Donna Meredith interviews Tamatha Cain, author of “Only Oona”

Tamatha Cain’s latest novel, Only Oona, focuses on the life of Oona Chaplin. The daughter of famous playwright Eugene O’Neill, Oona marries famed silent film star Charlie Chaplin. The novel paints a vivid portrait of a warm and intelligent woman who rubbed shoulders with many of the most prominent creative people of her times, such as J. D. Salinger. Donna Meredith interviews Tamatha about the creative process behind this novel.

DM: Oona has a very unusual childhood and adolescence. What motivated or inspired you to write Oona’s story?

TC: It was one of those moments where my interests crossed with some of my favorite parts of being a writer. I heard about Oona while doing research for a film class, and I started researching her life and the people in it. I soon learned that despite the popularity of what I call “Mrs.” books, where the subject of the book is the little-known wife or muse of a famous man, a novel had never been written about the wife of the world’s first superstar Charlie Chaplin. The more I read about her, the more clear the reason became: she was incredibly private and her eight children are very protective of her memory (which I think is wonderful). Around the same time, I was looking for a new agent, and one that seemed like a perfect fit had listed Oona O’Neill Chaplin as a subject she would love to see in her inbox. That motivated me to devote the next year to researching and writing about Oona and her fascinating early life.

Donna Meredith

DM: What research was required for the writing of this story?

TC:Because Oona was an enigmatic and private person, it was necessary to research everyone around her in order to get a picture of what she was like. There is an entire bookshelf in my office dedicated to books about and/or by Eugene O’Neill, Agnes Boulton,

William Saroyan, Truman Capote, Gloria Vanderbilt, Carol Marcus Sarayon Matthau, J.D. Salinger, and of course Charlie Chaplin. The biography of Oona by Jane Scovill was so helpful, and I was honored to speak with her on the phone–twice!–about Oona. There are many other books, like one by the son of Eugene O’Neill’s final doctor and one by a person who researched the O’Neills’ time in Bermuda, which gave valuable insight as well. One of the most important connections I made through my research was with Jane Chaplin, who is one of Oona and Charlie’s eight children. She lives in Columbia, but we chatted regularly via Instagram and we still do! She’s become an internet friend I truly hope to meet in person one day. Her insight, of course, was invaluable. One nugget of information that wasn’t found anywhere else was that Oona was obsessed with red lipstick. Jane shared that when her mother passed away, in her things she saw more red lipsticks than she had ever seen in one place. That inspired scenes in the book as well as the cover, which I love. It was voted one of the most beautiful covers in a poll on Goodreads!

DM: Most girls, it is said, end up marrying someone like their fathers. Oona was determined not to. Do you think she succeeded? What holes do you think Charlie filled in Oona’s life?

TC: While Oona tried not to marry someone like her father, she inevitably found the safety and the family she longed for with a man the same age as her father. The two men were different and similar at the same time.

DM: You had to dig into the personalities of all those famous people surrounding Oona. Which ones, besides Charlie, stood out to you as most important in her life? 

Tamatha Cain

TC: It seemed to me that though she was close with one of her cousins at a younger age, once she went to New York, her friendships with Carol Marcus, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Truman Capote had the most impact, as did her romance with J.D. Salinger. Though she was sixteen to eighteen years old in those years, these friendships/relationships seemed to contribute to molding her into a young woman who grew to believe love and marriage were the way to safety and security. She was a brilliant and lovely young woman who always did well in school, but as is the case with many girls who long for the love of their fathers, and mothers for that matter, she seemed to come to see the world as her two glamorous female friends did. My impression of her as a young woman is that she desperately wanted to recreate the loving family she lost as a very young child, and these friends became that family for a time, with all the family dynamics that go along with that.

DM: Tell us a little about your writing process.

TC: I love research, and my process includes a great deal of that, especially when a new idea begins to feel like it could be a novel. Once I have the idea partially fleshed out, I start drafting, but the research doesn’t stop. My process has been different with each of the three novels I’ve completed, and it will probably continue to change with each book–as my life changes as well. My current novel included a bit more outlining at the outset, and I’m loving that. As I’m writing, if new ideas come up, I can go create a new folder and drop a note in it, or if some new grand idea pops up while working on a scene, I often go back and add to scenes already written in order to set up that new idea. I absolutely love when that happens! I do write every day Monday through Friday, and sometimes when I get a pocket of time on the weekends. The mornings will include errands, chores, phone calls, emails, etc., and then the afternoons tend to be when I really get going on the writing. I set a word count goal and a projected completion date just to give me a framework, because that works for me. Scrivener is my friend. I like to make notes in long hand when I’m in the scary phase of starting out with a new manuscript, but I draft straight into the computer. :) Also, I love to use the Notes app on my phone to drop ideas I want to add the next time I’m at my desk.

DM: Please share a little about your background and what got you started as a writer.

TC: My dad was a Morse Code specialist in the Air Force, and he met my mom while stationed in Pakistan. She was from India. I’ve always been a big reader, and I loved writing from a young age, but I was also serious about choir in school and wanted to be a vocalist, which is what I originally went to school for. My poems and short stories won some awards, and I also wrote songs, hoping to record them one day (I did write the song in Song of the Chimney Sweep). While my kids were small, I sang in a local band, and then started one of my own. Also, I owned a custom bakery which was very popular, but the pull to write got stronger and stronger, and when my first novel won Gold in the Royal Palm Book Awards, it was a huge encouragement to keep going. That novel has not been published, but my next one and the one after that both were, and I am enjoying putting my stories down on the page and seeing them enjoyed by readers. Song of the Chimney Sweep just won Silver in the Florida Book Awards, which is beyond amazing to me.

DM: What are you working on next?

TC: It’s an historical fiction novel about a young woman on the run in 1906–taking her on an epic journey around the world, from India to the United States to ??? There are cameos from some interesting historical figures, and a lot of adventure.

DM: I also really enjoyed your first novel, Song of the Chimney Sweep, though it is quite different from Only Oona. What do you see as differences and similarities in the writing of these two books? Was one more difficult or more enjoyable to write than the other?

TC: Thank you! Yes, they are very different. The similarities would be the importance and depth of research. Song of the Chimney Sweep includes a lot of musical history, investigative techniques, podcast technicalities, and different cultural backgrounds. I visited locations, toured the entrance to underground tunnels, interviewed musicians, read a lot about North Florida in the late 60s and early 70s. And then of course, to support the chimney treasure-hunt side-story, I had to become a bit of an expert on bricks and masons after the Great Fire of 1901! There is so much in that book that had to be just right. For Only Oona, the challenge was to form an idea of a person who has been gone for 20 years by reading every word ever written about her. I used, bought old magazines off Ebay, and then of course there’s the small fortune spent on books about the people I mentioned. There was one touchstone for me, which was the importance of giving Oona, who I respect and admire very much, a voice of her own. Not only as Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, and not only as Charlie Chaplin’s wife. It was important to depict her as more than simply a ‘friend of this person’ or ‘heartthrob of that famous fellow’, and to paint a picture of her as her own person. That is why I focused on her younger years and the first few of her marriage. These were the core of who she was, I feel, and the tragedy of how her life began and ended should not be the only things people know about her.

DM: Thanks for generously taking the time to share these insights into your writing and life, Tamatha. I look forward to reading your next novel. I’m sure it will be just as pleasurable to read as Song of the Chimney Sweep and Only Oona were.




  1. Tamatha Cain was a talented and creative parent volunteering in schools when I was the Principal where her children attended school. She was always destined to find her inner self! She has done this through her writing and pulls her readers into stories! Way to go Joey’s mom!

Leave a Reply