“The constant happiness is curiosity,” says the great master of the human heart, Alice Munro. And perhaps no contemporary novelist currently working epitomises this boundless curiosity so well, and to such incredible success, as Coco Mellors. Having released her debut novel, Cleopatra and Frankenstein, to rapturous acclaim, Mellors is currently on tour in the UK to celebrate the release of its paperback, where she has been heralded as one of the finest, and most distinctive, new voices in fiction.
You’ve probably seen her work populating your timeline, the steady glow of rave critical reviews and reader responses, the sleekly composed, enigmatic face curiously regarding you from the bold front cover. Mellors’ novel follows the heady, volatile fortunes of artist Cleo and her much older spouse, Frank, through the eyes of all those that fall into the dangerously vibrant orbit of their relationship - from friends, family, and further beyond. Mellors’ desire to inhabit a multitude of characters and perspectives, in shaping the relationship of Cleo and Frank, is testament both to the adaptability of her style and the rewards of following the curiosity which is the foundation of all great storytelling. As she describes the lives of this constellation of individuals in early 2000s New York, the reader is magnetically propelled into their deepest intimacies and scandals, culminating in one of the most thought provoking and moving works of fiction in recent memory.

It was an immense pleasure to talk with Mellors about the impact Cleopatra and Frankenstein has had since its publication, and everything that went into creating this novel that took five - not seven, as we discuss - years to write. As warm, wise, generous and funny as you’d imagine from the page, the author of Cleopatra and Frankenstein has found that constant happiness really is about the rewards of taking the leap into the unwritten, the unknown, and letting curiosity guide your way.
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Many thanks for joining us Coco, and taking the time to chat to us about your wildly successful debut novel - you’re about to go on tour in the UK to celebrate the release of the paperback of Cleopatra and Frankenstein, congratulations! What are you most excited about for this trip?
I feel so excited because it really feels like this homecoming. I grew up in London (I’m English) but I left when I was 15 and I've never moved back. I've lived in America ever since, so I've spent more than half my life in America. When I was working on this book, I was very interested in British culture versus American culture, but it's such a New York novel and I feel like such a New Yorker in my heart. But the way that England and the UK and the Commonwealth have embraced the book has really surprised me, and it's just been delightful! And I love English readers, because it's a smaller community, I feel like I know the English reader more than the American reader. In America, it's so diffused, it's such a huge country. It's so lovely to go back and meet them in person. It feels intimate, in a way.
And this relationship with your readers is really a testament to the massively enthusiastic response the novel has had since its publication, and I think a lot of that is down to how well you’ve realised the characters; people really relate to how they navigate the messiness and spontaneity of life in your twenties - and later! Which character (or perhaps, relationship) was most difficult for you to write, and why? And which was the most enjoyable? But then I thought maybe the most difficult character could also be the most enjoyable…
Yeah, that's such a good point. I feel like people are probably surprised when I say this, but I found the most difficult character to write to be Cleo, because on the surface, she's the character that has the most in common with me. She's British; I started the book when I was 25, and she's 24 in the novel, so we were around the same age at least when I began writing. She's a creative, she's an artist, but I actually found her really mysterious as a character, and she's very sublimated emotionally. There's a lot that's happening beneath the surface that other characters don't get access to, and I found that she would slip away from me a lot in scenes, she would often recede into the background and that other characters would come to the forefront.
I had Frank's voice, and I knew Frank's family from the very beginning. I knew what Frank's mother was like, I knew what his sister was like, I knew that his dad was absent, and so he was just very clear to me right from the start, I found it easy to write his dialogue. And Cleo, for a long time I didn't know who her family was. I would force myself to come up with answers and they didn't feel right. And so slowly, slowly, it took me years, truly, truly years - I think it was around year three or four of writing this book, that I wrote the scene with her parents, with her stepmother and her father - and I finally understood her. I understood where she came from, and understood what she was hiding and why she felt the need to hide so much. But it makes me laugh when people are like, oh, well Cleo… It's just you, right? And I'm like, never again am I going to give a character blonde hair, that’s the first thing! I'm so verbal, and I feel like I'm very outgoing and I wear everything on my sleeve. She is really the opposite. She does not do that. She's extremely visual. She's not verbal. Everything for her is through image and art and colour, and I loved doing that, but she was definitely a challenge.
And then the character that I found the easiest to write I think will also surprise people, because it was Anders. And not because I feel akin to him! But I wasn’t planning to write a chapter from Anders perspective, because he's not a massively likeable character in the book, and I disagreed with a lot of how he behaves. And so my own bias was like, oh, I'm just not going to include him, he's kind of just going to be like a toxic male. But I remember this was early in the novel, probably in the first or second year of writing it. I went for a long run down the West Side Highway, and I just had him in me - that sounds wrong [laughs] - I mean his relationship with his stepson, his relationship with his ex, the secret feelings for Cleo, I heard it all so clearly. I just understood him immediately and I went and I wrote the chapter that's from his perspective really quickly, which is quite unusual for me. So his was a dream chapter to write because I sat down and I at least got a first draft done almost in one go, which never happens for me. So he was the easiest for reasons that remain a mystery!
Which is one of the most impressive strategies in the novel really, in how you constantly inhabit so many different characters and voices. The scale of the novel feels something like Middlemarch or it's inheriting a kind of classic English tradition in the novel and really subverting it; the novel has such a large, almost Dickensian cast, many of whom we get to follow in different chapters. What drew you to this expansive, constellating, narratorial approach, instead of focusing solely on the spinal cord of Cleo and Frank’s relationship, perhaps?
I never had a plan or an outline for this novel, so when I say I made a decision, I just was compelled to do something! I do think the difference between a craftsperson and an artist is that a craftsperson knows what they're going to make and then makes it, whereas an artist, I think, doesn't know what they're going to make and is constantly in a state of surprise by their own imagination. And for me, I was always surprised by where the novel was going because I hadn't planned anything. I didn't plan it as a two-hander between Cleo and Frank, but that definitely would have been the easier way to write the book. And it actually, I think, would have been an easier sell as well. But I think curiosity is just the driving force for everything. And I wrote that wedding scene and Quentin was there, and I was just curious about him. His voice captured me. I thought he must have an interesting backstory. And then I just followed my curiosity. And in life, I'm very curious about people, I'm very interested, and I think that's just reflected in the novel. So I would have these secondary characters who for me are not secondary. They would feel so alive and then I would think, why not just let them have their time, have their own story?
Well you’ve worked a lot in flash fiction, and I could sense this coming through in the wonderful chapters narrated by Eleanor, a copywriter at Frank’s company. The short, almost philosophically aphoristic sections which compose her chapters make such a change from the rest of the novel; could you share some of the reasons behind this strategy, and why you felt it was important to the novel as a whole entity?
Yeah, that's such a great question. And I love that you think it reads kind of like a Greek philosophical text. Because someone else said it's like a Twitter thread. And I was like, I'm not on Twitter, that's not the inspiration for this! [laughs].There were a couple of reasons. One is I had been working on the book for several years, and I was getting tired of writing in close third, which I do enjoy and I love. I think had I known that I would one day be able to write multiple novels, I probably would have just written a separate book in this style. But I really had this feeling like I have one shot, one book in me, one chance to sell a book, so I'm going to do everything in this one novel, like everything and the kitchen sink. So this novel, I think, feels really overstuffed and it's kind of like spilling out at the edges. And I love that because that's how New York feels.
But I wanted to write in first person; I had been reading a lot of Maggie Nelson and Lydia Davis and Mary Robison who wrote an amazing novel called Why Did I Ever that's all in fragments. And I was inspired by that style. I was also interested in comedy, and how you build to a punchline with that bouncy, fragmented style. It leaves a lot of room for humour because you have these final lines, you can have six punch lines on a page. Also, for me, it's compelling to explore grief and sadness in that form, like how we cover our grief with our humour.
Eleanor's voice, I would say, is the closest to my own voice in real life. While working as a copywriter and living in New York in my twenties, I made notes of everything I noticed that I thought was funny in my phone. I had hundreds of them, and I always wondered where I would put them, what would I do with all of these scraps? It was like a magpie building a nest. And then I was like, I'm just going to give them all to Eleanor. And so it was everything I basically ever thought was funny. Really, nothing is wasted in a writer's economy! It was tremendously satisfying because then also, she is very different to me; she's Jewish, her relationship with her mother living in New Jersey, for example. I started to build her relationship with Levi, her brother, which I really loved. I started to build her out and her voice got clearer and clearer and clearer the more I accrued those notes. She's kind of been the secret star of the book. I think she's the character that readers relate to the most, and I think she's a much-needed grounding dose of reality in a novel that at times can feel filled with flight of fancy, Great Gatsby glamour. I'm really interested, always, in contrast between darkness and lightness and glamour and grit and humour and grief. And she brings a lot of that to the book.
I think Eleanor almost takes the position of the reader in that sense. Not necessarily as a voyeur, but she looks and observes a lot of the time until her relationship with Frank develops.
Yeah, she's noticing, she's noticing all the time, and that is very analogous to a reader. And the other thing that's interesting, actually, is that she is the character that is the most easy on paper for the reader to judge, because we're invested in Cleo and Frank, by the time she enters the book, no one expects her. And so I was aware that readers were going to have this pushback against any other woman that enters into this marriage dynamic. And I was invested in doing as much as I could to undercut that judgement, and put people really in her perspective, which obviously the first person does very effectively. So rather than judging her as an interloper, we are aligned with her. For me, point of view is the most powerful tool that a writer has. The choice between first, second and third changes everything in a book.
I think it gives the novel such a moving sense of community, which you’ve spoken before as a crucial part of your life as a writer, having a community of artists to depend on and work with. Is this value of community something you feel translates into the fabric of the novel?
Yeah, very much so. I'm a big believer in the power of the group on numerous levels. The first two years that I worked on this book, I was in an MFA, so I was workshopping it. I was having groups of people read the book, so there would be a class community. And then a year into writing the book, I got sober in Twelve Step recovery, which is all about groups and healing through community. And I think that that really began to seep into the novel.
And the other thing is, I live in L.A now, and I didn't know because I lived in New York for so long that other cities didn't function like New York. You cannot have privacy in New York. Your life is constantly bumping up against other people's lives in a way that you can't choose or have control over. In L.A, that's not the case for me. I really choose who I interact with. I get in my car, I drive around, I get back in my car. If I have dinner with someone, that's who I have dinner with. But in New York it's a communal living experience and you can't get out of that. I like this idea of exploring a marriage, but how a marriage is not just between two people. How it affects friends, family, strangers. All of our lives are interconnected. I know for myself, my life became increasingly dependent on groups and in a good way dependent on interconnectedness the longer I worked on the novel because of my own sobriety. So in the Acknowledgments, I put that in there. I thanked groups of people for helping me write this book and I really believe it was like it takes a village, and it was a group effort.
People and material places seem crucial for your writing processes - do you find writing a different experience in Los Angeles than in New York? Because what you're saying about New York makes it appear the cityscape really seeped into your writing on quite a fundamental, topographical level.
Absolutely. Because I also wrote the whole of Cleopatra and Frankenstein in the library.  I love libraries, I don't like working in cafes, I don't like the noise, and I'm ordering pastry after pastry, and I feel sick. I love working in a library because it's that kind of separate togetherness that you can't get anywhere else. You're surrounded by people, yet you don't interact. I think that's an incredible thing to be in. And I wrote most of the novel in my evenings after work and on my weekends. And it was in my 20s, so the engine of this novel was a lot of anxiety and adrenaline and youthful quixotism and hope and excitement. And I'm so glad I wrote it that way, I think the book has that energy in it, like you can feel it on the page. And then I moved to L.A, and then the pandemic happened, maybe three weeks later. I wrote the majority of my second novel in isolation, living in a bungalow by the beach, so it couldn't have been more different as a writing experience.
I worried when I was writing my second book that it was going to lack that intense, electrifying energy of a debut novel where you have so much to prove to the world, and all you want is to show you can do it. But I really enjoyed writing in that period, even though the pandemic was extremely painful time for all of us in different ways, because I felt like I got quieter and I went deeper. I did with Cleopatra and Frankenstein too, but just by virtue of doing seven perspectives in one book, you just can't go as deep with everyone. Blue Sisters, my new novel, has three perspectives, which is still kind of a lot! I just stayed with them, and every time I wanted to wriggle out because it got painful or uncomfortable, there was quite literally nowhere to go when the world was shut down and I was forced to just keep burrowing down further and further into these characters and into my own imagination and memory.
Was 2020 a recognisable force in the composition of Blue Sisters, would you say, does it feature materially in the novel?
No, the pandemic doesn't figure into it at all. It’s set in nebulous now. There's a tiny bit of social media that I included, although I debate taking it out, to be honest. There are so many writers who write so well about technology and are so good at the internet novel, the social media novel, there are so many I adore, but it's not my strength. I think – I hope! - my strength is character. That's what I'm interested in, it's character and it's the relationship between characters. That's all I want to write about. Romance, family, friendship, those are universal themes that live outside of time.
One striking dimension of the setting of 2007 is the lack of omniscient social media. Cleopatra and Frankenstein has been really adopted and championed by online reading communities, such as Bookstagram and Booktok. How do you as a writer navigate the world of social media? What do you feel about the way that social media has impacted the publishing industry?
Yeah, my relationship with social media definitely changed after the book came out. Before that I had a private account, and I still don't have a lot of followers or anything, but it was a smaller part of my life, and it was something that I kept as limited as possible because it truly is the enemy of time. Time moves so fast when you're on social media and the experience of scrolling - I finish that experience and I feel truly empty. But if I spend an hour of my life reading, I feel very full at the end of that hour. So I have to pay attention to how I'm feeling around it. I mean I'm delighted, I'm so thrilled that social media has picked up the book and that it's been so championed. Especially because it's a slightly younger audience; they're younger than me, they're in their twenties and when I imagined my dream reader, when I was sitting in the library every evening, I imagined a kind of 23 year old young girl, basically, who wanted to be a writer who would find this book, and often I wrote for her, or perhaps I wrote for myself, for the younger version of myself. So to then see those people, you know, of all genders and ages, come forward and say that they really connected to the book and that makes me just feel like it was so worth it. That really was a dream come true for me, so I am really happy about it.
But also as a writer, it's an interesting career because you have two distinct sides of it. There’s the part that I think of as truly, purely art. And then if you get published, there's the other side, which is the business. It's commerce; you've created a product that's been sold and becomes a hashtag and it's marketed. I try to not let the two touch each other too much. When I'm in the promotion phase, which I'm in right now because of the paperback, I find I really struggle to write. I just cannot go to that place inside of myself because I'm too stimulated by the outside world. And when I'm writing, I really try not to think about the market, I don't think about trends, I don't even think about what would be popular. I am completely driven by my own curiosity and my own excitement about what's happening on the page. And I trust that if I'm excited to write it, someone will be excited to read it.
There have been a few critics who’ve noted how reading Cleopatra and Frankenstein suggests a novel that had been in the works for some time - Adam Eli used the words “perfecting and percolating” in his warm review. I understand you began the novel at 25 - how true would you say Adam’s statement is? How long before you began writing this novel did the ideas for it begin germinating, and how do they compare to the finished work?
Adam is definitely right, he was there every single step of the way. He would come to the library with me and we would work together and we still talk every day. He's been there through every single part of the process. I mean, I started the book when I was 25 and I finished it when I was 30, and then it came out when I was 32. So that's a seven-year process. I always want to clarify, because I put in the acknowledgement that the book took seven years from start to finish, which it did. But I didn't write it for seven years. I wrote it for five years. And then in the last two years, I wrote Blue Sisters. Sometimes people are like, and it took her seven years to write?! And I don't know why I think five years is so much better, because five years is fucking long time [laughs]  I always wanted to clarify that from the acknowledgement, because I see now that it was a confusing way of phrasing it!
And I changed so much through the course of writing it. At a time when I watched a lot of my friends in that period, in their late 20s, their work came out and they started to get recognition or they were writing for online publications. And I didn’t, I just worked on this book. I did a little bit of flash fiction, which I love, and then I copy-wrote to make a living, to support myself. And I remember worrying, am I being so foolish? I'm putting all this time and energy into something that might never see the light of day. But the truth is, it's what I love to do. I love novels, and I wanted to write one. And it had a lot of power over me, this book. I didn't get to decide how long it took. I needed to write another chapter from Zoe’s perspective. Did I want to? No. Did I need to? Yes.
Luckily, I had really good mentors, and they kept saying, “things of value do not fear time.” Do not give in to the siren call of the rush, rush, rush of contemporary society. The book, hopefully, will last for a long time after you're gone, if you're lucky, it will still be in print. So five years, four years, seven years - it is totally worth waiting. And I'm glad because I don't think that this novel is a perfect novel by any means, I always think my next book is going to be my best book. Like my fourth book, I already know what I want to do for it, and I think that will take a long time. I think it's going to be a big book. But I don't have any regrets about Cleopatra and Frankenstein because I sat with it for so long, there was just no rush. And so there's nothing that I would change about it, even though I think that it's imperfect. And that's such a relief to me.
But then you've got people like Donna Tartt who take ten years and more to write a book…
I think about Donna Tartt every day. I think a lot of us think about Donna Tartt every day! The time is necessary because I do not know what I'm going to create, I have to be surprised, I have to let the unconscious do its work, in my own self. Ocean Vuong talks really eloquently about pushing back against the industrialisation of the writing culture, and how the terms that we use around writing, like workshop, cleanup, cut down, are factory terms that have their roots in industry, and actually the writer has to reject that within themselves. We are not factories. Art needs time to percolate. My second book I wrote quicker because I was in a time of history where all of us had more time on our hands, or at least those of us who didn't have small children, actually. My third book I think might also be quicker than Cleopatra and Frankenstein, knock on wood, because it’s all first person. But I think my fourth book, which I want to do as a 100-year family history, will take much longer. So I have no plan to trot out a book every two years, absolutely not! [laughs] If Donna Tartt taught us anything, it’s that patience is a fucking virtue!
Talking of Tartt, I always have to jump in and ask; what are you reading right now? Who are your favourite writers at the moment?
I loved Barbara Kingsolver's Demon Copperhead, which I think just came out in October. It’s a rewriting of David Copperfield, but set in contemporary Appalachia. Absolutely amazing. And then my friend Juhea Kim wrote this incredible novel called Beast of a Little Land. It's a historical fiction novel, but again, the themes and the concerns of the characters are so contemporary, they feel so now to me. It's about the Korean fight for independence from Japanese rule in the first half of the 20th century, and the characters are unforgettable. Another I always recommend, it's quite hard to even find in print, but I think it is on Amazon, sadly is Rebecca Lee's Bobcat and Other Stories, they're one of the best collections of short stories I think I've ever read other than Alice Munro.
Apart from the buzz of amazing fiction, what keeps you motivated as a writer? As you’ve spoken about before, Cleopatra and Frankenstein had a lengthy genesis, through which you’ve eloquently related your experiences of rejection. What is it about writing that keeps you pushing through the periods of difficulty?
Yeah, I really had to ask myself this when Cleopatra and Frankenstein got rejected by the 30th publisher on the list. I had to really grapple with the idea that the book might not come out. Sometimes it's theoretical, like, would I keep on writing even if no one reads me? I really did have to ask that. Am I going to write another book, even though I put so much into this first book? And I remember, sitting in Washington Square Park, crying, just feeling so just disappointed, but not hopeless! I had two publishers that I ended up selling to, Bloomsbury and Fourth Estate, who said that they would read it again, but it wasn't ready in the iteration that it was in. A lot of writers, I think a lot of people who want to write, don't, because they are so afraid of the rejection, which is truly very painful. I just can't sugarcoat it. It’s so wonderful and it's so scary to let yourself want something and then put it out there into the world; it is a real risk.
But the truth is, I remember thinking, okay, well, if the book doesn't get published, some of the chapters, I think, could work as short stories, so maybe I'll submit them to journals. It felt like selling off the car for scraps, which broke my heart, but I was like, there's something salvageable here. And what I could maybe take is one of the characters and write another book about them. Then at that point, I'd had the idea for Blue Sisters. I remember just thinking, I can make it work. I can keep going. Because the truth is, I am absolutely at my happiest when I'm neck deep in a novel, just feeling so immersed in the story. I don't really know how to live in the world when I’m not writing.
Everything that happens that's painful as a person is extremely fertile ground as a writer. And I thought if I wasn't writing, I don't know, painful things would just be a bit shit? [laughs] My husband's not a writer, and he manages to find other ways of making meaning, but my way of making meaning out of my life is by writing about it. I take breaks from writing. I haven't written for weeks at the moment, and I miss it - at first, it's so liberating, it's kind of like leaving home on holiday; you're like, yes, I'm out of here, and I never want to go back! And then after a few weeks, I get homesick and I want to be back, just with myself and the page and with the language. I hope that I never stop. I want to keep writing forever, until my last dying breath! [laughs].
It feels fitting to end with a parallel to the ending of Cleopatra and Frankenstein, where Cleo and Frank muse on the five individuals that make up their starling formation as they see the birds take flight. Who would you, Coco Mellors, say your five starlings were?
I’m so glad you liked that image. I was waiting for a long time to find what the final image of the book would be. I also didn't know how the book would end, so I didn't know if they would stay together or not. So I was waiting to find that out, too. Then my dad was watching a nature show over one Christmas holiday, and it was about Rome, and they had that image of the starlings and the murmurations, and they said the thing about the five birds, and it was such a gift. I was like, that is it. That's the final image. And actually, I'm really happy that it was in Rome because one of my last weeks ever drinking was in Rome. So it was the end of the road in many ways for me. But my own five-bird star? Definitely, my mum and my sister are two, and my husband Henry. And then it's hard because I have like three best friends that I talk to almost daily. So that's six starlings, which is not the formation! And then, of course, we all have the murmuration all around us of influences and mentors, people we know but we don't know. Taylor Swift is probably half the world's starling [laughs] She's a great one. But they’re the people who I know who I am and where I am in my life in position with them. It's by talking to them that I understand who I am any given day of my life.