PHBC: The Perfume featuring CAROLINE B COONEY!

perfumeWelcome to August’s Point Horror Book Club. Guys, I am so excited to announce that this month we are joined by Point Horror ROYALTY Caroline B Cooney! I KNOW! Caroline very kindly agreed to answer questions about THE PERFUME, this month’s title, and what it was like working on our beloved range in the nineties.

First, let’s examine THE PERFUME before we hand over to Caroline.

What’s It All About?

OK, bear with. Dove Daniels was supposed to be a twin, except her mother’s body rejected supposed twin, Wing. That’s right – Dove and Wing (more on that later). Anyways, a sinister new perfume, Venom, awakens Dove’s latent twin (who may also be an ancient evil from Egypt) and Wing proceeds to run riot with Dove’s body.

Run Riot?

Oh yes. She be cray. She tries to push Dove’s love interest out of a hot air balloon and everything. Guys, she GETS IN A FOUNTAIN.

The Girl

My favourite thing about The Perfume is Dove and the fact she is potentially just nuts. Even at the end, when only ‘very, very, very’ creepy teacher Mr Phinney believes her. Dove, according to her ‘maternal body’ (a phrase I’m adopting 100%) was supposed to be ‘soft, gentle and mewling’ while twin sister Wing was also meant to be strong and flying free.

In reality, Wing is pure teenage strop distilled into perfume. She kicks walls, slams doors and is openly horrid to Dove’s friends.

In the end, it’s no big surprise, Dove (and indeed Wing) are locked away in the mental hospital. For a week.

The Love Interest

Timmy only appears briefly but is pleasingly fleshed out. We learn Timmy isn’t a natural beauty – ‘he had overcome the handicap of being ugly’ – with his winning personality. After Wing almost pushes him out of a hot air balloon, he sensibly does a runner for good. Wise.

The Friends

An eclectic bunch. Connie is hugely irritating (and is supposed to be) like a sugared-up, self-made leader of the group. She actually rang true. Luce is gentler and kinder, but my personal favourite is glutton for punishment Hesta, who can’t get enough of Wing trying to kill her. Kinky.

Some Mild Peril?

The Perfume is scary in a way we haven’t really experienced before. Dove losing control, and Wing’s punishing behaviours feel very insidious. We may be in Point Horror territory but here we deal with self-harm, mental health (personality and, I’d argue, eating disorders) and identity.

Is It Any Good?

OK. The Perfume is the Marmite of the Point Horror world. Whichever way you frame it, it’s nuts. I think wilfully so. The whole thing reads like a Benylin and fever dream and I think that was Cooney’s intent. It’s a novel about possession and it feels possessed. As we learned from The Cheerleader, Cooney’s style is lyrical and metaphor rich which might not suit every reader (and didn’t suit me aged 12). As an adult I am so pleased Cooney contributed to the Point Horror range, they’re different. They’re wonderful.

Dove defeats Wing with a smelly handkerchief. I rest my case.

Caroline CooneyAnd now to the important business of MEETING CAROLINE B COONEY! OMG!

Hello Caroline! Thank you for taking part in our humble book club!

Let’s start with The Perfume. It’s a Jekyll and Hyde story about duality unlocked by an evil perfume called Venom. What inspired this title? Did you come up with it yourself or were Point Horror authors steered?

One day the editor phoned and said she had a title and from that one word, she wanted me to write a horror story.  “Perfume,” she said.  Since I do not use violence in the books, whatever this perfume was, it would have to affect the soul.  First I needed a name for the perfume, and it turned out that all real perfume names are copyrighted, so when I liked the word “obsession” it of course was a real perfume and I could not use that word.  I finally settled on Venom, and at least back then, there was no such perfume.  The moment I’ve named it venom, I think of snakes, so that was the starting point.

Your Point Horror titles always feel layered and metaphorical. What do you feel the themes of The Perfume are? I read messages about teenage rebellion, neglect and mental illness.

I’m a little iffy at discussing themes.  My main theme is: provide great entertainment for young readers.  As a Christian, I want also to write parables.  Very often the parable (completely hidden) in one of my stories is the Parable of the Good Samaritan, in which we have to decide – Who is the good neighbor?  The only who looks good or the one who acts?

The reason for “neglect” (your term) is simply that I have to keep adults off stage.  The minute there are parents in a story, that child won’t be allowed to act that way, or go that place, or do whatever. So it’s crucial to have parents who somehow just aren’t there.  It isn’t a demonstration of neglect, it’s omission of grownups because they just clutter it all up.

The main characters are called Dove and Wing. This is both amazing and bold. Your Point Horror character names were always unusual – how did you come up with them?

Names are such fun.  In fantastical stories, you can use names that otherwise you wouldn’t even saddle a cat with.  I collect names from newspaper lists of honor roll students, or sports teams, or whatever.  Once you have chosen a name for your character, that girl or boy begins to live.

What was your favourite Point Horror title to write?

I think I liked Freeze Tag best.  I grew in the 1950s, when your mother insisted on something called “fresh air” which today’s parents don’t do.  We had to play outside, and we played yard games, every kid and age on the street.  Most were chase variations, like Red Rover, or Freeze Tag, and I was always slightly frightened by pursuit.  (I’ve written a lot of pursuit adventures, too, like Fatality and Wanted.)

Your titles are fairly unique within the range. How did the Point Horror process work? How much authorial control did you have? Was there a rule book and did you stick to it?

All the Point Horror books that I wrote were written by assignment.  That is to say, the editor came up with an idea (usually one sentence) from which I had to construct 175 manuscript pages.  The first assignment was to write a trilogy that would be entry level horror – beginning horror, for readers who just wanted to be a little bit scared.  The rules were: no blood, no gore, no violence, no drugs, no bad parents.  The original titles were The Fog, The Snow and the Fire.  Later they were reissued as the Christina series.  I liked the rules, and for the most part, continued to follow them.

I rarely got to choose the titles.  At Scholastic, the editors met and decided what would be most commercial.  Since I was supporting 3 small children at the time, I did not oppose this.  Nor did I have anything to do with cover art.  On one Perfume cover, there is blood spilling out of the vial, even though there is none in the book.  It sells better, they said.

The Vampire Trilogy are fan favourites – how much fun was it to write such a glorious villain? And what’s with the shutters on the windows?

The vampire trilogy was great fun.  Again, I wanted no violence, so what dreadful dark thing can occur if the vampire doesn’t take blood?  (He’s my vampire, he’ll do what I decide.)  There was a house we drove by occasionally in Connecticut where I grew up which had such a tower, and I yearned to live there.  I can’t say why the shutters are involved.  You need detail, I guess, and there it is.

The Point Horror range petered out at the end of the nineties. What have you been up to since?

Three years ago I read a scholarly history by a British author, Nick Bunker, about the English background of the American Pilgrims.  It was a very intense read for me, as I am a Mayflower descendent.  Since I write for children, I tried to imagine as I read his extremely detailed excursion into whose these people were as Englishmen,  how the children lived.  After 2  years of research, including a l trip to Lincoln and the nearby scattered little villages where the Pilgrims came from and also to Leiden, where they lived for 12 years prior to sailing to Plymouth, I have been writing a historical novel about the children on the Mayflower.  However, it is for adults.  I can’t remember enjoying the writing of a book so much.

Again, thank you Caroline for answering the questions of a proper fanboy. In all seriousness, Point Horror books are the reason I’m now making a living from writing and I can only hope that in fifteen years’ time someone is still talking about my books.

Next month, we have our first DEATHMATCH – THE BOYFRIEND VS THE GIRLFRIEND, both by RL Stine.


Cruel Summer_FC_hi-resToday CRUEL SUMMER is out in paperback (it’s cheaper and smaller, YAY!)

If you’re new to me, let me fill you in. Last year Janey Bradshaw killed herself. OR DID SHE? Her friend Ryan thinks otherwise, and one year on he gathers his friends in Spain to confront them with his suspicions. Before long, there’s a dead girl in the pool and fact is, one of Ryan’s mates is a serial killer.

Exciting stuff. Cruel Summer is TWISTS GALORE and perfect for taking on your holidays!

As a special treat for my long-time fans who’ve been there since day one, I’ve written a short additional scene called Exterior-Prom Night.


The Business of Books

2f042cffb7e88adab0e46799ee131a77Dear James

How is 2009? Have you dumped that guy yet? Get on with it. Oh, and drug dealers are about to move in next door. Good luck with that. I’m writing from 2014 cos there’s some stuff you should know if you’re serious about this book-writing thing.

Remember when Megan Fox called out Michael Bay on being a tyrant? Did that happen yet? Just because she was biting the hand that fed her didn’t make it any less true. There are things an author probably isn’t meant to say because we, especially as unfailingly polite Brits, must remain grateful at all times.

You are going to be very grateful to get where you’re at. You’ll feel very lucky, and that isn’t self-depreciating BS – there is so much TIMING involved with being an author. You’re about to meet an agent who’s just come off a career break and is actively looking to build her list. Timing. At the same time, your future editor believes thrillers will be the Next Big Thing. Timing again.

Looking back, I was so, so green. As naive as any YA heroine on her first day at a high school filled with vampires. I want you to listen up. Publishing is a business, and not always a very nice one. It doesn’t have to be – everyone wants to get their books published – authors need publishers if they are to be traditionally published (more on that later) and publishers will always have a willing, eager pool of talent to draw from.

Listen up. Publishing is alchemy. There is no maths, only magic, and magic that no human is able to master. There are no rules and there is no formula for making a book work.

Let’s start by taking a look at where it DID work. First up: Harry Potter. Harry Potter so nearly didn’t happen. Considered too long and too slow for a children’s book it was rejected pretty much everywhere until it sold at Bloomsbury for a very low advance.  The first print run was just 500 copies.

Let’s also look at John Green. You don’t know who he is yet, but you will. Looking For Alaska was acquired for $8000 and his editor left the firm before it came out. Neither Green, nor Rowling were meant to do so well. There were no tube posters, no moving billboards outside Westfield, no movie adaptations on the horizon. These were just good books that sold well because people loved them and told more people who also loved them. I still believe that: if you write the best books you can, eventually people will find them.

The trick is in trying to manufacture this glory and this is where publishing can get murky. To say that The Hunger Games was Suzanne Collins’s SIXTH yes SIXTH title, publishers are unhealthily obsessed with debuts. I can only think of Holly Smale’s debut Geek Girl as an example of a debut that instantly hit in the UK. Perhaps Derek Landy too. Love for debuts is shown in £££. Publishers dig deep to secure what they feel could be the next best-seller – on any given week we’ll read about a SIX FIGURE ADVANCE going to a debut in The Bookseller.

Of course, this is lovely for you because you’re about to be a debut. Or is it? Well, duh, of course it it, but it’s important to look at the long and short game. Short game, get yo ass down to Selfridges and buy something nice. Long game, however, is trickier. The bigger the advance, the less likely a title is to earn out. You’re not exactly in debt to the publisher as you don’t have to pay it back, but you do become a walking, talking, writing money pit. Remember the film of the same name? At what point do you stop spending money on a bad investment? More and more, it seems that if the debut doesn’t do well, the temptation is to cut losses and run. Every finish on a cover, every inch of shop shelving, every advert is money tumbling into the well that is YOU, the author.

I personally know three authors (who I won’t name, because that’s not cool) who fell victim to this BIG MONEY/LOW RETURN problem. It happens in both the UK and the US. It’s stressful and heartbreaking – for both author and the editors who I feel truly believe they’ve struck gold with a manuscript.

I just asked an editor why debuts often get such sweet deals. He said, ‘in all honesty, sometimes you just get caught up in a bidding war. It becomes about winning.’

I find this baffling. Why would an unknown debut (unless they happen to be David Walliams) sell a truck load of books? There’s no fandom there. It takes time to build a following, but time is also costly. Once a book’s been out for a month, a new title, also hungrily snapping up budget will swoop in to take your place.

At this year’s Imagine Festival (yeah, you’ll get invited to stuff like that and it’s COOL), Horrid Henry author Francesca Simon pleaded with the great and good of children’s publishing to give authors TIME. She stated that Waterstones wouldn’t even stock Horrid Henry until the fifth title and she suggested that in 2014, it’s unlikely her publisher would have stayed by her side for that long.

As well as being a debut it’s also increasingly important to have a HOOK. Talent, I’m afraid, isn’t nearly enough. It will help if you’re already famous – either ‘actually’ or ‘internet’. This isn’t a bad thing at all. I was once told how many unknown authors Katie Price had paid for with her successes. Again, a business can only work if it’s profitable. It doesn’t matter where that profit comes from. So we’ll see more YouTube people, more models, more singers, more TV Presenters and more actual animals ‘penning’ novels. Find your angle (I’m not even gay, it’s just my ‘thing’. I’m happily married to Julie and have three kids).

Also, as children’s or YA authors, you need to possess the qualities of a TV personality. Sorry, but to do well you will need to read, speak, lecture, dance, act, sing, tell jokes and perform to audiences of up to 1000 people as we recently did at YALC. The cooler, hipper and more versatile you are, the more ‘gigs’ you’ll book. This is how it is.

More troubling perhaps is the youth fixation that seems to be plaguing publishing at the moment. Although fashion has had this affliction for years, it’s only in the last couple of years (or perhaps since Christopher Paolini) than an author’s age has become a key PR angle. I find this murky. For one thing, we have child labour laws, for two, I was naive about publishing at twenty-eight so one can only wonder how I’d have felt if I’d written Hollow Pike at fifteen. People promise you a lot of things only to later tell you there are no guarantees. People tell you you’ll be the next XY or Z only to later call you ‘disappointing’. Tough, but especially tough for a teenager.

If it’s so tough, why aren’t I self-publishing? Well because it’s still not quite there yet is it. Let’s be brutally honest – people are snobby. People like books that have been curated by publishers as it’s a mark of quality. We all KNOW there are excellent self-published books out there, but who can be arsed trawling the internet for the good ones? As with traditionally published books, if word of mouth is good, it’ll reach you eventually anyway. The reason I don’t self-publish is because I would never switch off, I’d be promoting and marketing and selling twenty-four hours a day and I think it’d kill me. What’s more, I really LOVE working with a team. Amber Caraveo and Emma Matthewson and Tori Kosara have made my books BETTER for editing them. Anyone who sees your Queen of Teen Conchita video (just you wait) will see how much fun you’ve had working with Rosi and Livs and the team.

Here’s another thing you haven’t thought of. It’s fine, you were excited! Foreign deals. This is where your books are likely to succeed. Learn about this shit. Do you sell world rights to your UK publisher or do you trust your agent to sell them overseas? It’s these details, the things people don’t really talk about, that will be the difference. This is why I believe every author needs an agent. You won’t believe this, but your books have now sold in Spain, Germany, Turkey, Poland, France and the United States. Work.

What’s the answer? I don’t think there is one. It would make sense to offer fair advances to all debuts and pay more to the ones with a sales track-record, right? Or to reduce advances but boost royalties? Acquiring fewer titles so each had a larger marketing spend doesn’t sound like a terrible idea.

I certainly think there is a real power in BUILDING A FANBASE. That’s what John Green, JK Rowling and Malorie Blackman were allowed to do. I feel hugely, hugely lucky in that I’m with a publisher (Hot Key Books) who’s standing by me at the start of my career, helping me to build a fan base. You won’t believe this, but you recently won Queen of Teen! I know! That was a real sign that your readers are getting behind me (yeah, I know, timey-wimey). You’ll be beyond thrilled. I’ve now been building my career (as that’s what this is, James) for four years and I still feel like a relative newcomer – most people still don’t know who I am after five titles. These things clearly take time.

This is not a whinge. I am still grateful. While writing this very post, my box of paperback editions of Cruel Summer arrived and my lounge smells of freshly baked murder mystery. If I could go back, I honestly wouldn’t change a thing, but I do wish I’d always looked upon publishing as a business, as that is what it is. As much as I wish authors could purely focus on their ‘art’ we must also come into the game with our business heads ON.

Lots of love


Future James

PS – enjoy it all, it’s going to be amazing.