Tamar Cohen has been a freelance journalist for over twenty years during which time she has written for publications including: The Times, The Telegraph, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, and Hello!
Over the past four years, she has written nine non-fiction books. The War of the Wives is Cohen’s second novel. Her first novel, The Mistress’s Revenge, was published in 2011.
Tamar Cohen joins us today to discuss her new novel.
What was the motivation for writing this book?
Apart from to make my agent and editor happy, I guess the motivation, as always, is to see what happens to ordinary people when faced with an extraordinary situation. I’m fascinated by how people react to extreme circumstances and how relationships and family dynamics adapt and sometimes implode during times of crisis. It’s like reading the newspapers – you see people you can identify with facing these incredible challenges and you’re thinking ‘what would I do if that was me?’ In the case of The War of the Wives I had a really strong visual starting point – two women in black meeting at the funeral of the man they were both unwittingly married to. That evolved into the central premise of the book – what if, at your husband’s funeral, you come face to face with… his other wife? It sounds far-fetched but you’d be amazed how many of us know someone who discovered their partner was leading a double life. How would you deal with that? As the blind-sided wife, just what would you do?
What is it that fascinates you about family life?
How could you not be fascinated by family life? Like it or not we’re all a product of our family situations – both the ones we’re born into and the ones we go on to create for ourselves. And of course like all writers, I’m particularly interested in dysfunctional families. I think there’s an element in all of us that secretly likes being able to say ‘I thought my family had problems but they’re nothing compared to these guys.’
Selina or Lottie? Do you have a preference?
Lottie is probably the more likeable – impulsive, slightly chaotic, emotional, but it’s Selina who makes the greater journey. With Selina, I made a conscious choice to write a character who wasn’t immediately sympathetic. She’s a total snob and a control freak, to the extent that she even controls what she allows herself to confront and acknowledge about herself and her own marriage. I wanted to be able to show how she has to completely unlearn herself and let go of her prejudices and her blinkeredness in order to come to terms with what has happened and to move on with her life. Poor Selina really goes through the wringer – so I guess I have to have a soft spot for her!
The War of the Wives is your second novel. Did you feel more pressure second time around?
Definitely. My first book, The Mistress’s Revenge, was written in just four months. I’m a freelance journalist and was going through a bit of a fallow patch in terms of work, so I wrote the book for something to do, and because I thought it was a great idea. Getting an agent and then a publisher felt like a fairy tale, and because it had all been so easy, I just assumed it would continue that way. Wrong! Your second book is totally different to your first because, assuming you got a two-book deal, you’re now under contract – the publisher has in effect already bought your unwritten book, which is a massive pressure in itself. What’s more, they want it delivered by a certain date, otherwise their publishing schedule will be thrown out and you could find yourself having to wait a whole extra year for your book to hit the shelves. In addition, by the time I was writing The War of the Wives, the reviews for The Mistress’s Revenge were coming in and I belatedly discovered how pathetically easily influenced I am, changing my writing style with each bit of praise or criticism I received until I all but lost sight of my own voice.
What is your greatest ambition?
At the risk of sounding completely naff, having a novel published was my lifelong ambition, so everything else is just icing on the cake. Of course I’d love it if one of my novels was so successful I got invited on a world book tour. I hear Australia’s particularly lovely this time of year (not so subtle hint).
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Someone very wise once said writing is ‘1 percent creativity and 99 percent holding your nerve’ (It probably wasn’t those exact words, but you get the gist). I think there’s a massive amount of truth in that. There comes a time in every book, usually somewhere between 25,000 words and 35,000 words, where you know, beyond all doubt, that it’s the worst thing ever written and that no one in their right mind would want to read it and that you have been cruelly deluding yourself by believing you had any talent whatsoever. Forcing yourself to carry on writing through that stage, even while secretly convinced you’re about to make yourself a laughing stock in front of family, friends and, more importantly, enemies is, I think, the single hardest thing about writing. (Well, aside from the actual writing bit, obviously… ) I find it hugely reassuring to know that everyone else feels the same. Just grit your teeth and power through the doubt.
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