5 questions for Carolyn Jess Cooke [INTERVIEW]
“Alex Broccoli is ten years old, likes onions on toast, and can balance on the back legs of his chair for fourteen minutes. His best friend is a 9000-year-old demon called Ruen. When his depressive mother attempts suicide yet again, Alex meets child psychiatrist Anya. Still bearing the scars of her own daughter’s battle with schizophrenia, Anya fears for Alex’s mental health and attempts to convince him that Ruen doesn’t exist. But as she runs out of medical proof for many of Alex’s claims, she is faced with a question: does Alex suffer from schizophrenia, or can he really see demons?”
Stacey Plowright: what made you decide to use Broccoli as Alex’s last name? And (I apologise if this is covered in the text) how does Alex feel about his namesake?
I often find that a character’s name comes to me quite easily and quickly, and once it arrives it tends to stick. Alex’s name – which admittedly is a bit different – was just ‘there’ from the outset. Conversely, one of the other characters had a different name from the beginning and I had to change it very late into the editorial process – I still find it difficult to refer to this character by their new name!
Tom Ashton: Your choice of 10-year-old boy as main character in a novel tackling mental health or commenting on it reminded me of ‘The curious incident of the dog in the night’. Do you think you it makes a difference what the age/gender of the character is in the context of a story exploring a condition such as schizophrenia – would some age/gender combinations be more attractive to readers than others?
Alex’s age was significant to me because he is essentially at the threshold of maturity, with one foot in childhood innocence and the other in an adult-like understanding of his world around him. His age is key to the manifestation of Ruen and also his processing of what happened in the past. In terms of researching schizophrenia, I found that cases such as Alex’s were very rare but nonetheless they do tend to occur. With regards to making him more attractive to readers, I’m not sure – certainly the child’s perspective is one I enjoy writing!
Kazzy Breonka Stallwood: what was the main inspiration for this novel – what made you pick a topic that would adress mental health problems? Even if, as the description says, the demon might not be an imaginary friend?
The main inspiration was the relationship between Alex and Ruen and the blurring between real and fantasy – the mental health issue grew as my research into the area increased. When I wrote Anya I knew that Alex’s claims would involve an investigation into mental health issues, and as I looked into the specific kinds of mental illness and the services provided – as well as social attitudes to both – I realised I was writing about something very taboo and very misunderstood.
Emily Milsom: was it hard to balance the story between Alex’s reality and the reality known to the rest of us (where demons do not exist) without being condescending towards Alex’s age and condition?
I would say no, because I sympathised so much with Alex and just wrote his story as he told it. And besides, Anya queries whether they do exist or not and hopefully the ending doesn’t decide for the reader either way!
Murni Budiadi: if Anya then believed that Alex could see Ruen, would she be able to communicate with the demon? In what ways?
At one point she does believe this and she does communicate with him, or rather he attempts to communicate with her on an extremely personal and sinister level….
Carolyn Jess Cooke, curious incident of the dog in the night, Emily Milsom, Kazzy Breonka Stallwood, Murni Budiadi, Stacey Plowright, The Boy Who Could See Demons, The Guardian Angel's Journal, Tom Ashton
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