Interview with Jo Cotterill, author of ‘Looking at the Stars’
Jo Cotterill’s first story at the age of five was a festive one entitled ‘Christmas’. After writing a lot of stories about unicorns, she decided, aged thirteen to become an actress. Her professional acting career was enjoyable but frustrating, so she became a teacher instead, writing stories on the side. Her first book was published in 2004, and she gave up teaching in 2009. Jo now lives in Oxfordshire and fits writing around her young family. She enjoys music and card-making, and is an avid fan of Strictly Come Dancing.
Jo has written books for Young Adults, the 9-13 age group and also teenagers who struggle with reading. Book Walrus has been a huge fan since Book Walrus reviewer Jodie reviewed Love Bites last year.
This year we were lucky enough to receive an advance copy of her fantastic new book, Looking at the Stars. Rachel and Amber (aged 10) enjoyed it so much we asked Jo if we could chat to her about it. Being a lovely lady, Jo said yes..
Amber: Hello Jo, I loved your book and it gave me a lot to think about. One thing I was wondering is whether the religion in the book has a name?
No, it doesn’t. In fact, if you look closely, there are hardly any references to religion. I was keen to avoid offending anyone by suggesting a particular religion, and I didn’t think it was relevant because to me, any system that decides one sex is better than the other is corrupt! And in Amina’s world, the Kwana definitely think women and girls aren’t as important as men. So it doesn’t matter what their religion is.
Is Talas based on a real town? If so, which country is it in?
There really is a Talas in Kyrgystan (my cousin lived there for a few years!) but it isn’t anything like the one I made up. As for the country, it could be in Africa or in the Middle East. The situation in Looking at the Stars is shockingly similar to the current situation in Syria, though I wrote the book way before the Syrian civil war started.
Where did you get the idea/inspiration for this book?
Back in 2007, the news was full of Iraq and Afghanistan. Refugees were pouring out of the country – and where were they supposed to go? Who was going to look after these poor people who had experienced such horrors? I started to wonder how I would cope in that situation. How would I not go mad with the awfulness of it all? And so Amina was created – a girl who lives for stories and imagination and doesn’t realise how important they are for keeping hopes alive.
Did you make up the stories about the stars, or are they based on existing stories?
I made all of them up.
Are any characters in this book based on people you know?
Not really. I suspect there is a lot of myself in Amina. I too can’t help asking ‘why can’t things be different?’ and getting into trouble for being too outspoken But the other characters aren’t based on specific people I know.
What writing techniques do you use to make a story sad?
Imagination. That’s all. I just imagine the scene playing in my head and try to write it as truthfully as I can. It is possible to make myself cry when writing a scene – and then I know I’ve probably done it well!
Are you going to write a sequel?
I would love to, but there are no concrete plans at the moment.
Amber: Well, I hope you do as I’d love to read it.
Rachel: Me too! Hi Jo, I hope you don’t mind if I jump in and add a couple more questions. I thought this was an incredibly powerful book and I was wondering if you think it’s the best thing you’ve created?
Back in 2007, I published a teenage novel called Red Tears (under the name Joanna Kenrick) which is another very powerful book and I’m very proud of it. However, I think my writing has matured since then and Looking at the Stars is a much more lyrical piece of storytelling – so yes, I think it probably is the best thing I’ve written. It’s also on a more epic scale than anything I’ve attempted before.
How do you feel about sending your book out there to be judged by others?
Nervous and excited. Deep down, I think it’s good. I want other people to think it’s good too – but there’s always that anxiety that someone won’t ‘get it’. I love getting good reviews and I try not to let bad ones bother me too much!
Is there a book you’ve read that you wish you’d written?
Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Genius, and so funny. I don’t write funny, though I wish I did!
Spooky! That’s exactly the book I would choose if I was asked the same question. Thank you very much for talking to us, Jo. We wish you all the luck in the world with your new book and we are sure it will be a HUGE success when it launches on Jan 30.
If you want to know more about Jo, you can visit her webpage here, or follow her on Twitter @JoCotterillbook.
She will also be doing a blog tour to launch the new book, which Book Walrus will be following: