Scary Mommy talks to writer Elle Cosimano about writing believable female characters and risking it all to become a writer
Twelve years ago, Elle Cosimano has a super successful career in real estate and marketing—but she was miserable. So she took a sabbatical, wrote a YA book in 8 weeks, and started her new life as a writer.
Now she’s reinvented herself again, this time by releasing a book like one she’s never written before: a comedy/mystery for adults that has everyone talking (and dressing their pets up like the title character).
Finlay Donovan Is Killing It is book about something that could happen to anyone, kind of: you’re in Panera talking to your agent about the murder mystery you’re writing, and someone at an adjacent table thinks you’re a hitman. A series of extremely unfortunate events follows, and suddenly you’re embroiled in a murder case, where you’re a suspect… but also helping the detective… but also helping to hide the body… but also you really need to find a babysitter.
Finlay is a novel for any woman who’s ever felt overwhelmed, for any woman who’s felt like they can’t juggle their life for one more day, for any woman who’s ever felt like just straight up murdering someone so that they can have some peace. It’s also a super-fun, laugh-out-loud read that, at its center, is about friendship and the things any mother will do to keep her family healthy and happy.
We sat down with Elle Cosimano to talk about all things Finlay, from how her story was born, to how the book was written, to what might happen next. At the same time, we get a window into Cosimano’s life and insights into how she develops her ideas, characters, and plot—all to create the unforgettable characters and stories she gives us.
Q: This is the first book that you’ve written for adults. Tell us what’s different about the process.
A: A lot of people ask me if it’s terribly different writing for young adults. And my answer to that is always, no, my process is exactly the same.
I’m asking the same questions of my characters. Who are they at the beginning of the book? Who are they by the end of the book? What is it that they most yearn for? What are they afraid of? What’s standing in their way? All of those questions are the same, no matter who my protagonist is, regardless of whether I’m asking those questions of a young adult or the mother of a young adult.
And the shape of a plot is really the shape of a plot, no matter the age of the protectionist. What’s really different is the the experience of the character that I’m telling that story through. I’m asking the same questions, but those answers are filtered through a different level of life experience.
This book was so much fun to read. At the same time, there are some really serious undertones in it. One of the ones that stood out to me was the issue of childcare. Is that something that you wove in consciously?
I don’t know that I necessarily consciously set out to infuse any specific messages within the book. My goal was to be as honest with Finlay’s voice as I could be. I wanted her experience as a mother and a woman to read as authentically as possible—those frustrations and trials and raw moments of motherhood, both the beautiful and the not so beautiful. A lot of those came from my own experience as a mom. It’s been a long time—my oldest is getting ready to go off to college and my youngest is 16, but those experiences still are very fresh. That fatigue. That feeling of needing to be all things to all people all the time.
In terms of piecing that character and that voice together, I was just trying to stay true to the experience of motherhood. And and I think in doing so certain things come to light that, that especially now are so timely, especially with COVID and everything else. We’re seeing moms pulling a lot of double duty. We’re seeing moms who were working from home and educating their children from home and struggling with childcare and families trying to rebalance loads.
I don’t know that it was necessarily intentional that the messages are there, so much as that her experiences are all there on the page. The good, the bad and the ugly. And I’m glad that some of those came through.
A lot of our book club members have said, “Oh my god, I am Finlay Donovan, except for the murder stuff.” She reads so true. How do you get to that authentic level with your character? And how much of Finlay is you?
Quite a bit of Finlay’s voice comes from my own inner monologue. My own internal voice very closely mirrors Finlay’s voice. That kind of snappy, witty, often sardonic, sometimes abrasive, sense of humor is that inner common conversation that I’m usually having with myself, especially on my worst mom days.
But our experiences don’t always mirror one another. I’m very fortunate that I’ve had a loving, supportive partner in my husband who has helped me balance the load and, we work really well together. And Finlay, of course, did not have that advantage. She was flying solo quite a bit.
I think one of the greatest things about the novel is the sort of central friendship between Finlay and Vero. How do you go about writing about friendship?
I think the skill is just being really deeply seated in the voices of the characters and really knowing who they are and how they relate together to make that chemistry become magic on the page.
But for me, Vero’s close relationship with Finlay was the crux of the whole novel. It was the mast of of my sailing ship. As I was writing this book, it was really important to me that the romances were were more my way of giving Finlay choices. It was important for me to see that she had options, to see that she had choices. But at the end of the day, truly she could’ve kicked both of those gentlemen to the curb and stayed home with Vero and had pizza and beer.
I would have been very satisfied with that ending because for me, the whole core of the story is all about that relationship between Finlay and Vero. Women unconditionally supporting one another and lifting each other up. The inspiration came from some of my greatest female friendships and how they have unconditionally supported me through motherhood and life and the ups and downs of going through different stages of our lives together.
I think your dedication is to your friends who you said you’d bury a body for. Are those the friendships that you tapped into?
Megan and Ashley are my critique partners, and we’ve been critiquing together writing together mothering from a distance sort of side-by-side for a decade. We all three came into writing fresh as new authors. None of us were really entirely sure of our footing. And our children were all very young at the same time. So we were going through all of these life experiences together. And every year we make a point of seeing each other in person for a writing retreat, which is also a sort of a mom’s retreat and a woman’s retreat.
It was actually on one of these retreats that I came up with the concept, the seed, of the Finlay Donovan novel. We were at lunch together in a crowded Panera restaurant discussing the plot of a book when it occurred to us that someone was eavesdropping might’ve assumed we were up to nefarious things. So it seemed fitting that I dedicate the book to them, it was a perfect way to pay tribute to their support.
This was a book I never trusted myself to write. I wasn’t sure I could do it. I insisted that one of them needed to be the ones to write this book so I could read it. And they kept pushing me out of my comfort zone and saying, no, you need to do this. You can do this.
Why didn’t you think you could do it?
It was very different. It was so out of my wheelhouse. For 10 years I’ve been writing dark, angsty, very intense thrillers. I’ve never attempted comedy before and Finlay’s a very lighthearted, rompy story. I’d never written about adults or for adults before.
There was that nagging self doubt that comes from trying something new, outside of your comfort zone. And my friends were the ones who really pushed me and said, we believe you can do this. And and it was that kind of kick in the pants that I needed to to take that project idea and run with it. And I’m so glad that I did. It’s been a joy.
What’s your writing process like? I’m praying that it’s not like Finlay’s writing process.
Honestly, my workday is not unlike Finlay’s workday. And that’s purely a function of motherhood and the demands of the working mom.
Finlay wrote at night. I write predominantly at night after the kids go to bed. I homeschooled during the day. I’m working with my kids academically usually from like nine to two. Afternoons, I’m doing what a lot of moms are doing. I’m grocery shopping, I’m making dinner, I’m running errands. I’m momming hard. And my workday typically starts right after dinner. I’ll start my writing day usually at about seven and I wrap up usually between two and three in the morning, dive into bed, and start all over the next day.
What has the reader response been like to the book?
The Finlay fandom is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and it is truly inspiring, but also invigorating. There are days when this business is exhausting and some of Finlay’s experiences in writing, aren’t unlike some of the experiences that I’ve had. There are a lot of very, very high highs, and there’s some very, very low lows in this business. And I derive incredible joy from the responses from the readers.
Instagram in particular has been really fun. I can’t say that in the 10 years that I’ve been doing this that any of my fans have ever dressed their cats as characters from my book. It’s unbelievable the the level of energy and the connection that these readers are finding with Finlay and Vero. I think Finlay is a deeply relatable character and I’m really proud of that aspect of the story. I see these reactions from readers dressing the part and sharing their reviews and sharing their mom experiences and and connecting with each other—sharing their books with their ride-or-die best friends, sharing their books with their mothers. These are the kinds of reactions to this book that I never would have anticipated, and I am overwhelmed and overjoyed by them.
Tell us a little bit about your journey to becoming a writer.
I was in real estate sales and marketing for nearly 14 years and had no formal training in in creative writing when I got started down this road. I had always had an enjoyment of it when I was young. And I joked for many years that one day I would have a midlife crisis and I would quit my job and write a book. My mom was the one who had latched on to that message that maybe I didn’t even realize there was a bit of truth to.
And so 11 or 12 years ago, I was at a point where I was really miserable in my career. I was very, very successful. I was making a lot of money. I was on an upward trajectory. I was very good at what I did and I was unhappy and I was unfulfilled and unsatisfied. My mom sensed that I was on a tipping point. She said, why don’t you take a sabbatical from work? Come stay with us, bring the boys, I’ll take care of the children. And you spend a summer and write a book.
I was so shocked by this. And I said, that would be the most selfish thing I could imagine doing. I can’t just upend my life and stop work and do this for myself.
And she said, just think about it.
After a bit of thought, I just realized this was something I needed to do. I couldn’t shake that idea at that point, It was rooted. So that summer I did it. I gave my business to my business partner and I said, there’s something I need to do for myself. And I took my boys, who were five and eight at the time, and my mom watched the boys while she sent me upstairs to a little quiet room and told me to go write a book.
Every day she would wait at the bottom of the steps with my children and she’d hold out her hand and she say, show me your chapter. And after eight weeks I had the rough draft of my first novel.
Can you give us even the teeny tiniest sneak peek at what Finlay is going to be up to next?
Sure. Without spoiling it for anyone who has not had a chance to finish the book, I will say that the last line of Finlay Donovan Is Killing It becomes the springboard for the mystery in book two. So if you got to the last line of the book and gasped, you will be very satisfied and excited to begin the journey in book two, because that’s the mystery that we’re going to be unfolding.
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