Paula Cocozza: ‘In London, you have to work to find a connection with nature’

Journalist and author Paula Cocozza. Picture: Christian Sinibaldi

Journalist and author Paula Cocozza. Picture: Christian Sinibaldi - Credit: Archant

Journalist and first time author Paula Cocozza talks to Zoe Paskett about embracing wildness in the city and praise from Hilary Mantel

Our experience of wildness is different in London to elsewhere. We rarely see that much of it and, when we do, our reflex is to treat it as a pest or nuisance. Yet, we also seek it out - on our own terms of course. We buy plants from Columbia Road or go to terrarium workshops.

But there are sudden reminders - a fox might walk casually across your path in the street.

It is this kind of unexpected interaction that inspired Paula Cocozza to pen her debut novel, How To Be Human.

“Me and some neighbours were doing some tidying up of this little wasteland and there was a fox who would interact with us but quite often not directly,” she says. “So you’d do something and the next day you’d find that he – I say he, but I really don’t know – you’d find that the fox had undone it.

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“Once I dug a hole, I can’t remember what for, to put in some plants, and the fox dug a hole inside that hole.”

Cocozza’s story is more than a narration of the growing bond between a woman and an animal. It explores themes of fixation, loneliness and the longing for a connection with something.

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Mary is recovering from a break up, hating her job and sick of her judgemental neighbours. When she comes face to face with a fox in her garden, she begins to see herself and her life anew.

“There was a sense that some kind of communication was going on – some cross fox-human communication, across the borders between species,” Cocozza explains. “And that really appealed to me, that idea that you could have a character who saw it that way, who believed herself to really be addressed by this fox, and felt that she understood what the fox was saying.

“You could just think, well that’s a fox being a fox doing its foxy business, but I liked the fact that in these interactions you could read it both ways and it seemed to make both things possible.”

Set in two neighbouring houses in the grid of streets between Queensbridge Road and London Fields, the area is one she knows well having lived in Hackney for around 15 years.

“I grew up in Worthing on the south coast and it’s a fairly plain, mostly retirement town but there was the sea in front of you and the downs behind you and you’d always be out at weekends,” she recalls. “And so that connection to nature is something I feel I grew up with. But in London I guess you have to work much harder to find it.”

The little wildnernesses and parks are part of what she loves about Hackney - parts that gentrification hasn’t touched yet. There are people down her street who keep bees, and around the corner who have chickens. One of the themes running through the book is the contrast between wildlife in controlled spaces - on wallpaper and cushions - and the suspicion towards it in its natural habitat.

“I’ve definitely noticed in the last five to 10 years this hankering for a connection with nature, manifesting itself in all kinds of ways – people wanting to know which kind of farm they’re buying their food from.

“There’s a big interest in connecting to rural pursuits. I think it has become quite fashionable, which is not to say that it isn’t a real interest but quite often that the way we interact with nature is a consumerist interaction.”

Cocozza’s full time job is features writer for the Guardian, and having moved through football and fashion journalism and editing since starting out 20 years ago, she feels that she has “parked up and that’s it, I’m not moving!”

Her transition into fiction writing was fairly smooth - she sees the two disciplines as complementary of one another.

“Maybe it would be different if I were a news reporter. But it seemed to me that whether it’s journalism or fiction, you’re basically telling a story and finding the most engaging and appropriate and true way to tell that story.

“I thought there would be more difference than there was. The big difference of course is that with fiction you are creating a whole world from scratch you can imagine it any way you like and that’s the fun of it and the freedom of it. When you’re starting out the possibilities really are endless.”

She wrote her first piece of fiction for the application for a creative writing MA at University of East Anglia, where this book was born. Working from 11 bullet points she made in the notes on her old Nokia, she launched straight in and the rest happened from there.

“I think I’d always been writing in my head but never quite writing down because that would have meant admitting something, admitting wanting to do something that I didn’t feel perhaps quite bold enough to admit out loud.

“It’s not that I’ve been writing novels all my life. I wish I had some in the drawers – I’m checking now, just in case! No, nothing there. It was really the first proper go at something.”

On completing the book, she sent the unbound proof out to a number of authors she particularly admired, “not really expecting a reply from anyone.”

“It’s quite an embarrassing exercise if you ever find yourself in that position – prostrating yourself before the greats!”

To her delight she received responses from a number of them including Alan Hollinghurst and Hilary Mantel, who described the book as “an intriguing and subversive debut”.

“It was a very nice note to open!” Cocozza understates. “I kept Wolf Hall on my desk for a long time and I just read and reread her opening chapters because there’s that fight scene and it’s just amazing. I think that was one of the reasons why I wanted to reach out to her. There is that darkness in her work, quite aside from the fact that she’s a totally amazing writer, and a real physically in her prose. I’ve always admired her.”

How To Be Human (£12.99, Penguin) is available now

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