Every writer dreams of having the kind of success Ellison Cooper has had with her debut novel “Caged,” a dark but fast-paced and engrossing tale of an FBI agent’s frantic race against time to track down a serial killer who has a real issue with twins. The first of a three-book deal, Caged has received wide acclaim, including being named by Publishers Weekly as one of their “Best Summer Books of 2018.” We sat down with Cooper recently to talk about the book, her commitment to writing strong female characters and the need to write the book you want to write.
Open Mic: The reviews for “Caged” have been uniformly very good. Your background is primarily in academia, which has taken you to some really interesting places. How did you come to choose this genre for your first novel?
Cooper: Well, the genre specifically because it’s what I read. I love thrillers of all kinds, and especially the police procedural or suspense thriller are what I obsessively read. So it just made sense. It was the most direct line between what I love to read and what I love to write.
Open Mic: You’re backstory sounds like a novel unto itself. Your expertise in archaeology is evident in the storyline, but you are also a former murder investigator. Did you ever consider an autobiography?
Cooper: A number of people have asked that but I just don’t like talking about myself all that much. I’m sort of a restless person and I’ve obviously jumped around a lot in my life, really before I settled down into anthropology and archaeology I did a lot of different things. I wouldn’t even know how to frame it all, and I just don’t love the idea of talking about myself for a whole book.
Open Mic: Your story refreshingly has far less of the usual gore found in stories detailing serial killers. Was this a conscious decision?
Cooper: That was definitely a conscious decision, I love serial killer books. It’s one of my favorite genres, but the thing I like the least is that I often feel like there is almost a glorification or loving description of the violence, and that’s just not of any interest to me. I really dislike it if they go too far down that road. So while I like the sort of dark and psychological aspects of why people do these kinds of things, my own personal interest in these kinds of stories are the survivors, the people who are victims. So I very specifically don’t ever go into the mind of the killer. I very specifically stay in the mind of the victim. And I wanted to depict those women as very agentive in their own survival, so showing their fierceness and their determination as a survivor.
Open Mic: It’s actually something I noticed right away. You don’t dwell on the violence and sadism of these people, which as a reader I find very refreshing.
Cooper: Thank you so much. I mean it, thank you for appreciating it and seeing it. It’s one thing I really, really struggle with as both a feminist and a writer, and as a reader too. I often ask myself why I like reading these books? I’ve really examined what is happening here and what I am getting out of these books as a woman and as a feminist, and that’s definitely one of the things I realized: it’s the survivor stories. In most traditional serial killer books it’s the cop or the detective that overcomes the serial killer, but I really wanted it to also be the victims standing against these killers in some way.
Open Mic: I’m all about process here, so tell me how you developed the character of Sayer Altair. Did you have a plot in mind that gave rise to her, or did she come first?
Cooper: A little bit of both. I knew what I wanted the main twist to be pretty early on. The concept of the book came about during a conversation with my husband where I was actually looking for a book to read and I said to him, ‘I wish somebody would write a book about archaeology, neuroscience, and dogs.’ Then I said ‘that’s the book I should write next.’ In terms of Sayer, my main character, I knew I wanted to write a very fierce, very intelligent, very driven woman character and she was born out of that desire.
Open Mic: I enjoy books with strong female characters. In that vein, I can’t take one more “Girl on the Train” like book. I know it was a great book an all, but it just feels like that character is an idiot who just keeps doing dumber and dumber things and somehow it all works out, and that’s just not how the real world is. I’m far more interested in strong people who make smart decisions and then live with the consequences. Isn’t that more interesting?
Cooper: Yes! It’s funny because I joke with friends about whether Sayer would be willing to be called a girl in the title. I think she would say “You want to call me what? No way.”
Open Mic: You were born and raised in the DC area. In many ways, DC is a character unto itself in thrillers, though usually of the espionage or political variety. Why base “Caged” there instead of another locale?
Cooper: Partially because I grew up there, so it was the easiest in terms of research and just knowing the character of the city. But there is actually going to be a little bit more politics [in future books in the series], although it will never be a political thriller by any stretch of the imagination. But I did want the potential tension of political interference. Which I have to say, when I started writing this could I have never in a million years predicted what’s happening now politically. I thought the things I came up with were so far-fetched they would never be believed, but now they seem kind of adorable compared to the reality of it. But I did want especially the tension between political funding and the FBI to be able to be an ongoing tension.
Open Mic: Many people are fascinated by the criminal mind, understanding why bad guys – especially the really, really bad guys – do the awful things they do. Your protagonist Sayer Altair is maybe even more fascinated with that than with solving crimes. Do you plan to follow that thread in future books in the series?
Cooper: Yes. I’ve already finished the second book and that actually becomes a very big part of the story. I don’t want to spoil anything but one of the main things is that her research has shifted a little bit to focus on what are called pro social psychopaths, which is a real thing. These are people who would test as a psychopath on a psychopathic checklist and who might even have an affirmative diagnosis, but have often channeled their psychopathy into social ways. So specifically like politicians, many lawyers, some police, people like bomb squad folks who have taken their psychopathy or their psychopathy tendencies and channeled them into ways that are beneficial to themselves and the people around them. So she is asking how these people are able to channel these psychopathic tendencies and their lack of empathy and inability to connect emotionally into these positive ways whereas serial killers end up killing a bunch of people. She is struggling with what happened [in the first book] and how we can understand what psychopathy is on a fundamental level, and how we help people with this type of brain become better members of society.
Open Mic: I think every writer dreams of having the kind of debut success you are experiencing. Tell me a bit about how this been for you. I understand the book came about in great part because your son became very ill, correct?
Cooper: Yeah, that’s right. I was a professor and I always loved the idea of fiction writing. I sort of tooled around with a few books when I was in graduate school but I never really took it all that seriously. When my son was born he got quite sick and I had to quit my job to become a full time caretaker just to make sure he could get to all his appointments and therapists and stuff like that. So that was obviously a huge change in my life and I had to figure out what I was going to do with myself. I’m not the kind of person who can just sit idly by and I needed something to fill that space, so that’s actually why I started focusing on writing fiction. I don’t even know how to process it sometimes. I don’t know how to frame it, other than the best thing that ever happened in terms of my own career success coming out of the worst thing that’s ever happened in my life. So it is a very emotionally strange experience for me. And obviously I’m thrilled and could not be happier. I feel like I got so lucky with my agent and my editor. They are just amazing. And then there’s been all this great buzz for my debut. So yeah, it’s been an amazing experience, especially to have this silver lining aspect to this horrible thing.
Open Mic: Is your son okay now?
Cooper: He’s doing great now. Thank you for asking. And actually its interesting because when I was writing Caged he was emerging from the time when we were really worried about what was going to happen. Somebody joked about me writing a hopeful serial killer novel, and I feel like that’s kind of true because I was also actually emerging from this darkness and trying to write about characters in love who are also struggling with awful things and having these moments of joy. I wanted the strange emotional mix to be in there because it’s what I was experiencing at the time.
Open Mic: Do you read reviews?
Cooper: I really try not to but it would be a total lie if I said I don’t. I try not to obsessively read them, but it’s hard not to. So yes, I’ve certainly read more than I should. I don’t see any value. I don’t think it’s necessarily a good idea. I’m less interested in the media reviews but I’ve definitely enjoyed reading the reader reviews and seeing what they enjoyed and what they didn’t enjoy. That’s really interesting and good for me.
Open Mic: Whether you are self-published or you’ve got a great deal with a legacy house, you end up doing a lot of your own marketing. How has that been for you?
Cooper: It’s been interesting. I’m definitely learning. I just didn’t know anything about the publishing world before this all happened so it has been sort of a crash course in how it even works. I’m actually enjoying the learning process. It is a lot tougher than I understood, especially now that I’m meeting other debut authors and learning what kind of marketing everybody is getting. It’s been a definite process, the actual marketing. I’m not good at it at all but I enjoy things like interviews just because I like talking to people. So that aspect has actually been fine. But it’s an interesting thing because everybody always feels like they could be doing more. You know, ‘what else should I be doing, who else should I be trying to talk to?’
Open Mic: Have you gone back to your previous work at all, or are you now able to make writing your full time work?
Cooper: I’m able to write full time but now, I definitely miss the teaching aspect of academia. I don’t miss many other aspects of academia really, so I think if I can make a go of this as a career I could imagine going back and teaching the occasional classes here and there and I would really enjoy that. But I’m hoping that I can make this work so I can keep writing full time.
Open Mic: What is your writing schedule like? Do you have a set number of words or pages you produce every day?
Cooper: No. I’ve set my expectations low because I find that that motivates me more. I started off trying to make myself write 3,000 words a day and that felt almost insurmountable at times, so I said, ‘okay I’ll try to write 200 words a day.’ That’s great because once I get started I know I can vomit up 200 words no problem. And then once I get started I always keep going. So I don’t really have requirements. I know in my mind that at the end of this month I really want to be 30,000 words in, so I have more of a big monthly goal type push to continue writing. But I don’t have a set schedule.
Open Mic: You also do short stories. How does that differ for you than longer work? Does it change anything about how you work?
Cooper: Yes. I feel like I can just do whatever I want when I’m writing a short story, which is why I think I’ve written about 100 short stories and only five or six of them have been published. I think I just let myself go a little crazy, which is very fun as a writer to be able to just experiment with voice and even maybe some strange narrative structure and that kind of thing. I don’t want to call it a pallet cleanser, but it’s such a contained world that I feel like I can just come up with a really interesting character and tell a story about that person. Or a really strange moment and then tell that story without all the outlining and the need to come up with these moving pieces.
Open Mic: Do you use outlines, or do you figure out the story as you go along?
Cooper: I definitely outline. But then the outline gets completely changed as I’m writing, so I’m actually a whiteboarder. I have, right now I have almost 15 or 20 whiteboards because I need to see things visually. I have an actual plot outline and I have a character arc whiteboard and main events, and a timeline whiteboard, so I have lots of different kinds of outlines for the stories. I realized that I use those sort of as bumpers because once I’m writing I need to ignore the outline so I just kind of go where the story tells me to go. I’ve been surprised by things that have happened and then I careen off that and the outline and that puts me in the larger story. I don’t know how else to describe it.
Open Mic: How about your environment – do you need music, or silence or something else to get your creativity flowing?
Cooper: It doesn’t matter. I’m pretty lucky in that I can tune out everything around me when I’m really focused, so I can work at a coffee shop or with music. The only thing is I can’t really work at home if there is nobody helping me watch my son because then he wants lots of attention and that pulls me out of it so that’s about the only thing I can’t do.
Open Mic: Who do you like to read?
Cooper: Ooh that’s hard. Definitely Lisa Gardner, who has been a favorite of mine even though she does a little bit more domestic-y type stuff than I usually like. I just love her ability to write characters and make the plot very emotionally intense. I love Jeffery Deaver, who I think is just an amazing plotter. Michael Connelly is an ongoing favorite. I could just go on and on. In contrast, I don’t mean to disparage the new love for the unreliable narrator but I do not enjoy those kinds of books. That is definitely not my cup of tea. I want to read about a character who is sort of a white hat, who might not be always within the boundaries of the law but they are very driven by their own code of conduct. That’s definitely my favorite kind of book.
Open Mic: What kind of book do you have trouble putting down?
Cooper: I think about a lot of this as a writer. I want people to feel like they can’t put a book down that I’ve written. I think we have a human need to find out what happens. I like when somebody can create a question in my mind and a character that I care about to where I think I can’t not find out what happens next. And I’m the kind of person that once I’m in that kind of book where I’m just compelled, I need to know what is going to happen to this person. I’ll stay up until 3 in the morning or sunrise reading it, if a writer can get me to that place. But it’s really hard to do.
Open Mic: It’s a really tough business right now. What was maybe the smartest thing you’ve done in this process, and maybe something you wish you could go back and do over?
Cooper: That’s a good question. The smartest thing is definitely picking my agent. When you’re just starting out and getting to the point where you do queries and get offers of representation, I think it’s really hard to have any clue what you’re doing. I got a number of offers of representation and I just didn’t even know how to pick the right person. It’s difficult and I think I really lucked out because I picked Amy Tannenbaum. Our conversation was great and I really liked her and I felt really comfortable with her even though she wasn’t the most senior agent that I had an offer from. It was scary picking a person who wasn’t this big fancy name, but I just went with my gut and I think that was the smartest thing I could have done because I just love working with her and I feel like I have a partner and a team member. The thing I would go back and change? I think maybe not letting myself write the book I wanted to read. I wouldn’t say I was chasing trends at all because I knew I didn’t want to write a traditional psychological thriller, but I definitely spent a lot of time trying to come up with a book I thought marketable, and I think in the end that just didn’t work. But when I finally said this is the book I really want to read so I just want to write that book, it was fun and I enjoyed the process. Unlike the first book, which was not.
Open Mic: I like to end with something fun. Let’s say I can put you together for dinner and a conversation with any one of the following three people. Who would you choose and why? Your choices are: Anthropologist Margaret Mead, U2’s Bono or former president Richard Nixon.
Cooper: I’m not entirely sure I could sit in a room with Richard Nixon, so I don’t think that would work. I think it would have to be Margaret Mead. She’s one of my heroes. I would love to talk to her about her research and what she thinks about the world today. One of those things I feel like she really contributed to anthropology and to the scholarship in the world in general is that she talks about making the world safe for difference, and I think that’s something I really believe in. So yeah, I would love to talk to her.