Claire Cook, Author of "Best Staged Plans"

Claire Cook Raised on Nancy Drew mysteries, Claire Cook has wanted to write ever since she was a little girl. She majored in theater and creative writing at Syracuse University and immersed herself in a number of artistic endeavors (copywriter, radio continuity director, garden designer, and dance and aerobics choreographer), yet somehow her dreams got pushed to the side for more real-life matters -- like marriage, motherhood, and a teaching career. Decades passed, then one day she found herself parked in her minivan at 5 AM, waiting for her daughter to finish swim practice. She was struck with a now-or-never impulse and began writing on the spot. By the end of the season, she had a first draft. Her first novel, Ready to Fall, was published in 2000, when Cook was 45.

Since then, this "late starter" has more than made up for lost time. She struck gold with her second book, Must Love Dogs. Published in 2002, this story of a middle-aged divorcee whose singles ad produces hilariously unexpected results was declared "funny and pitch-perfect" by the Chicago Tribune and "a hoot" by the Boston Globe. (The novel got a second life in 2005 with the release of the feature film starring Diane Lane and John Cusack.) Cook's subsequent novels, with their wry, witty take on the lives of middle-aged women, have become bestsellers and book club favorites.

Upbeat, gregarious, and grateful for her success, Cook is an inspiration for aspiring writers and women in midlife transition. She tours indefatigably for her novels and genuinely enjoys speaking with fans. She also conducts frequent writing workshops, where she dispenses advice and encouragement in equal measure. "I'm extraordinarily lucky to spend my time doing what I love," she has said on countless occasions. " The workshops are a way to say thank you and open doors that I stumbled through to make it easier for writers coming up behind me.''

Find her at http://facebook.com/ClaireCookauthorpage and http://twitter.com/ClaireCookwrite. Go to http://ClaireCook.com to read excerpts of her novels and find book club questions and to visit her writing and reinvention pages.

Q&A with Claire Cook

Where did you get the idea for Best Staged Plans?

I didnít! My readers did. I remember it exactly: I was rushing around trying to get some packages mailed off, and I dropped my reading glasses into one of them as I was taping it up. So I did what every modern woman would do and I posted a funny comment about it on Facebook. The response was amazing Ė hundreds of people jumped in with their own reading glasses stories, and then everyone started saying, ďThereís your next book, Claire.Ē So I went with it!

What came next?

For me, a huge part of the fun of being a novelist is that I get to live other lives vicariously. And I know my readers often get ideas for their own lives from my novels. So I started thinking about what would be an interesting job to explore. Professional home staging seemed like the perfect midlife career Ė itís creative and flexible, life experience is an asset, and itís a growing field. And from there I thought, what if the heroine was a home stager who was struggling to sell her own house? Her husband was dragging his feet, and her borderline adult son moved home and was living in the basement bat caveÖ.

Now that youíre an expert, what advice would you give to people who want to hire a home stager Ė or even to become one?

Ha! I did lots of research, and thereís plenty of solid staging advice in Best Staged Plans, but Iím hardly an expert. In fact, I keep telling everyone to ask me questions about things like de-cluttering and paint colors fast, before I move on to my next novel and forget everything Iíve learned! If youíd like to find a real, as opposed to a fictional, professional home stager, or look into becoming one yourself, a great place to start is The Real Estate Staging Associationģ (www.realestatestagingassociation.com), a member-governed trade association for home stagers. On the RESA website youíll find a list of accredited home stagers, a consumerís guide to home staging, information about training and accreditation, and lots more.

Do you and Sandy Sullivan, the narrator of Best Staged Plans, have anything in common?

Absolutely. We even live in an almost identical 1890s Victorian - itís such a cool house that I kept most of the details. And, like Sandy, Iím facing the choices and adventures that come with the whole empty nest stage of life.

The comment I hear most often from readers is, ďOMG, youíre writing my life!Ē Well, thatís because Iím living it, too! But even though this novel cuts close to some aspects of my own life, with all of my novels, I use bits and pieces of real details from my life, the lives of everyone whoís brave enough to be friends with a novelist, things Iíve read or overheard at the gym or from the next table at a restaurant, and things I imagine. Then, itís as if I put them into an imaginary paper bag, shake them all up, and pull out all the pieces in a new order. I guess you could call it my Shake Ďní Bake method for writing a novel!

What is Readers for Readers and how did it come about?

With every novel, I look for opportunities to give back. Iíve spoken and signed books at thematically linked fundraisers, and Iíve taught lots of free writing and reinvention workshops. When a thread about homelessness found its way into Best Staged Plans, I was completely surprised to find out, along with my heroine, that not having inexpensive, non-prescription reading glasses is the biggest obstacle to disadvantaged people over forty re-entering the workplace. Every midlife woman I know has a handful of outgrown reading glasses, so I decided to set up a Readers for Readers page on my website, where Iíll list the mailing addresses of womenís shelters who would be happy to accept donations of reading glasses.

Whatís your best advice for women struggling to find their own next chapters?

Stop listening to the naysayers. Try things. Make mistakes. Get your computer skills up to speed. Work harder than everybody else. Remember that, as one of my characters once said, karma is a boomerang, and help other women along the way. And, of course, check out my reinvention page at ClaireCook.com.

  

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