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 after 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.
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..
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