Imogen Cooper: in search of cracking good stories

Rowena House went to rural Somerset to talk to Imogen Cooper, senior editor at Chicken House Publishing, about writing, the industry and her latest venture: the Golden Egg Academy which was launched earlier this year.

What inspired you to start running Golden Egg Academy writing workshops at your home?

Part of what I’m trying to do is give writers a window into publishing. It feels to me like there’s a kind of divide between writers who haven’t got into publishing yet and publishers, a divide between the business side and the totally creative side. Even when writers sign a contract, they often have no real idea why their book was taken on and how it’s going to be marketed. So the Academy is partly about enabling writers to see through the eyes of agents and publishers.

Why is that so important?

You’re much more likely to get a foot in the door if you’re talking a publisher’s and an agent’s language. Everybody in publishing has very, very limited time. An agent or a publisher has to sell this book, therefore they need it in three lines. When Barry (Barry Cunningham, managing director of Chicken House Publishing) sits in front of Waterstones or whoever, he’s got to have a handle on the main idea and why that’s so exciting. Booksellers are getting so many novels through all the time that you’ve got to give them a reason to read your book first and then to remember it.

So is the Golden Egg Academy a nursery for potential Chicken House authors?

Certainly in part. That’s why we’ve just agreed this First Look deal with Barry. That means that anything I think is written and crafted well enough will go to Barry and he’ll get a month to have a look at it. But it’s not all about that. I’ve got good links with other agents and publishers and there will be things that are beautifully written but are not suitable for the Chicken House list. We’ll be very excited about them but they’ll be too old, too literary or whatever. But that wasn’t the main reason for setting up the Academy.

What was the main reason? 

Talking to people at conferences and people on creative writing MAs, I realised there were a lot of people who weren’t getting the in-depth look at their work that they needed to move on. They may have been sending it to people who were working around the edges, but who weren’t getting to the meaty, structural issues. There aren’t many people who do that anymore, and even writers who are published aren’t getting enough time with them. So my desire was to enable writers who haven’t been published to get that sort of support.

I’ve heard you talk a couple of times now, and you always stress the need for authors to be able to define the core concept of their stories. How does the core of a book differ from ‘The Hook’?
Everybody has a different vocabulary for these things. In my mind, the core of the novel is your through-line, the emotional drive behind it and the theme. The hook is what the marketing people make out of it. In my head those two things are slightly different.

Can you expand? 

The through-line is just the main plotline. The emotional driver is really the motivation of your main character, why they do the things they do, and the excitement and vibrancy of the whole story ... If you as a writer understand what you want the heart of your novel to be, it infuses everything you write. That is the emotional driver. And from that, publishers, agents and marketing people can sell your book in the way that you want it sold.

And themes? Can you give any examples of what you mean by that?

Okay. With Numbers, a girl can see the death date of every person in their eyes. The theme is what that would mean. If a teenager really had that ability, what would it mean? Is she the new messiah? Of course, not every story has a theme like that. In Wolf Princess, which just came out, the author is fascinated by Russian literature so she wanted to infuse the whole novel with that feel. For me the theme always comes back to the writer. What are you trying to say? You’ve got this plotline and these characters who are doing all these things but what - right deep down in your heart - are you trying to say? That’s where the excitement is, the vibrancy of your whole story.

So you want to see everything - the excitement, the vibrancy - focused on the novel’s central concept?

Absolutely. It’s all got to hang on that single idea. I like using visual images, so the idea of the coat hanger is great. You’ve got to hang everything on it. Or there’s the idea of the warp and the weft (in fabric). Your main plotline, the main protagonist and what they do, have to be very strong. But then you can go off and weave the most intricate pattern you like because your main character will be holding the reader’s hand throughout the whole thing. That’s why a novel like Northern Lights works so beautifully because you’ve got this central plot and Lyra dragging you along, even if you don’t understand all the layers.

Why did you get into children’s publishing? What’s so special about it for you?

I think it’s because of the big element of story and the excitement of being able to slip into other worlds. I had a wonderful childhood and I read very widely from Susan Cooper to Alan Garner, all of the greats, and they influenced me hugely. I was the girl under the covers late at night! And whilst I absolutely love reading adult literature, it’s that wonderful ability to get into the shoes of the inner child. There’s a wonderful poem by Robert Graves, I think it’s called the Island of Poet, where he says that it’s so important to see in black and white and engage with extreme emotions. That’s what a child does. I suspect that for an awful lot of people in this business, that’s what drives us.

Do you think it’s essential for anyone writing for young people, too?

Yes. We were talking about taking risks earlier on. For me the risk is almost putting the pen down, going to the theatre, going to a gallery, doing something you’ve never done before, and getting in touch with that fear, that excitement or that joy, to a level we don’t experience as adults very often. It’s not a matter of thinking about what age group you want to write for. That’s secondary. It’s thinking about what age you can see the world through. That comes first. That’s where the authenticity comes from. In a sense, it’s dangerous. For some of the authors I work with, it’s like splurging their guts on a plate, especially the teen writers because their writing is cathartic. They’re coming to terms with things that are quite deeply buried, and that’s why the trust between editor and writer has to be really strong. We’ve got to connect with who we really are at the deepest, at the most painful or the most joyous level.

Did JK Rowling connect with some deep level of herself?

Mmm. Good question. I think she must at some level. Harry is probably not the character with whom she is connecting. It might be Hermione. It maybe something fearful she’s connected with. It doesn’t necessarily mean seeing through the main protagonist's eyes.

Let’s go back to publishing. What would you like to be the next big thing? And I stress the word like. I know no one really knows.

There’s so much now on the news about the Arab Spring, or war-torn areas and revolution, I would be fascinated to see some novels on those subjects, but clearly with kids as the main protagonists. The other thing I’d love to see, which I tweeted about the other day, is some really big, emotional animal stories, with a sense of the wild that perhaps children are missing these days.

And what’s been done to death?

Well, vampires, werewolves, any paranormal romance. Post-apocalyptic has gone, really. It might be of interest in this country but certainly foreign publishers are turning things down. They’re not interested in novels with eco-themes either these days. That’s all turned on its head. But, saying that, if a novel is good enough it’s good enough. If it has an extraordinary take on that subject, then people will still buy it. 

If you enjoyed this interview and would like to read an extended version, you can find this on Rowena's Ning page on the SCBWI website. 

Rowena House
Rowena House is a journalist by trade - an ex-Reuters foreign correspondent in Europe and Africa, now a sub-editor specialising in international affairs. She turned to writing fiction for young people to meet a deep desire to tell gritty stories that are true in an emotional sense, without being constrained by ‘the facts’.  At the moment, she’s working on a love story for teens set in Africa as part of the MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa. Rowena lives in rural Devon with her remarkably tolerant family and their less tolerant dog, a grey-and-white sheep dog called Fletcher.


  1. So interesting. Thanks Rowena and Imogen.

    1. Thanks, Lesley and Jo. I found it really interesting talking to Imogen. Not often you get an editor all to yourself, and she's so enthusiastic!

  2. This so resonates with me. I think whatever is in the heart of an author can't help but be entangled in their stories - I've just started work on a new novel and I expected it to be about one thing but actually, although the subject is the same, the take on the subject isn't going where I thought it would. It's taken a much darker road and one I'm a little afraid of exploring but I know I have to, to be true to the story. It is a kind of magic but it also makes total sense. Golden Egg is a brilliant idea - we need more bridges across the divide. Thanks for a thought provoking start to my day Imogen and Rowena.

    1. So glad! And good luck with the new venture.

  3. Thanks Rowena and Imogen. Will definitely be taking a look at Golden Egg!

  4. Such a brilliant interview! Thanks Imogen and Rowena. Looking forward to my Golden Egg 'surgery' appointment in May!

  5. Really interesting and insightful interview - thanks Imogen and Rowena.
    Now all I want to know, Imogen, is when is Golden Egg going global?! ;-)

  6. Great interview Rowena! Thank you so much, Imogen, for being so generous with your knowledge and expertise.

  7. Fab interview - and a fab weekend. Definitely, the good stuff lurks in places you'd maybe rather not go - and it's good to have a professional to support your explorations. Thank you Imogen & Rowena.

  8. Sandra Greaves9 April 2013 at 10:23

    Thanks for this, Rowena - and great to hear a bit more about Golden Egg.

  9. Lovely to hear you all enjoyed the interview and thanks very much for your comments.

  10. Only just managed to catch up - great interview, Rowena. And Golden Egg is doing a wonderful thing!

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