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Best selling author Josephine Cox on growing up in Blackburn and her dreams of writing sci-fi

PUBLISHED: 10:30 29 December 2014 | UPDATED: 23:24 23 October 2015

Jo has now had 51 novels published

Jo has now had 51 novels published

not Archant

An author who has sold 20 million books talks about her new novel and the thrill of being described as a modern day Dickens. Roger Borrell reports

Jo says her heart is still in Lancashire Jo says her heart is still in Lancashire

Writer Josephine Cox, poised to celebrate the publication of her 51st novel, has a secret to share with Lancashire Life readers. Be warned, it might result in some of her devotees reaching for the smelling salts and it could also come as a surprise to her unsuspecting publishers.

Lancashire-born Jo, who has sold an extraordinary 20 million books of gripping family fiction, wants to write science fiction.

‘I’ve never told anyone this but I have a science fiction trilogy mapped out in my head,’ she says in a tone of voice that makes you think she’s going to do it whatever anyone might think.

It goes back to the time she watched an episode of the American fly-on-the-wall programme Storage Hunters, where people in search of bargains bid for long forgotten containers in the hope something of value is inside.

‘There was an episode where they got what they thought was a giant fridge but, on further investigation, it turned out to be a 3D digital printer,’ explains Jo. ‘They put a metal wrench in the printer and it produced an exact working replica in plastic.

‘It got me thinking that before long they will be able to duplicate human being…’ And people wonder where writers get their plots!

However, television is not a normal source for Jo, who grew up in the backstreets of Blackburn in the 1940s and 50s. ‘You sit on buses and you hear conversations, things you shouldn’t overhear but can’t help yourself, and it starts to form a story in your head. Or you might see someone in a restaurant and you develop them into a character. I suppose it’s a bit naughty!’

She is a prolific writer, much to the delight of her fans, and her books are in the top three of those borrowed from UK libraries. ‘I’ve got so many books still in my mind and, more importantly, in my heart,’ she says. ‘By the time I’ve finished one, another has already been written in my head. I’ve got so many stories to tell that if I live to be over 100 I probably won’t have told them all.’

He great literary hero is Charles Dickens and a newspaper review which dubbed her the ‘21st century Dickens’ is framed on her wall. ‘That made me weep a little when I read it.’

Jo writes seven days a week and she works surrounded by pen portraits of her characters, jotted on pieces of paper and stuck on the wall around her desk.

Jo’s latest book is called Lonely Girl and it is the story of a youngster, who is treated badly her wicked mother and is troubled by a secret which has blighted the family. ‘The mother is a frightening person who hates the child with a passion and the book is about how she deals with that,’ she says.

The fact that many of Jo’s books deal with families affected by tragedy strikes a chord with her ardent fans.

‘I get letters from across the world and it makes me very humble,’ says Jo. ‘My publisher, Harper Collins, send them on to me and there is a regular stream of Jiffy bags full of letters.’

Incredibly, she always writes back. ‘I’ll sit down between writing books and do a dozen letters at a time. I can’t promise a quick reply but they always get one eventually.

‘If someone has taken the trouble to write I know they’ll expect a response. Some people are really touched by my books and they pour their hearts out about their own lives - sometimes to the extent where I have been concerned about them and, if they’ve included their telephone number, I’ve been known to call them.’

Jo’s own early life in Blackburn’s Henry Street was tough. ‘My mum had seven boys and three girls and it was hard, we sometimes had go to the rag and bone shop for our next school uniform. But it made me who I am and I loved Henry Street. And having seven brothers means I can play football, climb a tree and fight like a dog, although I haven’t done any of those things recently!’

When her parents divorced up the children were split up and Jo had to move south with her mother and three brothers. ‘It broke my heart leaving Henry Street. It was so hurtful and I was very unhappy for a long time. I counted every cobble in that street.’

Happily, the siblings kept in touch and Jo married when she was just 16 and had two sons of her own. She spent many years teaching before becoming a writer in her 40s. Her inspiration had been fired years earlier by a Blackburn teacher called Miss Jackson, who read Dickens in class and gave Jo her first book.

‘Although I don’t live there any more, my heart is still in Lancashire and I go back there whenever I can. I was very sad when my brother told me they’d knocked down Henry Street.

‘And I was furious when I heard they were knocking down the old Market Hall clock tower. I sent the council a very angry letter. It was such a beautiful icon.’

Lonely Girl by Josephine Cox is published in hardback on January 29 by Harper Collins, priced £14.00

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