An interview with…Coo Clayton
Did you know Edinburgh is UNESCO’s first City of Literature? It has a wealth of literary history behind it, and is home to many famous authors both past and present. Where am I going with this? Well, Edinburgh is also a bit of a village, where you can’t go out without bumping in to someone you know, and everyone seems to be a friend of a friend. So when one of my favourite Edinburgh children’s book writers popped up in my social media feed because we have a mutual friend, I reached out to her to ask if she would let me interview her for my blog. And she said yes!
Coo Clayton is an author, a teacher, and mother to three children aged 3, 7 and 9. She grew up in St Andrew’s, then went on to study education in Edinburgh and after graduating in 2001 went backpacking for a year in Australia where she also met her husband, who was from London. On returning to the UK, they tossed a coin to decide which city to live in, and Edinburgh won. They have lived here ever since. Coo’s first book Maggie’s Mittens – about a little girl who tries to get rid of her scratchy mittens as she travels around Scotland, only to have them snatched away by a naughty puffin – came out just last Autumn, and her second book is about to hit the shelves this month. Her success story is one that many aspiring writers dream of, and I’m delighted to share with you our chat about the story behind Maggie’s Mittens as well as some exclusive insights in to its sequel, Maggie’s Monsters.
Could you start by sharing how you become a writer?
About two years ago, my oldest son became really ill. He was unable to walk, he was in a wheelchair. I felt quite low and sad about life. I joined a writing group, I think sort of as a means of escapism. I’ve always loved writing, but never took it too seriously. It was somebody in that group that just said “Oh, Coo, try sending these stories off to a publisher.” And I thought don’t be daft, I wasn’t in it to do anything, I was just there for a bit of escapism. But she was saying just send if off, you don’t have to tell anyone if someone says no, we don’t like your writing. So I did. I thought right, what publishing companies are in Scotland and literally started at the top with Black & White, and sent it off. They phoned a few weeks later and said, do you want to come in for a chat? And I went in for a chat and they were really nice. They said they really liked a couple of little stories I sent in, and actually the story that I had sent in was called Get Dressed, Tom but I ended up chatting to them about something I was working on, called Maggie’s Mittens and they said ooh, come back in a couple of months when you’ve worked a bit more on that. So I went back in a couple of months and showed them Maggie’s Mittens, and they said yeah, we’ll just shelve Get Dressed Tom. And they went with Maggie’s Mittens instead. So that’s how the writing came about.
And how long was the journey, from your first idea or your first chat with them, to actually holding the book in your hands?
They phoned in November . Because of the whole Christmas thing we said let’s meet in January. We met the first week in January, just last year. But we didn’t sign anything until April. And the book came out in October. So from signing the contract in April, the book came out six months later. It was really quick. And they had to team me up with an illustrator. Once we’d found an illustrator they said “We want it to be out this Christmas” and I thought, what’s wrong with next Christmas? But they were really keen to keep things going. Luckily the illustrator [Alison Soye] works really quickly. She’s young, she’s 24, she’s straight out of Uni and I think they were delighted that she was just full of energy. And she’d never ever illustrated a book before, I’d never written a book before. So they quite liked that, that it was two people just completely making it up as they go along. But it worked, and we’re now very much a team.
How much collaboration did you have with Alison, your illustrator?
A lot actually. Luckily, although she’s from Northern Ireland, she’s moved to Edinburgh, so we see each other a lot. We probably see each other every fortnight. We’re friends now, we’re not just colleagues.
So you very much worked on it together? You didn’t just submit it and then it was sent off to be illustrated?
No, not at all. I can’t imagine that. Because you’ve got a vision, as a writer, what the book is going to look like. But obviously, I can’t draw. I was drawing sketches, and getting photos or Google images for Alison and saying “I kind of want it to look like this” and then she would sit and draw it and I would be “Yeah, maybe, but maybe do that” and she really wants to hear what I am visualising it to look like. She’s not saying just leave me to it, she’s very much like, just tell me everything.
And did you change any of the story in response to her?
Yeah, I think so, a little bit. Actually, she texted me saying she was drawing…in Maggie’s Monsters there’s a scene at Glenfinnan Viaduct, we’ve got a little wild cat there and the text just didn’t quite fit the expression of the wild cat. And she was saying, you might just want to look at the text. So things like that, sometimes when the pictures are done it makes you look again at every single word. It’s a total collaboration. I probably speak to her more than any of my friends, any of my family.
How did you come up with the idea for Maggie’s Mittens?
It was a true story. I was picking Maggie, my daughter, up from nursery. She’s 3.5 now but then I think she was about 2. It was one of those cold, grim, October, November after school pickups. It was freezing, and I was just in one of those moods, you will wear this hat and gloves and scarf! And she was having none of it. And instead of just saying, whatever – we live just a couple of metres away from the nursery – I was in a ‘you’re gonna do this’ kind of mood. And we had a big argument. She must have thrown those mittens out at least five times. It got quite funny towards the end, in that kind of slightly hysterical grumpy mum way, and they just kept going on the road and I was picking them up and they were getting soggier and dirtier. I had joined the writing group by then, and that little scene was just there in my head, so I started jotting down a few ideas. I wanted it to be a very Scottish thing, which I’d never done before, and I thought maybe she could chucking her mittens around Scotland, and it just grew from there.
Was it a deliberate decision to not actually name any of the places? Because if you know Scotland really well, you go through the book and think ‘oh that’s in Edinburgh, here’s St Andrews, there’s Dundee’. But if you don’t know Scotland, it’s a nice story but you don’t necessarily know what the places are.
We put all the places on a map, at the front [see above]. So we named them all there. I thought people could refer back to it, and I quite like a little map.
Do you know, I’ve read this book so many times and I hadn’t even noticed the map!
We thought we’d just have it there, rather than within the text. I thought it was going to be too much like a guide book, naming all the places, and too repetitive. We’re sort of doing the same for the next book. It’s another tour around Scotland, looking at iconic places, and we’re not really naming the places again, but we’re looking at the wildlife that’s prominent in those areas. So we’ve got midgies by Loch Lomond, and we’ve got Golden Eagles on Mull, and things like that. I think the children don’t really need to know where the places are. It might have taken away from the actual just Maggie, being silly, and the little adventure she was on.
Do you have a favourite part in Maggie’s Mittens?
My favourite page is the puffin [see above], where the puffin flies away with the mittens. I love that page, and that’s a real climax. When I read it to kids in a bookshop or library, all the children go “Oh!” And then there’s lots of chat, how’s Maggie going to feel now? That page always produces lots of questions and comments from the kids. So I’d say that’s my favourite moment in the story. I really like the page with Granny’s cottage as well [see below], because it’s so cosy, it’s got a really nice feel to it. Alison and I also tried to put lots of personal things within the book. That little yellow chair, I’d been up-cycling that. I was on the phone to Alison and she was painting that page, and she said “What kind of furniture are you envisaging in Granny’s room?”, and I said “I’m painting a little kids chair”, and she thought that was a really cute idea. So in went the little yellow chair. On a lot of pages there’s little things like that.
So you’ve got a new book coming out, Maggie’s Monsters. What can you tell us about that?
It’s a similar idea of Maggie travelling around Scotland. But she’s not chucking mittens this time, she’s on the hunt for a monster. Maggie loves monsters. So the readers think she’s actually looking for a real monster. She’s got these binoculars, to help her along the way. And as she’s travelling around Scotland, she keeps thinking that she sees a monster. But actually it’s the eyes of a big seal, or it’s the claws of an eagle, or it’s the teeth of a wild cat. So we’re trying to look at monster features, like claws, and eyes, and spiky hair, but match them up to iconic Scottish wildlife and have her travelling around. And in the end, she sees a room full of eyes and hair and claws and actually it’s her cousins, and she realises that they’re the best monsters to play with. So it’s all just about really, Maggie at the start is maybe a bit lonely, and actually she’s just looking for somebody to play with rather than looking for a monster. It’s a funny one writing a second book, because suddenly there’s boundaries. Because you want it to be similar enough to the first one, but not too similar. So I found it much harder, actually, writing it.
Are you planning a whole series of Maggie books?
The publishers are wanting a trilogy, but actually we’ve been talking about the third one, and I don’t want the third one to be yet another trip around Scotland. I think two is fine, but then it would just be repetitive. So we’re thinking for the third one to not actually be a story book, but maybe some sort of activity book. Maybe a recipe book, maybe a colouring book, maybe a mixture of that. That’s not been decided upon, but it’s definitely in the pipeline.
And, finally, do you have a favourite children’s picture book?
One of my favourites is a really old one, it’s called Wake Up, Dad. It’s about a girl that comes in to the bedroom, she’s just trying to wake up mum and dad, and it’s really funny. I do like Going on a Bear Hunt, Peepo, all sorts. I don’t think I’ve got one favourite. Not one that sticks all the time, that I always go back to. When I was growing, I used to read The Snowman a lot. And it’s got no words in it, the original picture book. I loved that, because I’d make up my own words to it. And then sing the song, Walking Through the Air. So as a child, I remember reading The Snowman a lot and making up the story. Maybe that helped me make up my own stories.
And what great stories they are! Thank you so much to Coo for taking the time to meet me for a chat about her books! Maggie’s Mittens is available via Amazon and all good book shops, and Maggie’s Monsters is available for pre-order and will be released on 26th June.
Disclosure: Please note that all the book links in this post are Amazon affiliate links. That means if you buy any books via these links, I receive a small percentage – at no extra cost to you! – which helps to keep this blog running. Thank you.