Meet Coco Picard and read more about her and her debut novel, The Healing Circle published by Red Hen Press (August 16 2002)!
“The Healing Circle is wry, subtle, and daring. Coco Picard has written a vivid novel about living, dying, and remembering.”
—Meg Wolitzer, author of The Female Persuasion
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your published book (s).
I am a writer, cartoonist, and curator. I started the Green Lantern Press, a non-profit art space and publisher in Chicago and ran it for about seventeen years. It’s a great city—the art and lit community is warm, supportive, and brilliant. A great tradition of artist-run culture makes ideas seem possible. In 2019 I moved to New Mexico with my family. We’d just closed the gallery in Chicago and sold our building. I wanted to focus on writing fiction and comics. I’d been working on The Healing Circle steadily for years in fits and starts. The book follows a mother whose terminal diagnosis makes her leave the country (and children) in search of a miracle cure. In 2020, I was a Book Ends fellow at Stony Brook University and won Red Hen Press’s Women’s Prose Prize, both for The Healing Circle. Those opportunities helped me focus, revise, and complete the manuscript.
Tell us about the genre you like to write, and how is it similar / different from other women fiction genres?
I love playing with genre but am not partial to one. I rather just like that these well-known forms exist. You can play against them and with them in a way that instantly includes a reader. My graphic novel, The Chronicles of Fortune (Radiator Comics, 2017) plays against superhero comics. The protagonist, Fortuna, suffers from ennui. It stops her from accomplishing great things—the opposite of traditional superheroes who can obliterate cities in just thirty minutes. Whereas Fortuna’s frustration is stems from buying a $50 goldfish because she thinks it might sing. The Healing Circle dabbles with murder mystery tropes. Once in a foreign country, Ursula, the mother, asks herself if she’s already dead. There’s no real proof to suggest the contrary, she thinks, particularly as she becomes increasingly dislocated from time. She thinks she might be in a bizarre purgatory and wants to know who killed her and when. The question makes her review her life.
When did it dawn on you that you wanted to be a writer?
I always knew that I wanted to be an artist or a writer. Running an art space and press throughout my mid-20s and 30s was immensely rewarding because I could think about art and writing with others. Others whom I admired intensely, they seemed so brave in their studios and it allowed me to give myself similar permissions. I used to imagine my creative and working lives were all enmeshed, informing one another. The gallery I ran started in my apartment which meant my public and private space was also blurred for a long time. Talking to artists led me to new books which in turn inspired me to write critical art reviews which in turn inspired my creative fiction and comics, which again brought me into dialogue with artists about their practices. No one thing was an end in and of itself but at a certain point I had to step out of that loop to finish my longer form fiction.
Do you have a day job other than being a writer?
I’m working freelance—art criticism, some institutional writing, occasional teaching, that sort of thing, and continuing some Green Lantern publishing projects too. My partner, Devin King, is a poet, and also works freelance from home. We’ve had to modulate our routine considerably during the pandemic and jobs fluctuated over that time but we are lucky to share childcare with fairly flexible schedules. My biggest hurdle is being exhausted by about eight. Everyone’s in bed and it’s usually the best time to tackle emails and other administrative work. If I can, I try to write in the mornings—even for twenty minutes—and leave email to the end of the day but project demands (and my own energy levels) don’t always allow for that.
What are some things that inspire you to write?
Probably the distance between people and our respective idiosyncrasies. For The Healing Circle, I was especially interested in trying to understand why a mother would leave her family, as well as everything that she knew and loved, to pursue an obviously flawed cure. I wanted to capture the experience of being in a hospital—a kind of potent monotony. Time does funny things in that space. Everything is told in the present using short vignettes that bring up different times in Ursula’s life. I was also eager to see if I could capture a whole life modestly. The Healing Circle is a short book, relatively speaking. Something anti-monumental. But the characters within the book, this group of female friends, have set themselves to the task of finding happiness and good health. It’s a big endeavor in a way, with a broad range of possible cures, from Prancercising, to yoga, to faith surgery.
What is your typical writing routine like?
I have two young kids and a freelance work-from-home routine, so I’m always stealing time to write and revise my fiction. I struggle between balancing email correspondence with writing and editing. When I’m revising, I’m terrible on other channels—texts, emails, slack etc. Once a revision month has passed, I can suddenly handle those channels again. These days, a little time goes a long way. I used to love five or six hour stretches of writing but haven’t had that space in years. Sometimes that’s frustrating but, with a little persistence, my writing always habits adapt to my constraints. I find writing to be quite generous in that respect. It’s accommodating. It travels well, doesn’t require much—sort of like a low maintenance companion animal. I can write in the bathroom, or the car, or while I nurse the baby, sometimes when I couldn’t fall back asleep, I’d write in the middle of the night—essentially seeking out spaces where I’m comfortably unaccountable—those are the places where my creative efforts take place. For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out how to work on comics, but then I started drawing after dinner, often on the couch. My work feels like it moves at a snail’s pace at the moment, but it adds up.
What kind of message do your book (s) convey to readers?
I hope the “cures” in The Healing Circle walk a line between absurdity and insight. I think real life is often like that. I’ve had spells where I feel like I’m looking, looking, looking for answers—what is the point? For instance, some question like that. And I can’t find the answer. Doesn’t matter how hard I’m looking. Everything answer I bump into seem unsubstantial, phony, easily rebuked. But so often, especially in hindsight—the benefit of a softer gaze, I find the answer I sought in a different way, like it was just there all along only off to the side. Or I discover that the way I’d framed the question precluded any answer…hopefully there is some of that slipperiness in the book. The whole business of searching—for happiness, fulfillment, healing—it seems somehow impossible, also human, also endless, maybe joyful.
Does your book (s) incorporate certain aspects of your own life (and / or that of others)?
Sometimes I think my fiction is like a dream my lived life had. Some experience from real life gathers a charge, sticks to me, and I want to write about it. Doing so is often difficult, complex. Over the course of that churning around, any details from the original occasion get scrambled and reassigned—details from my own life and mussed together with some scrap from book I read, a separate conversation, a day dream—they all filter into the book. The Healing Circle is inspired by my own mother’s death. She was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma when I was nine and pursued all sorts of alternative cures in tandem with Western medicine. I’ve been trying to write about her illness for years and always failed. I had been trying to write from my own perspective, but I got bogged down trying to express my experience fully, authentically. It was impossible to transfer my impression into a novel, maybe because I wasn’t willing to let it get mixed up and scrambled. I was too attached, too eager to convince a reader to feel exactly what I felt when I felt it. I forget how it happened but I finally took myself out of it altogether. I switched everything over to her point of view, and suddenly had all this room to improvise. I realized in many ways I knew very little about my mother—I knew the parts that I saw, the parts that took care of me, and the parts that needed care. But there was so much space beyond our most intimate and familial encounters. The Healing Circle became itself when I started to explore that space, my lacuna about her. Ursula’s children remain “offstage” throughout the book—we see them when they call her on the telephone, making the mother especially isolated. With that small shift in perspective, the characters and their respective scenarios grew wildly divergent from any “original” experience of my mother and her death.
Any advice you’d like to give for aspiring writers at this stage in life?
Find a support network, friends and fellow writers with whom to talk about your book and process. There’s this myth that writing is solitary. In my experience, the doing of writing can be—putting words on the page—but I find such value in discussing writing with and by others. And then this business of revising. I was in a still life painting course once years ago and the rule of thumb was to map out the composition—lay down all of the objects you wanted in the frame, fill in the values, so that the entire canvas was mapped out and filled in. Then you adjust the colors, proportions, contrasts. You dig into the details. The professor suggested this last stage of adjustment was when the real painting started. I feel the same about writing. When I’m writing, I’m mapping out a project. It’s fast, loose. It gives me a chance to glimpse the full arc of the narrative. Then I spend more time revising than writing. I love it and hate it and it’s my favorite stage in the process. Revising allows me to live with characters. It demands patience. I often feel I’m in a hurry, to finish, but the joy of writing for me, when I remember, is the path of it, rethinking words, discovering new facets of a character, reconsidering structure, and plot, having to throw huge portions away. I like bumping into parts of a manuscript I’m embarrassed about. The book feels so alive in those moments. I can’t escape how acutely connected I feel to the project. I have to assess whether the embarrassment is serving the story or not and revise accordingly. And this is dumb maybe but kindness too. Kindness to oneself, kindness to the work, kindness to the work of others. If I’m able to approach work with kindness, I’m more equipped to listen to it, to understand where it wants to go, and how I can help it arrive.
Coco Picard is a writer, cartoonist, and curator. She is the author of two graphic novels, Meowsers (2022) and The Chronicles of Fortune (2017), which was nominated for a DiNKy Award. Art criticism and comics have otherwise appeared under the name Caroline Picard in Artforum, H
Contact Coco Picard here:
@cocolarolo (Instagram + twitter)
Caroline Picard (facebook)
Buy Book on Amazon here!