It's a gloriously sunny morning and I'm chatting to Paula Cocozza when she suddenly gets distracted. "Oh, a jay just flew by my window," she exclaims. "I don't often see jays around here." It feels kind of symbolic, this unexpected flash of nature as Cocozza's debut novel How to be Human (Hutchinson) explores the human desire to cultivate wildness in urban surrounds.
The theme seems somewhat unlikely for a writer with Cocozza's background but the more we talk, the more she is full of surprises. Features writer for the Guardian and first-time novelist Cocozza cut her teeth in football writing after what she describes as a "very intense degree" (studying English at Cambridge). A love of football runs in the family and when I ask who she supports, her answer is unequivocal. The local under nine side. "My daughter plays for them, the only girl in her team, and I am . . . ahem . . . a vociferous supporter. She sometimes has to tell me to shut up. I don't think I can claim to be the reason for her passion but I have definitely encouraged it."
Although Cocozza never felt compelled to have children by a particular age, being a mother is a role she relishes. Like many working mothers, she encountered difficulty in reconciling her two roles. In her novel, protagonist Mary is newly single and struggling to find her place in society. The magazines she reads are full of "stories of women choosing between their career and their maternal instincts". Mary has neither. That's not a problem for Cocozza. With an endorsement from Hilary Mantel, she looks set for a promising career, as well as a busy home life.
It seemed so bold. I suppose I lacked the nerve to say I wanted to write fiction.
I wonder how she finds the time to write. “My children were quite little when I started writing [the novel]. Reading had always been such an important thing in my life and at that point there was so little time. I think I’d lost touch – you devote so much time to raising children.”
Did she feel she was losing her creativity? She did and, with that, a vital part of her being. It was at that point writing became absolutely essential.
“It seemed so bold. I suppose I lacked the nerve to say I wanted to write fiction. In some ways, it was the worst moment to start but I think it was the fact that it was like that – that there was no time. It felt absolutely irrefutable at that point, the desire to write.”
Cocozza has a diverse body of work behind her but when she talks about fiction, her voice takes on a magical quality.
We live our lives removed from the people next door, from the people we sit next to at work.
“When I started I’d only have an hour but in that hour, it was as if time opened up into a different dimension. It was quite odd. In the world of creating fiction, I was creating time and space for whatever I’d lost in myself and had to be pushed to the side for bringing up kids.”
The way Cocozza speaks, it’s as if the story chose her and not the other way around. Living in Hackney, an area she describes as recently “gentrified”, it was her own chance encounter with a fox that drove her to write the book. A group of neighbours got together to clear a wasteland that connected their gardens but their efforts were repeatedly thwarted by a fox, a brazen one at that. Cocozza began to think about the ways in which humans and animals could communicate with each other; that dichotomy of ownership and kinship that exists between them, especially when substituted for human-to-human contact.
Her observation of what she calls "social brokenness" is timely. "We live our lives removed from the people next door, from the people we sit next to at work." Isolation seems to be the common thread that binds her novel. It reinforces the findings of psychologist John Cacioppo whose study on loneliness found that the desire humans have to forge meaningful relationships is integral to our health.
I wonder if Mary's relationship with the fox represents mental illness? She is loathe to place a label on it. It's a particular bugbear of hers, this overly diagnostic society we live in. "We have a hyper vigilance about ourselves. It's very easy to Google what you've got. Before you know it, you've got everything." Is there method in Mary's madness then? "Absolutely," she says. "She's actually very reasonable in what might be seen as her madness." Mary's hankering for an authentic connection with the natural world is in diametric opposition to that consumerist attitude that wants its wildness "in a carrier bag", she says.
The final conversation point? The anthropomorphisation of the fox; his hirsute chest, the musculature of his body – I can't help picturing Jake Gyllenhaal, I tell her. Cocozza laughs but it's a testament to her writing.
Paula Cocozza’s top three nature stories set in the city
A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines
Barnsley looms in the background of this beautiful story of one boy's love for a kestrel.
Clay by Melissa Harrison
Lives beautifully intersect around the sort of park, bordered by housing blocks and bus routes, that all city dwellers will recognise.
Fox8 by George Saunders
Thoughtful and funny short story by the brilliant George Saunders, narrated by a fox struggling to understand the "yuman" race.