Stephanie Cowell has been publishing historical fiction for thirty years. She is the author of seven novels, including Nicholas Cooke and Claude and Camille. Her most recent book, The Boy in the Rain, is a love story between two young men in Edwardian England (Regal House Publishing, 2023). For this profile, Judith Lindbergh spoke with Cowell about her long romance with writing, the struggles she endured as a divorced single mother living in New York City, and her life-changing friendship with Madeleine L’Engle. This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Judith Lindbergh: When did you begin writing?
Stephanie Cowell: I started in my teens. I was published in Seventeen Magazine after I won one of their contests, but then I stopped writing at twenty-three to train as an opera singer. I also got married. Soon, my older son was born and, three years later, my younger. Meanwhile, I was running around singing ballads and performing concerts for anyone who would pay me. At that point, I’d decided I’d much rather sing. Writing was very lonely.
JL: What brought you back to writing?
SC: I divorced when I was thirty-eight, and when my husband went, so did any real income. I just couldn’t support my family as a singer. We had times when we couldn’t buy groceries. The electricity was turned off. I had rent eviction notices. We lived on the edge. Finally, I said to myself, “I can’t live like this anymore.” I took a full-time job. When I started to get paid regularly, I went and bought about $200.00 in groceries, which was a lot back then, and my older son tacked the receipt to the wall. It broke my heart because I realized what I’d been putting him and his brother through with my insistence on having a singing career.
My day job was as a report production specialist in a social policy research firm. I was very good at it; they thought I was the cat’s meow. Of course, I always wanted to be writing. I wrote in the mornings before work and riding on the subway. I’d write at lunch. I’d write in any spare hour when I wasn’t working.
JL: I remember you used to write on the job. What did your co-workers think of your writing?
SC: At first, I was very secretive about it. Then, one day, the personnel manager called me into her office and asked, “Are you . . . writing . . . a novel?” I guess the word had gotten out. My co-workers were wonderful about it. They were very proud of me when I got my first book contract. I was at the office one day when my telephone rang, and a woman’s voice said, “This is Mary Cunnane from W. W. Norton.” I nearly fainted. Then I told everybody. They couldn’t believe it. They threw me a big party, and everyone in the company, from the president to the mailroom employees, read the novel.
Eventually, I had my own office, and nobody cared that I wrote during my downtime. I remember going down the street during my lunch hour editing with a pen while walking. Instead of feeling lonely as I had once, I loved slipping inside the worlds I had created, and my sons no longer had to wonder if I was singing in Connecticut or Brooklyn in that time before cell phones. They could always reach me. Even now, years afterward, and with families of their own, they can still rattle off my office telephone number.
JL: After all that struggle to survive, how did publication change your life?
SC: When Nicholas Cooke came out in 1993, I got a modest advance of only $7,500. But then Norton sold the rights to Germany, and one day, a check came in the mail for $29,000 in royalties. I immediately bought my older son a printer (he was teaching himself computer languages), and I paid off a lot of my younger son’s college debt. I said to myself, “This is going to be life now. Every couple of months, I’ll get another $20,000, and I’ll be able to stay home and write.” Well, there are thousands of wonderful things that happened to me because of my writing, but that was not one of them. I kept my day job until 2016.
JL: Our friendship dates back to a writing workshop with Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time. What was your relationship with her? How did you find her?
SC: When I was still looking for a publisher, I told a church friend how long I had been writing—at that time, four years or so—and how I’d been struggling to get a contract. She said, “Well, that’s Madeleine L’Engle’s story. She’s teaching at a convent on 113th Street. You really should meet her.” So I called up the convent and got a spot in her class.
I walked in, and there she was, this tall woman—I’m slightly over five feet and she was about 5’ 10″. In the second class, she gave us a spiritual prompt to write a story inspired by the Bible. I wrote mine based on The Book of Ruth from The Old Testament. I read it aloud and, afterwards, I met her at the classroom doorway. She looked at me and said, “Beautiful, just beautiful.” I looked way up at her and asked, “Would you read my novel, Nicholas Cooke?” She thought carefully before she said, “Yes.”
I literally flew down to my apartment in a moment of absolute joy. I printed the manuscript out and got it over to her. You know, there were no electronic copies back then. Two very long months later, she called me up and said she loved it. She even tried to get her publisher to take it, though they did not. I continued going to her classes, and we became friends.
JL: Madeleine L’Engle was also a big influence on your personal life, wasn’t she?
SC: I met [my husband] Russell Clay at a friend’s wedding. He’d been writing to Madeleine since he was 14 years old—ever since he read A Wrinkle in Time—and she’d been answering him.
Russell and I fell head-over-heels in love, and when he and I married, Madeleine gave me away. I remember the priest saying, “Who giveth this woman to be married to this man?” And Madeleine replied, “Oh, I do.”
I’m so lucky to have had her in my life.
JL: How does motherhood figure in your narratives?
SC: The mothers in my books are absent, incompetent, or fairly inconsequential, which is not what you might expect, given that I was a pretty consistent mother. My relationship with my own mother was not good. She was very erratic and would turn on me viciously, often without cause. I left home at eighteen. It wasn’t until I took a class during the pandemic on ‘writing about your mother without guilt’ that I could understand the brilliant, giving woman and artist she was. She housed, clothed, and fed me. She introduced me to theater and books, but memories of her viciousness still sting. In The Boy in the Rain, I give her character to one of the men’s fathers, but that is as close as I can get to facing how she was. In many ways, Madeleine became that stable mother figure for me.
Meanwhile, I adored my own sons—when they didn’t drive me crazy—and as they grew older, they became very protective of me. Now, they are always there for me, and I am always there for them. Looking back I realize that being close to my sons remains the best thing in my life, even more than my life in the arts, even though, at times, I’ve envied the freedom of friends who didn’t have kids.
JL: Tell us about your new novel, The Boy in the Rain, which you’ve been working on for a long time.
SC: The Boy in the Rain came to me thirty-nine years ago and was one of the very first novels I ever wrote. It started with a vision of two guys in an old country house in Edwardian England. They haunted me and began to grow into a rough story. I didn’t know if they were real people from the past or if they came from a deep place inside me. I only knew that I had to somehow get them on paper. I worked on the book on and off throughout all my other books, fighting to find a place for it, trying to make it better, and hiding it for years.
A book you have trouble with is like a child. You see what’s in it, and nobody else does. That is why you stick with it.
During the pandemic, I said, “Well, this is it. If I do any other book, I’ve got to do this book.” Some of the parents of my sons’ friends had died, and I’d always been running so fast, it was the first time I seriously contemplated that life could end quickly. There was something I had to say in that book, I think, about the search for permanence—permanent love, a forever attachment. I have never quite figured it out.
JL: Why did you want to write about a relationship between men? Isn’t this a little far outside your personal experience?
SC: I fell in love with both of them. At one point when the book was already printed, I held it by the edge so that the pages fanned out, and I said to myself, “Run away now while you can!” I wanted to call up my editor and say, “Please don’t publish this.” I dreaded people misunderstanding it, but I also wanted to find those who would cherish it.
I’ve loved all my characters tremendously, but I had to fight for these guys since my first writing in, what, 1984? It took that long to get them out there.
JL: What lesson have you learned from all these years of writing, struggling to publish, and the successes that come and go?
SC: I’ve learned that the rarest writer makes a living at it. Your real journey is a success because of the worlds you have created. I’ve made friends, and so many incredible things have happened—like my Monet novel Claude & Camille being sold in Monet’s former art studio in Giverny. It just amazes me.
Truthfully, the writing life is not the fairyland I thought it would be. I tried to create one kind of fairyland and ended up creating another: a huge, warm community and some books that people say they read and reread. Someone might find my book in a used bookstore or an attic fifty years from now and just curl up and say, “Oh my God, this is a wonderful book!” It’s an amazing thing that what comes to you in secret can then live on in the minds of others.