Q&A with Paula Cocozza

How to be Human by Paula CocozzaWe spoke to Paula Cocozza about her debut novel, How to be Human, and what it’s like to be longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize.

When Mary arrives home from work one day to find a magnificent fox on her lawn – his ears spiked in attention and every hair bristling with his power to surprise – it is only the beginning. He brings gifts (at least Mary imagines they are gifts) and gradually makes himself at home. And as he listens to Mary, Mary listens back. She begins to hear herself for the first time in years. Her bullish ex-boyfriend, still lurking on the fringes of her life, would be appalled. So would the neighbours with a new baby. They only like wildlife that fits with the décor. But inside Mary, a wildness is growing that will not be tamed.

Praise from the Desmond Elliott Prize:  “In her garden of earthy delights, a young woman takes a walk on the wild side that will lead her back to herself. In this parallel wilderness, reality bites with insouciant wit. For Mary Green, Cocozza has created a persona as winning and as wily as her invited guest, a couple couched at peace and not at bay. Nature and nurture confide in epicurean harmony. She takes us under their skin, to explore and to interpret with divining skill, and to touch the heart. Anthropomorphism made eloquence, realism made magical.”

Where did the idea for your debut novel come from?

I was helping some neighbours clear a wasteland behind our gardens. It had always seemed a magical space: somewhere to look at from an upstairs window, but never enter. The nettles were head-high. In April the wild garlic flowered. When we climbed over our back walls we found all sorts of waste. A rabbit hutch, old bicycles, the rusty arms of wheelbarrows, hundreds of ornamental green bottles, coils of old mattresses, and spade after spade of broken glass. It was impossible to put a fork in the earth without pulling out rubbish. While we worked, I became conscious of being watched. Sometimes the fox – or should that be foxes? – hung around. Other times, we would go out in the morning and find the fox had left some kind of message. When I dug a hole, the fox dug a hole inside my hole. When I put down turf, the fox lifted it up. It was easy to read into these moments some kind of kindred language of gesture and action. I became interested in the way the fox could be pure fox, just going about its fox business, yet a human could feel sympathetically addressed. Both things were simultaneously possible. I remember saying aloud, ‘I’m going to write a story about a fox.’ My neighbour looked bemused. I said it again, and he still looked bemused. I didn’t realise it was a novel for months. It just grew.

How does it feel to be longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize?

To have the book appreciated and valued by a judging panel for a prize whose literary values I have always respected feels fortifying and heartening and wonderful. I work as a journalist in my day job and fiction writing is a bit of a secret life, so to be recognised for it feels as if someone has lifted up the stone I hide under and seen me! I’m enjoying the sun on my back.

What was the most challenging thing about your journey to becoming a published author?

Making a commitment to write. I grew up humble and shy. All my life I had been writing in my head. But it never occurred to me, even in my 30s, that I might be able to write fiction on paper. In my day job at the time I edited rather than wrote. But I was unhappy in my work. I went away for a couple of nights and packed a big, blank sheet of card. I planned to fathom out my next move. I remember writing down ‘gardener’ and ‘fitness instructor’ – ideas that seemed hilarious pretty soon after – and ‘writer’. When I looked at the sheet, all the words about writing were clustered at one end, and all the energy on the page was there. It was as if I had tipped up the paper and everything had slid to that corner. My brain had thought it, my hand had written it. It must be true. I applied for a creative writing MA. I knew that would be the only way I would ever commit. I had a job three long days a week and two young children. I needed to make writing mandatory, irrefusable, a timetabled part of my life.

What one piece of advice would you give to an aspiring novelist?

Keep going till you reach the end.

What is your favourite debut novel of all time?

God’s Own Country by Ross Raisin. I love the narrative voice, the skewed pastoral, the humour on the edge of horror. I reread it when I was getting started and it helped me to understand the importance of landscape… even if the landscape for me was an east London garden.