Coco Mellors On Sisterhood, Style And Finding The Light - The Gloss Magazine
Zoe Potkin
Coco Mellors Blue Sisters author picture

Author Coco Mellors On Sisterhood, Style And Finding The Light

Rejected by 30 publishers, author Coco Mellors was a relative unknown when her debut novel Cleopatra and Frankenstein, released in 2022, exploded on the literary scene and became the It book of the summer. Now, her new novel Blue Sisters delves into the theme of familial addiction …

Coco Mellors could talk about emotions all day long. In fact, we do a lot of that for the hour in which we meet. Firstly, about the emotional highs and lows she experienced riding the success of her wildly popular first book and the emotions she mined for writing its follow up Blue Sisters, which is already tipped for success. Published in 2022, Mellor’s debut novel Cleopatra and Frankenstein, a tale of an impulsive marriage between a 24-year-old struggling artist and a 40-something owner of an ad agency was the book of the summer. It sold nearly 200,000 copies in the UK, with a direct line to the mainstream as well as to hoards of millennial and Gen Z readers on BookTok. In season two of And Just Like That, Sarah Jessica Parker reads the novel in bed one night, its cover as stylish an appendage as any of the accessories in her wardrobe repertoire. Then there are the fans. The comments under each post that liken Mellors to a kind of literary Elvis – or spiritual leader. “You make me excited about life and what’s yet to come,” one user gushes.

It’s a success that’s been hard-earned. Mellors is refreshingly unvarnished in sharing how the road to becoming published was anything but smooth. Then a literary unknown, she spent five years writing a novel that “kept expanding, accordion style”, only to be turned down by 30 publishers. In the midst of writing it, she got sober, married the love of her life and moved from the West Village to live in Los Angeles with her husband. When I mention her success, it’s clear she is both ecstatic and self-aware. “I have a lot of friends who are writers from doing an MFA and I have a lot of extremely talented friends who haven’t had the reception they hoped for with their books,” she says. Upon reflection, now that she’s onto novel number two, can she equate the success of her first to anything in particular? She exhales, giving the question consideration. “I honestly don’t know why certain things take off and others don’t. I will say that work that is deeply emotional does connect in a different way to something that is more cerebral. If something makes you feel really deeply you will remember it,” she says.

In her much-anticipated follow up Blue Sisters, published by Fourth Estate, Mellors homes in on the topic of addiction, in particular the veins of addiction threaded through a family of three girls, the Blue sisters, passed down from their alcoholic father. It’s a topic she knows well. Mellors is open about discussing her sobriety, as well as the fact that she comes from a family of addicts and alcoholics. However, she insists that while her characters start with a seed of reality, they are built entirely on fiction. “I wasn’t writing about my sisters exactly, but I was writing about how I feel about them,” she says. What Mellors is describing is a subgenre of bare-all storytelling that she refers to as fiction with “emotional biography not literal biography”, explaining she has written about real life emotions, rather than real life situations. In Blue Sisters, the main characters live in three different cities, Paris, London and Los Angeles and reunite in New York following the tragic and sudden death of their fourth sister. It’s clear that, while processing the grief of a beloved family member – Mellors captures beautifully the particular kind of love one has for their sister – each sister is battling her own demons, addiction and otherwise.

Another term that’s been thrown around for Mellors’ style of fiction is ‘Ivy League beach read’, a rebrand of the traditional romance genre denoted by page-turning stories you want to inhale, albeit executed in a very literary way. The novel has already garnered comparisons to Little Women, not that Mellors has been playing up to them, however the book has dovetailed with a larger conversation about the cultural phenomenon of ‘eldest daughter syndrome’, a term used to describe the emotional heavy-lifting often bestowed upon the oldest girl in a family. It’s excellent timing. However, Mellors is unsurprised by the peak in conversation. “People are always going to be concerned about what it’s like to relate to other people, and what it means to love and be loved,” she says.

As well as tracking the story of an impulsive marriage, Mellors’ first novel Cleopatra and Frankenstein was noted – and beloved – for its sense of style. The female protagonist, Cleopatra, has long blonde hair like spun gold, wears berets and cowboy boots and, for a New Year’s Eve party at a converted factory in Tribeca, paints “thick black wings over her eyelids, 1960s style, finishing each flick with a tiny gold star”. (The beauty note was subsequently name-checked in a feature in The New Yorker about the remarkable legacy of cat-eye make-up.) In Blue Sisters, we meet Lucky Blue, a Cara Delevingne-adjacent model type catapulting her way around the fashion capitals of the world with a death-defying alcohol problem – and a party girl wardrobe to match.

That these economic insights into a character’s interior are so accurately conveyed is no coincidence: Mellors’ background is in fashion copywriting. She worked as a freelance writer for J Crew, firstly in New York, then in Los Angeles, until she sold Blue Sisters. Is she comfortable juxtaposing froth with literary fiction? “It makes me laugh because clothing is an undeniable lens through which we experience life and yet people can be quite quick to dismiss it or see it as vacuous or superficial,” she says. “I like to write books that have quite a rich visual component. I spend a lot of time thinking about the furniture, the clothing, the lighting and sometimes, if I get to a scene I’m really dreading, I’ll go online and look at Architectural Digest and I’ll work out what the room looks like. It sounds funny to call that world building because that’s a term usually reserved for a fantasy novel – for me, my version of that is a Gucci folding table.”

In person, Mellors is a delight. Lacking in any ‘cool girl’ literary pretensions, she is warm and erudite, with conversation holding an appreciation – and awareness of – beauty, much like her eloquent prose. Literary and style icons often crossover, she explains. We discuss the OG pin-up, Joan Didion: “She had a fabulous kaftan that she would write in.” Equally, authors such as Zadie Smith – “I’ve gone to her readings, she pays attention to what she wears and looks incredible” – are mentioned. Indeed, Mellors is nothing if not dogmatic when committing to a theme. When we meet in the bar of a Dublin hotel, she’s dressed head to toe in blue, down to the pastel tips of her nails (themed for Blue Sisters, naturally). For her reading at the International Literature Festival Dublin she casts a figure in a gold double-breasted suit. “It’s by Sézane – it’s on the site now,” she trills, as she inscribes my book with a (personal) message: zero gatekeeping here.

As she admits, it’s okay to want to be a bit shiny and glamorous sometimes. Although, it makes it hard to pack a small suitcase for her book tours. “I ask myself: should I just wear a black turtleneck and jeans? Should I keep it really neutral? Then I feel ‘no’: I want to bring a sense of joy and playfulness and humour and whimsy and excitement through what I wear because that’s what I feel and that’s what my books are like,” she says.

Madame Bovary is about a woman who is so addicted to shopping that she dies!” she laughs. “That’s one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written and nobody questions it because it was written by a man. It’s another version of the patriarchy that we can’t see things as highly feminine as being serious or intellectual.”

The idea of a writer’s process is much discussed. Often, frankly, as an act of self-mythologising by (usually male) writers. It’s interesting how men have fanfare around writing, while women have to shoe-horn it between the school run. “Nabakov’s wife used to cut his sandwiches and bring them to his desk while he worked,” Mellors says with a laugh. Equally, I once read that James Joyce, apparently, could only write while lying on his stomach and using a large blue pencil. Thankfully, Mellors has a more balanced approach. “One thing that really works for me is going for a walk. I firmly believe in the idea of ‘move a muscle, change a thought’. Listening to music is crucial. Talking it out with someone I trust, discussing what’s happening in a scene and bouncing ideas off them. I don’t use WIFI, I put my phone in a drawer in aeroplane mode. I try to keep the space distraction free because it’s so easy when you’re stuck – which, when you’re only getting into something, can be once every three minutes – to just go to your phone.”

Image: Zoe Potkin.

Speaking of on screen distractions, Mellors is in the midst of adapting Cleopatra & Frankenstein for television with Warner Brothers. While we enthusiastically bounce around names for a dream casting scenario – which includes but is not limited to starlets and TV heartthrobs we both crushed on in our teens – I learn it could be a while before it hits screens. What can she tell us? “It’s in development which was slowed because of the strike, plus I had my baby early.” Anyone who read the novel will not be surprised to hear it’s been picked up for TV. From the messy but glamorous set of characters, to the backdrop of the Bowery and the East Village, as well as the whip smart dialogue, the novel garnered comparisons to Girls and Sex and the City. Early criticism of the book relegated it as ripe for a streaming adaptation (as if that could be a put-down: how they underestimated Mellors’ fanbase). Mellors, however, embraces the claim. “Watching Sex and the City is how I learned to write dialogue,” she says. “The dialogue on the original show is incredible.” In fact, she often references celluloid in our chat. Blue Sisters was influenced by The Royal Tenenbaums and, though it’s tonally different, she notes the excellent writing on Succession as a wish-list for the TV adaptation of Cleopatra and Frankenstein.

There’s also the topic of her third novel to discuss. Mellors is writing in bursts between co-writing the TV show, multiple book tours and raising her six-month-old Indigo Sky, who was born prematurely late last year. Unsurprisingly, her next book touches upon motherhood. Mellors describes it as “very much a mid-thirties novel”. Set in Paris, against the backdrop of the hottest summer in the history of the city, it follows a protagonist caught between two lives: one as a filmmaker in France, the other, of motherhood, in the US, her home. Even when discussing her frustrations over getting a run at her writing, Mellors is suitably wistful. “I have all these notes and snippets that are like beads and jewels and you’re trying to work out how to string them together,” she says. Will it bear any similarity to her first two books? “There’s a level of emotional rawness that I don’t know how not to do, that’s just how I write,” she says. It’s not all darkness, though. There is a playfulness to all those feelings, a sort of emotional silver lining, in there too. “There’s a line from a Charles Baudelaire poem that I love which is ‘hearts light as balloons, let’s go’. It’s this feeling of bringing a lightness to this experience and remembering this is fun,” she says. Spend time in Mellors’ company and the sentiment becomes catching.

Blue Sisters by Coco Mellors, published by Fourth Estate, is out now. €16.99 at Dubray Books.

Coco Mellors recommends:

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. “She has an amazing point of view. I read the second half of this on a plane and cried a lot.”

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Towes. “The title captures the whole feeling of the book – it’s hilarious but is dealing with something sad. Towes, who is the author of Women Talking [the book was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film starring Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy and Rooney Mara] wrote a book that makes me laugh, cry and have all the feelings.”

Splinters by Lesley Jamison. “I felt so understood and less alone reading this. In it, the author gets divorced and goes on a book tour with her newborn child. It’s about identity and motherhood and being a wife, and all these separate parts of herself that splinter. I read it at night while nursing my son.”


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