Colleen Oakley’s recent visit to the Midtown Reader felt like a super chill book club meeting; except, you know, with the author herself leading the discussion. There we were, sitting in the cozy upstairs space with Colleen, her mother, several of her mother’s friends, and a few local authors, chatting about what inspired each of Colleen’s four novels and the role her mother plays in the early editing process of each book.
“When I turn in a book, it’s pretty polished because my mom does my early editing,” said Colleen. About her third novel, You Were There Too, which is due out in early 2020… “We only had to change seven words once it was turned in.”
It’s clear the two women have a very special relationship. Kathy Oakley participated in the discussion almost as much as her daughter, especially when someone in the audience asked about Colleen’s writing process and whether she was very disciplined. Kathy snorted, audibly.
Colleen’s books all have a similar thread - they’re inspired (or triggered) by some type of medical issue. Her debut novel, Before I Go, was written after she interviewed a young woman dying of breast cancer. Her second novel, Close Enough to Touch, is based on the experience of having one or more incredibly unique (and often devastating) allergies. And her third (and forthcoming) novel tackles the theory of dream telepathy, a fascinating phenomenon that occurs when two people interact with each other in their simultaneous dreams.
And if Colleen’s characters seem especially connected to her, it’s because they are. She said each character lives in her head for about six months before she starts writing their story. When she talks about each one, you almost forget they’re not real people she knows in real life; each one is like a close friend or neighbor to her. This is part of her writing process, she said.
“I always know where I’m starting from and where I want to end up,” she said, telling me she
doesn’t really rely on outlines when creating her plot lines. “The challenge isn’t keeping it organized; it’s making it believable.”
One thing she said that was hard for her to believe, initially, was how quickly her debut novel was accepted by a publisher. It was actually the second novel she’d written; the first was never published.
“It was not good,” she said ruefully. “So when my second novel sold in two weeks, it was wildly exciting!”
This is the example she points to when asked what advice she would give her younger self, or other aspiring authors.
“Don’t give up,” she said emphatically. “Keep going, just maybe on a different path.”
You Were There Too is due out in January 2020 and can be pre-ordered at the Midtown Reader.