Today I am delighted to welcome Emma Cooper to the blog, talking about UpLit ahead of the RNA’s Romance in the 21stCentury event this evening, in partnership with Goldsboro Books. Emma’s novel The Songs of Us was released with Headline Review earlier this year. Here she writes about the genre and why she was so inspired by it.
Hello all, I’m Emma Cooper, mad mother of four and full-time writer. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m 42 I live in Shropshire with my partner Russell and our four children whose ages range from twenty (sob!) to five. I love going to our caravan in Ynyslas in Wales any chance I get and would have red wine and Pringles for breakfast given half a chance!
Prior to being a writer, I worked as a teaching assistant in a local junior school for eleven years. It was a job that I loved and that fitted in with life as a mother but, this job is as demanding as it wonderful – just look at the bags under the T.A’s eyes next time you pick up the kids!
Reading books has always been my passion and I always dreamt of being a writer, but as is the case with so many of us, life just had a habit of getting in the way. I always knew that I would write in the Women’s Fiction genre as it has always been my comfort ‘go-to’. I do enjoy Crime Thrillers and I’m a sucker – pun intended – for a good vampire story, but Women’s Fiction is my staple, I suppose it is because it covers such a broad array of styles and topics. My understanding of it is that it can be historical or contemporary, you can have your heart broken in one book, laugh out loud all the way through another or you can have supernatural twists and turns … it is such an open genre! If I had to choose my favourites they would be: Jodi Picoult, Cecelia Ahern, Jojo Moyes, Maggie O’Farrell, Kate Atkinson … this list could go on and on!
So why Up-lit? As you are no doubt aware, there is a recent trend towards ‘Up-lit’ not least because of the huge success of Eleanor Oliphant and The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – novels focused on stories of kindness and empathy in contrast to the grim modern world view that the media feeds us.
Despite the sound of the genre – to me, ‘Up-lit’ is more complex than a happy uplifting end to a sweet story. It’s more than experiencing highs and overcoming lows. Obviously, the “uplift” into the light has more resonance when the reader empathises with the gloominess of the shade, but life isn’t that simple, and as readers we root more for a protagonist who has overcome adversities that we can identify with: the adversities that modern life is currently throwing at us. This ‘new’ categorisation suits my novel perfectly. I wanted to write a book that broke you, but that would fix you in the next page, and I hope that is what I achieved with The Songs of Us.
Novels in the ‘Up-lit’ genre tend to include characters of bold colour, of dramatic, impulsive and expressive behaviour. Their flaws are beautifully exposed, their eccentricities painted in prose, but somehow these characters become relatable through humour and shared embarrassment, and because of this, the reader can empathise with the profound love that family and community share.
When readers identify with unconventional heroes in, at times, outrageous situations they don’t want a conventional happy ending that fixes all the flaws they have come to love.
Although it may be trending, Up-lit in the sense I have described it is not new. The classic ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens is an example that springs to mind. Its well-known opening paragraph: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness” could well apply today too and sets the tone for the whole tale of contrast, of highs and lows, good and bad, but has a truly bitterly-sweet uplifting outcome of hope and self-sacrifice.
So, ‘Up-lit’ can contain many elements; it can have all the things the media have labelled – kindness, empathy, diversity in adversity, acceptance, tolerance and optimism. But I think the most powerful ingredient, and the one they have neglected to mention – is clearly love.
Sometimes … all you need is love.
Thanks, Emma for explaining the shift away from the conventional HEA towards feel good literature, which still has love at its core.
And onto your latest release, The Songs of Us.
If Melody hadn’t run out of de-icer that day, she would never have slipped and banged her head. She wouldn’t be left with a condition that makes her sing when she’s nervous. And she definitely wouldn’t have belted out the Arctic Monkeys’ ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’ in assembly at her son’s school.
If Dev hadn’t taken the kids to the zoo that day, then the accident wouldn’t have happened. He wouldn’t have left Flynn and Rose without a dad. Or shattered the love of his life’s heart.
But if they hadn’t seen the missing person report that day, they might never have taken the trip to Cornwall. And, in the last place they expected, discovered what it really means to be ‘Us’.
Ooh, what an intriguing blurb! Tell us a little more about what The Songs of Us is about.
Thank you! The Songs of Us is about The King family and how they deal with the difficulties life throws at them. It’s written from the perspectives of Melody and her two teenagers, Flynn and Rose who have been given a rough deal in life.
For starters, Flynn was involved in a car accident when he was younger, which left him blind in one eye with facial scarring. His red-headed sister, Rose, who is teased relentlessly at school, is obsessed with finding their father, Dev, who disappeared years before without a trace. And if that is not enough, they have a mother who has a condition similar to Tourette’s who sings and dances uncontrollably when she’s anxious. The obvious humour of these situations is shadowed by the compassion we feel for Melody, as she witnesses the inevitable embarrassment of her two teenage children. After all, it’s not every child that has to witness their parent telling a rotund teacher at a parent’s evening that she likes big bottoms and can’t lie about it, is it?
This family’s already turbulent life is then turned upside down, when Melody and her children follow a lead from a missing person’s report, but instead of finding Dev … they meet Tom.
I don’t want to say too much more! Ultimately, this is a story that shows how a family at its most vulnerable can also be at its strongest.
Your reviews speak of a delicate balance between what could be a depressing subject matter and laugh out loud humour. What advice would you give to any writers trying to hone such a skilled writing technique for themselves?
Oooh, that is a tough question! I’ll try to answer it as best as I can.
I suppose finding the balance between humour and potentially depressing subjects is about treating both subjects equally, respectfully, and about timing their delivery. To do this you have to give the reader the ability to see the funny side of the scene as an outsider, but then bring them inside the character’s mind so they can also experience their pain.
In the past, I have spent hours, days, weeks focusing on my characters’ flaws. After all, we only have to turn on the news and we are surrounded by endless possibilities of how to bring tragedy and sorrow into our writing. But the funny scenes? Those I used to write in a few hours, I didn’t see it as important – or certainly not as important – as the tragic scenes.
When writing your own comedy, think about the characters that can make you laugh and question why they make you laugh. For me, it’s characters like Frank Spencer, the type of slapstick shows of the 80’s and 90’s and in literature, novels by Sophie Kinsella and Marian Keyes and characters like Bridget Jones … the blue soup springs to mind! Write the scene until you’re laughing yourself. If you’re not laughing when you’re writing it, then it’s not ready. Make it as funny as possible, only then, once you’ve lifted your readers as high as you can, can you get the full impact of the sadness to come: that’s the key.
My funny scenes come from a tiny idea of something going wrong and then I exaggerate it. We all have those days when everything we touch turns to rubbish, so when I write a scene like this, I try to imagine … what else could possibly go wrong?
When my son was nine months old, I had taken him into Next while I tried to find something my post baby inflated body could fit into. I had fed him before I left the house, and he lay sleeping inside the pram. I never normally shopped in Next, but I was treating myself with some left-over birthday money. He began to cry, so I lifted his warm body and settled him with his back against my front, so he could see the shop. At this point, he began to vomit his entire bottle of milk: horizontally. I tried to move him into a better position, his mouth remained wide open, the milk shooting out of him like a hose pipe: a creamy, cheesy-smelling surge. I turned him to the left, to the right, but the flow just wouldn’t stop. The coat in front on me – a size 8, black cashmere affair that I wouldn’t be able to fit my arm into let alone the rest of my body – was now awash in embarrassment, the lapels drooping: the arms hanging in defeat.
I had to buy the coat.
It was more far more than the birthday money I had, far more than my taxi money: far more than I could afford.
Rain seeped its way through my clothes, smattered over the screams from my son beneath the plastic rain cover as he kicked his legs against it, but he wouldn’t be quieted. I followed my soaking shoes home until the key slid into the lock. Inside my chaotic house, it was cold; the heating had broken again. My legs gave way beneath me and I slumped onto the sofa, sobs leaving my body as post-natal depression wrapped its arms around me while the coat hunched its back with resentment.
Hands up. It wasn’t that bad. My son was sick all over the coat in Next, but they were really nice about it and I went to the pub for lunch with my friend afterwards and laughed about the whole thing, but you can see how effective lifting the readers’ mood through comedy, but then bringing them down within a few hundred words, can be a brilliant device.
It’s also imperative that we treat the subject matter carefully. In this example I’m not laughing at a crippling illness, I’m allowing the reader to be on the outside looking at the funny side of the scene, but then bringing them inside and letting them experience the pain beneath too.
What can we expect to see from you next and what are you currently writing at the moment?
The first draft of my next book is complete and top secret! But I can reveal that it remains in the up-lit genre and that my editor’s eyes filled when she heard the title, so I’m hoping to break a few more hearts with this one too!
Thank you so much for having me 😊
Thank you again, Emma, for sharing your personal experiences to explain some great technical writing advice and I wish you every success with The Songs of Us.
Emma Cooper is a former teaching assistant, who lives in Shropshire, with her partner and four children. Her spare time consists of writing novels, drinking wine and watching box-sets with her partner of twenty-four years, who still makes her smile every day.
Emma has always wanted to be a writer – ever since her childhood, she’s been inventing characters (her favourite being her imaginary friend ‘Boot’) and is thrilled that she now gets to use this imagination to bring to life all of her creations.
The Songs of Us was inspired by Emma’s love of music and her ability to almost always embarrass herself, and her children, in the most mundane of situations. She was so fascinated by the idea of combining the two, that she began to write Melody’s story. Working full-time with a large family meant that Emma had to steal snippets of ‘spare’ time from her already chaotic and disorganised life; the majority of her novel was written during her lunchtime in a tiny school office. She never expected to fall so deeply in love with the King family and is overwhelmed that others feel the same.
She has three loves in life: reading, writing and her family … oh, and music, cheese, pizza, films; maths is not one of her talents.
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