When author Eleanor Brown suggested that Tamar Cohen and THE MISTRESS’S REVENGE would be a great fit for Women’s Fiction Writers, she was right. This interview with Tamar is extra special because she lives in London (oh, aren’t WE international on WFW today!) so she offers us a publishing perspective from the other side of the pond. THE MISTRESS’S REVENGE is a little dark, yet not foreboding, which means Tamar has struck tremendous balance in her novel — which is something we all strive for in our writing.
Please welcome Tamar Cohen to Women’s Fiction Writers!
Author Tamar Cohen Says Give Yourself A Break And Write What You Want
ASN: Your novel, THE MISTRESS’S REVENGE centers on a theme of obsession and revenge – yet it’s also darkly humorous. Can you tell us about the story and main characters and how you balance those elements?
TC: Just as love and hate are only separated by the finest of lines, so tragedy and comedy exist also side by side in precarious conjunction and it’s perfectly possible to slip from one state to the other without losing narrative integrity. I’m forever being overcome by fits of giggles at the most inappropriate times. My brother and sister and I were in hysterics at my beloved grandfather’s funeral (something to do with the vicar’s pronunciation I think), and when a robber pointed a gun to my head at a bank in Madrid – well, you’d have thought there’d never been anything quite so hilarious. The truth is that strong feelings give rise to strong reactions – and you can’t always control what those reactions will be. The Mistress’s Revenge is told through the journals of Sally Islip, a 43-year-old mother-of-two who can’t accept that her five-year-affair with married music producer Clive Gooding is over. As her grip on reality unravels, she becomes increasingly obsessed with him and his family, all the while neglecting her own – with predictably catastrophic results. It sounds pretty bleak, I know, but no one is bleak 24/7. As we’re inside Sally’s head we get her waspish observations as well as her rage and her self-pity. It’s a funny business, being human.
ASN: We talk a lot about how much truth is in fiction. Where did you get the idea for this novel — and do people assume it’s based on your own experiences?
TC: If you write in the first person, people are always going to leap to conclusions and I occasionally have to point out that I’m not a) bonkers b) a crazed-stalker or c) a prescription drug junkie. However, like most women in their forties, I’ve seen my share of relationship crises and mid life angst so it felt very natural to write about them. I just needed a strong central character to give the whole thing a shape. Sally (the protagonist) was born from watching a friend go through a bitter break up. I was struck by the bonkersness of some of the schemes she came up with to get her own back on the man who’d dumped her. This was a normally very sensible, sane woman. Of course she never carried out any of the things she talked about, but it did make me think ‘what if…’? What if a woman is driven so crazy by rejection she actually follows through with those mad impulses? It was around the time of the Tiger Woods scandal, and mistresses were dominating the headlines and I was struck by how powerful a figure the mistress remains in popular mythology. Twenty-five years on from Glen Close in Fatal Attraction and we’re still as scared of her as ever. Putting together the bunny-boiling mistress, hell-bent on revenge, and the love-crazed woman trying to mend her broken heart, felt like an explosive, and exciting combination.
ASN: You’re in London – can you share with us the differences between publishing in the UK and in the US? Perhaps the differences in readers? Are there differences?
TC: I was lucky enough to have separate publishing deals in the UK and in the States. The Mistress’s Revenge was published by Simon & Schuster in the USA at more or less the same time that it came out in the UK, published by Doubleday, so I’ve been able to see the differences, and the similiarities between the two markets. I guess the obvious difference is the scale of the thing – the US is so vast – sometimes it can seem overwhelmingly daunting, like you’re this tiny drop in an ocean of books. How on earth can you hope to make an impression? I’m only just starting to realise how, because of its size, local and even neighbourhood groups are so important in the USA, and that the way to make yourself heard as a writer is to start small and hope to build links and networks with other groups. Of course the UK also has local groups, but there’s also more of a national consciousness about books and films and art because people read the same newspapers and magazines, and watch the same arts shows on TV.
In terms of readers I’ve been amazed at how thought-provoking and generous responses have been on both sides of the Atlantic. If I had to pick out any differences – and please excuse the sweeping generalization – I think American readers are more likely to react to the characters rather than the book as a whole. So they’ll comment on what scum Clive is, or how deluded Sally is or be shocked at how she neglects her children, and their reactions to the characters often colour their reaction to the entire book. The other difference is that (and again this is a horrible generalization) American readers seem more likely to impose a personal moral framework on the book, so they might admit that their own strong feelings about infidelity make it hard for them to read a book about an affair.
ASN: I read that you’re working on your second novel. Can you share anything about it?
TC: Everything people say about Second Novel Syndrome is true. It’s bloody hard work! The Mistress’s Revenge was written in about three months, but Book Two (I keep flip-flopping about the title) has been a real labour of love. Partly it’s the pressure of having a two-book deal and knowing people now expect things of you where they didn’t before. Mostly though, it’s because the second book is written in the third person and from various characters’ viewpoints. That means you have to be a lot more disciplined as a writer or readers will feel like they’re listening in to a heated radio debate with lots of disjointed voices but no clue of who they belong to or how they fit together. Without giving too much away, the book is about what happens when someone is exposed as leading a double life, and the impact it has on all those around. It has more of a thriller element than The Mistress’s Revenge but at its heart it’s about secrets and lies how well we can ever really know the people closest to us.
TC: What is your definition of women’s fiction?
ASN: There’s a big debate in the UK at the moment about this label ‘women’s fiction’ and whether it’s derogatory that it even exists. Maybe it’s because it has become linked to that other controversial label ‘chick lit’, so that when you hear ‘women’s fiction’ many people automatically think pink covers and swirly writing. A couple of months ago, UK high street chain-store WH Smith promised to remove the category of ‘women’s fiction’ entirely after two female customers complained that this was a ‘condescending practice’ and that women are not a ‘minority or niche area’. I tend to agree. We use ‘women’s fiction’ to describe books that deal with personal relationships and domestic concerns – which is what I’m interested in reading and writing about. But what about Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot? What about Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (less so Freedom which lost me completely with the Save the Birds bit)? What about David Nicholls’ monster hit One Day? All are principally books about the complexity of human relationships, so shouldn’t that also bring them into the category of ‘women’s fiction’? I’m a woman and I write fiction. Beyond that, I’m not sure definitions are terribly helpful.
ASN: What is your best advice, specifically for aspiring authors of women’s fiction?
TC: DON’T worry about who could possibly be interested in what you have to say. People read looking for some insight on what it is to be human. You’re human, therefore you have as much right to write it as anyone else.
DON’T pay any attention to people who tell you not to read other writers in case you lose your own voice. They’re the same people who tell you not to have dressing on your salad and to always have an alcohol-free January. Reading is one of the great pleasures in life. Why deny yourself?
DO remember that writing isn’t brain surgery. No one will die if you don’t do it perfectly.
Give yourself a break and write what you want to say, not what you think other people might want to read.
Tamar Cohen is a freelance journalist who has written for The Times, The Guardian, Marie Claire, Cosmospolitan and many other publications. She has written nine non-fiction titles under a different name. The Mistress’s Revenge is her first novel.
Tamar Cohen boasts of having written a very modern book, but is still stuck in the dark ages as far as a web presence goes, although she’s working on it! In the meantime please get in touch with her via Twitter @MsTamarCohen or Facebook www.facebook.com/mistressrevenge