Interview Carolyn Jess Cooke – The Boy Who Could See Demons

By Ed Nissink for Orlando Publishers, The Netherlands

 What inspired you to write The Boy Who Could See Demons?

Many different things proved inspirational. The core story about the relationship between Alex and his demon Ruen emerged from a curiosity that developed whilst I wrote The Guardian Angel’s Journal about demons. In that book I explored the world of angels a great deal but there seemed to be so much more to explore in terms of demons, and Ruen provided an opportunity for that. Many years ago I was very inspired by CS Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters – in which a demon gives advice to a junior ‘tempter’ about the human condition and how best to lead us all astray – and like Lewis I was eager to imagine that world.

I didn’t intend on my home town of Belfast featuring so prominently in the book – almost as a character – but increasingly it became apparent that Belfast was more than a setting and that I needed to articulate something about its past and present.

 How did you feel about writing a large part of the story from a 10-years old boys perspective? How did you get under his skin?

Alex was such an important character to me and his voice came naturally and without any force, so I let him guide me through the story. It took a couple of drafts of the book before he really allowed me to get under his skin. I knew that there was an issue with his father but it took a while before the whole situation revealed itself.

Was it hard for yourself to deal with Alex’s problems during the writing process?

I would say it was cathartic it some ways, as I lived during the Troubles and experienced some of the violence there first-hand. I also had a question in my mind when I was writing about Alex’s problems – are we products of our environment? Can a child who grows up in such poverty and with so many disadvantages automatically overcome such shortcomings in his adulthood? As a writer I’m very interested in how people overcome huge obstacles in life and become stronger for it, and Alex’s story showed me how.

 Invisible friend (Ruen) plays an important role in the story. Did you have invisible friends when you where a child? And if you did: what where their names and could you tell me more about them?

No I didn’t have invisible friends but am fascinated by the imaginative and psychological act that takes place in their construction.

Until the end of the book there is no clarity about Alex, is he suffering from psychosis or does he have an invisible friend? Are you familiar with psychosis or did you have knowledge about this disease before you wrote this book? Why does this subject have your interest?

 When I started writing about Alex and his claims of a friendship with Ruen it became clear that he was presenting what looked to the outside world like symptoms of a mental illness. As I developed Anya’s character I researched psychosis and schizophrenia in depth, but it became clear that there was an overwhelming amount of information I needed to process about mental health professionals, the career path she would have taken and protocol in the mental health services. I learned about the differences between the mental health services in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, and also about the impact of the Troubles in Northern Ireland on the mental health of its population. I interviewed top child psychiatrists and visited a child inpatient unit in London, and one of the psychiatrists I interviewed read the manuscript several times to check for errors. Eventually I had to stop researching and concentrate on the story!

Between the lines of the story there is some information about demons. What is the role of the supernatural in your own life?

 I do believe in angels and demons but not entirely in the way they are presented in popular culture. When I was writing about Ruth in The Guardian Angel’s Journal the notion of feathery wings didn’t make sense to me, and so I described her as having wings made of water that serve an entirely practical (and elemental) purpose. In The Boy Who Could See Demons I describe Ruen as not just a demon but as having a particular role in the demon hierarchy – he is a ‘Harrower’ – as Like CS Lewis I was curious about the specifics of their purpose. Fundamentally I think the concept of both angels and demons is significant in helping me understand more about human nature.

 Alex’ father kills two cops. As a citizen of Belfast: did you experience any of such violence in real life?

I never witnessed any killings, though my father’s suicide was affected in part by the violence. I do remember hearing bombs go off at night and feeling frustrated by the riots that meant much of the city was impassable. A soldier was shot dead in the street next to mine and a family several doors down from us was thrown out of their house for being the wrong religion. As such I am very unnerved by the ‘us against them’ mentality that presents itself in so many forms.

Which part of this book was the most fun and/or interesting to write?

When Ruen finally got his hooks into Alex I began writing at an incredible pace. I think I completed the first draft in 3 weeks – while 9 months pregnant – because I was so anxious to find out what happened at the end. The ‘cat and mouse’ game that Ruen set up was very sinister but also very intriguing.

What was the hardest thing in writing this book, and why?

The ending! I dithered vastly over the best way to close the book because it was vital to me that the reader play a role in deciding whether Ruen was real or not.

 If you had to choose: with whom you would like a good conversation: Alex or Anya and could you explain why?

That’s a tough one! I think I’d enjoy talking to Anya because I related to her so strongly as a mother but I’d also like to speak with Alex because he was such an inspirational boy and I would like to find out what kind of man he would grow into.

Is there a character in the book that suits you – with whom you feel connected? And if so, who is it and what is the reason you feel connected?

I felt connected to all the characters and empathized with them all. I loved Bev for her energy and compassion. I loved Alex’s grandmother for being – as Alex describes her – like a Doberman and so fiercely protective of her family. I loved Michael for his determination to do right by Alex. I suppose I identified with Alex the most because like him I grew up in a rough part of a Belfast and witnessed a parent suffer from mental illness.

You wrote the story from two points of view: Alex and Anya. Is that a writing style you also use in other books? And what difficulties and pitfalls does this writing style bring?

No, it’s not a style I’ve used elsewhere but it was crucial to this story, particularly in pitting the reader between possibilities of Ruen’s existence.

 The reviews about The Boy Who Could See Demons are positive. How do you deal with criticism of your work? Do you read reviews anyway and why do or don’t you?

I really shouldn’t read reviews of my work but I do. I say ‘shouldn’t’ because once the book is published it becomes someone else’s property, and it rests on the shoulders of the reader as to how it is interpreted. I have no control over the reception of my work, yet I always hope that I achieve what I set out to achieve and that people like it.

 Do you have a fictional reader or critic in mind when writing? If so, does that influence your writing and in what way?

I think I write for intelligent readers who enjoy something different, a little bit challenging and a little bit quirky.

 In the book, Anya struggles with the loss of her daughter Poppy, who suffered from psychosis. To what extent are your own experiences or the experiences of loved ones reflected in the book?

My father committed suicide when I was thirteen years old and I understand just how complicated and devastating a loss of that kind can be – it throws up questions that can never really be answered, and this is precisely what Anya encounters. That said, the loss of a child is a horrific experience and one I am certainly glad not to have experienced.

 Dutch version: click here