Paula Cocozza: Journey to Publication

Paula Cocozza’s debut novel How To Be Human is shortlisted for this year’s Desmond Elliott Prize. We spoke to her about her journey to publication and her advice for aspiring authors.

What did you learn from the process of writing your debut?
To persist. To dwell in the emotional space and landscape of the story. To write down every crazy thought for something that might happen, just in case… To keep going until an end was reached. To plan each chapter before I started to write it… but to leave plenty of freedom to surprise myself. This happened quite often. To write the unsayable.

How did you celebrate the publication of your debut?
When I heard that the book was sold, I did a Morecombe and Wise-style skip down the street, then I went out to a pub called the Fox and Hounds in Hunsdon for a celebratory lunch with my best friend. I’ve still got the menu, which features a very handsome fox illustration. For the publication itself I celebrated with a launch party in a pub called The Fox. You can probably see a theme here…

Was there anything that surprised you about having your debut novel published?
I work on a daily newspaper, where you can have as little as a day to write even something lengthy, so the timescale was very different. But I got used to things happening more slowly, and in the end was glad of the time. I was surprised by how long it took to revise each draft, and also how endless this process could be. In How To Be Human, I wanted to interrogate every single word, so I edited with a ruler and pencil and it was ferociously time-consuming. But at the end of it, I could look my book in the face.

Tell us about your first author event.
My very first author event was at the Norwich festival, held at Dragon Hall, a medieval merchants hall which is home to the Writers Centre Norwich. I was a student on the creative writing MA at UEA. I read a section from the novel, though at the time I was just calling it a story. The Writers Centre Norwich is a fabulous organisation, a really welcoming and encouraging and nurturing place for a new writer to debut. It should have been scary but it was just incredibly enjoyable.

What are you working on now – and how different is the experience from writing your debut novel?
I am working on a novel-length story about life and loss, how technology is changing relationships, and whether you can ever get back what’s gone. I had thought that if I knew how to write one novel, I would know how to write the next. But it turns out I only knew how to write the first and I am learning afresh how to write the second. How To Be Human came to me sequentially. One thing happened after another and I knew my way to the midpoint before I started. This current story I am writing from the inside out. It is spreading around me rather than throwing me a long thread to follow. It has been a more relaxed writing process… but I have needed to encourage myself because there has been less visible progress (i.e. the word count has grown more slowly). Still, I’m happy. It seems right to me that a different story needs a different process and a different form.