An Indies Introduce Q&A with John Cochran

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John Cochran is the author of Breaking into Sunlight, a Summer/Fall 2024 Indies Introduce middle grade selection and July/August 2024 Kids’ Next List pick. 

Holly Weinkauf of Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minnesota, served on the bookseller panel that selected Cochran’s book for Indies Introduce.

“This moving story of a family dealing with the complexities of addiction is told with incredible sensitivity, compassion, and hope. These wonderful young characters — Reese, Meg, and Charlie — and the rich friendship they develop will stay with you long after the last page is turned. A book that is heartbreaking and heart-filling,” said Weinkauf.

Cochran sat down with Weinkauf to discuss his debut title.

This is a transcript of their discussion. You can listen to the interview on the ABA podcast, BookED.

Holly Weinkauf: Hello, everyone! I am Holly Weinkauf. I'm the owner at Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minnesota. And I am so happy to be here today talking with debut author, John Cochran, one of our Indies Introduce authors for Summer/Fall 2024. His book is one that has really stayed with me, and that I keep thinking about over and over. So I'm excited to have this conversation.

Let me tell you a little bit about John: He grew up in Kansas City and studied journalism at the University of Missouri, Columbia. He worked as a reporter and editor at daily newspapers in Missouri, Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina, before moving to Washington, DC, to cover Congress in Congressional Quarterly. The National Press Foundation recognized his work with the Everett McKinley Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress. He now lives on Capitol Hill with his wife and children. Breaking Into Sunlight is his first novel.

So, John, thanks for being here today.

John Cochran: Thank you for having me. Thanks for the interest in the book.

HW: Yeah! Well, let's start with my first question for you. So, this is your first novel, but you have worked as a journalist, and you have written for adults. Now you've written a book for kids about a very hard and complex topic: parental addiction. This is something that I imagine you could also write about as a journalist for adults. So, I'm curious: what led you to write about this topic in a novel for kids?

JC: Writing fiction was a long-deferred dream, and I was inspired to write for kids before this particular story came to me. I was inspired by Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo, which I picked up as an adult, and I was just absolutely blown away by. This word sounds dull to people, but it it's such an important book, and it's such a powerful book and profound book, and it's written with so much grace and compassion. I read it and I was just floored and I thought, “I want to try to do that too.” So that was, you know, that gave me the inspiration to write specifically for kids.

With this particular subject, I think it's easier to reach kids through a novel, through fiction. I think it allows me to get into a child's head and into his perspective in a way that I couldn't, arguably, as a journalist. So it hopefully has more impact, and it reaches kids in a way that I couldn't otherwise.

HW: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. What were some of the differences you noticed — compared to the other writing you've done — differences in the process?

JC: As a journalist, if I need to fill in the holes in the story, I pick up the phone and call someone: “What came next? What happened? Give me the facts.” With fiction, you have to develop a mental process for getting the ideas to flow and tapping into your imagination and your memories. I remember calling a newspaper colleague of mine, Valerie Nieman, who's a really talented novelist and short story writer and poet. I was hung up on a story, trying to figure out what happened next in a particular plot, and I said, “You know, what do I do?” And she said, “You make it up!” And she talked to me about developing a process.

For me, free writing is helpful. I sometimes just sit and write. Begin with a question: What is Reese thinking at this point? And then I just start typing, and the ideas flow that way. A lot of it also is talking it through with people, particularly my wife, who's a great sounding board. If I get hung up on a plot point, I sit down with her in the evening, and we just talk. She's a terrific help in getting the ideas flowing and figuring out how the plot moves forward from a point that I'm stuck on.

HW: Yeah, so, I imagine talking through things helps generate more ideas too.

JC: Yeah. And one thing I found: it's a part of your brain that you just exercise. It's like learning a musical instrument, or whatever — it does get easier and more productive the more you do it, as you figure out your method for tapping in your imagination. That's a part of my brain that I wasn't using as a journalist.

HW: Alright, you talked about trying to figure out, “Okay, what is Reese going to do next?” And one of the things that I really appreciated about this book — and it sounds like this is how you felt when you read Because of Winn-Dixie — the story really is told with incredible sensitivity and compassion. Trying to tell a story like this in such a sensitive and compassionate way, I wonder if there was part of this story that was particularly challenging to tell, and also, if there was a part of the story that you particularly enjoyed writing.

JC: So, definitely the most challenging part: I knew going in that the story had to be hopeful, and it needed to be hopeful in a way that is realistic and not Pollyanna-ish or simplistic, because that's not doing kids who are facing this situation any favors. And figuring out, “What is the hopeful ending here?” was a real challenge. There's a part of the story early on when the main character, Reese, hears his parents arguing and his mom says to his dad — who is struggling with addiction — “I wish I could just reach inside you and yank this out, and we could all move forward.” And it's not that easy, so writing an ending where the dad is just magically okay forever and everyone moves on, is not realistic. It's not the way things play out. And I think that waiting for that sort of magic cure is just not healthy. For anyone — for kids or for family.

This is where something called The Seven C's came in, and that was where I found my hopeful ending — which I talk about in the author's note. It was really, really helpful to me in plotting the story. I'll rattle it off for you if that's okay. It was developed by a man named Jerry Moe, who is a counselor and a writer who works with kids who are dealing with addiction (drug and alcohol abuse) in their families. So to help them deal with the situation, the Seven Cs are:

I didn't CAUSE it. I can't CURE it. I can't CONTROL it. But I can take CARE of myself by making healthy CHOICES, COMMUNICATING my feelings, and CELEBRATING myself.

And that's where my hopeful ending lies. It's Reese and his mom internalizing that — or at least taking a major step toward internalizing that — in their lives. And that's the whole thing. Honestly, if the story wasn't good news, in some way I didn't really feel that it was worth writing, because kids who are facing this — and also the friends and adults in the lives of these kids — need to know that there's hope.

HW: Right, right. Those Seven C's, I did read that in your author's note, and I imagine that will be helpful for everyone who picks up your book.

JC: It's been helpful for me just personally. No one says it explicitly in the story because I thought that was too pat, but it did shape the plot. Reese moves through those. He begins the book in a place where he is very much trying to cure and trying to control. And he's certainly not communicating. He's very shut down. He's not talking with anyone, even his close friends, because he's so ashamed and frightened of what's going on — which is a really common experience for kids and families.

HW: I think one of the other helpful parts about this, too — and actually, I think this is something that Kate DiCamillo talks about with her books — is that things aren't always going to resolve the way the kid wants it to, but it will resolve by finding people around who can be helpful, who can help build that community. That's very much a part of this book too.

JC: And that's something. We talk about The Seven C's, but the eighth C is really Connection. And that ultimately is where Reese finds his answers, in connecting and friendship.

HW: Back to Reese for a little bit. The other thing I really appreciated about your book was actually all of the characters, and how you were able to bring me into their emotional space as they each were navigating very heartbreaking situations. Reese, as the main character, I especially experience this with him. To me, he seems like such an authentic 13-year-old. You've talked a little bit about that. Can you tell us more about your inspiration and process of creating Reese?

JC: It means a lot to me that you say that. Probably 75% of the revision work of this manuscript from beginning to end was working on Reese and developing his character, deepening his character, bringing his voice forward. The thing that really got me pushing forward on developing him was a critique from a really terrific middle grade author named Katherine Marsh. Katherine was the National Book Award finalist last year for a book called The Lost Year, and she has a book out now called Medusa: The Myth of Monsters. A mutual friend connected us, and she read an early draft, and her major criticism was that Reese was thin on the page. So she talked with me about techniques to use to bring his voice forward, and that was a real game changer for me. It was like a master class in writing for kids and it got me moving forward on Reese.

And a big inspiration for Reese, in pulling him forward and really getting into his head, is The Seven C's, because that gives me insight into where his head is at when the story begins, and what he's moving toward. That guided my thinking about how he's processing what his father is going through and what he's going through, and the disruption in his life and in his family.

Another really important thing is that my son and his friends were about the same age Reese is when I started writing it. At that point in my life, I was spending a lot of time listening to 13-year-old boys. Maybe because I came out of journalism — which is very much based on observation and fact gathering — I don't know that I could have written Reese authentically until I had lived with 13-year-old boys. And I know that's not for every writer, but for me, that was important.

Then my daughter, my older child, also helped a lot. Besides being thin on the page, [early] Reese was fairly passive. The story took shape around him first. I had a sense of what was going on with his parents really early, and in a lot of ways he was a witness in the earlier manuscript. So my daughter read it — she was probably 15 at the time — and one of the things she said was, “He needs to be more active. He needs to be more independent. He reads too young. He doesn't read 12 going on 13.” And that helped a lot. I was telling her, “it helps to have a tough, smart editor in house,” because she was really insightful. She also said, “I want more kids and fewer grownups!” That was the other thing. She wanted more scenes of the kids working through this stuff on their own without grownups around, because early on it was pretty dominated by Reese and his relationships with grownups.

HW: Well, tell your kids thank you.

JC: And I thank Maren in particular at the end of the book, because it was a big help.

HW: I loved the friendship, too, that the three kids in this book develop. It was just done so well. So there is a lot in this book. If there's one thing that you hope readers take away from this book, what do you hope that is?

JC: Well, before I answer that. Do you mind if I go back to one question you asked?

HW: Oh, sure! Yeah!

JC: I forgot to answer. You were asking about what was challenging, and you were asking, what did I enjoy the most about writing it.

HW: Yeah!

JC: I know the scenes that I like writing the most: kind of a major character in the story is this really wild, blackwater river that runs by the farm that Reese finds himself on. That's where he meets his new friends, Meg and Charlie, and they spend time canoeing on the river, swimming in the river, and exploring the land around the river, and those scenes I really enjoyed writing a lot.

They're based on canoe trips I took in North Carolina, particularly on a river called the Lumber River, which is a really magical river in North Carolina — a blackwater river. They’re very sluggish, very slow moving — the kind of place where you get onto the river and you feel as if you're millions of miles away from anything, down among the trees. I really enjoyed writing those scenes and some of those scenes in the book are pretty old. I wrote them quite a while ago for other things that really didn't get off the ground, and I realized they belonged in this story. There's a scene with a snapping turtle that I wrote a version of a long while back.

And then the characters. I really liked writing Meg a lot. She's hurting and she's lonely, but she's also really smart, really strong, really perceptive, really caring. I actually added her after my daughter read that first draft, because she was asking for more kids. And that's actually when I added the river, to give them a place to interact. There's a lot of my daughter in Meg too — in Meg's strengths. So I really enjoyed writing her.

HW: Oh, wow! It's interesting hearing you talk about how much you enjoyed writing that because I do feel like the river gives such a feeling of atmosphere to the story. It just adds a lot of feeling to the place.

JC: This part of the world that it's set in, eastern North Carolina, is just a really amazing place. I worked in North Carolina for a lot of years and spent a lot of time on the back roads of eastern North Carolina, canoeing. It's just real haunting landscapes and lots and lots of rich history. The book began tapping into my memories and my love for that part of the world.

HW: If you could say one thing that you hope people take away from Breaking Into Sunlight, what do you hope that is?

JC: The biggest thing I want people to walk away thinking about and realizing — for kids and adults — is that we're not alone. Even if we have burdens that are with us for the long haul, or pain that's with us for the long haul, we can share the pain and open our hearts to other people. We're here to carry each other's burdens, which is what Reese learns. The power of friendship to heal you, and move you forward to the joyful life that you deserve, despite pain and loss, that's ultimately what the book is about.

That's also why Meg and Charlie, who Reese meets and forms a connection to in the book, are dealing with grief. They've lost their parents. I think the message of the book is more broad than just dealing with addiction in your family. I think it's dealing with any kind of pain or loss, and I saw real commonality between the grief that Meg and Charlie were going through, and the pain that Reese was experiencing with his father's addiction, and the disruption that's causing in life. Both things really have blown a hole in the lives of these kids and has transformed their lives, so they do not look like what they deserve, and do not look like what they wanted. That's the bond that they share and begin with.

HW: It's a complex, difficult topic. And such a beautiful story. So, thank you. Thank you for giving us this book, and I'm excited to share it with readers at our store, and I know others will be excited to share it, too.

JC: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

HW: Yeah! Thank you for joining us.

JC: Thanks for having me.

Breaking Into Sunlight by John Cochran (Algonquin Young Readers, 9781523527298, Hardcover Middle Grade Contemporary, $17.99) On Sale: 6/18/2024

Find out more about the author at

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