Corrie Jackson is one totally brilliant woman. A former journalist, she’s worked at Harpers Bazaar, Grazia and GLAMOUR – where we met and jobshared before she moved to Los Angeles, California with her husband, James, and little boy, Arthur, for a two-year stint of sunshine. And she wrote a book, Breaking Dead, which is published as an e-b00k NOW and is entirely gripping (so much so that you’ll totally ignore your own children to race through it). Oh, and she landed a book deal when her baby girl was eight weeks old. As you do. She talks babies, book deals and LA-la land…
Where did you live in LA?
Let me start by saying: LA is amazing. It gets a bad rep, but we had a complete blast. We lived in Santa Monica – a gorgeous beachy neighbourhood on the Westside. Somehow we got the bargain of the century on a 1930s Spanish villa complete with sunny garden filled with jasmine, where hummingbirds flew right up to your fingertips.
We chose Santa Monica because it’s one of the only neighbourhoods in LA where you can walk around. Coming from London, I didn’t like the idea of having to get in my car every time I left the house. That said, you can’t avoid becoming a car-fanatic. Even now I’m like: Wait, I have to walk ten minutes to get to the restaurant? Screw that. The Westside is very family-friendly. And everything is outdoors. No dreaded soft play because you’re never indoors. My dad used to ask whether I missed the seasons. Um, no.
You were pregnant with your daughter, Evelyn Lane, whilst living in L.A., what differences did you notice in terms of how each country approaches pregnancy and childbirth?
Pregnancy-wise, it’s far easier to be healthy because you’re living in the health capital of the world. Everything is geared towards clean eating (although if I ever see another kale salad I’ll kill someone). And I only gave up my twice-weekly Soul Cycle habit when I was seven months pregnant because I feared the bike would collapse. Having said that, my first trimester was identical on both continents. I couldn’t eat any wet food (don’t laugh) so I lived on bread, plain pasta and biscuits.
Medically, the biggest difference is the number of scans you’re given. If you’re on the NHS in the UK, you get a 12-week and a 20-week scan, and that’s about it. In the US, I had a scan every four weeks. In some ways it’s reassuring, in other ways you become a bit neurotic. There’s almost too much information thrown at you. And if you’re 35 or over, California State Law decrees that you have to see a genetic counsellor, who pulls out a scary graph and tells you all the things that might be wrong with the foetus.
Also, James and I seemed to be the only people in the whole of America who didn’t want to find out the baby’s sex. Even my doctor thought I was mad and kept trying to tell me. The other thing is that I had an emergency c-section with Arthur, and was heavily advised to have a planned one in the States. It’s such a litigious country that no one wants to be held accountable if something goes wrong.
Tell me about the LA attitude to children?
LA is like London – each neighbourhood has its own DNA. Santa Monica is very laid back (read: hippy) and nowhere is this more evident than parenthood. People used to find my ‘British’ style of parenting (i.e. regular bollockings) baffling. I remember Arthur behaving like a brat at a toddler group, so I (literally) dragged him out of the room and shouted at him to stop behaving like an arse. When I reappeared, the other mums looked at me like I was evil incarnate. I’m from the ‘firm discipline’ school of parenting, and that tends to jar in LA. For example, not long after I arrived I took Arthur to a toddlers’ art class. One kid tried to bite another kid and was the End. Of. Days. Both mums ‘worked through their feelings’ with an emotional talk that culminated in them hugging it out in front of the group. I felt as if I’d landed on Mars.
Has it changed your approach to parenting?
My first year there, I became even more British. Everything was about ‘having a dialogue’ with your toddler and it used to wind me up. Now I’m back, I really miss the ‘otherness’ of it all. And how upbeat and happy everyone is.
Give it to us straight: LA versus UK?
The thing I miss most is the outdoors – and Mother Nature (yes, I know I sound like an LA native). But we’re an outdoorsy family. We’d throw our stuff in the car and hit Malibu beach to watch the migrating whales, or hike up Mandeville Canyon where there’s a breathtaking 360 degree view of LA. And our garden was basically an extra room. We only closed the double doors that led onto the terrace at night. Arthur played out there all day. Since we moved back to the UK, he’s been in the garden about four times!
LA has this reputation for women being super high maintenance – skinny-pinny, botoxed and blown-out: true or false? Are you expected to confirm to some yummy mummy stereotype?
You know what, the mums in Santa Monica were surprisingly normal. I mean, they’re all slim and fit, but they weren’t particularly plastic. I’m sure if we’d lived in West Hollywood it would have been a different story. Although, the Victoria’s Secret model, Alessandra Ambrosio’s son was in Arthur’s class. Playdates with her always made me feel like a fat frump. I often passed Reese Witherspoon on the school run and the paparazzi certainly kept things interesting.
Is it true that the nursery admissions culture is totally, crazily competitive?
To give you some idea: two weeks after we arrived I met a woman in the park. When I told her I was hoping to start Arthur in preschool in a year’s time, she asked what preschool tours I’d taken. I said none, because we’d pretty much just got off the plane. Her eyes widened; I could feel the panic rolling off her. She offered to lend me her binder filled with preschool brochures. She’d taken 16 tours and was applying to eight. She was worried that wasn’t enough.
The preschool tour circuit is HILARIOUS. Most Santa Monica preschools use the Reggio Emilio approach. Which means there’s no set curriculum; instead they’re guided by what the kids want to learn. So, if a child comes in one day asking about mud, they’ll spend the next month exploring mud and where it comes from. This was so alien to me. I was like: What about the ABCs and 123s? On one tour, I was told the school didn’t differentiate between letters and numbers because they wanted the children to figure it out by themselves. “Usually they do this by the age of six’. Um, SIX? I took another tour round a (celeb-heavy) preschool that turned out to be vegan. The teacher proudly us that when a child celebrates their birthday, they’re given a birthday cucumber instead of a cake. I howled with laughter. Then I realized I was the only one laughing. She said they’d spent the term discussing dreams and asked the kids to draw a picture of what they dreamed about. Apparently, half the class drew a picture of a hamburger. I wonder why.
In the end we found an amazing school. It was more beautiful than my house. Fairy lights, muted colours, a creek running through the playground. It was kiddie-paradise.
So, um, Breaking Dead features a troubled but brilliant (and kick ass) heroine, the investigative journalist Sophie Kent, delving into a toxic underworld in search of a crazed killer. Where on earth did this come from, living in the land of sunshine, swimming pools and hummingbirds?!
I left my role as Assistant Editor of GLAMOUR to move to LA and tried freelancing for a while. But the childcare was a nightmare. As you well know (!), you have to fit around celebrity’s ever-changing schedules and I just couldn’t make it work. So I decided to write a book. While on maternity leave with Arthur, I enrolled in an online creative writing course. At first, it was a way to keep my brain engaged but, pretty soon, I was hooked.
The idea for Breaking Dead has been brewing since 2006. I was Commissioning Editor at Grazia magazine when two high-profile murders occurred within a fortnight of each other. On the afternoon of September 13, beauty consultant Clare Bernal, 22, was shot dead in Harvey Nichols. Twelve days later 18-year-old model Sally-Anne Bowman was stabbed to death outside her house. My fictional crime reporter, Sophie Kent, remarks that ‘some stories are harder to wash out at the end of the day than others’. For me, that’s true of the Bernal and Bowman murders. Perhaps because they occurred so close together. Or because the victims were young, female and appeared to lead such glamorous lives. Or perhaps it’s simply because the murders coincided with my first experience of ‘bringing in the story’. Yep, I was the person responsible for approaching the bereaved family for quotes (an experience that chews you up and spits you out, but one that gives you a humbling insight into an unfolding tragedy). In any case, those two murders buried deep inside my subconscious. Then they rose to the surface a decade later and provided the spark of inspiration for Breaking Dead.
How much had you written when you got the deal?
The whole thing: 95,000 words. Two drafts of it. It was such a gamble. It took me 18 months, which would have been a whole lot of time to waste if I hadn’t landed a deal at the end!
And it meant that you had to go back to work when your daughter Evie was 8 weeks old. How did that feel? How did you cope? With the sleep deprivation for a start…
One thing I’ve learnt: you can’t choose your timing. My book deal moment was sandwiched between moving home from LA and having my daughter. Also, poor Arthur! My God, what a barrel-load of change we threw at him. He started his new school on the Wednesday and my c-section was booked on the Friday. New country, new school, new baby in a matter of weeks. I was so worried about him – but he took it in his stride. Far more than me, actually.
When my agent told me I’d been offered a two-book deal I was ecstatic. Then she told me I’d have to deliver book two (which I hadn’t even started) in a matter of months and my elation turned to panic. I never intended to leave her so quickly but you can’t look a gift horse in the mouth, right? I won’t lie; it’s been the mother of all juggling acts. Researching corpse decay while breast-feeding a one-week-old is a surreal experience. So is dreaming up dark plot ideas mid-lullaby. But I look back on 2015 as the year I gave birth to two babies.
How did you tackle it?
Book one wasn’t so bad. By the time I started properly writing Arthur was in preschool five mornings a week. And we had a lovely nanny to help a couple of afternoons a week. Book two is proving harder. I worked really hard to get Evie into a good sleep routine the first two months because I knew I needed sleep in order to write! She’s been great, actually. But, you know how it is. Two kids = twice as likely to have a disrupted night’s sleep. Often Arthur is the one that comes in at 3am because ‘I don’t like the colour on my bedroom walls’ (erm, white?). Also, emotionally it wasn’t too hard leaving Evie when she was tiny. She didn’t do much. But now she’s seven months and a squidgy bundle of laughter. It’s definitely harder walking away from her three days a week, particularly as I know how fast this period goes. But: gift horse, mouth. And I hope I’m showing my kids that it’s possible to enjoy a fulfilling career and be a loving parent. Even if the timing sucks.
Give us the lowdown on the book…
The book is called Breaking Dead and it’s the first book in the Sophie Kent series. It’s a crime thriller set in the fashion industry. On the eve of London Fashion Week, a Russian model is found mutilated in a five-star hotel. Leading the press charge is crime reporter, Sophie Kent; a talented journalist on the brink of a breakdown following her brother’s suicide. It’s out in ebook April 21st and paperback September 15th (which is the eve of London Fashion Week – talk about life imitating art!) Um, please buy it. Then leave me a glowing review on Amazon. Ahem.
You heard the girl – go buy it! You can download it here.