Roxie Cooper was born in Middlesbrough, attended a local comprehensive school and ignored everyone who told her that working-class girls could never be barristers.
She practised for seven years before leaving to look after her children, the eldest of whom is autistic. It was after constantly being told “Oh! You don’t look like a barrister!” that the idea for her debut novel, The Law of Attraction, a smart and sassy rom-com that has been described as a ‘fun, feisty and fabulous read’, was born. Roxie now lives in Yarm with her two children and writes full-time.
You’re a published author. How did that happen?
When I was at school, my career advisor asked me the question we all get. “Have you thought about what you’d like to do after you leave school?”
“Yes,” I replied, confidently. “I’m going to be a barrister.”
She looked at me for a moment, unsure what to say. “Any other ideas?”
It was just like that scene from Legally Blonde, the one we all watch and laugh at because we know Elle Woods is going to prove them all wrong in the end. But this wasn’t a Hollywood film, and I didn’t come from a rich family. I lived in Hemlington, Middlesbrough, and went to the local comprehensive school. I had a common, working-class accent. Nobody in my family had ever been to university before. I can’t blame her for encouraging me to explore other options.
Except, I never did. As a teenager, I became fascinated with the legal process and justice system. I decided this was what I wanted to do, and I was going to make it happen. Everyone tried to put me off and warn me about how difficult it would be; from “It’s really competitive, don’t get your hopes up” to “People like us don’t do things like that” – I heard it all. The only thing I could do was block them out and hold onto that self-belief.
After studying for a Classics degree at Newcastle University, I worked as a dancer in a nightclub for two years, before going travelling around Asia and then living in Australia.
Despite this unconventional route, I did achieve my ultimate dream. I practised as a criminal barrister in Leeds and enjoyed it for many years. However, I was always disappointed by the response when people asked about my profession, the most frequent reaction being “Oh! You don’t look like a barrister!” Colleagues would joke about my accent and call me ‘Barbie’ because of my peroxide blonde hair. The underlying assumption was impossible to miss; they thought I was stupid.
That’s when the idea for my debut novel, The Law of Attraction, was born.
It’s a book about Amanda Bentley, a smart, sassy girl from Teesside who lands her dream job as a criminal barrister at a set of chambers in Newcastle – but it doesn’t quite go to plan! I drew on my own experiences to write it and it’s a funny account of what the first year of being a barrister is like (think ‘Legally Blonde in Newcastle’).
When I had my two children, now 10 and 7, it became apparent that I could no longer remain at the Bar, so I left. It allowed me to write full-time and I completed my second novel, The Day We Met, published by Penguin.
I now live in Yarm with my children and am continually inspired by people and places around me locally. I can often be found writing in coffee shops on the high street, or asking to tag along with someone in the name of ‘book research’. I adore my new profession and I can’t wait to share my latest novel with everyone.
I have lived in many places all over the country, but Teesside reminds me of that tenacious, brave teenager I was. The one who never gave up.
I dedicated my debut novel ‘To those who thought I couldn’t’ – there were many, and I am living proof that you should never, ever listen to them.
For all the varied jobs you’ve had, do you think ‘author’ will be the last one you have?
That’s a really difficult one to answer! I’m the kind of person who always strives to challenge myself in different ways. My attitude is that there is always something you can improve on and learn from. I get bored quite easily so like to change direction in whatever I’m doing, even if that means experimenting within a project I’m already working on. I don’t think I’d ever go back to the Bar as it’s so incompatible with having children, but I’d never rule out completely retraining in something else. I would love to venture into psychology or counselling. But, then again, the academic side of me would love to do a masters or PhD in Classics. Watch this space!
The Law of Attraction, your first novel, was inspired by your career as a barrister. Were there any incidents you came across whilst practising that were real, but sounded too far-fetched to be included?
Haha! This book was so much fun to write because it allowed me to reveal all the ludicrous traditions and rituals that barristers have to endure. It’s a side you don’t see on TV shows and most of it is absolutely bonkers! Even as I was writing it, I thought ‘this sounds so fake, will people think I’ve made it up?!’ There’s one scene where Amanda attends her first circuit mess and it’s the poshest, stupidest thing she’s ever witnessed. She views the entire thing through a very ‘Teesside lens’ and it’s one of the scenes people laughed at most in the novel. However, there were some stories I could never write about because they were so scandalous. The Bar is full of daily drama (far worse than a TV show!) and would definitely sound too far-fetched.
The Day We Met is your latest book, can you tell us a little about the story and how you came up with it?
I was inspired after listening to the song Only Love Can Hurt Like This by Paloma Faith. I wanted to write a big epic love story which spanned many years and I came up with the question: what happens if you meet your soulmate just as you’re about to marry someone else? It tells the story of Stephanie and Jamie and we follow their relationship over the next ten years. Meeting on the same weekend every year, we slowly come to realise that they can’t be together, but can’t live without each other, either. Their meeting place is always a grand countryside house which was based upon, and inspired by, Gisborough Hall. I went there many times for book research and I loved describing it in the book. People familiar with the Hall will recognise references to the fountain (which plays an important part!).
On Amazon, the book the 4 & 5 star reviews account for 88% of all reviews. How does that make you feel? Do you read your reviews (even the less glowing ones)?
It’s so scary when your book comes out. You have no idea what people will make of it. Being a barrister, I’m pretty thick-skinned anyway so I was well-prepared for criticism. I was at the pub on a Friday night when my very first blogger review came through and it was a 5-star glowing one. No amount of money can buy that kind of feeling. To have so many positive reviews for your debut novel is so incredible, I am truly grateful. I remember the week it was published and Heat magazine gave it a 5-star review, it felt surreal and I felt famous! But, yes – I read every single review, even the bad ones. I don’t think you can put a piece of creative work into the world and only think the good ones are worth reading. We grow with each book we write and at the end of the day, I think I have a duty to listen to my readers. If they didn’t like it for some reason, I’m interested to know why (providing the criticism isn’t nasty).
Has the lockdown helped or hindered your writing process?
In the first few weeks of lockdown I couldn’t work at all. I found it impossible to be creative as I was anxious, confused and too busy looking after my children. But I gradually started to get back into it. I can no longer write full-time as my kids are here, but I am very productive on weekends when they stay with their dad. I love that time to write, as it feels like escapism from what else is going on in the world.
When you’re writing, what does your creative environment look like? Do you need silence to write or music turned up to 11? How do you focus?
It really depends on which part of the process I’m at. Planning stage, I can do in a coffee shop with music on. I like to have the ‘white noise’ around me. If I’m actually writing the book, I need to be at home in silence. When I’m editing, I can have the book playlist on. It’s very ridiculous, I know!
How does it feel to have a book you’ve written available in book shops and reviewed in national magazines? Do you still get a buzz when you see it on shelves or in print?
The most incredible, amazing thing and I never get sick of it! Before I was published, I used to walk around Middlesbrough Waterstones, gazing at the books and thinking how insane it would be to have one of mine on a shelf there one day. One of my proudest moments was having my book launch for The Day We Met at the Yarm branch and doing a signing at the Middlesbrough branch a few weeks later. Around the same time, my friend in Ireland sent me a link to a morning TV show where two presenters were discussing my novel. It blew my mind!
Can you tell us any spoilers about book #3?
I can’t say much, I’m afraid! It’s in the editing process at the moment but I can say it’s set in the North East again. It’s been really lovely to feel the accents, describe the region and instil some northern grit into the characters. And this novel has a lot of grit. It’s also the most emotional thing I’ve ever written so I can’t wait to share it with you all, eventually.
How do you think being a Middlesbrough girl has influenced your writing?
Being from Middlesbrough has definitely influenced the kind of writer I am. I knew from the outset that I wanted to set my debut in the North East because I really wanted to showcase our wonderful region. It’s barely mentioned in commercial women’s fiction and so to set an entire novel here was a risk, but I’m glad I took it. A lot of the feedback from publishers when it was first sent out was how refreshing it was to see a novel set up here. Being from Boro is what gives Amanda her determination. She really is up against it in the novel and she requires nerves of steel to fight through her problems. Her Boro roots drive her through. The novel features some of my favourite Teesside landmarks, the Transporter Bridge and Roseberry Topping. I loved describing our rich countryside against the backdrop of the industrial landscape, acknowledging how many find it ugly but we find it beautiful; it’s our land and we adore it.
What’s your process when you’re planning a book? Is it lots of notecards, research and noticeboard covered in lines of string, or is it more free-flowing than that?
I am a huge planner. First, I have a spark of an idea, then I’ll start a playlist and put together a load of songs which I feel relate to the plot/characters. Then I spend months writing haphazard notes and doing research. I have lots of coloured pens! Only then, do I even attempt to put any kind of plan together.
After this comes a basic outline of chapters, but then I’ll develop it further so that I know exactly what I’m writing in each scene. By the time I actually come to writing the first draft, the book pretty much writes itself. Apparently, there are authors who just start writing a draft without doing all this but even thinking about it gives me a migraine!
Do you use any particular software when writing?
I am a complete dinosaur, so just a Word document. I do all of my planning on paper then type it all up on one document.
How do you overcome writer’s block if you get it?
My planning stages are so intricate at the beginning, I plan each scene in the book so I am never sitting there going ‘I don’t know what to write’. However, there are definitely days when the creativity just isn’t there and the words don’t flow. Writing is an art, so if I’m not feeling it, I just stop for the day. You can’t force it. But I will always substitute it with something book-related; I’ll put my book playlist on and go for a walk around the river. Music always gets me back to where I need to be.
How much of your own life do you put into your writing? Are there any easter eggs in them only friends would get?
I couldn’t write a book if I didn’t emotionally anchor myself to it somehow. I’d find it boring and I don’t think it would be any good. The concept of my first novel – ‘working-class girl becomes a barrister’ – was very obviously loosely based on me. My second novel wasn’t, but there are definitely shades of me in there, both as a woman who has felt quite lost at times and also as a mother. I love putting little things in there only my friends will understand! That’s one of the fun parts and also a lovely way to thank people for their support.
You’re a big Marvel fan. If you were commissioned to write a MCU movie, which superhero would it include?
Well, my favourite superheroes are no longer with us (SOBS!), so in the absence of Tony Stark and Natasha Romanoff I guess I’d have to say Spider-Man and Thor. Not Dr Strange though because… just no.
For any budding authors out there, what advice would you give them?
My number one top tip for anyone wanting to be successful with writing is: be prepared to sacrifice. Writing a novel is hard work. It’s not occasionally sitting at a beautifully lit table, sipping wine and getting the odd word down (although I’m sure this is what people think I do sometimes!). You’ll need to sacrifice your social life, family time and ‘me time’ if you want to make it work and get it to the highest standard. But, I promise you it will be worth it.
Follow Roxie on Twitter/Instagram @toodletinkbaby. She’s also on Facebook as Roxie Cooper.