On Writing

SPECIAL POST! Interview with Canada’s Queen of Ghost Stories, Charis Cotter

Newfoundland writer, Charis (pronounced Care-iss like Ferris) Cotter is celebrating the release of her fourth novel, The Dollhouse (Tundra, 2021). Before its August release, The Dollhouse was already receiving acclaim by being chosen as a Gold Standard Selection by the Junior Library Guild. Charis has done interviews on the radio and virtually, and is ‘live’ in Toronto this weekend and next to sign books and celebrate her latest ghostly masterpiece. I sent Charis (who is also my writing partner!) some questions in an effort to acquaint you with her latest middle-grade novel, to help promote this fine spooky story, and to, quite honestly, share her awesomeness! At the end of this interview, there are details for her upcoming events as well as links to her socials so you can ‘like’, ‘subscribe’, ‘follow’ and ‘review’ her work. (That’s so important for writers!)

This is me, on the beach, voraciously reading my advanced copy of Charis’ new book, The Dollhouse. I couldn’t put it down! (I’m not naked. I have a bathing suit on.)

VS:  So, The Dollhouse was released on August 31! Yahoo! Kirkus reviews says it’s: “A time-traveling mystery that will keep readers involved and guessing up to the very end.” Also, it’s already won some recognition, being chosen as a Gold Standard Selection by the Junior Library Guild in the States. How does it feel to be nearing the release of a book that ALREADY so fabulously well-received?

CC: It’s very exciting. I’ve lived with this book now for about six years, from the original idea to the release, and it’s so much fun to know that this world that’s been in my head for so long will soon be experienced by others. I’m looking forward to getting responses from readers, especially the kids. I’ve been promising this book for a few years now to hundreds of students in my school visits.

VS: How/where did you get the idea for The Dollhouse? How did knowing a real woman and a real mansion with a real attic that the story is based on affect your storytelling? 

CC: A few years ago, I made friends with a woman who lives in a beautiful Georgian mansion. As soon as I walked in, I fell head over heels in love with the house. It captured my imagination so completely that I had to write about it. I had several ideas swirling in my head and finally one coalesced. The house in The Dollhouse is almost exactly the house I fell in love with, but Mrs. Bishop is not based on my friend’s character, although they do have a few things in common, including a dollhouse. It was really useful, as well as inspiring, to go to the house while I was writing, because it was like walking into my book. I could feel the characters whispering to me when I was in the house. I didn’t have to invent the setting, and that helped with the descriptions.  The attic was especially inspiring, because it was so large and empty and atmospheric, and the attic became very important in the story.

VS: Can you talk a bit about the importance of research when writing a novel? 

CC: I have a push-pull relationship with research. I’d rather write the story than do research, but when I do get down to it, the research I do informs the story, and I get lots of ideas from it. While working on The Dollhouse, I enjoyed doing research on Queen Mary’s dollhouse in Windsor Castle, and dollhouses in general, as well as fashion and popular culture in the 1920s. I need to get the facts right so the world of the novel is believable, and then I can play with shifting realities. Research will often fuel my imagination, but I have to admit I’m always a little reluctant. I used to write non-fiction, and that was all about the research and getting the facts right, so I have a healthy respect for research. If anything doesn’t ring true in the factual part of my novels, it will distract from the story. I want to create a world that is completely believable, and then I can take the reader along with me into the magical part of the story.

VS:  Tell us about your writing life: what’s a day-in-the-life-of-Charis-Cotter-kids-book-writer like? 

CC: It seems like there’s always things pulling at my time that take me away from my writing, things that need to be done and that I enjoy, like school presentations, storytelling, and mentoring other writers, but it gets harder and harder to dedicate weeks at a time to writing. I’m always juggling projects!

My work day is about the same no matter what I’m doing: I try to get up early, meditate, have breakfast, go for a walk, do some stretches and then settle down at my desk for two or three hours before lunch. Morning is my best time for both exercise and writing, so I try to do my creative work then. After lunch I usually do some housework, have a nap, and then get back to my desk for a couple of hours before it’s time to make supper. I’m lucky enough to live in a beautiful spot at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, so the walk is a treat, when the weather permits. I often use the walk to get my mind going and characters and plot questions come in and out of my consciousness. My walks really set me up for inspiration. Where I live I’m surrounded by a lot of sky, ocean and meadows—big open spaces and not very many people—and that kind of emptiness and silence really feeds my writing and helps me focus.

VS: When was the last time you were frightened by something ghostly?

CC: One morning recently, when I was walking on the boardwalk by the ocean in the fog I heard a noise that I couldn’t identify: a kind of metallic thump. It sounded like it was a couple of hundred feet behind me. Now you have to picture this boardwalk: it goes along the side of a hill and then into some barrens, with the ocean on two sides, and you can see a very long way and at that time in the morning there is seldom anyone there. I looked around nervously, but there was no one in sight. In the distance the fog softened everything with white. With my particular kind of imagination, I felt a shiver down my spine and hurried along my way. I often wonder if there are ghosts from years gone by along that bit of shoreline. People used to have their vegetable gardens here and fish just off the shore, and there was an old lighthouse at the point. I half-expect to see someone digging in their garden or hauling up a dory on the beach… but I haven’t. Not yet, anyway!

This kind of thing happens to me every couple of days. I live in a pretty spooky part of the world, with fog and water and sounds that are magnified. My imagination takes flight very easily!

VS: How has the pandemic affected your writing life? 

CC: It’s strange, because my day-to-day life hasn’t changed that much, since I work at home anyway and I always spend a lot of time alone. I’ve missed seeing friends, but I keep up with phone calls. I did spend five months away from home at the beginning of the pandemic, and that slowed me down a bit. I found my focus wasn’t as clear, and the underlying worry about family members and the state of the world took its toll on me, as it did on everyone. I have a writing project that did get bogged down during this time, and I’m still struggling to get it back on track. I had two books released during the pandemic, and I had virtual book launches. That was challenging and fun, but book sales were down. I think the pandemic has just worn everyone out. Life was challenging enough before, but with the pandemic this danger seems to be lurking just under our every day life, and it has been so stressful. 

VS: You have many great videos on your website. What’s it like making a video and doing virtual events? 

CC: This is where the pandemic had a bit of a silver lining for me. I ended up doing virtual school visits to places in Newfoundland and Labrador I would not be able to get to in person. I learned a lot about virtual events and did a few videos and webinars. I have a background as an actor, and I’m pretty comfortable in front of the camera, but all the experience during the pandemic really helped me relax even more. I would rather be there in person, especially with the kids, but virtual is easier in a way, because I just have to walk into my office and turn on the camera, instead of driving hours to get somewhere. It still takes a lot of energy. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and I write and rehearse anything I present for days before I do it. I have to admit it’s hard to look at myself sometimes, so I try to avoid that when the camera is on in Zoom presentations. 

VS: How can you tell when you have a ‘good’ idea for a story? 

CC: I get so many ideas. They come and go. I could never write all the stories that are in my head. If it resonates, and I keep thinking about it, often I’ll get this shiver go through me, and I then know it’s a good one and I need to follow it up.

VS: Do you have writer friends? What does ‘community’ mean to you as a writer?

CC: I don’t have a lot of writer friends, which makes it hard sometimes, because writing is such a solitary occupation, and it’s often hard for my other friends to understand exactly what I do with my time. Hard to explain that staring out the window and then clutching my head is actually working! But I do have one bosom buddy who is a writer and that’s made all the difference to my writing life in the last few years. She really understands the process and the frustrations and the joys involved, and we run ideas past each other and do writing retreats and spend a lot of time together on FaceTime, each of us doing our own work, but knowing the other is there. On a larger scale, I do belong to writing associations such as the Writers’ Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador, The Writers’ Union of Canada, and CANSCAIP, and that makes me feel part of the community of writers who support each other and work together to try to improve the writers’ lot, which is a difficult one. Writers have to do all kinds of work that isn’t actually writing to make their living, because only a handful of bestselling writers can actually support themselves through the royalties on their books. So the community of writers for me means these groups that provide mutual support and initiate political action.  

VS: What is your biggest writing dream that hasn’t yet come true? 

CC: I really want my books turned into films. I think the spooky, time-shifting nature of my books would make some very scary movies or TV series, and I would just love it if I could get a film producer interested in my books.

Canada’s Queen of Ghost Stories – Charis Cotter!

Charis will be signing books on Saturday, October 30, 2021 at Furby House Books in Port Hope, Ontario from 2pm – 4pm (COVID protocols in place).

To stay in the spooky loop of her ghostly book life, please visit her website: www.chariscotter.com

Instagram: @CharisCotter

Twitter: @CharisCotter

*If you’re a teacher, do contact Charis for a virtual visit like no other! chariscotter@gmail.com

Books make the *best* gifts!

Yup, of course Charis loves dolls! She’s got a grand collection, and they all love to read her scary books!

For the living…or the dolls…why not gift any one of Charis’ incredible books this Halloween (or Christmas!) season! Here’s a list of her books – order copies from your favourite independent bookstore!

The Swallow – Middle-grade novel
The Painting – Middle-grade novel
The Ghost Road – Middle-grade novel
The Dollhouse – Middle-grade novel

Screech – Ghost Stories from Old Newfoundland
The Ferryland Visitor – A Mysterious tale – picture book
Footsteps in Bay De Verd – A Mysterious tale – picture book

Thank you, Charis! And super congratulations on another published novel! You’re amazing!

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