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From motherhood to belonging in life

CAROLYN Jess-Cooke talks to Barbara Hodgson about the poetry collection that proved the first step in her literary career.

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FROM Ancient Greek myths to modern-day realities of jet lag and house-buying, Inroads is about as varied a collection of poetry as you can get.

Through its pages, Carolyn Jess-Cooke takes readers on a highly-entertaining journey inspired by key points in her life, and she barely pauses for breath.

Quite literally, it turns out, as – this first collection out of her way – she’s quickly moved on to novels and hopes to have her second book finished before the birth of her third child in a few weeks’ time. “Then I’ll probably take a few months to step back from it and relax,” says Carolyn, 31, who already has a son and daughter and lives with her husband in Gateshead.

“After my son was born, I started writing again after two months.” She adds: “It’s not work. Most writers use writing as a way of processing things.”

And, indeed, in Inroads, which won Carolyn a Northern Promise Award, motherhood is a recurring theme, in poems such as Newborn, full of wonder and questions, peppered among others such as Orpheus Gets Punk’d.

Another theme is travel, which played a big role in her earlier life, bringing her from her native Ireland, via a writer’s residency in Australia, to the North East in 2005, where she is on maternity leave from her job teaching creative writing to students at Northumbria University.

It was on moving here that Carolyn developed her collection from an idea she’d first had when herself an undergraduate, in Belfast.

Of it, she says: “The main theme is motherhood and pregnancy. I’m quite interested in that journey, and journeys between generations and family; themes of belonging and home.”

It made up her third entry to the Northern Writers Awards, run by New Writing North, so she had no expectations. But judges were quick to spot its promise. And that success, in 2008, proved a turning point.

It brought with it financial and creative support and provided the push she needed to complete her collection.

Then the new writing agency invited her, together with the other award winners, on a trip to London to meet agents and publishers.

Carolyn took with her fledgling ideas for a novel – and she came home with a two-book deal after one of the agents immediately signed her up.

That book, The Guardian Angel’s Journal – about a woman who dies and comes back as her own guardian angel with the hope of altering the course of her life – is being published next year by Little, Brown. Of her idea for her second book, a story about a boy who sees demons, she says with a laugh: “That one’s slightly changed!”

It’s actually on the back-burner as she’s writing instead about issues of life and death focused on a woman diagnosed with a terminal illness who makes a wish-list of things she’d like to do. When she makes a miraculous recovery, she decides to embark upon her list.

“It’s weird when you start writing one novel and another comes to mind – and that’s one that wants to be written.

“It’s the way it happens. You have to follow your instinct.”

Carolyn’s passion for writing is like an unstoppable force. As well as academic books about films – she has a PhD in film studies – she’s completed a children’s book, The Welly Tree, with illustrations by local artist Leanne Pearce.

She’s done collaborations before, including recent work with an artist to produce a “ribbon of steel” displaying her verse and running through the grounds of Middlesbrough’s Roseberry Park hospital, and currently with Peter Tickell – musician brother of Kathryn – for a May 15 event at The Sage Gateshead.

One of three writer-musician pairings – part of the new Words & Music Festival’s Folken Word event – it’s a real challenge. “It was a broad commission, to just put together a poem and music. I’ve written a kind of libretto, a contemporary version of the Lambton Worm, and Peter has written a gorgeous piece of music.”

Since her award win, it’s all been a real learning curve, finding out that “there’s more to the job than just writing”.

She adds: “I think we are very lucky in the region as there’s so much going on and there’s always a way to be involved.

“We’ve just had Hexham Book Festival and you always take away something from these events, even if it’s just valuable experience of how people conduct readings.”

As a creative writing lecturer, she’s well-placed to comment on emerging local talent. Some students, she says, are phenomenal, so young yet original.

“Some are so good you have to keep ahead!” But the important lesson to learn is discipline and “to know you can’t build a career on writing when you feel like it.”

:: Inroads is published in paperback by Seren at £7.99. Visit www.serenbooks.com

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