My favourite time of day to write is in the early morning, as the mist lifts from the valley, the sun bursts through the clouds and the sound of birdsong fills the air. Well, sort of. I write during the hours when my children are at school, which seems to be for about half an hour, it goes so quickly. But the secret of writing is doing it every day, rather than for long periods every now and then, so it suits me in a way.
My favourite place to write is in the hut in my garden. It's a small, green-painted wooden summer house with a pink phone and no heating apart from an ancient plug-in radiator. There's no internet connection either. But I love it, even if, in winter, I arrive to find the water in my Evian bottle has frozen! It has a chaise longue, a sofa, a bead-fringed lampshade and fairy lights all round the walls. There's a turntable and lots of LPs and the wooden walls are crammed with prints and paintings. I've even managed to squeeze a desk and computer in there as well. The French windows open on to a deck, where I drink cocktails with my husband in the summer (after work, obviously). We stand on the deck looking out across the valley below, or back at the summer house with its pretty lights. It's the perfect place to write, not to mention drink.
My bottom drawer isn't so much full of unpublished novels as half-published ones. I'm a bit of a literary tomb-raider and am constantly stripping the corpses of works I once thought dead and buried for jewelled and glittering bits of detail such as interiors, conversations and sometimes whole characters to embellish whatever book I am working on at the moment. Filthy Rich, is a prime example of this. Now a full-blown, thick-spined comedy of mud, lust and money it began as a tiny novella, called The Allotment, about some villager allotment holders under the kosh of an eco-ideologue who forbids pesticides and makes them plough with a horse. But then they discover gold on their plots after which all hell breaks loose! I became obsessed with this story and as the novel became bigger I wanted more characters; there's a brash and shameless WAG, for instance, who began as a character in a novel I'd abandoned about a year ago. There's also a rich Kensington weekender in the village, an American banker's wife whose allotment boasts a shiny mini tractor and a hut with Cath Kidston curtains and a cappuccino machine. Her house in London, which is very minimal, beige and black with glass stairs, began as the house of a rich but miserable millionaire's wife in a book I pulled the plug on ages ago, and which was to have been called The New Year Club. I stopped writing that in the end because it was about three woman fed up with their husbands and was supposed to be a sexy comedy, but it was getting too miserable. It's odd; I have no memory for everyday things at all, but I work on my books so obsessively that entire sequences I wrote years ago stay lodged in my brain. So I know where to look for them when I want to grave-rob. My bottom drawer is one of my most important sources of material!
I had many favourite books as a child, but the one I pored over obsessively and returned to most often was one no-one else I have ever met has read. It was ‘My Life' by Enid Blyton, an 1950s autobiography by the staggeringly prolific children's author. It was a large flat book, aimed at her child fans, about an inch thick, in red cloth covers and with shiny pages full of black and white photographs of Enid in action.
She was a tall, thin, pinched-faced woman with black frizzy hair and a nice line in shirtwaister dresses with knife pleats. There she would be with her typewriter on a swing seat in the garden, or playing with her dogs, or else sitting with her daughters Gillian and Imogen who I imagined were the luckiest girls in the world. To live in such surroundings (there was a tennis court, for goodness' sake, and Enid's dashing tanned surgeon husband bounding around it in his shorts) seemed to me absolute heaven.
Enid has been castigated for decades now as being the epitome of snobbery, political incorrectness, ludicrous out-of-touchness and the rest of it. I have no time for any of this; I adored her books and would now view their idiosyncracies as historical, as one would Jane Eyre. But there is one thing I would pull her up on. In ‘My Life' Enid said that writing was dead simple, merely a matter of shutting her eyes. Her characters then obligingly appeared as if on a cinema screen and she just wrote down what happened. Now, with nine books behind me (a mere bagatelle compared to Mrs B) I have to say that that is a tad unrealistic.
(My Weekly Magazine recently asked me to write about My Inspirational Woman; here she is)
Giving a child a telly for their bedroom is now viewed as an unwise move, giving said child free rein to watch all manner of rubbish. In my case, in 1980, being given a tiny black and white TV for my room meant that my parents could watch the rubbish downstairs and I, a painfully pretentious teenager, was free to watch the lofty programmes they were not interested in. One of these was Testament of Youth, the dramatised autobiography of the feminist and writer Vera Brittain.
It had a seismic effect on me. When the series ended, I bought the book and read it till its pages fell out. Vera, an upper-middle-class teenager in Edwardian Buxton, loathed the nice-girl shackles her parents had put on her. She didn't want to marry some cabbage-headed son of a local manufacturer. Vera wanted to go to Oxford.
But girls in pre First World War England did not go to Oxford; well, not nice ones. Nice girls did not have brains. They did not want to have interesting jobs or change the world. There were a couple of women's colleges, but only the dreaded bluestockings went there.
Vera wanted to join them, even though here was no-one in Buxton who could help her. So she decided to teach herself all the difficult Latin and Greek stuff you needed to know in those days to get through the Oxford entrance exams.
Nearly seventy years later, in West Yorkshire, I felt myself in a similar position. I wanted to go to Cambridge but there seemed little chance of this from my comprehensive and background generally. No-one in my family had even been to university. Reading about Vera determinedly teaching herself Greek Responsions (whatever they were) over in Buxton stiffened my resolve, however and I determined not to give up. Eventually, like Vera, I got there.
But it wasn't just a place at a prestigious university I attained because of her. It was a lifelong belief in learning for its own sake, and particularly the learning of literature. Vera's love of literature and her belief in its importance as a civilising force has stayed with me throughout my life. Testament of Youth has remained one of my favourite books; it is of course a feminist touchstone. But it's also a hell of a read, full of passion, drama, tragedy and fire. She's inspired me in that way as well. One day, I'd like to write a book like that too.
When you're a writer, the whole of life is material. The problem is knowing what to leave out. I've been a full time writer for twelve years now, and have published seven top-ten bestselling novels in that time. But I get an idea for a new one almost every day, although admittedly some are better than others.
At the beginning of my career I drew a lot of inspiration from various of my jobs. I was a journalist for fourteen years and there were few national newspapers or magazines whose glass doors were not darkened by me at some stage. The Telegraph, The Mail, Harpers & Queen to mention a few, but what really lit the blue touchpaper was the Sunday Times.
I was deputy editor of the paper's Style section. One morning the Sunday Times editor called me into his office and told me he had a special mission for me. I was to be in charge of a very important new columnist who went on to be quite well known, Tara Palmer Tomkinson. Unfortunately it soon turned out that Tara could be ever so slightly unreliable and it fell to me to do the whole thing from scratch every week, using material from whatever snatched conversation I managed to have with her.
During the time I ‘edited' Tara's column she had legions of admirers and was engaged to at least one of them; the revolving door of her love life was in fact the secret of the column's success. The theme of her eternal quest for a man was a useful foilto the enormous envy that contemplation of Tara's stratospherically glamorous lifestyle might otherwise have provoked in the reader.
As her editor I was less convinced, Slumped at my desk in Waping, I would grind my teeth in envy as Tara described her evenings as a sad single woman. Dinner with Richard Gere, for example. Partying at the Oscars with Tom Cruise.
Any attempt to convince myself that even glittering soirees with film stars must get boring fter a while were soon shot down by Tara. “If rich people can be dull, poor people can be duller,” she once told me. Going home that night on the crowded, sweaty Underground, it was hard not to see her point.
Tara, of course, didn't ‘do' public transport. But to be fair, she was ready to admit that flying private could be problematical. At our first meeting she told me how her then-boyfriend, a Danish restaurant-owner, had landed his helicopter in her parents' garden and blown all the petals off the third best herbaceous borders. “Mummy was absolutely furious,” Tara told me breezily, between bits of toast. “So from now on it has to be landed in the orchard.”
During my weekly conversations with Tara, I picked up many lessons for life that have stood me in good stead since. When flying, for example, I always bear in mind her maxim that In Economy, You Make Enemies, in Club you make Comrades and First you make Friends. Her suspicion of canapés – “the ones that get dropped on the floor get put back on the trays” – mean that it's years since I've been able to look miniature fish and chips in the eye.
I was unsurprised when Tara eventually confessed to having a drug problem. There were many signs that her life was not as much fun as it seemed. As well as boyfriends, the column chronicled a revolving door of fair-weather friends. At one of her birthday parties I found her in a corner saying she hadn't the foggiest who most of the people there were.
We remained friends after I left the Sunday Times to become deputy editor of a glossy magazine, taking with me an idea for a novel. By an amazing coincidence, it was about a downtrodden hack who has to write a column for a celebrity socialite. I spent all my spare time writing, getting up at 6am to get some hours in before work, which seemed an amazing achievement in those days but strikes me as a bit of a lie-in now, with children aged three and five.
This idea eventually became my first novel, Simply Divine, and Tara, despite pretending to be furious about it, turned up at the champagne launch party at the Ritz in a ski hat and provided lots of useful publicity. The book roared into the Top Ten, the film rights were snapped up by Warner Brothers, and all in all, for a few dizzying weeks, I rather felt as if I had turned into Tara myself.
It wasn't just Tara I drew on for material, however. Another rich seam was my time on glossy magazines, where I used to sit in meetings with people earnestly discussing how London was the new Manhattan and jewel-encrusted ketchup-bottles were the new can't-live-withouts. I was deputy editor of Tatler, which, as you can imagine, tended to employ people whose grip on reality was best described as tenuous. One memorable day, I received a call from an editorial assistant explaining that she'd missed the train and would be late for work. “Never mind,” I said sympathetically. “The Tube's a nightmare this morning, isn't it?” “Not the train,” she barked. “I've missed the plane. From Nice.”
Nor was that the only eye-widening excuse I heard. Another woman rang to explain she could not come to the office because she was trying out 10 shades of white paint on the walls of her flat and this had to be done in the daytime – obviously, it could not wait until Saturday. Then there was the assistant who, having lost a valuable necklace given to her by her boyfriend, decided the only way round the problem was to blow up her car and claim it back on the insurance. "What car do you have?” I asked, imagining it to be a decrepit old banger. “A Mercedes,” was the answer.
After you've been exposed to this sort of thing for a while, it no longer seems strange for the entire office to sign a card for the travel editor's dog, which has a slight migraine. Or, when said dog'scondition worsens, send flowers round to the private hospital where the dog reclines on its own water bed attended by its own nurse. Nor did I especially bat an eyelid to be called into the editor's office one day and be asked if I knew the difference between upper and lower class legs. Now I'm back in the real world, I have to admit I sometimes miss it all. Where else, after all, do people greet the approach of winter by squealing "Only four weeks until fun fur!” and reminding each other not to eat puddings because 'Desserts Is Stressed In Reverse.'
I had no idea, when I started to write, that anything would ever come of it. It was all done partly in a spirit of adventure, to see if I could, but also as an insurance policy – if I'd had a go I couldn't blame myself in later life for not trying. It was my secret – I told absolutely no one, apart from my husband, and him only on a need-to-know basis. He needed to know why he was being sent out of the flat every weekend and why the telly could never be turned up above a whisper. His hearing is impaired to this day.
I absolutely love being a writer and pinch myself on an almost daily basis for being so lucky. But there is no doubt it is a life full of banana skins. For instance, I may have written nine top ten bestsellers but I share my mobile phone number with a south London carpet cleaner in moderate to low demand. I am currently trying to finish a novel I should have completed at Christmas while the office in which I work is literally being built above my head. There are many compensations, however. I have met Mick Jagger and Princess Diana. I have trodden, by accident, on both Louis de Bernieres and the train of Princess Michael of Kent's dress. I appear on the radio with Sebastian Faulks and on the telly with Kirsty Wark. But a literary lunch in Yorkshire is one of my favourite memories. After my speech, a somewhat formidable-looking lady came up and said, grim-faced, “You like funny stories, don't you?” “Yes,” I admitted, rather nervously. “Well, listen to this.” She was, it turned out, an enthusiastic needlewoman and had spent several of the preceding months embroidering a large and very detailed map of Yorkshire. She had recently embarked on the area around Sheffield. That morning, she told me, the shock still resonating in her voice, she had taken up her work from the night before to find, inexplicably, her needle driven into the canvas after embroidering a somewhat startling word apparently at random. It was only after some careful thought that she remembered she was stitching Penistone.
There's a novel in that somewhere..
Why do you write?
I enjoy it.
How did you become a writer?
I was a journalist first until I thought of a plot. Basically I used my job as inspiration – it was a very improbable job on a glossy magazine and as Oscar Wilde said, one should always try to be a little improbable.
What is your writing routine? Are you very disciplined?
I start at about 9 and end at about 4. But I am not very disciplined I am always making cups of earl grey and going to the loo (there is an obvious connection here).
Do you eat well? Do you worry about getting Writers Bottom? What steps do you take, if any, to avoid it.
I view writing as an Olympic sport and train accordingly. When I am writing I swim 50 lengths daily and eat soup and smoked mackerel. I also cover myself from head to foot in lard (that bit's not true).
Have you ever had RSI from writing? Any tips to help avoid it?
Do you have any interesting superstitions/peculiar little foibles that help you write?
Just the peculiar foible that if I don't write a book I'll lose my contract and have to find a real job. I expect everyone says this!
Do you plan or just start writing? If you plan, how do you do it?
Yes I plan. I think of one main character, think of someone who contrasts with them to amusing effect, and go from there.
Where do your ideas come from?
Everywhere. But a lot come from newspapers.
What is the secret of a good plot?
Do you ever get "Writers Block"? If so, what do you do about it?
No. See foibles answer!
Have you any book-signing nightmares/anecdotes you'd be willing to share?
No. Like any sensible author I value my connections in the book trade far too much to risk them here
What has been your most joyful moment as a writer?
Being a No1 bestseller
And your worst?
Losing stuff on the computer
Have you ever written about someone/used them in a book as revenge?
I would never dream of doing such an awful thing
What is your one hot tip for writing success?
Just do it
What would you say to someone who told you "I wannabe a writer?"
Get on with it then (I'm very bad at following my own advice, by the way!)
Anything else in the writing game you'd like to give a view on?
Having a good agent is crucial
If you want advice about publishing, have a story idea you'd like my opinion on, want to know about the writer's life or have something else you want to tell/ask me (keep it clean please!) then here's your opportunity GET IN TOUCH...
Join Me In "Writer's Block"! Courtesy of The Sky Book Show, Come Right Inside My Garden Writing Hut And See Me At Work!
When you're a writer, the whole of life is material read on...
Everyone has a book in them, but it's not always easy knowing where to start read on...
I love poetry. Sometimes, simply nothing else will do. T S Eliot, Tennyson, Philip Larkin, Keats and Shakespeare are all favourites but to anyone looking for a truly great anthology which features all these and more, Poem For The Day One and Poem For The Day Two are fantastic. These paperback anthologies are the most brilliant mishmash and introduce you to all sorts of work, new and old, that you might not have come across. They live in my downstairs loo and so, as a consequence, do I!