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May 2007

Tish Cohen

by Susan Henderson on May 30, 2007

Here’s the premise of TOWN HOUSE, the novel by Tish Cohen that sold to FOX movie producers before it was picked up by HarperPerennial:

Jack Madigan lives in the delapidated, mammoth town house owned by his dead rock star father, Baz. Jack, who was kept in a crate as he toured with his father, now suffers from a crippling agoraphobia which makes it impossible for him to leave the house, even to retrieve the newspaper. In financial trouble, he is now forced to put the house – complete with banged-up walls that show off his father’s famous temper – on the market, and this effects every relationship he has, including his relationship to Baz and the world outside his front door.

Tish is one of the funniest, most likable people I know, and I’m happy to close out this season at LitPark by introducing her.

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What inspired you to center your novel around agoraphobia?

Agoraphobia drew me in from a few different angles. I developed a fear of leaving the house shortly after my first son was born and have flirted with agoraphobia ever since. I guess all that time cooped up inside, protecting my newborn from harm, left me with an unhealthy respect for all that could go wrong. And as worried as I was for his safety, I worried just as much for my own. My child needed me for his very survival. In typical Tish fashion, I took beautiful maternal instincts and elevated them to the point where my doctor recommended meds. Which I refused to take. Out of fear. So I do leave the house, but I do so with alarm bells clanging in my head.

In Town House, the house itself plays a central role. I wanted it to be visual enough that it functioned almost as another character. So when I was contemplating Jack Madigan and giving him a really big problem, I knew I wanted this once-splendid ramshackle mansion to factor into his worries in a big way. Losing the only home Jack had ever known took on much more drama if I made him terrified to leave it. That I’m an agoraphobe-waiting-to-happen was pure luck. Or something.

The Book Soup window last week.

All the characters, including Jack himself, are frustrated with his agoraphobia. Describe the extent of his fears. And what your thoughts are about people who can’t stop a behavior that’s ruining their lives?

Jack’s fears permeate his very existence. It’s a funny thing with irrational fear – there’s a point at which you can stop it. It’s staring you in the face, your rational mind still has sufficient control over it that you can talk yourself down and walk right through it. You can feel that shift as you respect the fear over your inner voice. Something inside you cracks a little and the fear wins. Maybe if you’re very strong you can turn it around the next time you’re faced with your phobia, but for most, it’s a long road back. Some people will take it, some won’t.

When Harlan had been born, he’d been all red-faced and puffy. Spitting mad, the boy looked around the delivery room and found nobdy to blame for the debacle but his parents. Much like the way he looked back at Jack when he boarded the plane back to California the other day. – Harlan, Jack’s son, from TOWN HOUSE

Do you have a phobia?

Dear innocent Susan. Where shall I start? I have food phobias – not allergies – because other people have food allergies. Take the peanut and all the havoc this little legume has wrought on modern day histamine levels. I figure I can not eat the peanut and live. Or eat the peanut and probably live. I’m not willing to take that chance. I’m also phobic about germs. And bees. And antibiotics (which exacerbates the germ phobia). Woody Allen looks almost gutsy next to me. Although, in my defense, I’ve been working with a therapist in New York for a year and a half and have overcome my fear of flying, panic attacks, and fear of success – which has been replaced by its much more robust cousin, fear of failure.

Carols’ house is from my family reunion last week in the Hollywood Hills – pictured are my aunt, Carol Sills, my cousin Aretha and my uncle Paul Sills – who cofounded Second City.

You have a knack for writing about eccentric characters and endearing them to your reader. Talk to me about eccentrics and why you’re drawn to them.

I’ve always been drawn to offbeat people in literature, film, and real life. Tell me you have a bizarre fetish and I’m your friend for life. Perfection doesn’t interest me much. One of the greatest characters ever written is a penniless loner called George Ticknor in Sheila Heti’s novel, Ticknor. He’s a paranoid fusspot of a biographer excited to be on his way to his more successful friend’s house for a party. He congratulates himself for having the foresight to bring along a pie. On his way through the rainy streets of 19th-century Boston, pie in hand, Ticknor convinces himself that his friend’s invitation is barbed and full of malicious intent. He works himself into such a state that he leaves the pie on his friend’s doorstep, turns around, and goes home. I’m in love with him.

She pulled a pair of big red pumps from her bag, dropped one to the group and slid a small foot into it. The she stuffed a folded-up wad of tissue down behind her heel and repeated the procedure for the other foot. The pumps were at least two sizes too big, maybe three. – Dorrie, the real estate agent, from TOWN HOUSE

I hear you really outlined this book before you started writing. Want to spill some secrets in creating a winning outline?

I tend to go through several drafts of my outlines, adjusting the plot at first, then adding in details. So I get to know my characters at this early stage, before I begin to write, and try to capture the actual emotion of each scene. Then, while I’m writing, each night I look over the next day’s scenes and kind of live through them, sometimes even planning snippets of dialogue and tiny details. Thanks to my agent, I’ve become a huge fan of outlining. Because I tend to write my first drafts fairly quickly, having a flushed-out map means I can keep the pace moving along without having to stop and figure things out along the way. It still happens, but less often.

The people who really want to see Town House, the movie.

Which came first – the book deal or the movie deal? Describe the calls you received for each. And I’m very curious – did they like your manuscript for the same reasons?

The movie deal came first. My agent sent out the ms and there were four days of silence – during which I thought of offing myself. Then he called to ask if I had a photo because Publishers Weekly was doing a piece on me. I could not have been more floored when he told me studios had the ms. After two days of West coast silence, my agent called again to say we had an offer from Fox and it would expire in 15 minutes. It took me three seconds to say yes. The book sold exactly one week later to HarperCollins.

Hollywood doesn’t necessarily snap up an ms for the same reasons as publishers. They look for characters being in the”right age group.” They look for a male and female lead – but not exclusively. I’m no expert since my book selling to a studio was unexpected, but I believe stories sell as books and films for very different reasons.

She was wearing the same wedding dress she wore when she married him – her mother’s dress! Certainly, she’d had it remade; she hadn’t been willing to expose quite so much leg when she married Jack, and he was pretty sure the dress had sleeves back then, but there was no mistaking the pattern of that fabric. Jack had once joked that it looked like white germs multiplying in a Petri dish. If he looked carefully enough, he might still find the bruise on his arm where she’d swatted him. – Penelope, Jack’s ex-wife, from TOWN HOUSE

Are you involved at all in the adaptation?

No, Doug Wright adapted to screen. But I love what he did with it.

What are your feelings about placing your work in another writer’s hands?

Because I adore Doug Wright’s work, I felt confident he would do the story justice. The man is brilliant with characters. If anything I felt unworthy. He won a Golden Globe for Quills… if you watch it paying particular attention to the dialogue, you’ll understand how I felt. Even the “quotations” by the Marquis de Sade were written by Doug. They’re all at once savage, deranged, hysterical and gorgeous.

Here’s Rex from Book Soup night. His language was perfectly, delicously debauched and everyone adored him – myself included.

Which adaptations have you particularly loved or hated?

I loved the Sideways adaptation – very true to the book. As well, I loved what the actors brought to it. I wasn’t crazy about the adaptation for “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” which is my favorite novel and the only thing I read when I’m working on a first draft.

What do you hope your readers gain from reading this story (in regard to love, reconciliation, fear – that kind of thing)?

I wrote this book for the anxious at heart. If reading Town House could help a few people laugh at their anxieties, taking the sting and power out of fear, I’d be one happy eccentric.

Finally, on a whole other topic, you and I are both panelists at the Backspace conference this summer in NYC. What’s your panel on, and give me a preview of your thoughts on that topic.

I’m on the debut author’s panel Friday afternoon. We haven’t received our “direction” yet, but I believe we’ll be discussing the process of getting published, as well as what we’ve learned from the book “birthing” experience – what we did right, what we did wrong. For me, the best thing I did was befriend other authors. It helped keep me sane and people were outrageously generous when I asked for blurbs. I owe back to other writers, big time – most of all to Rex Pickett. As for what I did wrong, I spent way too much time obsessing over things that were never going to matter.

Aha. I’m on the Creating Memorable Characters panel (you should be, too!) and if they’re not happening at the same time, I’m going to sneak into yours. See you at the conference tomorrow!

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Some of Tish’s inspiration:

My son Max – here’s what happens when I’m writing….

My son Lucas – preparing to launch himself at who knows what.

My wildchild nephew, Lachlan.

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Question of the Week: Phobias.

by Susan Henderson on May 28, 2007

What are you afraid of? And if you want, tell a story to show what you do when you’re scared.

(Oh wait, there’s a bonus question because this is the last Question of the Week until September: What’s your favorite Hendrix tune?)

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me, Tish

I love this quote of Tish Cohen talking about phobias:

It won’t surprise many to hear Woody Allen is not only claustrophobic, but agoraphobic. Many of his films featured Woody playing the role of a neurotic pessimist, obsessed with death and forever whining to his therapist. (I can’t be the only one who finds that sexy. Can I?) He gave phobias panache. Suddenly everyone wanted one. …On my wedding day, I had Woody Allen pre-approved as my celebrity exception to fidelity. That he doesn’t know or care only makes me want him more.

Wednesday, Tish will be here to talk about agoraphobia, movie adaptations, and her book, TOWN HOUSE.

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I mentioned this last Friday, but here’s another reminder: LitPark is going on summer vacation at the end of this week. This is my time to do final edits for St. Martin’s, and I didn’t get this far to do anything half-assed.

Before any of you suggest that Lance should take the reigns for the summer, he’s finishing and polishing his manuscript so he can submit it to some lucky editors. So there you have it: summer vacation in four days. I’ll keep the comments unlocked so you can continue to hang out here. Or you can join me in taking a working holiday.

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If you're in NYC this Thursday… (the mail bag post)

by Susan Henderson on May 27, 2007

People have asked me before if I’m really up blogging at midnight, and the answer is, No. I just set my blogs to load automatically, and right now, as this is loading, I’m at a friend’s house for a bonfire. I brought some tricky bits from my novel with me because that’s where my head is at; and if I get a chance to work in some back corner, I’ll take it.

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More from the mail bag: A bunch of you have dropped me notes wondering about a TV pilot I filmed a few months ago. The answer is (a) I don’t know, and/or (b) I might have signed a contract that keeps me from answering your question, and/or (c) Ninja. Sorry the answers have to be so boring!

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And now on to the real reason for a rare Sunday post. I know a lot of you are in NY this week for the Backspace conference and for BEA (click that link to see a little trick for getting in free with a blogger’s press pass). I’ve lost count of the notes people sent about wanting to meet up (I’m sorry! My head is shoved deep inside my book and my mail’s been screwy), so if you want to catch up with me, here’s some idea of where I’ll be and when ….

I’ll be in the city all day, Thursday, May 31st.

1pm The Algonquin Hotel
59 West 44th Street
Between Fifth and Sixth Avenues

From 1:00 – 1:45, I’m on a panel at the Backspace conference, talking about Creating Memorable Characters with Mark Bastable, Jon Clinch, Renee Rosen, and Jeff Kleinman. I haven’t prepared for it one bit because that’s how Jeff, our moderator, likes it. I’ll let you know how we all do… winging it!

I don’t know if you can just pop into the conference, but you can certainly call me down to the lobby.

In all likelihood, I’ll be tucked into a corner of the lobby trying to make deadline on my book whenever there’s downtime.

6:30 Blog/Media Party 1
Lower East Side

From 6:30-8:30, I’m going to a party that’s invitation-only, though I’m sure I can bring a friend.

8:00 Blog Party 2
Kettle of Fish
59 Christopher Street

Anywhere from 8-11pm, I should be at The Lit-Blog Co-Op at BEA. Here’s their flier:

These are all rough estimates, of course, but at some point I’ll be in each of these places. And I’m pretty certain, I’ll be hanging with Robin Slick and Mark Bastable through much of the evening.

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Weekly Wrap: Close Calls.

by Susan Henderson on May 25, 2007

Usually, if you’re talking to a writer, the term “close call” refers to a manuscript that’s made it to the final rounds. The rejection letter typically reads like a love note. And still, the bottom line is, No. Another door closes.

Most of us would opt for the other type of close call – the near-death experience – which was this week’s topic at LitPark.

Unless you actually die, it’s hard to tell how near death you came. It feels like I’ve had a few close calls, but I’ll tell this story because it’s the first one that popped into my head. I’m thirteen in this story and it’s the Fourth of July. One of the things people from DC do over the Fourth of July is go to The (Smithsonian) Mall with a cooler and listen to bands who are past their prime. The Beach Boys played that year. I didn’t have permission to go to The Mall, but I used the old I’m-having-a-slumber-party-at-a-friend’s line with my parents and was on my way.

I was with the girls I frequently have nightmares about because they went kind of hot and cold on me. Mostly cold. And on The Mall, we wound our way through mobs of people, accepting drinks and drugs from strangers along the way. This was not all that unusual for us; it was the overwhelming number of people that threw us, and I guess the large assortment of handouts and losing count of what we’d put into our bodies. The Beach Boys sang off-key.

After a while, I got split off from the group of girls I was with. Knowing them, it was on purpose. I never asked. And I wandered around the crowds and it got darker and darker. My memory gets pretty foggy here, and rightfully so, and somehow I remember one other girl being with me but I don’t know who or how I found her.

I’m not sure why we didn’t take the Metro back. Maybe we got disoriented or didn’t have money. Maybe we felt the pressure to get back the fastest way possible. Whatever the reason, we hitchhiked. (I’ve got a lot of hitchhiking stories.) We got offers right away and took the wrong one. I climbed into the front of a truck’s cab and the other girl hopped in the open bed of the truck. The driver was weird and had bottles of beer in the front seat. He offered me one and I said no. I was small for my age, and already close to blacking out, and he knew better.

I remember him telling me I had pretty lips and touching my mouth. His fingers smelled like gasoline. I must have said something that ticked him off because he stopped the truck in the middle of nowhere. And my last memory of that night was me standing barefoot with some girl in complete darkness while the guy pitched beer bottles at us.

I’d been wearing sandals, either Dr. Scholl’s or Bass – the kind that come off when you’re not thinking, and when my dad picked me up at the girl’s house the next day (who knows how we got back?!), he was mad about the shoes. People don’t just lose their shoes, he said.

Probably wasn’t a near death experience, but it felt like it was going to be at the time. And looking back, I’m guessing this girl and I got lucky.

Often, I weave bits of truth into fiction, and I found this very old short story at a now-defunct magazine once run by one of the greatest writers I know. The story is wobbly in ways that make me twitch, but the shoes line is in it.

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My cousin, who also has a lot of hitchhiking stories, lives on 99 acres in Bozeman. It’s one of my favorite places on the planet. Bears, horses, rainbow trout, a whole mess of sky. This is me and his dog, and I’ll be somewhere in this photo before you know it.

My brother’s out in Montana, too. This is his place in Missoula. (Yes, I am wearing hiking boots with a dress. Why not?) And the reason I’m bringing this up is because LitPark is going on summer vacation, so next week’s posts will be the last for a while. Don’t worry, I’ll keep the gates unlocked – no one’s getting kicked off the swings – and I’ll stop by as often as I can.

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Thanks to everyone who answered the Question of the Week: lance reynald, Colin Matthew, Clare Grant, Simon Haynes, Myfanwy Collins, amy, Lauren Baratz-Logsted, *Joe*, Ric Marion, Paula, Claire Cameron, Kim Brittingham, Betsy, Robin Slick, daryl, David Niall Wilson, Gail Siegel, juliet, Carolyn Burns Bass, Jody Reale, Noria, james spring, Kimberly, Terry Bain, Jordan E. Rosenfeld, Roy Kesey, Bob Arter, Richard Lewis, Ellen Meister, Stephanie Friedman, Dennis Mahagin, amy, Sarah Bain, Laura Benedict, billie, Mark Bastable, A. S. King.

And thanks to Claire Cameron for the great book, and Lance Reynald for the great interview. See you Monday!

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Lines marking the road.

Lines of a journey.

Lines on a map.

Things to be crossed, followed, broken and blurred.

As writers we deal with all kinds of lines, and everything we see between them.

A funny thing occurred to me in this interview, a certain subjective quality to literature. Those broken lines, what line a writer follows on the journey and the lines that the reader might pick up.

I followed a line of mild suspense, breakdowns in communication, fears, courage and misunderstandings. A line that felt a bit like a great Hitchcock film. Not an imaginary line; that story is certainly in there. Just not the full track of the book. There is another story. A story of love and loss, and a journey along 58 miles of highway to reconcile it all.

Not too shabby for a debut novel, an impressive debut from Claire Cameron in The Line Painter.

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LR: Welcome to Litpark Claire!

Here we go:

Your book joins a vast literary tradition of road stories, with some shades of Hitchcock along a scant 58 miles of the trans-canadian highway, how did you come to find that setting?

CC: I spent a few summers working just outside of Hearst ON, where the book is set. I spent a lot of time out in the bush, days off in the town and nights off in the bars. That’s how I got to know the place.

It’s funny you mention Hitchcock. Many people describe, talk about the mood in my book, that it’s dark and creepy. I think of it as a love story–or perhaps the end of a love story.

That is one of the things I love most about my book being ‘out there’. Everyone has a different take on the story, depending on the experience they bring to it.

LR: Your personal bio includes a bit of time with the Outward Bound program, what of those experiences resurfaced while writing The Line Painter?

CC: I imagine you are referring to the bear encounter in the story, which didn’t come from my time at Outward Bound, but it is a mix of two different experiences.

The first was when I was hiking on my own near Canmore, Alberta. I was a two day walk from my van when I rounded a bend into an alpine meadow and saw a Grizzly bear in the distance. It looked over at me. I immediately backed up, but that took me back around the bend, so I could no longer see the bear.

I decided to drop my pack, as it had all my food, and climb a tree. This is, arguably, a pointless thing to do. If a Grizzly wants to get you out of a tree, it probably can. I sat in the tree for hours, unable to see the bear and unsure about what to do. When I finally got the nerve to come down, the bear was gone. I kept walking and never saw it again. Later, when I was telling the story, I could see a lot of humour in the situation. I was scared to the bone and the bear, as with most in the wild, couldn’t have cared less. When I remember it, I can almost picture the bear looking at me and shrugging. It was such a big deal to me, but nothing actually happened. It was an adventure I manufactured in my head.

The second was when worked up in Hearst ON. I planted trees to make money during University. Treeplanting is something a lot of Canadian students do, you work 11 hours days, planting saplings and get paid by the tree. Our camp happened to be in an area where the park service released black bears, from down south, that had grown accustomed to garbage as a food source. I wasn’t there at the time, but a few of my friends had a bad run-in with a bear that was sick and desperate. Three of them ended up in a tree, with the bear snapping at their boots. It was a close call.

LR: You’re touring your book at Husky stations. How goes the reception to literature in truckstops?

CC: I’ve had a good reception so far. Some truckers read in their downtime. Others just want to stop and chat as they spent hours on the road alone. I have sold and signed 11 books in 6 hours. I think that’s pretty good going? I’ve also heard a lot of stories about life, love and loss. As a writer, you can’t ask for more than that.

There is always an excruciating first half hour when I first set up. After about half an hour, someone decides to break the ice. It’s always entertaining after that. I’ve posted detailed reports from each truck stop on my blog.

LR: The story seems to effortlessly move in and out of flashbacks as a part of the narrative. Was the writing linear as such or did the story grow as two separate narratives?

CC: I wrote the story as a whole to begin with. I tend to write a first draft quickly and impulsively. That’s how I find the heart of the narrative. Then I start to rewrite, endlessly. It was during the rewrite that I picked apart the two narratives and developed them.

I’m glad it seems effortless. It never feels that way when I’m writing.

LR: How’s Alun Piggins making out on your tour?

CC: Alun Piggins played at the book launch. He wasn’t available to come to the Husky Truck Stops, because it’s now on tour in China. Out of the two, I suppose I can see why he chose China.

LR: What do we see next out of you?

CC: I hope to find a US publisher for The Line Painter.

My next book is in my head, but hasn’t taken shape on the page yet. Most of my thinking happens this way, on the back burner, slowly simmering, for a year or more before I start to type.

LR: Best of luck with getting that US publisher, and getting the next book out of your head.

Thanks for coming to the park Claire!

Thanks so much, Lance.

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Bios:

CLAIRE CAMERON was born in 1973 and grew up in Toronto. She studied history at Queen’s University and then worked as an instructor for Outward Bound, teaching mountaineering, climbing and whitewater rafting in Oregon. Moving to London in 1999, she founded Shift Media, a consultancy with clients including the BBC, McGraw-Hill and Oxford University Press. Claire now lives in Toronto with her husband and son. The Line Painter is her first novel and was published by HarperCollins Canada in April. If you’re on MySpace, you can “friend” her here.

When not locked in the pantry evading anxiety attacks and sacrificing large quantities of peanut butter cups and Stewart’s Root Beer to the most recent copy of Writer’s Market, LANCE REYNALD can be found doing what most un-agented writers do all day; practicing signing his name with a Sharpie on 5X7 cards in hope that creative visualization will pay off in a book deal. Once the Sharpie huffing wears off he settles in to finishing up a shopable draft of POP SALVATION, the story of a boy who wanted to be Andy Warhol. He also distracts himself plenty with his blog at Myspace.

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