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Guest Interview – Charis Cotter! Author of ‘The Painting’


It’s book launch day for author Charis Cotter!

Congratulations Charis, on this your TENTH published book, The Painting

Publisher: Tundra Books, Penguin Random/House

Charis and I met while preparing for a panel we were both on at Writers’ Union of Canada conference out east in St.John’s in Newfoundland. It was pretty much love-at-first-email, and we’ve been close friends since! She’s even braved staying at our house- with the kids and the dog and the wildness – while she was participating at BookFest Windsor! Charis is no stranger to family life, and she knows and writes for children – and she scares them. With ghost stories. It’s kinda her thing. And it sets her apart because she can quiet a roomful off 50 kids with her storytelling, and she can spook a grown-up (me) with her masterful novel-writing skills. It’s an honour for me to introduce you to Charis through the following interview. Settle in. Get your flashlight. Just kidding….or am I?!

The gorgeous, Charis Cotter.

VS: Describe where you live in Newfoundland. Be specific. I think it’s important that readers know where you live and write.

CC: I live in a small community in Conception Bay North, about an hour and a half’s drive from St. John’s, Newfoundland. My house is at the end of the road and the ocean is at the foot of my driveway. I have a lot of windows in my house and I look out into a wide bay with the North Atlantic on one side, and a series of rolling meadows and hills on the other.

Below are photos of Charis’ views. Can you see how ghost stories can jump right out of the ocean onto her page?

VS: How many books in total have you had published?

CC: Ten.

VS:Do you remember how it felt to have your first book published? Which one was it? How did your heart and mind feel? Did you have high expectations? What was the reality versus your dreams for the book?

CC: My first book to be published was Toronto Between the Wars: Life in the City 1919–1929. It felt great. Publishing a book had been a dream of mine for a long, long time, so I was very excited just to hold it in my hands. It felt like my own little baby, and I had a great sense of accomplishment. I found the writing really hard in that book, because it was non-fiction and I was writing about history, and had to do a lot of research, and was worried about getting facts wrong. A couple of kind readers of course pointed out where I did get them wrong (!!), but they were pretty minor mistakes. I didn’t have any expectations, except I hoped it would do well. It ended up winning the Heritage Toronto Award of Excellence at a big fancy award ceremony that felt like the Academy Awards to me. It was at the Carlu in the old Eaton’s College Street building, which had featured in the book, so it all felt very appropriate. It worked nicely into the time travel appeal of that book: here I was in this historical building, connecting 2005 with 1930. And getting an award for my first book was a very affirming experience.

VS: Tell us about your name. Charis – does it mean something? (Not necessarily about writing, but I love your name, so I want to know!)

CC: My name is pronounced “Care-iss:” It rhymes with “Paris” and you don’t say the “h.” People never get it right the first time. It is a Greek name, from the same root as “charisma,” and it means “grace.” My father was an Anglican priest studying theology when I was born and he gave me a name from the Greek Bible. Charis is my second name: I was known as Norah until I was 23 and went to drama school in London, England, where I started using Charis Cotter as my stage name.

VS:What draws you to ghost stories? Were you always interested in ghosts?

CC: I always liked the idea of ghosts. I think it’s partly because I’ve always been drawn to the idea that there is more to life, beneath the surface of things. That reality is not just what we experience with our five senses. That there is magic all around us. Ghosts are one way of expressing that way of looking at the world. I became more interested in ghosts when my daughter Zoe was little, because she saw ghosts everywhere and was completely fascinated by them. Her experiences have been a great source of inspiration for me for my writing, especially for The Swallow: A Ghost Story.

VS: ‘The Painting’ is your new novel, written for readers aged 9-14. I read it in three days. I was scared. I was compelled. I cried. I had a pretty good post-amazing-book coma. How did the idea come to you – specifically – the magic of the paintings?

CC: The idea for the paintings being a kind of doorway came to me directly from the landscape outside my windows. Where I live is just so breathtakingly beautiful, and I often compared it to living inside a painting, or walking inside a painting when I go out for my morning walk to the lighthouse. My windows each frame a living painting, that keeps changing with the sky and the weather. And I used to spend part of the year in Ontario, longing to be in Newfoundland, so a magic painting that could transport me there would have been just dandy.

VS: Is it difficult for you to choose names for your characters? Is there a part of the writing process that is a challenge for you – like, choosing names or writing that first line? How do you deal with these challenges?

CC: Yes! Choosing names is SO hard. Any name I make up just sounds like I made it up and doesn’t belong to a real person. I think there must be a knack to it. There is so much power in a name, and it’s so important what you choose to name a baby, so it follows that getting the right name for a character is important. And I have so many characters in my books: especially the one I’m working on now, The Ghost Road. I have seven generations of a Newfoundland family to name. I do make lists of first and last names and that helps a bit, but it is an ongoing challenge.

There are lots of other challenges in writing for me. I tend to have complicated plots, and I get stumped about how to make things work out. And in the middle of a book I sometimes lose my way and start drifting – once I wrote for six weeks and then realized I’d gone in the wrong direction and had to get rid of it all. My book works itself out as I write, so although I usually know the beginning and the end before I start, but the middle is a mystery I have to discover as I go along. And sometimes I just lose confidence, and that’s the hardest thing to work through.

VS: What else do you do while you’re working on a new manuscript to keep your body and spirit vibrant and motivated?

CC: I go for a walk every morning if the weather permits. That clears my mind and gives my creative imagination the space it needs to start cooking. I get lots of ideas on my walk. If the winds are above 50 km (yikes!) or it it’s just miserable with rain or snow, I stay in and do yoga. That also makes me feel really good and grounds me. I need silence and space to work, so where I live really helps with that, especially in the winter. I have to balance the solitude with the creativity, and it’s not an easy fit sometimes.

VS: What book(s) are you reading right now for pleasure? For work?

CC: For pleasure, I’m reading Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood, which is her take on The Tempest, and I’m really enjoying it. I’m a huge Shakespeare nerd so I love it. I’m also reading P is for Peril by Sue Grafton, also for pleasure. I only read for pleasure, if I can get away with it.”

VS: Why do you write for kids/tweens?

CC: You know how people say everyone has an inner age that stays the same, even as they grow older and look and (usually) act like an adult? Well, my inner age is about ten, and I think that’s partly why I like writing for that age. Ten is old enough to have a good idea of who you are and what’s going on around you before puberty shakes everything up. I love the child’s perspective of the world – living in the present, the direct emotional connection to everything, the ability to imagine that there might be magic in the world. The sense of possibility, of change. The feeling of things being new. I love magic realism and writing for this age group gives me licence to have magical things happen in my books, even though the world my characters live in is very much this world, not a fantasy. I just love kids at this age. When I go into schools they are so enthusiastic, curious, and expressive.

VS: What is one of your super-mega-dreams for your writing life? Win a certain award? Travel somewhere to read? Meet someone?

CC: Don’t get me started, Vanessa! I do spend a lot of time daydreaming about things like this! I’ve always wanted to travel more, so for me to be able to travel to different places in the world and meet kids who read my books would be wonderful. Iceland, Italy, New Zealand. All kinds of places. I’d also love to have my books made into films. And be able to live in different cities for a few weeks in warm places in the winter and write there.

VS: What was the toughest part of writing ‘The Painting’? Was it a certain plot point?

CC: The Painting is the book where I went off the rails for six weeks. I had a great little sidetrack to the plot going on and was having a wonderful time when I realized I’d moved away from the pain in the book. There was some great stuff in there, but I had to get rid of it all. The pain in this book was hard for me to write about, the pain of grief and the pain involved in mother-daughter conflicts. But that’s the heart of the book, so I had to get back to it. I found it a daily struggle to get to the end of the book.

VS: You’ve mentioned to me that you’d like to publish one book a year. What would that mean for actual writing time? Considering that the publishing part of the process takes its own amount of time?

CC: So far it’s taken me seven years to write The Swallow, and five to write The Painting, so I’ve had a pretty slow gestation period with my novels. But my next book, The Ghost Road, is taking about two years, so it’s getting faster. The problem is, most of that time was stop and go because I was involved in so many other projects to make my living (freelance editing, storytelling and school visits) that I kept having to put down the manuscript for a few months and then come back to it later. It is helpful to have some time away from a book, but if I wanted to write a book a year I would have to spend most of my time writing. I’ll always do school visits, because they’re so much fun and I love being around kids, but I’d have to cut down on other things. I don’t know at this point if it’s possible to write a book a year and still give the writing the kind of attention it needs. I never want to sacrifice quality, so we’ll just have to see what happens.

VS: Tell us about your writing process. Do you write in the morning? What do you wear? Do you take breaks?

CC: I get up and dressed and go for my walk and come back and write. Mornings are my best time. I wear old comfortable clothes (sweatpants!) and I get up every hour to tend the fire, make tea, etc. I work till lunch and then the afternoons vary. Sometimes I work on the book for a couple more hours or do other work that’s calling out for my attention. I’ll often work till 6 and then stop.

VS: Where have you always dreamed of writing? Have you written there yet?

CC: To tell the truth, I always dreamed of writing in a little cottage by the ocean. And that’s where I write! Moving to Newfoundland and writing fiction was the fulfillment of a long-held dream for me. I also had one wonderful February when I did a writer’s residency in Seaside, Florida, and walked along a wide white beach every morning before going back to work in a little cottage. I would love to do more residencies in warm places in the winter! I loved writing without the distractions of home and having other artists around to hobnob with after work. And the hosts of that residency were these wonderful people who opened their guest cottages to artists, and kept feeding us dinners and treating us like royalty. I could do with any amount of that!

VS: You’re in an art gallery with two other writers (dead or alive) and one painter (dead or alive) – what painting are you looking at and what question do you ask first?

CC: Vanessa, for the life of me I can’t answer this question! I just can’t think of a painting or a question. But, if I could have a conversation with any great artists they would be William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, Leonardo da Vinci and Wolfgang Mozart. What I would ask them is what makes them laugh, what their favourite foods are, and when was the happiest time of their lives.

VS: Wanna connect with Charis? Here’s how! You have many opportunities to win a FREE COPY OF THE PAINTING!

CC: I am having a contest on my website, starting at the end of September. Every week for six weeks, someone will win a free copy of The Painting. All they have to do is listen to the recording of me reading from the book and answer a question about it. I will draw a winning name from all the entries every Friday.

Book launch for The Painting: Friday, September 22, 7:30 p.m. The Space, St. John’s


Facebook: CharisCotterWriter

Twitter: @CharisCotter

Instagram: chariscotter1

*Don’t forget to rate your *love* of Charis’ new book, The Painting, on Goodreads and Amazon – or wherever else you’d like to share your thoughts!!

Here is my review of The Painting:

From the first intriguingly chilling paragraph to the last ghostly page, Charis Cotter’s new novel “The Painting” is a startling story of unrest, connection and forgiveness. All this, wrapped in a book written for the avid child reader is truly a story for any age.

Coming off her award-winning first novel, The Swallow, Cotter’s talent for writing goosebump-giving ghost stories is spooktacular – and she has created for herself a spot amongst greats like Poe, Drew, Stine and Faraday to give her readers jumps, starts, and ends that are both exciting and unpredictable.

What moves Cotter’s writing the most is her seamless craft ability to keep the reader unsure and questioning – Is the character alive or a ghost? Do I believe in ghosts? Could this story really happen? Brilliant imagery and unique character descriptions exemplify Cotter’s talent for storytelling pushing the reader to turn the page…even when the story is stealing the breath away, and a pause may be needed.

The depth and breadth of her East-coast ghost knowledge is outstanding. From lighthouses to the living-dead, Cotter has been writing about ghosts in some form or other for years, and it’s paying off in her fiction. Like a high-pitched wind blowing into our lives, “The Painting” challenges readers to listen closely, to pay attention and to draw connections between all the stories weaving around us. 

The subject matter is very important. Childhood trauma extends into our adult lives – and can (and does!) spread into how we parent. It reaches into our daily lives – especially something as tragic as a death of a sibling – and is constantly a part of our mind-matter. Writing about the effects of trauma on a parent, on her child, on her partner and those around her is something brave and hopeful. Cotter’s intent, in my opinion, is not to upset but rather to set-up conversations about trauma, the past, death, life and how to live fully through the stories that begin in our childhoods.

Though Cotter does a tremendous job of encircling the reader with mystery, the heart of “The Painting” is a love story – between mothers and daughters and sisters. The wind, the water, the rain, the fog – these elements bear down in the story as strong characters holding torches along the way. This is a story about one family and its tragedy that knitted through time and generations. “The Painting” is universal in its core themes of family, love and forgiveness.

In the end, readers will be moved to tears, and hopefully, inspired to believe in both ghosts and the living as storytellers whose lessons are as alive as our hearts will allow them to be.

Favourite lines:

She had long, curly dark-brown hair that expanded in the damp sea air like some strange dark halo…The local women kept their distance, but all the men liked her fine.

I watched his fingers as he folded the napkin carefully. They were long and thin. A surgeon’s fingers.

The image of her white, still face in the hospital swam into my head.

She stumbled out the door and racketed down the stairs.


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