve got a lot of these stories stacked away in the drawer that were screenplays and would never see the light of day, so they will pop up. Yeah.

Valerie
Finally, what’s your advice to people who are listening who love writing, that may be in the middle of their novel, but they haven’t yet found a publisher, or an audience? What’s your advice to budding novelists out there?

Cory
Never give up. It’s such a cliché, but just don’t. Just keep going. And, if it’s difficult that’s a great sign, because it means you’ve hit knots that will be interesting to unravel. It should feel hard. It should feel hopeless at times. But if you really want to do it, you will.

Yeah, and stick to routine. That’s good. It gets you through those days when you just think, “I have absolutely nothing to say, and nobody could possibly be interested in any of it anyway.” If you’ve got a routine, and a mechanical kind of goal, you know, a technical goal, this many words, it gets you through those days. There’s a lot of them.

Once you’re confident that there is a story there that you are curious about and you want to see where that story goes, then you probably could show it to people. I mean I’ve benefited greatly from the Queensland Writers’ Centre. I would recommend to anybody that they go and do short story, or novel writing workshops.

It’s fantastic to meet other people in the same boat as you. That’s the other thing, to realize that you’re not alone. And, to learn how to analyze other people’s work is great, because it helps you analyze your own work.

And that’s the other thing, you do have to  be two people. As a writer you have to be your own best critic. You have to be a writer, and write really baldy first, but you do. You have to write badly in order to write anything, but then you have to be your best critic and be able to look at that work with a fairly cold eye.

I’d recommend those writers’ workshops for that kind of training.

Valerie
You talk about those sort of mechanical days, and some of the torture days. Can you describe to us, as we finish off, can you describe to us what are the joyous parts, what are the parts that just give you a sense of elation, as a writer? Apart from when you write the end.

Cory
When you get the call to say, “We love it.”

Valerie
Yes!

Cory
There’s no beating that moment, I tell you.

Yeah, it’s just those tiny things that go ping, when you just think, “I didn’t see that coming. I didn’t realize that character was capable of saying that.” That is a surprise. That’s fantastic, because now I know more about that person. I’m getting to the stage where I can take them forward.

It’s when you don’t know the characters and you’re foundering, and they seem to be contradictly. That’s when it’s difficult. When they say something or do something, or appear to you in a way, visually, the look of them appears to you, those are the moments that you just savor. And those are the are the ones you hang onto no matter what, you know? You don’t give them away.

Valerie
Wonderful, and on that note- thank you very much for your time today, Cory.

Cory
Absolute pleasure.


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