Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Q & A with Ariella Cohen

1.    Did you always dream of being a writer?

I did.  When I was seven or eight years old, my Mum gave me a children’s typewriter – this was before personal computers – and I would spend hours typing short stories and poems.  Most revolved around a haunted house, family tragedy or penniless governess – you get the picture.  I remember the beginning of one ballad:

Our fathers bring upon this day
From memories so far away
Fell from the sky with foreign lisp
A lover’s cry, a lover’s kiss.

In Scotland many a year ago
Came traveller, not friend nor foe
Passed by one rainy winters day
Beneath the oak tree he now lay.

To their credit, my family didn’t snicker when I’d proudly read my work aloud at the dinner table. 

2.    How did your writing career develop?

Mum was a single parent.  Watching her struggle to raise four children convinced me I needed to pursue a ‘real’ career.  Not art.  Not something that didn’t feel like working at all.  So instead of studying literature at university, I became an attorney.  Although I’d pushed my dream of being a novelist to the back of my thoughts, I always tinkered with short fiction and even sold a few things.  But I didn’t really find my ‘voice’ until I’d held many jobs wholly unconnected to the craft.  Were I to give an aspiring novelist advice it would be to travel, work all you can, and make lots of mistakes – in life and love – for that’s what births the storyteller within.

3.    Your debut novel is called Sweet Breath of Memory, what is it about?

The novel’s about second chances – those Fate throws our way and those we so often deny ourselves.  It deals with war and its aftermath, focusing on the silent casualties – women on the home front and civilians caught in the crossfire.  The themes explored include the healing power of narrative, the nature of memory and that very human drive to balance remembrance with rebuilding.
4.    What was your inspiration for the book?

There were a few inspirations.  I wanted to celebrate the sort of iconic New England town that’s fast disappearing in this age of mega-stores and a dying Main/High Street.  Women business owners are the driving force in this fictional community which is named for that lovely village in West Sussex – Amberley.  Amberley is the sort of place that feels like home the moment you arrive.  It’s where we meet people we wish were our friends, who confront challenges we hope we could.

5.    Can you tell us more about the main character(s)?

The protagonist, Cate, is a remnant woman torn apart by grief.  A war widow, she’s broken and nearly penniless when she moves to Amberley to work as a caregiver.  Cate exists in the shadowed half-light of grief but the women of Amberley are determined to draw her out.  Sheila, owner of the Italian grocery; Gaby, who runs the diner; Beatrice, former mayor and town matriarch; and, MaryLou, wise-cracking mechanic; all take it upon themselves to make Cate welcome.  In the way of things, she helps each of them in turn.  In time, Cate finds the courage to rebuild her life and remake herself.

6.    Where and when do you write your stories?

I wish I could say I write in a quiet, book-lined study with a view of the garden but honesty demands otherwise.  Truth be told, this novel was written in 15-20 minute intervals when the house was quiet enough for me to concentrate.  Only then could my characters take center stage.  I write at the kitchen table, a mug of tea or coffee at hand and cats purring for attention or plopping themselves down on the laptop keys should I neglect them for an instant.  It is not the ideal creative environment, but needs must...and I’m lucky it’s worked thus far.

7.    What do you do and enjoy when you’re not writing?

I’m a gardener and watercolourist.  Walker and biker.  We have lots of animals and they need a bit of care!  The one thing I NEVER have enough time to do is read all of the wonderful novels my writing sisters-in-arms produce.

8.    If you could switch places with a character from a book, who would it be and why?

Oh I’d love to step into Sheila Morazzo’s shoes.  She runs Amberley’s Italian grocery.  Although she gets up in the wee hours to bake, Sheila spends her day grinding coffee, weighing out cookies, filling catering orders and generally tucking in to all the treasures in her shop.  She’s also married to a lovely man, has great friends and is mayor of the town.  The perfect package.  But it’s Sheila’s 24-hour access to cannoli cream that tips the balance for me!

9.    What books have most influenced your life?

Thomas Hardy’s writing would top the list.  I relate to that tug-o-war between celebrating Nature and lamenting how rigged everything (including Nature) is against the ‘little guy.’  And I applaud his pathos when writing about the working poor and the clash of modernism with the idealized golden days of old.  I love Anthony Trollope’s humour, and admire how the Brontë sisters imagined such full worlds when their own society was so limited.  And, of course, Jane Austen is peerless.

10.   What are you working on at the moment?

The sequel to Sweet Breath of Memory, a Young Adult novel, and an adult historical series set against the backdrop of London’s Fifteenth Century merchant guilds.

11.   What do you enjoy most about writing?

How incredibly tough it is.  Often you feel no more than an editor – fixing, fine-tuning and trimming.  But sometimes your fingers can’t type fast enough to keep up with the characters’ actions; that’s a feeling beyond description.  It’s a bit like horseback riding.  Most of the time, you have a nice trot going; it’s pleasant and diverting - nothing spectacular.  But if you pull off the saddle and ride bareback, the horse and you move as one.  That unique connection is similar to the one writers experience when they merge with their characters.

12.   Pick three authors you want to have dinner with and tell us why.

Oh, fun!  I assume they can be called back from the other side, right?  Let’s set the menu first: pasta, crusty bread, olives and salad.  We’ll get to know each other over Irish whiskey, drink Chenin blanc during the meal, and sip Grappa with our cannoli and almond cookies.  And now for the guests - Oscar Wilde and Maeve Binchy.  To represent America, I propose comedian/writer Groucho Marx.  I’d love the chance to chat with each of them and I think they’d get along famously.  Lots of laughs.  Hopefully, at the end of the night Groucho won’t give his trademark exit line, “I’ve had a lovely evening and this wasn’t it.”

13.   Imagine Sweet Breath of Memory would be turned into a movie, who would you cast for the main characters?

Protagonist widow, Cate – Sandra Bullock or Drew Barrymore;
Wise, elderly priest, Father Sullivan – Alan Alda;
Town’s ornery matriarch, Beatrice – Helen Mirren;
Italian grocery owner, Sheila – Katey Sagal (an American TV actress who would be perfect for the role);
Empathetic diner owner, Gaby – Cate Blanchett;
Tough-as-nails mechanic, MaryLou – Susan Sarandon.

14.   If you could travel to one place anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?

I’ve always wanted to visit Prague; I just feel compelled to go there.  Perhaps after the trip I’ll know why.

15.   How would you describe your style of writing?

Opportunistic in that I write when and where I can.  Also, open-minded.  I set out in a very definite direction with anything I’m creating but, inevitably, I’m taken by the hand and led another way.  Artists have to be open to the breadcrumb clues left for us to find and interpret.  Writing is very much about the journey.

16.   Coffee or tea?

A.M. = two lattes; P.M. = herbal tea.

17.   Paperback or e-reader?

Paperback.  I love the feel of a book and the smell of clean paper.  There’s a sort of sigh when you bend back the cover and a slight resistance from the binding, as though the book is guarding its secrets – but not too much.

18.   Mountains or the sea?

The sea, although one of my favourite towns in Maine – Camden – has a lovely mountain overlooking the Atlantic.

19.   Summer or winter?

Summer for the garden, winter for the quiet of a snowfall.

20.   Sweet or salty?

Salty.  Pretzels.  Chips.  Sea salt on Irish brown bread is heaven.

Thank you, Simona, for inviting me to chat!

About the Author: 

Ariella Cohen is a graduate of Columbia University, the Hebrew University and the University of Michigan Law School.  Although she makes her home in New England, her dream self resides in County Mayo, Ireland.  Ariella believes in the healing power of cat purrs, cannoli and coffee.  SWEET BREATH OF MEMORY is her debut novel and she's hard at work on the sequel.
Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sweet-Breath-Memory-Ariella-Cohen-ebook/dp/B0165HUW68/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1465764007&sr=8-1
Waterstones:  https://www.waterstones.com/book/sweet-breath-of-memory/ariella-cohen/9781496703

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