Write choice: Author Claire Cook pursued her dream and has never looked back
Writing novels was the career Claire Cook almost didn’t have. Cook was busy raising two children, teaching at a Scituate Montessori school and convincing herself that she was being creative enough, that she didn’t really need to write that book she had once felt determined to write.
‘‘It’s scary and everyone tells you all the negative things and 95 percent of books are rejected,’’ said Cook, who lives in Scituate. ‘‘I joke that I never even wrote a thank-you note for years. I tried to pretend it didn’t matter, that I was doing enough creative things, but deep down inside I felt really bad about it for a lot of years. I don’t think it’s that uncommon to hide from the thing you want most to do in your life but you’re most afraid of.’’
Cook hid from her passion for decades - until she hit her mid-40s.
‘‘One day it hit me that I could live my whole life and never once go for it,’’ Cook, now 52, said. ‘‘I was realizing that my kids weren’t going to be babies forever. I might be one of those people who dreams about it and never goes for it. I was clearly the person standing in my own way.’’
And so she got busy. She wrote her first novel, ‘‘Ready to Fall,’’ in her minivan at 5 a.m. outside her daughter’s swimming practices, all while teaching at one school and consulting at two others.
She was 45 when that first novel was published in 2000, and at age 50, she walked the red carpet at the Hollywood premier of her second novel, ‘‘Must Love Dogs.’’
It’s not surprising that Cook can relate to the turning point reached by her 40-something career-confused character Ginger Walsh in her newest novel, ‘‘Life’s a Beach."
Ginger is single and back home living in the family FROG (Finished Room Over Garage) after spending a few too many years in sales and hoping instead to start a new career as a sea glass artist. Meanwhile, Ginger’s BlackBerry-addicted older sister Geri, who is married with children, is freaking out about turning 50. The sisters spend most of the book bickering - while at the same time searching for themselves and each other.
Cook, who is one of eight children (she’s second oldest), said the two women in the book are a combination of her four sisters.
‘‘If you asked my four sisters which was Ginger and which was Geri, they would all have a different answer,’’ she said. ‘‘No one loves you more unconditionally than a sister, and yet no one drives you crazier.’’
Cook’s exposure to Hollywood during the filming of ‘‘Must Love Dogs’’ got her creative juices going, and she began writing ‘‘Life’s a Beach’’ in between visits to the Los Angeles set.
Like ‘‘Must Love Dogs,’’ the story is set partly in the fictional town of Marshbury (a Marshfield-Duxbury combo). ‘‘Now people in Scituate say, ‘You could have combined Scituate with something,’’’ she said.
In the book, Ginger ends up accompanying her nephew on the set of a movie about a terrorizing shark. The film ends up taking a detour from Hollywood to Cape Cod - a move closer to home that made the story more fresh, she said.
‘‘When I moved the movie to Cape Cod, it really came alive,’’ she said.
There are plenty of Boston and South Shore references sprinkled throughout the book. For example, Ginger’s father in the book is a dump picker who is constantly bringing home new treasures. He’s a character born from Cook’s own experiences visiting Scituate’s Take It or Leave It dump.
‘‘I love when people try to unload your car because they want what’s in it,’’ she said. ‘‘I watch those people. I’ve gotten a ton of e-mail from readers. Everybody knows somebody who can’t stay out of the dump.’’
Besides, she said, it’s fun to write about people and places her own friends and family find familiar.
‘‘I always think (the books) are extra special to people who live in the South Shore,’’ she said. ‘‘I try to put in little valentines for them, little local details, because it makes it extra fun for people. You’re always a local author first.’’
She can certainly relate to the character’s feelings about the small town she lives in, where everybody knows everybody. Cook, who was born in Virginia, has lived in Scituate most of her life.
‘‘It’s both the best and worst thing about living in a small town,’’ she said. ‘‘Once I ran out of gas driving along the streets of Scituate. I pulled over and the very car behind me stopped and the driver said, ‘No problem, Claire, I have gas in my car from my lawnmower.’ People are so there for you. I feel so supported. The flip side of that is, everyone totally knows everyone’s business. In a town like Marshbury, if you have a disagreement with someone, it’s not like New York City where you’ll never see them again. People who don’t live in small towns don’t get that. Everybody is connected to everybody.’’
At Cook’s book signings, she will look out and see friends, her former students from the Montessori Community School in Scituate and once, even her high school English teacher. And despite her success, many people who have known her all these years still see her as the same Claire Cook they have always known.
‘‘I taught dance aerobics before I taught at the Montessori school, so people will say, ‘These books are nice, but I wish you would start teaching aerobics again,’’’ she said, giggling. ‘‘Mostly, my life is exactly the same. I get to have a normal life and then I go off and do some fun things.’’
She has not once entertained thoughts of ‘‘going Hollywood.’’
‘‘I loved visiting and dabbling in L.A., but it didn’t feel like home at all,’’ she said. ‘‘It’s really fun to play, but then I’m so grateful to come back and be around sweet, normal people.’’
Yet the success of ‘‘Must Love Dogs’’ has brought some changes.
For one thing, she no longer has to write in her minivan. She quit her day job after signing a lucrative book deal for ‘‘Must Love Dogs’’ and ‘‘Multiple Choice.’’
Now she treats writing like a job. When she’s working on a novel, she writes in her home office seven days a week. She finds she is most fresh in the morning, so she keeps her pajamas on, pours herself some coffee and shuts out the world, leaving the phone unanswered and e-mail unchecked. She has a defined requirement of herself: at least two pages a day.
‘‘I could write in a garden shed if I had to. It’s about being isolated. I like solitude. Every day there’s a very good reason not to get your work done: your kids need you, your car needs work. I’m not allowed to go to bed until I finish my two pages. It can take me from an hour to 23 hours.’’
Cook’s life is split between isolating herself at the computer for six months to traveling, talking and laughing with booksellers and readers the rest of the year.
‘‘When I do go out (on book tours), I’m gregarious and I love laughing,’’ she said. ‘‘But by August, I’ll be so over it and ready to write the next book. People say, ‘I’d love to be your neighbor,’ but if you were my neighbor, I’d be hiding from you to get my work done. As an author, you have to be isolated most of the time.’’
Cook gets much of the material for her books by being nosy.
‘‘Novelists are great eavesdroppers,’’ she said. ‘‘If I’m in a restaurant, I’m listening to the conversation at your table. I’m milking my life for every little detail I can.’’
And these days her friends and family members are quick to share their own life stories in hopes of seeing them in print.
‘‘When I wrote my first novel, I thought no one would talk to me again because I write very close to the life we’re living right outside our kitchen door,’’ she said. ‘‘I thought I’d go to Stop ‘n Shop and people would hide. But the opposite has happened. People tell me, ‘You’ll never believe what happened last week.’’’
And Cook is all for soaking up wild and funny stories and writing that wit into her novels. She isn’t so much interested in delving into subjects deep and painful.
‘‘There’s enough pain and suffering in the world without me adding to it,’’ she said. ‘‘I love that my books make people laugh.’’
With the movie came greater name recognition. ‘‘Life’s a Beach’’ is a summer book pick by Redbook, Good Housekeeping, and People magazine.
‘‘My books will stay on the shelves so much longer now,’’ said Cook, who has been married for 28 years to Jake Jacobucci, a land surveyor. ‘‘Plus the movie put our kids through college. What’s not to like about that?’’
Cook’s daughter Garet, 23, graduated a couple years ago from Emory College in Atlanta, and her son Kaden, 20, recently finished his sophomore year at Champlain College in Vermont.
Cook is hearing that there is some interest in making a movie out of ‘‘Life’s a Beach’’ as well.
‘‘If it happens, great. If it doesn’t, I won’t spend three minutes worrying about it,’’ she said. ‘‘It’s just about writing the best book I can write.’’
And she’s not sorry she waited until she was in her 40s to start writing. She majored in film and creative writing in college, fully expecting that the day after graduation she would give birth to a brilliant novel.
‘‘I guess I knew how to write, but not what to write. Looking back, I can see that I had to live my life so I’d have something to write about,’’ she said. ‘‘I have no regrets because I appreciate it so much more now.
‘‘I talk to so many people who dust off their dreams at mid-life,’’ she said. ‘‘Mid-life makes you want to keep all the good things in your life, but you also know there’s a finite amount of time to go after the rest of it, and you want everything else.’’
Dina Gerdeman of the Patriot Ledger may be reached at email@example.com .