20 Questions with... Annie Cowell
Annie lives by the sea in Cyprus with her husband and rescue dogs. She grew up on the North East coast of England, worked in publishing and recruitment for many years before swopping to teaching. She is passionate about the environment and human rights, loves spending time travelling and learning new skills.
She is published in Popshot Quarterly, Gastropoda, Paddler Press, The Milk House, NewVerseNews and many more. She is a Best of the Net 2023 nominee. She volunteers as a reader with Fiery Scribe Press and is a volunteer poetry critic with PencilHouse. Her debut chapbook, Birth Mote(s), is published by Alien Buddha Press and available through Amazon.
Please introduce yourself. Where are you from? What was your life like growing up?
I grew up in a tiny fishing village in Northern England, which dates back to before the Norman Conquest; a village full of folk tales, myths and rumours. There’s a big age gap between me and my two younger sisters, so in some ways I was like an only child. All of my pocket money was spent on books and I haunted the local library where I devoured Laura Ingalls Wilder, Mary Norton and even Jean Plaidy! Any author with multiple books on the shelves became my next target. I had a great bunch of imaginary friends who I spent a lot of time running around with, on the beach and in the woods.
Did you always want to be a writer? If you also work, what do you do / did you do?
I’ve been writing ever since I can remember, but only became confident enough to start letting others read my work in recent years. After I finished my English Literature degree at Newcastle University, I moved to London and worked in publishing and recruitment for several years before I switched to teaching after my children were born. For the last 20 years of my career I worked as an English teacher, mainly in Cyprus, which I loved. I especially enjoyed teaching A level lit; there’s something both surreal and wonderful about teaching the likes of Shakespeare and contemporary poets to second or even third language children and I like to think that I helped inspire some of them to go on to study English at degree level. Last year I decided to leave teaching and since then I’ve been writing a lot. In January 2022 I was egged on by a friend to submit a poem I’d written and was astonished when it was accepted almost immediately. Since then I’ve had around 25 poems published and a chapbook!
Tell us about your most recently published work in a sentence.
My debut chapbook Birth Mote(s) is about the experience of becoming a preemie grandma, the struggles of my grandson and how we found ways to cope.
What are you working on right now?
I’ve just finished a zine and a collaborative chapbook which was really interesting. So much of writing is solitary and it was great to interact with another poet. I’ve got several ideas brewing for new work.
Do you have a writing routine, and if so what is it?
I’m a morning person, so most of my writing happens early in the day. Having said that though I find that words jump into my head at all sorts of unexpected times so I’ll jot them on my phone or in a note book. I have a great collection of these which I pick up on my travels.
Where do you write – always in the same space, or different places? Can you write ‘on the move’?
My favourite place to write is in a local coffee shop. During the week it doesn’t get too busy, there’s just the right amount of background chatter and music. I’ve also got a desk at home so I’m lucky.
Writing my chapbook happened in the hours of waiting for news etc whilst my grandson was in NICU. I’d uprooted from my home in Cyprus to a cheap hotel in Central London so that I could be close by and I was writing all the time, everywhere. I was jotting down ideas on my phone and in a notebook and then I found a great cafe in Hackney, about 10 minutes from the hospital and I spent a lot of time there. Since then I’ve found that if words pop into my head it helps to jot them on my phone. Sometimes they evolve into something more.
What advice do you have for other authors who are starting out? What is the best advice you’ve heard?
Just write. Don’t worry about early drafts, don’t worry if you write things that will never see the light of day. Just write and also read a lot. Read anything and everything.
Do you enjoy doing live readings or are they a necessary evil – or somewhere in between?
Live readings terrify me. I’m shy so I hate the idea of being the centre of attention. Despite years of teaching and effectively performing to a live audience day after day I find the prospect of reading my own work mortifying. One of my new goals, moving forward, is to try and overcome this fear.
Are there recurring themes in your work? Where do you feel these emanate from if so?
Nature is a theme that dominates my work. I love the sea and I’m lucky to have roots on the North East coast of England, which has wild, stunning beaches which are very inspiring. Now I live by the Mediterranean which offers a different, calmer stimulus. Trees are also an obsession. Family another recurring theme. I’ve recently completed a zine, Yorkshire Puds, which is a nostalgic nod to my childhood. I think a lot about current affairs too, and have several poems addressing issues such as poverty and politics which have been published.
Should writers have a moral purpose? What is the purpose of a writer in today’s society?
I’m not sure about if they should have a moral purpose but I do believe poetry offers writers a chance to be heard. As with all literature there is an opportunity to convey messages and express opinions. I think that I do have a protest poet lurking inside me which raises its voice periodically too. I’ve shouted in my poems about a lot of stuff - poverty, war, the environment.
Do you write between genres or not?
Poetry is very much my vehicle at present although I have written an MG novel which was agented and out on submission to publishers for a while before the agent decided to leave the industry. I enjoy the immediacy of poetry and how it can touch readers at many different levels.
Which living writers do you most admire?
There are many. The Twitter community has introduced me to a huge array of new poets whom I am reading voraciously. Novelists I love include Maggie O’Farrell, Kate Atkinson, Belinda Bauer.
Which dead writers do you most admire?
I’m a massive fan of American Literature and love the poetry of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. The centenary of The Wasteland prompted me to pick up T.S Eliot and revisit his genius. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte was the novel which changed my life and made me want to write when I was a teenager. I can remember that first reading and was fascinated by the idea that someone who had led such a quiet life could produce a work of such passion. Kate Bush’s song came out whilst I was studying the novel and consequently I’ve been obsessed by her ever since too! In recent years I’ve had the joy of teaching the novel and even now it blows students' minds. It’s like Marmite, you either love it or hate it, but either way there are so many issues within it which are still relevant today; women’s rights, power, toxic masculinity, love death and so much more. It lead to some very lively class discussions!
What’s the book you wish you’d written?
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. I was blown away by it and couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks afterwards. She weaves words like a spell.
What other external influences do you have: nature/place, music etc?
I’m obsessed with the sea and also love being outside in green spaces. When we were staying in London I was amazed by the number of wonderful parks and green areas everywhere. The trees in London are magnificent and provide genuine balm and inspiration. Current affairs interest me a lot too - I’m interested in the story behind the story.
Something else which is lurking inside waiting to come out are poems about the refugee work I’ve been involved with over the years. A while back we homed a refugee for six months. Sadly, there wasn’t a happy ending, and at some point this experience will manifest in poetry. I’m still processing it all at the moment.
Do you suffer from ‘writer’s block’ and how do you overcome it if so?
Yes, unfortunately I do, but years of struggling with it have taught me that the worst thing I can do is try and fight it. So I’ll do other things like paint stones or mosaic, take long walks and read; eventually the words start to plague me again. I also think it’s good to have these quiet periods, that they’re a valuable part of the writing process too.
What’s been your favourite reaction to your writing?
My husband’s! He’s incredibly supportive.
How do your family and friends feel about your writing?
Mostly they’ve been very enthusiastic and encouraging, but obviously there are some who just aren’t interested at all, and that’s fine too.
Do you have a favourite bookshop?
I love my local bookshop here in Larnaca, but my absolute favourite was one I found in Krakow, Poland. It was an Aladdin’s cave of small, interconnected rooms. Whenever I travel I seek out the independent book shops and I’ve discovered some absolute gems along the way. I love the ones where you can get a coffee and dip into the books you’ve bought.
How do you see the future of writing? Will we become more or less dependent on Amazon?
I think Amazon is here to stay. I’ll always have a preference for browsing the shelves of a book shop, but as an author with a small independent publisher, Amazon is an invaluable way to reach a worldwide audience.