Q&A with Tish Cohen

Q. Let’s start simple – where were you born and raised?
A. I was born in Toronto but moved almost immediately to Montreal, just down the street from a Basset Hound named Tish. This, combined with my mother’s insistence that a barber could cut a girl’s hair “just fine,” did very little for my social life. So when my parents divorced, I was more than happy to move to Toronto with my dad and brother. Halfway through junior high, just when I’d gotten myself a Dorothy Hamill haircut and (shockingly) landed a boyfriend, my father announced we were moving to California, which was much more exciting than the boyfriend. We stepped off the plane at LAX and drove straight to my aunt’s Laurel Canyon house—a funky hillside home completely covered in what looked like prehistoric undergrowth. Barely thirteen, freshly shorn and still pasty from the Canadian winter, I headed out to the pool to find six or seven naked actors, floating in the water, too stoned to swim. Life in California turned into Gene Kelly making me screwdrivers when I was underage, Rosanna Arquette hanging out in our kitchen, the boys from Toto washing my dishes, and me hiding behind a sofa watching Kevin Costner and Cindy Silva make out after school. Eventually, I reached a point where it all seemed normal.

Q. When did you start writing?
A. I remember sitting in my sister’s closet when I was about six or seven and staring at a particularly good likeness of Snoopy I’d done and knowing I was meant to not only quit ripping off other artists’ work or one day face litigation, but to develop characters of my own and write a book. I knew it right down to my toes. But then my mother called us downstairs for chicken noodle soup, so I went. I really like chicken soup.

Q. Do you remember the first book you fell in love with and why it affected you so strongly?
A. I fell in love with books and started reading pretty early, so I’d have to say the first one was Maurice Sendak’s Pierre, which my sister and I got for Christmas when I was three. It came in a set of four teeny tiny hardcovers, all beautifully illustrated. Pierre was a bold little story about a boy so determined not to care about anything, he let himself be swallowed whole by a lion. You gotta admire that kind of spunk. The writing was lyrical and addicting and I read it over and over. Somehow the other three books got lost, but my sister wound up with Pierre and keeps it in her basement. Harsh. She swears she loves it, but I think I can safely say that I loved it more.

Q.  It’s rumored that you wrote Town House in under a month – is that true?! What is your writing regimen like?
A.  I wrote Town House in three and a half weeks, but I’d already developed a detailed outline, so I knew where I was headed with each scene. I wrote 10-12 hour days, then thought out the next day’s scenes each evening, scribbling down tiny details or scraps of dialogue. I’m compulsive once I begin a draft, I just have this neurotic need to get it all down. My life is completely on hold until I finish. Someday, I plan to achieve balance.

Q.  I understand that you also write for young adults. Do you find the process of writing an adult novel to be a much different experience than writing for a younger audience?
A.  I love kids and am incredibly immature, so writing middle grade is quite fun. All the big stuff still has to be there, the pacing, the story arc, the character development, etc., so it’s not like writing for kids is any easier, but the books are certainly shorter. So is the audience.

Q.  A film adaptation of Town House is in the works. How has the experience of knowing your words will be translated to the big screen been for you? Are there any actors or actresses you would love to see in the main roles? Have you been involved in the screenwriting process at all?
 A.  Doug Wright is writing the screenplay, so that’s both exciting and intimidating. The moment I heard he’d been hired, I rushed out to pick up Quills, which I watched with my mouth hanging open. His writing talent is staggering, no exaggeration. All I could think was, “I’m not worthy.” So far, he hasn’t involved me and I’m cool with that. But I never leave the phone, just in case.

For the main roles…
Jeremy Piven as Jack, definitely. He’d show Jack’s anxiety with compassion and humor, without resorting to condescension or slapstick comedy.
Reese Witherspoon would be a great Dorrie. If no one can afford Reese anymore, the ethereal Kate Hudson, who might play off Piven’s edge better anyway.
Dakota Fanning’s little sister, Elle, not only looks like Lucinda, but is just the right age. Elle would be a dream Lucinda.
Harlan is a tough call. Someone sarcastic, with an unhealthy dose of woe. And it wouldn’t hurt if he had legs as long and shapeless as elm saplings and looked good in man blouses.

Q.  Who are some of your writing influences? Are there any authors or books you consider personal favorites?
A.  No one has influenced me like Jane Austen. I’ve read EmmaPride and Prejudice,Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility so many times I should be investigated. Her wit, delicacy and social observations are every bit as fresh today and I find that astonishing.
John Irving’s The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany hooked me in terms of eccentric characters and emotional scenes that crackle with soul. I probably shouldn’t admit how many times I’ve read these, both as a reader and as a writer, because it shows an extreme dearth of resourcefulness on my part.
More recently, I fell in love with Alan Hollinghurst’s novel, The Line of Beauty. While the story is subtle, his humor and attention to social nuance is intoxicating. He’s the type of writer who makes other writers flat out give up. I’m working this one into my already busy rereading schedule.
Other authors I reread: Rex Pickett, Alice Hoffman, David Sedaris, Daphne du Maurier, John Blumenthal, Anne Tyler, Edith Wharton, Simone de Beauvoir, Arthur Golden, Mark Haddon, Elizabeth Flock, Josh Kilmer-Purcell, Ayelet Waldman and Alice Munro.