Tish Cohen is the author of several books for adults and young readers. Her adult novel Town House was a 2008 finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book Award (Canada and Caribbean region) and is in development as a feature film. Cohen’s middle-grade novels, The Invisible Rule of the Zöe Lama and The One and Only Zöe Lama, were published in Canada and the United States. She has contributed articles to some of Canada’s largest newspapers, including The Globe and Mail and The National Post. Having grown up in Los Angeles and Orange County in California, and Montreal, Cohen now calls Toronto home.
Little Black Lies confronts divorce, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and the tremendous pressures put on students in gifted programs. What drew you to explore these topics in Little Black Lies and was there something special that first sparked the storyline for the novel?
I was a child of divorce and was largely raised by my single father, with very little contact with my mother. So I definitely knew what that was like and it seemed natural to explore the scenario in Sara Black. And as for the OCD, I really wanted Sara to be trying to hide her father at a time when his condition was making him more visible than ever.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, is a confusing, often misunderstood illness. Can you give us your thoughts on OCD and how you came to choose this particular disability for Sara's lovable father, the classic car enthusiast and janitor, Charlie Black?
A good friend of mine made a documentary about OCD and when I first watched it, I was struck by the prison it’s sufferers lock themselves into. As terrible as it may be for them to indulge in excessive counting of objects, or checking of locked doors, or hand washing, it causes the person more distress not to do it. Many people might look at such a disorder and wonder – why don’t they just stop. But the truth is, most can’t. Also, an interesting fact that distinguishes OCD from just normal everyday vigilance – with OCD, you feel that if you don’t check that the oven is off just one more time, or line up your silverware just so, that something bad will happen. It seemed a fascinating scenario for a school janitor—where his very job worsens his condition.
Sara attends the prestigious Anton High School, a school crowned as “harder to get into than Harvard”. What research did you do in preparation for writing about Anton – did you go to any prep schools to talk to and observe the students?
I spoke to many prep school students and researched a few similar schools, such as Boston Latin or New York’s Stuyvesant. But I was a kid who was moved around a fair bit, so the horror of starting a new school is very real to me.
In Little Black Lies, Sara lies to hide the fact that her dad is the OCD-plagued janitor, that her mom ran off and that they have no money. What were you like as a teen and did you ever tell any “little black lies” of your own that you had to eventually face the consequences for like Sara?
As I mentioned, I was living with my divorced dad and he was always working to build his business. My father owned medical labs so while we weren’t penniless, I had a limited home life and was actually jealous of friends who had home-cooked meals and curfews and lots of family gatherings. So the little black lies I told myself were more about being so lucky to have total freedom and a fairly hefty allowance. I pretended I loved my “modern” life, but in actuality I was lonely. I’d have traded it in an instant to have my parents back together.
If you could go back to when you were a teenager, what advice would you give your teen self?
Believe in yourself.
From agoraphobia in Town House, to the poignant condition of Nonverbal Learning Disorder in Inside Out Girl, your novels are known for tackling complex issues with eccentric, endearing characters. What sort of feedback do you get from readers that have contacted you? What is the most positive comment you’ve received from a reader?
Many writers are encouraged by publishing professionals to find a genre that works best for them and stick with it. You’ve followed your own unique path and written novels for a wide array of ages. Out of the different genres you’ve written in, is there one in particular that is your favorite?
I wrote for adults first, so that will probably always be my love. But in writing Little Black Lies, I discovered you can put just as much into writing for teens and fell in love with the adolescent voice as well.
I have an adult novel coming out June 2010 called The Truth About Delilah Blue. This one is about a 20-year-old girl who discovers the father who raised her did something terrible to her as a child. And I’m writing my next novel for teens.
What other projects are you working on that we can look forward to? Will you be writing more novels in the future that are geared toward young adult readers?
Sara and her father are moving to Boston from small-town Lundun, Massachusetts. She is going to attend the very prestigious Anton High School—crowned “North America’s Most Elite and Most Bizarre” by TIME magazine, and harder to get into than Harvard. As the new girl, Sara doesn’t know anyone; better yet, no one knows her. This means she can escape her family’s checkered past, and her father can be a surgeon instead of “Crazy Charlie,” the school janitor.
What’s the harm in a few little black lies? Especially if they transform Sara into Anton’s latest “It” girl . . . .But then one of the popular girls at school starts looking into Sara’s past, and her father’s obsessive-compulsive disorder takes a turn for the worse. Soon, the whole charade just might come crashing down . .