Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Why Tish Cohen thinks a fresh coat of bright orange paint could help her plot future novels

The author of Little Green answers eight questions from eight fellow writers.
Tish Cohen is a writer based in Toronto and author of the novel Little Green. (Liliana Reyes/HarperCollins Canada)

Tish Cohen's new novel Little Green chronicles an unravelling marriage, strained by years of sacrifice and mounting resentment. In the process, Cohen explores how people's truest selves are revealed in their darkest moments.

Below, Cohen takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A and answers eight questions from eight fellow writers.

1. Gail Bowen asks, "If you could live in the world created by another writer, what fictional world would you choose, and why?"

I would make my way down the church basement steps and into the rummage sale from Dolls, a short story by Heather O'Neill in her collection Daydreams of Angels. But I'd slip in early, because as soon as the dolls are put on their particular table, they begin to speak to one another. Their stories are tragic and beautiful, and I'd love to hear each told in its doll's own voice, the faraway sound of each being "similar to that of hair burning." And I'd kneel on the floor in front of them, silent, so I don't miss a word.

There are tales of fancy dresses, parasols and tea parties. One doll, Marguerite, had come with a book that claimed she was manor born and once had a horse named Philippe! They spoke of bad haircuts that live forever and bellies full of coins from Poland and drunken lashes drawn in pen. The last doll, Hannah, told the story about her former owner—a lonely child who had no other toys and ugly clothes and a mother who never visited. The other dolls are hushed by the enormity of love that girl must've had for Hannah; reminded of their own love once had and later lost. None of them want to think they'd become trash. Only now would I speak. "You're forgetting one thing," I would say. "The love you gave. It's all that matters in the end, really. For all of us."

2. Robert Currie asks, "What first started you writing?"

John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany and the realization that I wasn't fit for much else.

3. Ian Brown asks, "What was the lowest point in the writing of your latest project? And the highest?"

The lowest point of my latest writing project happened before I started it. Over the course of a year, I'd written a novel called The Paris Apartment, told in three time periods through three points of view. Just as I turned in my second draft, my agent called to say, "Erm, bad news." A book called A Paris Apartment was coming out a few weeks later — based on the same story as mine. Someone else got there first.

So Little Green was born! It wasn't an easy book to write, nor was it quick. I tapped out many, many drafts. The high point of the process for me was at HarperCollins Canada's IFOA closing party last fall, when my wonderful editor, Jennifer Lambert, strolled over with a smile on her face to say I'd (finally) nailed it. And my agent called from New York to say the same thing.

4. JJ Lee asks, "Superman or Batman?"

Batman. I think it's healthy to have a sidekick.

5. Nicolas Dickner asks, "Which writing skill would you like to improve?"

My plotting. I spend way too much time hiding from plot and playing with character. Maybe I'll paint one wall in my place a nice, aggressive, high-gloss orange and plot out my next book on it in dry-erase marker. I'll have pie charts and boxes and Venn diagrams that glare down at me when I'm doing anything but plotting.

6. Vincent Lam asks, "Does your personal relationship with your characters change over the course of writing a book? If so, how?"

When they're still just tiny pips in my imagination, they're perfect. And then they are born, all red-faced and bawling. They either keep me up at night or they just lie there on the page and stare at me with their arms crossed. But somewhere along the process, often one at a time, they soften. Get up off their posteriors and offer to help out here and there, and that's when they really get me hooked on them. By the end of the book, they're so real to me that I lapse into conversations about them without preamble.

7. Alison Pick asks, "What is your middle name?"

Carole with an E.

8. Shauna Singh Baldwin asks, "What did you learn from writing one book that you have used/can use/will use when writing the next?"

Like with a house, it's usually smarter to start over than renovate.


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