Tammy Cohen (who previously wrote under her formal name Tamar Cohen) has a growing backlist of acclaimed novels of domestic noir
including: The Mistress’s Revenge, The War of the Wives, and Someone Else’s Wedding. Her break-out psychological suspense thriller was The Broken, followed by Dying for Christmas, First One Missing and When She Was Bad. She lives in North London with her partner and three (nearly) grown children, plus one badly behaved dog. Chat with her on Twitter @MsTamarCohen
Thank you so much for joining me and answering my questions, as you know I am your NUMBER ONE fan and love your books so forgive me if I start giggling and fangirling a bit.
Aw, shucks, Tracy. I’ve never had anyone fangirling before. Not like you, who spend your days being carried aloft on a sedan chair by armies of admirers or lying back on your golden chaise dictating your Facebook updates to adoring young male writers.
Your first books were written under Tamar Cohen, your later psychological thrillers are written under Tammy Cohen and now your alter-ego Rachel Rhys has a new book coming out in March called A Dangerous Crossing. WTF? What should I call you because I’m a little confused and can you please explain all 3 names?
You’re confused? How do you think I feel? I am trapped in a permanent identity crisis. Actually, there are very boring reasons behind the name variations. My real name is Tamar, but everyone calls me Tammy. When I got my first book deal, my editor decided Tamar had more gravitas (why are you laughing, Tracy?). But after the fourth book, the sales & marketing department decided no one could pronounce Tamar and that might put readers off, so they changed it to Tammy. Rachel Rhys happened because I wrote a book in a completely different genre (historical) and decided to have a completely new name so no one would pick it up expecting it to be a psychological thriller. Also I liked the idea of having an alter ego. Rachel is totally different to Tammy. She only drinks champagne and wears florals and has a house in Tuscany and is very, very posh. Not unlike yourself, Tracy.
Most of your books have a serious underlying feeling of dread and I think I’ve called you the Queen of Uncomfortable in several reviews, when you are coming up with these stories do you ever freak yourself out and is there a point when you think “uh-oh that’s too far?”
Occasionally when I’m writing a book, something will occur to me fleetingly and I’ll get a really uncomfortable, sick feeling and think ‘oh God, can you imagine if I put that in? That would be way too much.’ And of course, once it’s in my head, I have to put it in anyway, because if it’s got a strong reaction from me, chances are it’ll get a stronger one from readers. It doesn’t happen with all books, but definitely The Mistress’s Revenge and Dying for Christmas were ones where I thought ‘wouldn’t it be disgusting/awful/over-the-top if he/she did that?’
Have you ever received any strange fan mail or requests from readers?
The Mistress’s Revenge elicited, and continues to elicit, quite passionate responses from readers who have either been mistresses or betrayed wives (no cheating husbands yet. Wonder why?). Sometimes they’re really angered by the book, and sometimes they love it because they recognise something in it and realise whatever they went through they’re not on their own. I had a lot of responses to When She Was Bad too from readers who’d also worked in toxic offices telling me their own experiences of bosses/colleagues from hell. Some of those were eye opening and made me very glad I work from home where office politics involve just me and the dog.
I know that you read lots of books, do you have a particular genre you love and is there a genre you haven’t read yet?
I think classifying books into genre isn’t particularly helpful. I can see why publishers do it, but as a reader and as a writer I think it’s unnecessarily restricting. My favourite books tend to be ones that defy genre. They could be literary or crime or romance or cat detective (that’s an actual genre in the States apparently)*. As long as they’re well written and they have that spark that draws you in, I don’t care what shelf they sit on in the bookshop. When The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes first came out, I read a review that called it ‘science fiction’ and so didn’t read it for ages because I had a misguided belief that I’m not the sort of person who reads science fiction. What an idiot! Actually it’s crime, literary, part historical, and yes, a bit sci fi, but absolutely brilliant. So I try to ignore the genre labels. Unless it’s erotica, which I don’t read because I’m a total prude. * In reality none of my favourite books are about cat detectives
What does “INDEFATIGABLE” mean?
1) Stand up, 2) Make your way to the mirror, 3) Yes, it’s you Tracy Fenton! I know it’s a standing joke now that I call you indefatigable, but actually it’s a perfect word for you, because you have so much energy and you’re tireless in thinking up new things and fearless in trying them out. I wish I had half your get-up-and-go, but sadly mine has all got-up-and-went.
As you were born in Nigeria, do you have any contacts over there to ask them to stop sending me emails about my uncle leaving me $8billion in his will and if not, can you tell me how long you lived there and when you came to the UK to live?
No, it was MY uncle who left you the $8bn. He’s generous that way. I was born in Nigeria because my dad was an anthropologist who happened to be doing fieldwork there at that time (approximately twenty-nine years ago) (ish). We came back to the UK when I was just a few weeks old, but we did go back to Africa to live in Sierra Leone for a year, and later I went to school in California, so we got around.
You are part of the wonderful Killer Women team along side Paula Hawkins, Sarah Hilary, Erin Kelly, Alex Marwood, Louise Millar, Colette McBeth and loads more. Can you please tell me more about the Killer Women and what it’s all about and who do I need to “kill” to become one?
It’s an amazing group of female crime writers who get together and plan ways to bump off all our competitors. Oh hang on… you want the official version… OK, Killer Women was founded by Mel McGrath and Louise Millar and it’s a group of 16 top female crime writers, who get together to drink wine and provide mutual support and pool resources for promotional events, and drink more wine, and generally augment the work being done by our individual publishers to help raise awareness of our books and of crime writing in general by doing panels and anthologies and even our own festival. Did I mention the drinking wine bit?
What are your plans for Christmas this year and is there anything in particular you want to see under your Christmas tree?
Christmas usually means heading North to see my Mum and sister. As my mum is disabled it’s hard for her to travel so we tend to go to her. It is a typical British Christmas – we all eat too much, drink too much and watch far too much telly. There might be silly hats worn. The dog might be made to wear comedy antlers. I’m not hoping for anything in particular under the tree, but if someone would like to sneak onto my computer and do the structural edits for my new book for me, that would be the most magical Christmas present ever. Anyone? Hello?
What have been your career highlights (apart from meeting me obviously) and what do you have planned for 2017.
The trouble is meeting you has cast such a huge shadow over everything, I’m struggling to remember anything else that has happened to me. I guess career highlights have to include the publication of my first novel, The Mistress’s Revenge, and seeing it on an actual shelf in your actual Waterstones. Meeting, and become friends with authors whose books I’d read and loved for years like the fabulous Lisa Jewell. Being published all around the world from huge markets like Germany and the United States and Brazil to smaller ones like Indonesia and even Lithuania. This year being shortlisted for a Dead Good award was a big highlight, as was having When She Was Bad optioned for TV.
I have a feeling 2017 is going to be my most exciting year yet, as I have two new books out, and am unleashing my alter ego, Rachel Rhys, on the world. Rachel’s historical thriller, A Dangerous Crossing, will be published by Transworld in March 2017. It’s about a young woman, Lily Shepherd, who travels to Australia in 1939 to go into domestic service. The whole novel takes place over the five and a half week sea voyage from London to Sydney. On the surface of it, there’s glamour, cocktails, exotic locations and romance, but as it all takes place under the looming shadow of World War Two there are also mounting tensions – political, social and sexual – and a growing sense of danger. By the time the ship docks in Sydney war has been declared, two passengers are dead, and nothing in Lily’s life will ever be the same again. I can’t wait to find out what readers make of it.
Finally, please tell me about your new psychological thriller They All Fall Down and how I can get my hands on it NOW?
They All Fall Down is a thriller set in a private psychiatric clinic for women at high risk of hurting themselves. When patients start dying, the deaths are, not surprisingly, put down to suicide. Only Alice is convinced there’s a serial killer at large, preying on the vulnerable residents. But who will believe her, when half the time she doesn’t even believe herself? It’s out in May 2017 (if I ever finish these edits) and I think it’s probably my most ambitious book to date. Here’s an exclusive extract from the opening chapter.
Charlie cut her wrists last week with a shard of caramelised sugar.
We’d made the sugar sheets together in the clinic’s kitchen earlier in the day, under Joni’s beady-eyed supervision.
“Yours are thick enough to do yourself an injury,” I’d said to Charlie, as a joke.
“I wonder if that’s what gave her the idea,” Odelle commented afterwards, pointedly, inviting me to feel guilty.
After Charlie died, Bake Off went on the banned programmes list.
I don’t feel guilty though, because I don’t think Charlie killed herself. The same as I don’t think poor Sofia killed herself. In a high suicide risk psych clinic like this people die all the time. It’s one of the clinic’s USPs. That’s what makes it so easy for a killer to hide here in plain sight. That and the fact that the only witnesses are us, and no one believes a word we say.
You don’t have to be mad to live here but… oh, hang on, yes you do.
I’m frightened. I’m frightened that I’m right and I’ll be next. I’m even more frightened that I’m wrong, in which case I’m as crazy as they all think I am. Shut away in here the only escape is in my own head. But what if my own head’s the most dangerous place to be?