Josephine Cox is a tiny woman with an enormous heart. Writing for the past twenty-five years, during which time Josephine has written a staggering forty-nine books, forty-four of them published with Harper Collins, she receives sacks full of letters from her readers every day – from all around the world. In the latest edition of her ‘Chatterbox’ newsletter to readers, is a heartfelt reply from a reader in Birmingham, ‘My name is Abu, I am 17, and I love reading your books. You gave me hope when I was down which I am very thankful for.’
She told me, “I have readers of all ages, and I write back to every single one of them, sometimes long, long letters. People often write to me if they are in difficulty, perhaps they feel they have no one left to turn too.”
Josephine is from a family of ten. Her father, a Kilkenny man, was, like herself, tiny (she’s only four feet ten inches tall). He had a big personality, but he could be harsh. When she was fourteen years old her parents separated and her mother brought the family 200 miles south from their home in Blackburn. It was a tough time, and many of Josephine’s books reflect the turmoil of often difficult relationships within families. Josephine though, is still happily married to the man she met and married when she was only sixteen.
Josephine’s latest book The Broken Man focuses on a character she knew in childhood, an ‘uncle’ whom it later emerged had been less than uncle-like to many of the children in the area, including her own sister. The Broken Man has allowed Josephine to put some of her demons to rest, to fight back in prose and settle the scores that the children damaged by this man were powerless to do.
We met in Peploe’s in St Stephen’s Green, a fabulous restaurant with attentive staff and glorious food, the clatter of a busy lunch trade occasionally drowning Josephine’s soft tones. Robin-like, her eyes bright, she perched at the end of the best table in the house with a view of the entire restaurant, taking in all the details, and no doubt creating stories as we spoke.
Josephine started writing when she had an extended spell in hospital. “I was confined to bed for six weeks and a friend bought me a pile of notepads and told me to write the story that I’d been talking about. I’d written it all in my head, and it just poured out. Angels Cry was my mother’s story, and when I came out of hospital the book was finished. But I put it in the bottom drawer for a year and a half until my husband Ken said, ‘Why did you write that story if you’re going to leave it in a drawer?’ So I sent it out and it was accepted, and the publisher said that they wanted anything else that I wrote.”
And write she did. Josephine he told me “It was like the tigers had been let loose, I had to keep writing. But then the readers wanted to know what happened to Queenie at the end of my first book. I’d left her with a suitcase in her hand going off on an adventure – I thought it was a wonderful ending, but the readers kept asking, and my readers rule me, so I had to put the new book aside and write a follow-up.”
Then working as a teacher, Josephine explained that she had to make a choice about her career. Angels Cry ran to fifteen reprints and set the tone for her subsequent books; Josephine found herself writing in every spare moment – after work she’d go home and write until midnight, and in the end she had to give up teaching. But that compulsion to write continually has never left her and she told me, even on the plane on the way to Dublin, she’d been writing a new scene for her latest book. She laughed, “I write everywhere, on plane and trains, even when I’m lying in the bath I have a notepad and pen beside me because ideas are always popping into my mind. The character I’m writing about at the moment is called Lara Lovejoy, she’s the pivot of the story and she has all these demanding people around her. On the plane on the way over I was writing a scene where she goes past her sister’s house on the bus, and she has no idea, but her sister is in bed with her husband.” Josephine paused, adding with a twinkle in her eye, “But she’ll get her own back…””
But this compulsion to write has its downside, “I once sat down and wrote for five hours, I didn’t notice the time, and when I finished I was so stiff I could hardly stand. Now I take an alarm clock into the office and write for two hours then take a break and walk around.”
Josephine creates detailed notes on her main characters, profiling them before she even starts writing, pinning their details, their backstory and descriptions, up on A4 sheets all around her office, “Every one of my characters is based on people I’ve met – in Three Letters, like The Broken Man, the protagonist was a character from my childhood. In The Broken Man, the protagonist is the main catalyst to everything that happens to others. I decided to break him before the end of the book.”
In The Broken Man we meet Edward Carter, a bully of a man, who inspires fear in the hearts of all who meet him. Adam Carter is twelve years old, an only child with no friends nor any self-confidence. His father’s reign of terror over his family has Adam’s mother Peggy too cowed to protect her son, so Adam’s only support comes in the shape of Phil Wallis, the school bus driver.
Then one afternoon, when Adam is his last drop of the day, Phil makes a life-changing decision – to accompany Adam along the darkening woodland lane to his house. But, in the house at the end of the track a terrible tragedy is unfolding, and it is one that will bind them together forever.
Packed with colour and ‘real’ people, Josephine doesn’t profile the incidental characters in the same way she does the main characters – they just appear as the story develops. She revealed that often, although she thinks she knows the ending when she starts, the characters can take her in quite a different way from the way she expects. She explained, “The end changes; instinct tells you whether to let it go and follow the characters, or whether to rein them in – sometimes I have to tussle with them. Each book takes on a life of its own and sometimes it surprises me. You’ve got to have an open mind and write from the heart, not from the mind, you have to give the characters leeway to break away.”
I asked Josephine how she had managed to write so many books in her career. She revealed that each book takes around six months to write, “I couldn’t imagine not writing. Everyone you meet is special, everyone has a story.”
But Josephine isn’t only busy writing – she gets out from her writing desk regularly, appearing at a huge number of events across Britain and Ireland. She’s passionate about libraries and is often called upon to open them, she says “I think we all need a library within easy reach of home; especially since many of our children often have no other access to books. As we’re all aware, times are really tough for many families just now. Money is tight, and purchasing books is an added expense.”
With so many books behind her, I wondered how Josephine keeps coming up with new ideas. She explained, “I get the idea for the next one half way through the one I’m writing. Every one is different.”
As lunch went on we found out just how many stories Josephine has inside her, bursting to get out – and the opening lines of The Broken Man prove just what a true storyteller she is:
There was something disturbing about young Adam.
Deep inside, he carried a secret that he could never tell anyone.
Phil knew, though, because he recognised that certain look: the slump of the shoulders; the sad eyes that gave little away.
Having fought for king and country, Phil knew what it was like to carry a secret. Over the years he had learned to live with the vivid memory of terrible scenes he had witnessed.
He could banter with old companions, but the loneliness of guarding his secret was often unbearable.