Interview with Tammy Cohen

WSWB hi-res coverThere is nothing I like more than sitting down to read a good psychological thriller. Having read Dying For Christmas by Tammy Cohen previously, I already had high expectations for her latest novel When She Was Bad, but I’m happy to say that she completely smashed them! This novel isn’t just great, it’s flipping brilliant!

After devouring my copy, I caught up with Tammy to ask her a few questions about her magnificently gripping novel…..

When She Is Bad, is a delicious psychological thriller (which I seriously couldn’t put down), set in the workplace – a rarity in fiction! Can you please tell me why you decided to set it there? Have you had any bad experiences of working is that sort of environment?
Thank you! To be honest the workplace setting came about principally because I’d done three domestic thrillers in a row and needed to do something completely different. And obviously workplaces are a great setting for thrillers because we spend so much of our lives there and yet often we hardly know our colleagues. And when you factor that in with all the office politics that invariably goes on at work, you end up with a bit of a tinderbox situation – and as a writer all I had to do was toss in a lit match. And you guessed right about the personal experience. Many years ago I worked in a magazine office where the boss, like Rachel in When She Was Bad, operated a divide and rule system of management and pitted us all against each other. It was such a miserable experience, I’ve never forgotten it.

Every one of the characters in When She Was Bad is flawed, something that is also echoed in Dying for Christmas. Can you tell me the reason for this?
I never set out to create flawed characters, only real ones. To be honest, I always write characters I consider to be fairly normal so it always surprises me when readers talk about how flawed or unsympathetic they are. I’m starting to feel I have much lower standards than everyone else! As a reader, I’m always more intrigued and engaged by the complicated characters than by the straightforward nice guys and girls. It’s clearly a flaw in my own personality!

The novel is a real page turner! How much planning do you have to do prior to writing to create such a gripping novel?
The writing world is split between those who plot and those who don’t. I belong in the latter group, although I often wish I didn’t! I usually start off a book with an idea of the nub of the story – a spurned woman who stalks her ex lover’s family, a couple caught in the middle of their best friends’ increasingly acrimonious divorce and, in this case, a bullying boss introduced into a previously harmonious workplace. Once I’ve got that nugget at the heart of the book, I sit down and start writing until gradually the characters emerge, and they in turn propel the plot forward. It’s a very panic-inducing way of writing and quite often I’ll get to the middle of a book and completely freeze, not knowing which direction it should take. I’d love to be able to sit down with a stack of post its and a white board and plot out a whole book before writing the first sentence. I think that must give you a really enviable sense of security. But unfortunately it’s not the way I work.

You’ve recently turned your hand to thrillers after previously writing contemporary fiction which focused on relationships, under the name of Tamar Cohen. What made you decide to shift genres?
After three books that were classified as dark, contemporary women’s fiction, I was starting to feel constrained by constantly questioning the authenticity of what I was writing: ‘is this how most people would react? Can readers identify with this?’. There was always an invisible line I couldn’t step over. With crime, I can cross that line, push the boundaries. It’s no longer about what most people would do but rather what one person, often one very abnormal person, might do. It’s no longer about what’s probable but about what’s possible, and that’s very liberating.

Do you have a writing routine that you can tell me about?
When my children were younger I had a strict routine that was dictated entirely by childcare and I was actually very productive because I knew my time was limited so I had to focus., but since they grew older, I’m a lot less disciplined. Now I get up and answer emails and engage in social media, often for hours, lying to myself it’s all work – yes, even watching that video of the dog with the box on its head. Then I’ll take my own dog for a walk. So by the time I actually sit down to write it is often mid afternoon, which means I’m quite often working late at night. Like now!

Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
Only to write, and to keep writing, even when the nasty little voice in your head is telling you it’s rubbish. Write through the doubts. You can always edit at the end. And never think you’ve left it too late. I was forty-seven when my first novel was published, and it completely changed my life.

Your previous career was in journalism. How does that influence your writing?
Being a journalist means that I’m used to writing to deadline, and I’m not precious about my writing. Most novelists end up being on a book a year contract and that means you can’t be too much of a perfectionist – at some point you have to let your book go.

Can you please tell us about your favourite books and authors?
My favourite book is always the last one I read! I read loads but I’ve got a terrible memory and often forget books instantly I’ve read them. However there are some standout books that have really stuck with me. Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard. Over the last few weeks I’ve read a few great books that are due out later this year, like Louise Candlish’s The Swimming Pool, Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me, and Sabine Durrant’s Lie With Me.

Can you tell me about what you are working on now?
I’ve just written a first draft of a book that is in a totally different genre to anything else I’ve done, but as I still haven’t read it through and don’t yet know whether it will ever see the light of day, I think I’d rather keep it to myself for now. But I’ve another psychological thriller to write next, which is where my heart really lies, so watch this space!

When She Was Bad is published by Black Swan and is available to buy right now!