By The Book: Coco Mellors’ New Novel Tackles Grief And Sisterhood Head On

"Don't be afraid to entertain"

Pic: Zoe Potkin

For the past two years, it’s been impossible not to walk past a bookshop window without seeing the iconic cover of Cleopatra and Frankenstein by Coco Mellors peering back at you.

The English author poured her heart and soul into the novel. And was rewarded by becoming a Sunday Times bestseller, being the subject of book clubs (and BookTok videos) and is now in the early stages of a TV adaptation. (Oh and Carrie Bradshaw even read it in And Just Like That!)

Her second novel, Blue Sisters, hit shelves this month and is already being devoured around the globe. When Coco steps out of the lift and meets us in the lobby of her hotel, she is all smiles. She’s apologetic for running late, she was putting her six-month-old son, Indigo, down for a nap. But she sits down to discuss her book baby with us…

Pic: Instagram/Coco Mellors

Hi Coco! Tell us a bit about your book, Blue Sisters.

I keep hearing it’s a tearful read! Blue Sisters is very much a family novel, it’s about four sisters, told from the perspective of three sisters in the wake of the death of one sister. So it follows the perspective of Lucky, the youngest, who is a model living in Paris, Bonnie who is a professional boxer who is living in LA working as a boxer at the start of the story and Avery who is a lawyer living in London, who is the typical eldest daughter. It’s really about the aftermath of the shocking death in the family and how the sisters are able to come back together.

This is your second book following the phenomenal success of Cleopatra and Frankenstein. Is it more nerve-wracking to be a debut author or to have those expectations from your readers for a second book?

There is nothing more vulnerable than a debut novel. Not only is it the first thing you’ve ever written but usually for a debut, most of your life leading up to that book informs the novel, so for me at least, it feels like a very big deal. Then the entire process of publishing, touring, press is all brand new. You’re thrown into the deep end of a new career and an industry. I loved being a debut author, it was an incredible experience. But with the second book, I’m so proud of this novel and I’m so close to it, but I also have the remove of knowing that I’m working on my third book, there will be another book, this is my job. Whatever the reader finds in the book is for the reader and it’s not for me to try to control or decide that. I really came to terms with that in my first book, readers had wildly different interpretations of that novel from each other and from what I expected. There’s a freedom to let go.

What is the first thing you do when you sit down to write?

I put my headphones on and listen to music. I like to find music that will fit the mood for the scene I’m writing.

What is a book from your childhood that has stayed with you?

I really loved Anne of Green Gables. And I loved that there were so many of them in the series. I’m someone who when a book that I love ends, I yearn for it, I long for it. I have a hard part separating. So I love a sixteen-part book series. I just want to stay in it for as long as possible. So I think that’s a book from my childhood that made a big difference.

Pic: Instagram/Coco Mellors

Who are three writers that inspire you?

I would say Zadie Smith, I love the diversity of her novels in terms of the genres she’s played with from her first to her most recent one. She’s just endlessly evolving as a writer and I think that’s really inspiring. Martin Amis just for his war on cliché thing. His sentences are immaculate and just incredible. He pays such attention to language and he was also my teacher in my MFA so he was a huge influence on me as a writer and also as a professor. Then I would say, Jonathan Franzen, I love all of his novels in all different ways. I think he’s incredible in family dynamics and that’s something I keep finding myself returning to. He’s got a great sense of humour as well.

The way you write sentences is so evocative. You really just build such an immersive world!

I think sentences are so important. It’s like that saying – ‘Take care of the pennies and the pounds will follow.’ If you take care of the sentences, the scene takes care of itself, and the novel takes care of itself. I keep the focus pretty granular and small and over time the novel gradually takes shape. But I don’t have to worry about the big picture until right at the very end when I’m editing.

What’s a book that you’ll never forget?

I don’t want to sound snobby or pretentious but I think a book that really changed my life is The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. I read it when I was probably about 15 for my high school English class. I just didn’t know you were allowed to write that way. I didn’t know you were allowed to be that structurally or formally experimental. It was such an emotional story for me as well, it’s an amazing family story. I remember reading it and feeling like someone had taken a sledgehammer to a pane of glass and the light flooded in inside of me. That book really changed my life. I don’t for the record think I write like Faulkner, but that book really did inspire me.

Do you have a favourite character that you’ve written?

It’s such a hard one because it’s like picking a favourite child. But I suppose in Blue Sisters, a lot of people say they relate to Bonnie. She has such a sweetness and she’s the moral centre of the story. But I think Avery, in terms of what she grapples with, the question of whether or not she wants to be a mother, the weight that she bares as the eldest child, as someone who is long-term sober, as a perfectionist and who often expresses her care in a way that is quite critical. I found her very challenging to write and I felt a lot of compassion for her by the end of the novel. So I carry her quite close to my heart. She’s the one who I think about quite a lot.

If you could go into a book universe, which would it be?

Oh, I’m trying to think if I would like to cleave close to reality or not. I used to read a lot of dystopian fiction, so everywhere I’m thinking is where I would not want to go! That’s a big decision!

What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?

This was drilled into me. My teacher, Rick Moody, said, ‘Don’t be afraid to entertain.’ I was in a MFA programme and one of the criticisms of MFAs is that they are self-regarding and insular. They specialise in literary fiction and we don’t really write genre or commercial fiction. So I think the work can get a little serious and you can forget that you are trying to write something that speaks to the human condition and hopefully stands the test of time. I am always trying to write something that the language itself has that interest and beauty, not something you look past to get to the plot. But at the same time you are competing with movies, television, social media, and real life which is one of the most engaging things of all. It’s never a given that anyone is going to keep reading you or even pick you up in the first place so I try to earn the readers’ attention and respect by asking, ‘Is this entertaining?’ That has been really crucial!

Is there a book you wish you could read again for the first time?

Yes, I think my favourite novel of all time is Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. The writing is just so lucid and life-affirming. The storyline is also so delicious and salacious and fun. There’s been a murder and it’s sexy and it’s set in Paris! It’s just such a fabulous read in addition to being one of the most beautifully written books. I just remember feeling so electrified the first time I read it. And it still does that. But there’s nothing like the first time with a book like that!

Forget dinner party guests, what would be your three dinner party books?

Oh like books, that I would like to have a conversation with? I think An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, I love that novel! Writers & Lovers by Lily King. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. Oh, can I say Middlemarch by George Elliot? That is such a comfort read for me. I would just have that there to have a good natter with in the kitchen!

What is your most prized possession – book-wise or otherwise?

My husband gave me for our first year wedding anniversary, which is paper, a first edition of Slyvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Of course, it’s a beautiful object. But it was just one of those moments, I already knew I had married the right person obviously because my daily life was proof of that, but when I opened that gift I was like, ‘Oh yes! This is the man for me.’

Do you read reviews?

I don’t have any hard or fast line on this like some authors. I read published reviews like in newspapers and online when Cleopatra and Frankenstein came out. I think I read Goodreads reviews I think once. But I don’t think that’s a good idea. It doesn’t matter how many good reviews you get, your body remembers the negative ones because you’re flooded with Cortisol and it literally imprints on the body in a different way. So I’ve had to be quite careful with myself. With Blue Sisters I’ve been sent a lot of reviews because people are really excited about it. That is really lovely but even in a positive review someone will say something negative. So I find myself wishing I hadn’t read it at all. My opinion is changing – I read some, not all. But I’m starting to move into the camp of don’t read any.

Pic: Instagram/Coco Mellors

Negative reviews seem to be much more popular than positive reviews, especially on social media right now. That must be tough…

I always wonder about that. But I suppose if it enrages, it engages. And when a book has die-hard fans, the opposite will be true, possibly to balance it out. I am very happy that people think about the book online and that people are engaged in it. But you have to separate the author from the writer. And as a writer, I have to stay very open and very vulnerable to the world. But as an author, I can’t stay that open and vulnerable because it would let in way too much noise. As an author, I have to stay really hard-headed. Good review, bad review, positive response, negative response, it’s all good for the book. It’s out there and people are talking about it.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

A lot of it comes from interacting with people. I’m very curious about the people I meet, I ask a lot of questions, and I’m always keeping my ears open for funny or strange anecdotes. I’ll often use something like that for the genesis of a scene but then once my imagination has gotten my teeth into it then it just goes somewhere completely made-up. There is no real-life seed for it anymore. I’m such a social person, I love being around people and my novels are pretty character-driven. They are just about humans. So neverending chats with people are my biggest inspiration!

We won’t spoil anything for your first book, Cleopatra and Frankenstein, but for those who have read it, they will know about Jesus, the sugar glider. How did you come up with that?

Well, that scene has an interesting story! I needed a crux where the couple couldn’t come back from. I knew in terms of the emotional plot of the novel that it was going to happen. But I didn’t know in terms of the literal plot of the novel what that was going to be. I spent a lot of time figuring out what that would be, I tried an unwanted pregnancy, I tried infidelity. But none of them felt right. But when I was single, I went on a Tinder date with a guy. I don’t drink so the conversations I have on dates would get really intense, really fast. So I asked him how he dealt with loneliness in New York. And he told me that he had a pet sugar glider when he first moved to the city. The date went on, we weren’t compatible but he walked me home. And as I turned to leave I asked him if he still had his sugarglider. He very casually said no, without spoiling anything, what happened in the book to the sugar glider, happened to his sugar glider. He told me this and just walked off into the night. So I went upstairs immediately and started writing that scene. It was odd and heartbreaking and strange. That’s the magic of writing fiction, you don’t know where your next piece of inspiration will come from.

What is your favourite genre to read? Is it the same as you write?

Oh, it’s hard to know because I’m never sure what genre I’m categorised in! Some people call it literary fiction and others call it contemporary fiction. I think I’m at a meeting point of commercial and literary fiction. And I think that’s what I love, I really, really love to read character-driven books. I read for language a lot. So if I’m not excited and delighted by the sentences and the way things are being described then it’s quite difficult for me to keep going. I read a lot for rhythm and cadence and that just draws me in. What happens plotwise can be so fun and I do love plot, but it’s not as important to me as the texture of the reading experience and the language of the book.

Blue Sisters by Coco Mellors is out now