Helen Cox talks about her new novel, Secrets and Fries at the Starlight Diner.
1. Can you tell us more about your latest book, Secrets and Fries at the Starlight Diner?
Secrets and Fries is set around the Christmas / New Year period and focuses on a down-and-out musician called Bonnie who isn’t able to enjoy the sense of community most of us revel in at this time of year. She is something of an outcast and as far as some characters are concerned, an expendable member of society. The story is about staying true to who you are, finding your place in the world, recognizing true allies from false friends and all those hard lessons we learn as we navigate our individual but connected paths. It also features some talk about pies, pancakes and burgers – it is set at a diner after all.
2. How did you come up with the idea for this novel?
This book was essentially spawned from the backstory for Esther, the lead character in my first novel Milkshakes and Heartbreaks. I always spend a lot of time getting to know my characters. I ask them questions and I make notes on their history. Not all of that information will be conveyed to readers but it does inform the ways in which the characters interact with each other and what kind of arc is drawn for them. Esther and Bonnie knew each other before Esther came to New York and started working at the Starlight Diner. Their destinies were woven together so it seemed natural to me to tell the second book from Bonnie’s perspective so readers could enjoy a different but related story. The two books in this series can be read as stand-alones but readers wanting more information about the characters and how their lives intersect can read both for a richer sense of the Starlight Diner universe.
3. Who would you want to play Bonnie, Esther, Jimmy, and Nick in a film adaptation of Secrets and Fries at the Starlight Diner?
I used to edit a film magazine, so I take questions like this a little too seriously – forgive me. I think Anna Kendrick would be perfect to play Bonnie Brooks. Bonnie is a musician and Kendrick showcased her impressive set of pipes in both Pitch Perfect and Into the Woods. She also had a bit part in a film called Up in the Air where she played an ambitious but uneasy upstart called Natalie Keener. After this performance I know Kendrick could capture the awkward side to Bonnie, no questions asked. Rosamund Pike would be the perfect casting choice for Esther. Her work in Gone Girl floored me. Pike’s understated and wry approach to playing Amy Elliott Dunne was compelling to watch. Her performance in A United Kingdom was also both graceful and gentle which would be perfect for capturing Esther’s vulnerability. When it comes to Jack Faber, I’d love to see Daniel Bruhl in that role. I first saw him in a black comedy film about the fall of the Berlin Wall called Goodbye Lenin! and was immediately struck by his charm – a quality that would come in handy for playing Esther’s film star boyfriend. Jimmy would make for quite difficult casting just because he’s a bit of a conundrum. I like to think however that Dan Stevens would at least give the script a read through and think about taking the part. His performance in The Guest was deliciously brooding while his softer, gentlemanly side came to the fore in Summer in February. Both are essential character traits to consider in the portrayal of the tempestuous Jimmy.
4. Do you have a favourite character you can tell us a bit more about?
It’s very difficult to say which character is my favourite, especially as I feel sort of answerable to them and can visualize an imaginary clip round the ear from Mona if I don’t pick her. They’re a bit of a rabble but I love them all for their strengths and their flaws. I think that across the two books Jimmy possibly has the most interesting character arc. He’s on one of the most exciting paths – learning what it means to love – and he doesn’t even know he’s on it for the bulk of the story. So, why not? Today, I’ll pick Jimmy and I’ll pick someone else another day.
5. What are you most proud of about the book?
I think that The Starlight Diner books would have been very different books in the hands of another writer. Nothing wrong with that, we’ve all got our stories to tell. But what I’m most proud of is that the stories tackle some very dark and difficult issues, especially relating to the female experience. I’m proud of the fact that there is an underlying sense of hope in these stories, even in their darkest moments, and that the characters learn important lessons about the pitfalls of judging others and taking responsibility for our own part in the way our stories play out.
6. Have you ever been stuck while writing your book? How did you get over it?
The answer to this question will make you like me much less, I fear. If I get stuck in a story, if the character isn’t taking action, then there’s only one thing for it: I’m mean to them. I ask myself, ‘OK, so what’s the one thing that this character really doesn’t want to happen at this point in the story? What will force them to take action? What will force them to confront the conflict rather than hiding away?’ Pain is often understood by our society as a negative, but though we might not wish to invite it into our lives when we confront it, we do grow. We change. We move forward in our journey and prove to ourselves that getting hurt won’t stop us in our tracks.
7. What novel have you recently read that you’d like to recommend to other book fans out there?
I’m not sure how controversial a thing this is to say, but I only read a very limited number of novels per year. Historically, I did read a lot of novels. Goodbye to Berlin, I Capture the Castle and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day are among my favourites. Recently however, my reading tastes actually lean more towards non-fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry. Often, the creative non-fiction books are written by novelists, recording a moment in their lives. One of the best volumes I’ve read is Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck. Travelling with his dog, Steinbeck creates a rich portrait of 1960s America that is both fascinating and at times chilling. I also read an inspiring book for artists and writers last month called The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin which comes highly recommended.
8. What message do you want readers to take away from your novels?
The direct message varies depending on the main character but overall I hope that when people turn the last page of my novels they have become more open to the idea that connecting with other people is much more likely to bring joy than separating ourselves from and judging other people. Judging others may be easy to do but it doesn’t make the world better nor does it help that person find their place in the world. I like to think some of this comes through in the stories I tell.
9. Has any other writer in particular influenced the way you write?
Daphne du Maurier and Sylvia Plath have been two great influences on my work. I wish I could give you more modern names, truly. But unfortunately my head and my heart seem to be stuck in the last century and no number of tempting Apple gadgets can change that.
10. Can you tell us a bit about your plans for the future?
You are welcome to have a conversation with my mother about how infuriating I am when it comes to planning the future. I’m not very good at it. I tend to live day-by-day and focus on making the most of the next twenty-four hours. I can tell you that I am currently working on a second draft of my third novel, a murder mystery set in my home county of Yorkshire and a first collection of poems. What their ultimate destiny will be, I have no idea. But just like my characters in the Starlight Diner books I maintain hope that they’ll find a place in the world.
WIN! WIN! WIN!
For your chance to win a signed proof copy of book 1 – Milkshakes and Heartbreaks, sign up to Helen Cox’s mailing list before December 1, 2017.
Open internationally. As a thank you to signing up to the mailing list, you will receive three short stories too.
What brings Bonnie Brooks to The Starlight Diner? And why is she on the run?
As the front-woman in a band, Bonnie is used to being in the spotlight, but now she must hide in the shadows. Bonnie only has one person who she can turn to: her friend Esther Knight, who waitresses at the Fifties-themed diner. There, retro songs play on the jukebox as fries and sundaes are served to satisfied customers. But where has Esther gone?
Alone in New York City, Bonnie breaks down in front of arrogant news reporter, and diner regular, Jimmy Boyle. Jimmy offers to help her. Can she trust him?
When the kindly owner of the Starlight Diner offers Bonnie work, and she meets charming security officer Nick Moloney, she dares to hope that her luck has changed. Is there a blossoming romance on the cards? And can Bonnie rebuild her life with the help of her Starlight Diner friends?
Helen Cox is a book-devouring, photo-taking, film-obsessed novelist. If forced to choose one, Helen’s Mastermind specialism would be Grease 2. To this day, she still adheres to the Pink Lady pledge and when somebody asks her if she is a god she says ‘yes.’ After completing her MA in creative writing at the University of York St. John Helen found work writing for a range of magazines, websites and blogs as well as writing news and features for TV and radio. She has written three non-fiction books and founded independent film publication: New Empress Magazine. She currently lives in York and writes novels.