Today we join Fleur Smithwick interviewing fellow Prime Writer Tammy Cohen on the publication day of her latest novel:
It’s fantastic to have the opportunity to put aside my synopsis and chat to another author. Tammy Cohen has written four psychological thrillers, is a journalist and has three other novels under her belt. I’m always keen to talk to someone I can learn from!
Tammy tells me she is currently in that nail-biting, pre-publication week limbo. “… so it’s lovely to have a distraction from my own neuroses! As you’ll know, often you’re so busy getting words down you don’t actually stop and think about the whole process of writing, so it’s really useful to take stock every now and then. Plus it’s stopped me thinking about my new book for at least, ooh, half an hour. And that’s got to be a good thing!”
When She Was Bad is a twisty, page-turning thriller that keeps you guessing right up until the end. A terrific read.
In choosing to have eight point of view characters each with their own chapters, you gave yourself an enormous task, creating a distinct voice for each one. Why did you do this and how did you go about it?
I actually enjoy using multiple viewpoints because it stops me getting bored or complacent when I’m writing. Knowing that when I get to the end of that chapter, there’s a whole new character and a new voice and story waiting for me helps ease that mid-book slump most writers will be all too familiar with. As for creating distinct voices, once I can picture a character in my mind, the voice just comes, like watching a film.
When She Was Bad is your third Psychological Suspense, but before that you wrote several books as Tamar Cohen. Was it a natural progression for you or a complete shift in style and genre?
It’s actually my fourth psychological suspense if you count The Broken, which was also written under the name Tamar Cohen. To be honest, the change in name had nothing to do with a change of genre, it was the sales and marketing department at my publisher who decided people were having too much trouble pronouncing ‘Tamar’. As I’m usually called Tammy (although Tamar is the name on my birth certificate), that seemed an obvious second choice. The shift in genre was my decision though. The contemporary women’s fiction I’d started out writing was beginning to feel constrictive. I was constantly asking myself ‘is this how most people would react? Is this plausible?’ With crime you can push boundaries and cross lines because you’re writing about the abnormal rather than the normal, the possible rather than the probable, so it’s far freer.
There is a lot of material around child psychology and neglect and abuse in the book which you deal with intelligently and sensitively. What kind of research did you do and how did you decide on the level of detail to put in?
I did a lot of online research and reading about actual cases, which was quite upsetting and made me feel uncomfortably like a voyeur. Later in the process I consulted a university psychology lecturer, to ask about the specifics of infant amnesia and repressed memory. However, I deliberately didn’t go into great detail about it in the book because a) it’s a thriller and too much detail would slow the pace and b) it’s still a very controversial area of research and there are bound to be people who’d take issue with some aspect or other.
Did you have a favourite character strand? And were their chapters easier to write?
I really loved writing the Dr Anne Cater thread. She’s the only character who is written in the first person and I always find that much easier than third. Plus, she’s a slightly cynical, middle aged woman who likes a glass of wine a little too much, so I didn’t have to delve very deep to find her voice!
I thought the end, when everything came together, worked extremely well. Did you know beforehand what was going to happen, or did it just fall into place as you wrote?
I always knew what the horrible crime that happens at the end was going to be, but I didn’t know until I started writing the characters who was going to be responsible and why. That’s always the way my books happen – I might have a vague idea of the ending, but it’s always the characters who drive the plot and everything evolves as they do.
When She Was Bad is a real page-turner. I couldn’t put it down. How much input did your editor have into the pacing and structure?
This is the fifth book I’ve done with my editor and so we understand each other pretty well by now. She will cut a lot of superfluous lines and words so it’s much leaner and faster, but she doesn’t normally change much structurally.
Your Titles: Dying For Christmas, First One Missing, When She Was Bad are brilliant. How did you come up with them?
I’m smiling a rather wry smile here, as the titles you’ve picked out there happen to be all the ones that aren’t mine! Of my seven novels, those particular titles and one other were all the brainchildren (is that even a word?) of either my publisher or my agent, while I came up with the other three. So I’d have to say titles are very much a collaborative effort!
How was your first novel published and was it your actual first, or have you had novels rejected?
The Mistress’s Revenge was the first novel I actually completed. I’d started countless others over the years but never got beyond the first ten thousand words. I probably wouldn’t have done that with this one either if I hadn’t sent the first few chapters to an agent, who then encouraged me to finish the rest, and offered me representation once I had. I was very lucky in that the first publisher to read it made a pre-emptive offer, so I didn’t have to deal with a lot of soul-destroying rejections. However, I should point out that I was forty-seven by this stage, and had already put in twenty-five years of writing as a journalist, so it hardly counts as an overnight success.
What is the one thing you wish you had known before you started writing?
I wish I’d known during those years when I was starting and then discarding novel after novel, that writing is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent holding your nerve (that’s a quote from someone else btw, but I can’t remember who). And that the important thing is to keep going, despite the voice in your head telling you it’s rubbish and no one will want to read it. Every writer I’ve met has bouts of self doubt, and writing is as much about conquering those as anything else.
What is the hardest thing for you about being a writer?
Self-motivating is probably the greatest challenge, particularly when you reach the twenty or thirty thousand word mark, and you feel like you’ve already run a marathon and you look ahead and realise you still have three times as far to go.
Now that you are established with half a dozen novels under your belt how do you deal with writing under pressure and the expectations of editors and readers?
I think the twenty-five years I spent as a journalist on magazines and newspapers helped with this. I’m used to writing under pressure and in fact work much better when I have a deadline to meet. As for expectations, I think if I started second guessing what readers or editors might think, I’d probably never write another word again. When it comes to it, you can only ever write for yourself and hope that, if you find something worthwhile in what you’ve written, other people will too.