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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.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Robin Slick May 30, 2007 at 8:40 am

Oh man, I’m the first to comment? Comments must be broken, then, and I’m probably doing this for naught.

But I’ll try anyway because I’m currently multi-tasking – packing for New York, doing wash, trying to decide on my wardrobe – i.e., which jeans and black t-shirts to bring.

After reading this interview, I cannot wait to meet Tish at Backspace today/tomorrow and read her book. My favorite line in your interview, Sue, was when Tish said “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.”

Oh god. What did our parents do to us? Ha ha – that’s my explanation for everything, anyway.

Sue, I will see you tomorrow and I’m working out that cloning thing re tomorrow night; I hope to meet a lot of you this evening for 6:00 p.m. cocktails at the Algonquin and don’t I feel so hip and important saying that!

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Lori Oliva May 30, 2007 at 10:37 am

Great interview, Susan. Congrats, Tish on your success. I’ve read your comments and blogs and your funny insight has made me an admirer from a far. Now, after reading your interview and getting a taste of the quirkiness of your characters, TOWN HOUSE will be my summer beach read. I’m heading there in a few weeks and it sounds perfect.

Have a great Backspace experience for all of you who are attending.

Susan, good luck with the edits and have a great summer. As soon as I hear the good word on my book I’ll drop you a line.

Lori

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James Spring May 30, 2007 at 11:42 am

Tish has been a MySpace pal, and I’ve been taking her for granted. I have her book in my nightstand queue… I’m moving it up the stack tonight… Enjoy your summer, all. Tish – I’ll send accolades to your MySpace page… Susan – I wish you all the best with your final drafts…

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Jody Reale May 30, 2007 at 12:21 pm

Tish, how do you get anything done with all that skateboarding, launching, and cheek-pulling going on? Your interview says you’re afraid of success, but your achievements in the face of distraction say, “Ommm.”
Teach me, Grasshopper.

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Carolyn Burns Bass May 30, 2007 at 2:29 pm

For once a hot book launch was on my side of the continent and I was among the Jack Madigan fans at BOOK SOUP. Rex was wonderful with his introductions, but Tish was wonderfuller.

Looking forward to seeing the LitPark clan at the Backspace party tonight at the Algonquin.

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Lee May 30, 2007 at 8:15 pm

Great interview!
I’m very excited— I loaded up my son and went to the bookstore today with the express intent to buy Town House.
I quickly became very nervous.
An interested customer sometime before me rushed out of the store and placed the LAST copy OUT of alphabetical order.
This is common when you only do your shopping after most everyone else, so I fought panic, and found my new book in the E’s.
Fear not, I bought my copy and look forward to diving in very soon.
Thanks again for the interview, and all the other posts on here which featured Tish!
I probably would not have heard of this book without this site!

~Lee

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Marcy Dermansky May 30, 2007 at 9:50 pm

I can’t wait to read Tish’s novel.

What wonderful news about the pre-publication movie deal. That’s dreamy stuff.

Hope you both – Tish and Sue – have a great time together at the conference.

Happy summer,
Marcy

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Myfanwy Collins May 31, 2007 at 8:12 am

Wonderful, charming interview. Looking forward to reading this book. Have a great summer!

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Juliet May 31, 2007 at 10:28 am

Glad to meet you Tish!

TownHouse is on my summer list.

I’m jealous of everyone going to the conference. I’m stuck in Canada till my passport comes through.

Susan and crew, I’ll miss you much, but suspect I’ll find you somewhere or another over the summer.

J

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lance reynald May 31, 2007 at 10:27 pm

I dig gals with a nice set of phobias that allow skateboards and stunts indoors.

sorry I’m so late… I’ve spent two days facing my biggest anxieties; a manuscript in it’s late adolescence, emmissions inspection and the DMV…I really ought to spread those three out a bit…I’m considering taking the car and the laptop out back, shooting them both and relying on skateboards and graffiti.

thanks so much for stopping by the Park Tish!!

see ya’ll Friday!!

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