Writer's Notebook

Interview with Hugh Cook

Posted on January 9, 2016 at 1:00 PM




Hugh Cook is one of the speakers at this year’s Festival of Faith and Writing. He is the author of four books, Heron River, At Home in Alfalfa, The Homecoming Man, and Cracked Wheat and Other Stories. Cook is also a poet, and has been published in literary journals such as Malahat Review, Descant, and Fiddlehead, among others. He also runs an editing service to help writers.

Cook currently resides with his wife in Ontario, Canada, where he is a retired professor from Redeemer University College.


I was on the Festival website looking through the list of speakers when I saw Mr. Cook and his website. I thought, "How cool would it be if he let me interview him at the Festival?" I decided to take a chance and email him, and he emailed me back within an  hour, asking if I maybe wanted to interview him over email now, and then meet up at the Festival. So, here is the interview, and be sure to look for a post around the Festival in April of us meeting in person:


 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL

 

You were born in the Netherlands. Do you have any memories from there?

 

HUGH COOK

 

Yes, I still have a number of vivid memories. I’ll share one. My father owned a dairy products store a twenty-minute walk away from the North Sea, and on summer days I carried my shovel and pail and trekked to the beach where my mother held a towel in front of me while I shimmied into my bathing suit. I built sand castles and dug moats in the wet beach flats and occasionally ventured into the frigid water of the North Sea whose shocking salt taste, when a wave snuck up on me and I swallowed a mouthful, I still remember today.

My father would not be at the beach with us for he would be in our store selling milk and eggs and bulbous balls of Edam and Gouda cheese sitting ceremoniously in rows on wooden shelves after my father had taken them from their rectangular wooden boxes, and my brothers and sister and I would chew the wax the cheese came wrapped in and pretend it was chewing gum. Eggs came to the store in flats from the farm and when my father discovered a cracked egg he would not discard it but would lean back his head and tip the raw egg into his mouth and swallow it whole—we had just come through the Hunger Winter of ‘44 when people ate tulip bulbs, and we’d learned not to waste food.

 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL

 

How old were you when your family moved to Canada?

 

HUGH COOK

 

I was seven years old.

 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL

 

Did you enjoy school? What was your favorite subject? Were there any subjects that you absolutely hated?

 

HUGH COOK

 

The first several months while I was learning English were difficult, for I would often have no idea what the teacher was saying. But children learn languages quickly, and so did I. I soon developed a love for story. My father read from the children’s Bible at supper table every evening, and that was my first introduction to the power of narrative. On the one hand these stories from the Old Testament were historical-redemptive stories of the faith, but they were also what fairy tales are to other children, for they contain the same enchantment and magic and witchcraft and bloodthirstiness and undercurrent of sexuality that fairy tales have. A donkey speaks; an axehead floats on water; an evil king visits a witch’s hovel in the night in order to speak to the spirit of a dead prophet; a painted, wicked queen is thrown from a tower so that her blood spatters against the stone wall and the horses’ hooves; a king stands on his palace roof spying on a naked woman and then has sex with her after arranging her husband’s murder. Thus I was read to by my father every day. It follows as I went through school that English became my favorite subject. I was less enamored of mathematics and the sciences.

 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL

 

When did you know that you wanted to write?

 

HUGH COOK

 

When I was in college and first started writing poems. But because of my early love of story as I described it earlier I believe I was destined to be a writer before I even knew it.

 


ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL

 

When did you consider yourself a writer?

 

HUGH COOK

 

Well, it’s a slow – and never-ending – process. You begin by sending off writing to literary journals and receive a lot of rejection slips. (I once heard Brent Lott, a fine writer and author of a dozen or so books, say at a Festival of Faith and Writing that he had collected 596 rejection slips over the years. 596!) Then if you’ve worked hard and you’re lucky you get your first acceptance, and another, and another. Are you a writer? You’re still not sure, but you believe you’re on the way. One very important moment when I was still writing stories for my M.F.A. at the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa occurred when my instructor mentioned something about “when your first book comes out.” When, not if. I was taken aback, because I hadn’t begun to think in those terms yet. But then your first book does indeed come out – am I a writer now? Well, maybe, but not unless I’m able to do it again. And so on. So, after four books am I a writer? I think so, but I don’t let it go to my head.

 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL

 

Why do you write?

 

HUGH COOK

 

I find this a difficult question to answer. I’ve always been the kind of person who wants to do the things I admire, so I wish I could dunk a basketball or play the cello or ice skate or be a gourmet cook or paint well. And having been an avid reader my whole life it was an easy next step for me to start writing the thing I admired, namely stories. I think why I write, then, is to make the kind of stories I myself enjoy. I also find that when I’m writing I live life more intensely, live life on a higher plane as it were, like an athlete who’s “in shape.” Food tastes better, music sounds better, the world’s a more beautiful place.

 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL

 

To follow up the answer to why you write, do you have any quirky hidden talents?

 

 HUGH COOK

 

I was once a pretty decent soccer player, but no, not really. I’m disgustingly average.

 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL

 

How often do you write? Do you have a schedule that you stick to?

 

HUGH COOK

 

I started teaching before I started writing seriously, and because it’s very difficult to make a living from writing, especially when you have a family, I’ve had to continue teaching. That has meant that my writing schedule is shaped by the academic year. For nine months I teach, which to me is an all-consuming activity, so that while I might be making notes, I’m unable to do any actual writing during that time. Then in May I have to turn that huge ship around from literary analysis and marking student papers to narrative and image and character and metaphor. So for most of my life, summers has been my writing time.

 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL

 

How long does it usually take you to write a book?

 

HUGH COOK

 

That’s varied from book to book. If you see that my four books were published in 1985, 1989, 1998 and 2011 you’ll notice that each of my books took me longer to write than the last. I’m not sure why.

 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL

 

Do you have a similar process for writing that you have followed for most of your works?

 

HUGH COOK

 

Cracked Wheat and Other Stories, my first book, was written longhand with a fountain pen. During my writing of The Homecoming Man, my second book, the personal computer came out, so the second half of that novel was written by computer. As were my other books. I’m an inveterate reviser of my writing as I go along, so you can see that I love writing on the computer. It simplifies the process. One American writer has said that had the computer existed at the beginning of his writing career he would have written three or four more novels, and I believe it.

As for what my writing day is like, I go to my writing room no later than 9:00, most mornings I’ll do some devotions, then turn on my computer. I take a break for lunch (often running downstairs to change something in a sentence), then go back to writing. When I find my concentration flagging – it could be 2:00 or 3:00 o’clock – then I stop for the day. (And again in the evening often going downstairs to revise a sentence running through my head).

 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL

 

What is the hardest thing about writing? What is the easiest thing about writing?

 

HUGH COOK

 

I don’t know whether there’s anything easy about writing. There are two kinds of writers: ones who suppress their inner grammarian and go with the flow and get that first draft out, and those who painstakingly move along. I’m the second type. I can’t move from one sentence to the next unless I’m satisfied with the one I’ve just written. It’s not unusual for me to spend an hour on one sentence, or a whole morning on a paragraph. For me, it’s like trying to put the toothpaste back into the tube. That being said, I think beginnings are always hard, getting a story or a novel off the ground and you’re trying to find out what this thing is all about.

 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL

 

How do you handle writer’s block?

 

HUGH COOK

 

Not well, I’m afraid. I know there’s all kinds of advice on how to break writer’s block, much of it conflicting – one writer says he does weeding, another says write anything, anything at all, even if it’s crap, a third says to journal, a fourth says there’s no such thing, still another says to walk around the block, and so on. I’m not sure what to say, other than to go back to reading whatever it was that turned you on to writing in the first place and see if that gets you going once more.

 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL

 

What are you currently working on?

 

HUGH COOK

 

It’s usually taken me some time to move from one book to the next, so it’s not surprising to me that I haven’t begin a new project since Heron River, my last novel. We’ll see where things take me.

 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL

 

Are you part of (or have you ever been part of) a writing group?

 

HUGH COOK

 

I haven’t been, but I strongly encourage everyone to be part of a group that meets regularly. What I have done is to have writers whose reading and editing skills I trust read the manuscript before I submit it to my publisher.

 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL

 

Do you have any writers that have mentored you?

 

HUGH COOK

 

Other than my writing instructors at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, not personally, no. I’m addicted, however, to reading books on the craft of fiction writing. Plus, any book of fiction I read I pay attention to matters of craft.

 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL

 

Do you mentor any writers?

 

HUGH COOK

 

Not on a personal, sustained basis. I do freelance editing of fiction manuscripts, however (I have a standing ad in the magazine Poets and Writers, if anyone is interested, or check my website www.hugh-cook-ca), and I’ve mentored/edited short story and novel manuscripts for people from Alaska to Florida and from California to Maine. A number of them have had their manuscripts published.

 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL

 

Do you write yourself into any of your books or stories?

 

HUGH COOK

 

No, I don’t, but I believe that aspects of your character and how you look at the world inevitably creeps in to some of your characters.

 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL

 

Looking at your works as a whole, do they have a theme that runs through each of them? Does your life have a theme that you see reflected in your writing?

 

HUGH COOK

 

Pretty well all of my fiction explores the immigrant theme. My characters come almost exclusively from the Dutch Canadian immigrant community. So one central theme that appears in my fiction deals with that community’s values and beliefs and traditions being displaced and relocated into a new setting. Perhaps because I am an immigrant I think the concomitant theme of a search for home also enters into some of my work. The word “home” appears in the titles of two of my books. And perhaps all Christians ultimately long for an eternal home.

 

 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL

Are you married?

 

HUGH COOK

Yes, I’m married.

 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL

Has that affected your writing?

 

HUGH COOK

 

I think one’s writing will inevitably be flavored by being married and having a family. Your experience of having a spouse and children gives you a great deal to write about! It would be hard for me to write about these things strictly from my imagination. Having a satisfying home life with my family has also provided a stable environment for me to do my writing. It’s sometimes been said that if you want to be a writer you should focus on it and not get married, but I would advise wannabe writers exactly the opposite.

 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL

 

Is there any advice you would give a new writer who has also recently been married?

 


HUGH COOK

 

I’m tempted to repeat the Old Testament’s wisdom: “Enjoy the wife of your youth.” Let the love the two of you share spill out into a love for the world, so that all its wondrous variety and beauty may find its way into your writing. And already embark on an active life of reading.

 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL

 


In high school and college, I was told to “read like a writer.” How do you read?

 


HUGH COOK

 


I think there are different kinds of readers. Immature readers read in order to turn pages, to find out what happens next. Intelligent readers read a book to find out what it means. A writer reads and asks, “How did she do that?” In other words, paying attention to the craft.

 



ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL

 


Do you read a lot while you write?

 


HUGH COOK


 

Absolutely! In a way, I’m never not thinking story, and I’m never not reading. You might say, Isn’t that a little bit obsessive? Yes, but that’s what it takes to write books. I think you can’t be a writer without being a compulsive reader.


ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL

Who are your favorite authors?

HUGH COOK


Probably the one writer to whom I owe the most is Flannery O’Connor, for I happened to read her work at a crucial stage in my writing life. I’d been writing poetry and had experienced a writing block that lasted five years. Reading O’Connor’s stories set in the South made me realize the importance of one’s community, and until then I had not thought of writing about my Dutch Canadian immigrant experience and my Dutch Canadian community, which I then set out to do. O’Connor also modeled for me that a writer who was Christian could write excellent fiction without writing the cheesy kind of fiction one sees in Christian bookstores. So she was a writer who was strategic to my development.

Since I’m Canadian there are also Canadian writers who have been important to me, writers who American readers may not be familiar with. There’s Alice Munro, a brilliant writer of short stories, who won the Nobel prize for Literature in 2013. There’s also Alistair MacLeod from the Maritimes, who has written powerful and haunting (not haunted!) short stories. One of the things that appeals to me in both their stories is a strong sense of place, how their stories could not have happened anywhere else. And there’s their creation of memorable characters, of course.

I’m also an avid reader of American writers such as Richard Ford and Annie Proulx and Kent Haruf and Cormac McCarthy and Tim Gautreaux and David Rhodes for the reasons I’ve mentioned above – so many great writers!


 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL


 

You called it 'cheesy fiction', do you like being labeled as a Christian writer, or do you wish that people would see you as 'just a writer'?


 

HUGH COOK


 

“Christian writer” is a term that people fill with their own meaning. For some it means the well-meant (I hope) but yet dishonest fiction on the shelves of Christian bookstores. To be a Christian writer is a vocation that one works out in the sanctity of his or her writing room. What it means for Marilynne Robinson it not what it means for, say, Rudy Wiebe, and what it means for Annie Dillard is not what it means for Anne Lamott. Each writer works this out for him- or herself. But if by “Christian writer” you mean it in the best sense of the phrase as represented by any of these writers I mention, then I have no difficulty with being labeled a Christian writer.


 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL


 

I am studying to be a high school English teacher. What advice would you give to teachers who write on the side?


 

HUGH COOK


 

Teaching leaves little time to write – oh, how I know – but if you’re really serious about your writing, try to carve out little pockets of time if you can. Then, when summer comes, take as short a vacation as possible, and devote the summer to writing. And read as much as possible during the school year.


 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL


 

You taught creative writing at Redeemer University College. Did any of your students go on to be published writers or poets?


 

HUGH COOK


 

Yes. I can think of four or five right off, and there may be more.


 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL


 

Have you written any books that haven’t been published?


HUGH COOK


 

Fortunately, whatever books I’ve written have been published.


 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL


 

Have any of your works been rejected?


 

HUGH COOK


 

A number of short stories I’ve written have been rejected. To be a writer means you will experience rejection. All writers go through this.


 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL


 

Are your books written in order of publication, or are they published out of order?


 

HUGH COOK


 

My four books were all published in the order they were written.


 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL


 

What was it like to be published for the first time? What kind of emotions were swirling around?


 

HUGH COOK


 

Utter elation and excitement! You hold a hard copy of the book in your hands and realize this is something you wrote. All your life you’ve loved literature and books, and now you realize you’ve joined that tribe of writers you’ve always admired. Then, after a day or so, you turn sober and tell yourself, don’t let it go to your head. And realize you will have to do it again.


 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL


What advice do you have for unpublished writers and poets?


 

HUGH COOK


 

Write, write, write, and read, read, read. Read as a writer reads, with an eye to matters of craft. Check out literary journals where you might send your first stories and poems. Keep a journal or a file containing notes that help you to keep a record of ideas useful for your writing.


 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL


 

Do you hear from your readers much?


HUGH COOK


 

At times, but frankly, not as much as I’d like. Every once in a while someone will come up to me and tell me how much they enjoyed one of my books and I think, I wish you would have written me that. Ironically, I thought that with the advent of email, making communication so much easier than snail mail, I would hear more from readers, but the reverse is true. If I look into my files containing responses from readers, I see more cards and brief letters than I see emails.


 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL


 

What is the best feedback you have received on your own work? What is the worst?


 

HUGH COOK


 

Several people have told me that a particular character I created was very lifelike and the exact image of their father, say. That pleases me a lot. I also received a nasty letter once from a reader saying that he wasn’t criticizing me, but that I shouldn’t have portrayed something the way I did in one of my stories. I wrote him back as gently as I could that of course he was criticizing me, and that his critique lacked a good deal of love, and that I felt justified in writing what I had written.


 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL


 

Did you enjoy teaching creative writing at Redeemer University College?


HUGH COOK


 

Absolutely, a great deal! It helped keep me in touch with matters of writer’s craft during the academic year. And to have one of your students be admitted into an MFA program or later to come out with a book of their own is immensely gratifying. Students taking creative writing can be very eager learners.


 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL


 

You are a speaker at the Festival of Faith and Writing this year. Have you spoken there before?


 

HUGH COOK


 

I’ve been fortunate to have been invited to speak or read at every one of the Festivals of Faith and Writing since the very first one in 1990, when about 100 people came, Now 1500 festival-goers attend! The Festival is always one of the highlights of the year, for me. A little foretaste of what the new heaven and earth will be like: one giant arts festival!


 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL


 

How did you find out that they wanted you as a speaker?


 

HUGH COOK


 

Boy, I’m trying to remember. 1990 – was email around at that time already? If not, I just received a personal letter inviting me.


 

ALEXANDRIA MAXWELL


 

How did you feel about it? Do you like public speaking?


 

HUGH COOK


 

I was terribly flattered, of course. I’d only just come out with my second book in 1989; both it and my first book of stories received positive reviews in Reformed publications. Both books portrayed Dutch Reformed immigrants to Canada. Calvin College of course is a college of the Christian Reformed Church. And I happen to be a Calvin grad, which no doubt also helped.

Yes, I enjoy public speaking, especially reading from my work. I’ve spoken or read at a number of Christian colleges in Canada and the U.S., and relish the invitations.

 

--End Interview--

* I met Mr. Cook after one of his short story workshops at the Festival, and we instantly bonded over hockey and fishing!

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