tish cohen

Question of the Month: Renew

by Susan Henderson on May 3, 2010

Tell me about an experience that renewed your spirit, your energy, or your belief in yourself.


And if we’re talking of renewal, I have to tell you about my trip to Canada last month with three amazing writers. We left our homes feeling strung out, stalled with our current writing projects, and nervous about our careers in general. Not anymore. In just a few days, we were completely transformed.

We became confident, focused, and productive.

I love the picture up above because the snow was totally unexpected. I packed tank tops, shorts and sunscreen! That’s Tish Cohen on the left and Robin Slick on the right. Jessica Keener took the picture, and that’s her in the next shot, waving.


Let me try to sum up the trip in a way that might pass along some of the magic to you. We used an egg timer and wrote in one-hour spurts. (No internet! No phone!) We had three of these writing periods a day, and in between, we told stories and secrets. We laughed and vented. What we found is that our time relaxing together fueled our writingit churned up emotions and got us into storytelling mode. It reminded us of the things we’re passionate about. And doing focused spurts of writing turned out to be more productive than the marathon hours we were putting in at home. Who knew?

Besides friendship and discipline, we helped each other get rid of our pessimistic writing talk. It just wasn’t helping us get to where we wanted to go. It was tying up our energy and casting gloom on the future. When any one of us started to see ourselves as failures, to worry over past rejections or whether our current projects would make it, we heckled each other back into confidence and a sense of power. And where we really pushed each other the most was with our one sentence elevator pitches. We became convinced that it was no good to work on a manuscript until you could distill it into a single, exciting, action-based sentence. You have to know it’s an idea you can sell before you write it. And once you know the sentence that every action in the book will be reflecting, it’s so much easier to write!


If you want to hear the extended version of our trip, Robin’s got all the details.

But back to the idea of “renewal” for a sec because I’d like to announce that LitPark is about to undergo a transformation. I want something that’s more welcoming and less disorienting to first-time visitors. Also, I just want to celebrate the approaching publication date for UP FROM THE BLUE. So if the site’s down next month, be patient with me. I’m looking forward to showing you the big change!

I’m going to end with some very kind words from the wonderful NY Times bestselling author, Jamie Ford. His post is incredibly generous, and it cheered me to no end.


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.


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!


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.


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?)


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.


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.