Swimming out of the CanLit pond
In the U.S., Target's declared her next novel a 'breakout book.' Then there's her movie deal.
SARAH WEINMAN | August 13, 2008 |
For most Canadian authors, a perfectly respectable career can be forged in modest terms: publication by a boutique press, an award or two and some glowing reviews. But as publishing becomes more of a global industry, big fishes in the small pond that is CanLit may no longer be guaranteed literary survival. So now we're seeing the fruits of cross-border advance hype, such as the US$1.25-million deal for Manitoba writer Andrew Davidson's debut novel The Gargoyle, released Aug. 5 by Random House Canada. Prestigious and lucrative awards from other countries, such as Ravi Hage's surprise IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize win in June, also increases international visibility.
At first glance, Tish Cohen appears to fall squarely in the modest success camp. Her first novel, Town House, was published last year by HarperCollins Canada to positive notices and encouraging sales. It landed on the short list for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize's best first book, an unusual development for a work of commercial fiction. Advance word on her new novel Inside Out Girl, due in bookstores in August, is even stronger, especially in the U.S., where the retail giant Target has already designated it a "breakout book." What distinguishes Cohen from the CanLit pack, however, is the interest she's received from an entirely different medium: film and television.
A few years ago book-to-film adaptations hardly figured on Cohen's radar. She had secured a literary agent, Daniel Lazar of the New York-based firm Writers House, for a novel that did not end up selling. Then a longtime fascination with old houses sparked the idea for what became Town House, the humorous and at times poignant tale of how imminent foreclosure on a crumbling Boston dwelling — and an unlikely friendship with the little girl next door — helps Jack Madigan conquer his agoraphobia. Town House quickly sold to HarperCollins's U.S. division (and later to its Canadian outpost on the basis of what her editor, Iris Tupholme, singled out as a "confident voice on the page"), but the novel's character-driven storyline sold even faster to Hollywood — with Fox 2000 locking up the film rights in advance of the U.S. book deal. John Carney, director of the Oscar-winning independent film Once, is on board to write the script.
The film sale came as a total shock. "As I wrote the book I secretly wondered how it might translate to screen, then immediately laughed those thoughts off as amateurish," said Cohen in a recent telephone interview from her suburban Toronto home. "But I never honestly thought the film deal would happen." Her agent was less surprised. "Tish's work," says Lazar, "has a great sense of timing and pacing on top of being character-driven, which is what Hollywood likes. She's really able to create a story with beats and genuine moments that balance internal thoughts and external action."
Since then Cohen's career momentum has accelerated even more. Last year she also published her first book for children, The Invisible Rules of the Zoë Lama, and the sequel followed this month — as did the news that Toronto production company 9 Story Entertainment secured the rights to turn the Zoë Lama books into a live-action television series. The deal came about as a result of serendipity when Cohen was the featured author at a local book club. "One of the club's members had a neighbour who was a producer, and when we got in touch afterwards I sent over the book. The producer loved it."
It's too soon to tell whether Inside Out Girl will be coming soon to a theatre or plasma screen near you, but the odds seem pretty good. The novel is populated with characters facing life-changing situations, from magazine publisher Rachel Berman's struggle to be a perfect parent to her teenage children, her new lover Len's terminal diagnosis, and especially his 10-year-old daughter Olivia Bean's non-verbal learning disorder, which robs her of the ability to read other people's body language. But Inside Out Girl doesn't turn those situations into opportunities to preach. Instead it uses wry humour and genuine emotion to bring about a bittersweet close.
That empathic quality, regardless of Hollywood's persistent calls, is what marks Cohen as one of Canada's strongest new talents. "Tish has a great way of laying bare human idiosyncrasies that readers can easily identify with and relate to," said Tupholme. It's an ability crossing gender, generational and media lines — seemingly effortless but all too rare.