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Interview With Joanna Trollope

Joanna Trollope was born in her grandfather's rectory in the Cotswolds in December 1943. She's the eldest of three siblings, the mother of two daughters, the stepmother of two stepsons and now a grandmother. (She saw a car sticker in the US. It read "If I'd known how wonderful grandchildren were going to be, I'd have had them first“).

She was state educated in Surrey, then won a tiny, tiny scholarship to Oxford and went on to be first a Civil Servant and then a teacher before succumbing to full time writing about twenty years ago.

She has been married twice and now lives alone - except for a Labrador the size of a sofa — partly in London and partly in the Cotswolds. When she considers what has happened to her career in the last ten years, she often thinks, as her friend Jilly Cooper once said, "You'd believe it, wouldn't you, if it happened to someone else".

girl from the south by Joanna Trollope
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What is the novel about and what inspired you to write this book?

It's about the plight of modern young singletons — the generation who seem to have so much, yet to be — great generalisation this, I know — so unhappy and lost. I've been thinking about this ever since Bridget Jones — that novel would never have touched such a universal nerve if the nerve hadn't been raw in the first place, I'm sure.

girl from the south seems to be breaking new ground in several ways. Having written largely about marriage, family and community relationships in your previous novels, what drew you to explore the thirty-something "Bridget Jones" generation's dating dilemmas and romantic dreams?

I wanted to explore all the possible why's of the problem. Do they have too much materially? Do they have too many choices? Did the Sixties Swingers make, actually, very careless and selfish parents? Are girls, especially, too romantically idealistic? Does the breakdown of family life make the young turn to each other for support instead — i.e. to those as inexperienced as themselves? Has the woman's movement a part to play? I don’t believe that I could answer any of these definitively, but I believe they are all relevant, to some degree.

Is the perennial search for “Mr Darcy” more difficult now than in Jane Austen's times, or even than a generation ago, and if so, why?

Oh, Mr Darcy… What would Elizabeth have felt about him after five years of marriage? And actually, I think the eighteenth century was probably far more realistic about marriage than we are — we are still suffering from the effects of the Romantic Movement's notion of love as sublime and elevating: the idea that Out There exists the perfect person.

Thirty-something singletons are often ridiculed for being spoilt brats whingeing over too much choice. Do you feel sympathetic towards your characters and were you more sympathetic to either the boys or the girls?

I was deeply sympathetic to all of them because I felt all of them — even Susie — were trying to get somewhere, to understand what life is for, how to make something of it. I felt they were lost rather than spoiled — neglected rather than over-indulged — and the boys were in a way in a more helpless state than the girls but trying at least to get some things right…

Marrying the Mistress by Joanna Trollope
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In Marrying the Mistress, Laura — the wronged wife — could be seen as the villain of the book. Is there a villain in girl from the south?

Good question. No, I don't think there is. People obstruct one another, as they do in real life, but there's no-one as supremely self-centred as Laura in this novel.

Why did you set part of girl from the south in America, specifically, why Charleston, and was it difficult writing about a different country and culture?

Well, now. I was thinking about the traditional, non-gender-boat-rocking role of women, and wondering where, if anywhere, it still existed. And it occurred to me that if it did exist, still, I might find it south of the Mason-Dixon line… and, in a way, I did, but not in the manner or among the generations, that I was expecting. I chose Charleston because of its historic links with England, its own history, its beauty and the fact that so many professional women — Charlestonians — were so wonderfully open in talking about how it feels, in 2001, to be a clever woman in the South. It wasn’t exactly difficult to get the hang of a different culture — people were so incredibly hospitable and helpful and candid — but it was unquestionably a challenge because, out of respect for Charleston, I really wanted to get it as right as I could.

Is it more difficult to get inside the minds of your male characters? In girl from the south which character was the hardest to write?

I don't find men more difficult per se — it's people of either gender who are hard to empathise with who are difficult to make come alive. I suppose culturally the two fairly unreconstructed Southern Men, Boone and Cooper, were the furthest from my own personal taste, but I got very fond of Boone and understood his dilemma and his emotional bewilderment very keenly. A nice man, au fond. As Cooper would be, after a few years away from the gilded cage of his upbringing…

Did you do lots of research for this novel?

Lots. I read myself to a standstill about the South; I interviewed countless young people, bemused parents, grandparents; I spent twelve days in Charleston, steeping myself in the place.

Did you miss writing about the children and teenagers that you portray so well in previous novels?

No, because they are always there to go back to! And, because of their keen-eyed lack of self-delusion, they’d have provided a skeptical little voice that might simply have sent this whole enterprise up…

Do you think of girl from the south as a love story?

Only rather peripherally. Love, and its nature, is obviously a very important theme in the book, but I wanted to look at love unobscured by the overwhelming effect of falling in love. So this is a story about dealing with self-love — how much is decent? How important is it to like yourself? Can you love someone else properly if you don’t love yourself? — as much as with loving anyone else. It's also about the evolution of love, in partnerships and families, and the effect of the way one is loved, as a child, on one's adult preoccupations.

Is there anything that society and parents on both sides of the Atlantic can do to help future generations find love more easily?

I wish we could revive the extended family. Modern families seem so isolated and in consequence so neurotically intense, by comparison with the comfortably inclusive and numerous family arrangements of the past. I'm sure that the more people you can love and trust as a child, the better equipped you are to find love as an adult, because you have known love and people in so many forms and aspects. I also think it's a pity to smother our children with too much attention early on and then abruptly expect independence at 18 — support, of a tactful and imaginative kind, is required for a long time after that.

When and why did you start writing and what inspires you to write?

I started as a child because of (a) a desire to communicate (which abides!) and (b) a passion for story. I still think that the importance of story can’t be overestimated — a story is how we negotiate, how we build relationships. I now write because of all of the above, but also because of the extraordinary warmth of reader response. I’ll never get over my amazement and gratitude for that.

Do you do a lot of research before you start writing?

Always. It may partly be a habit left over from my historical novel days, but I think it's also part of my determination to make the novels as accurate a reflection of contemporary life as I can. There are, after all, whole areas of life that readers will know more about than I do, so I see it as the least I can do to research meticulously in the gaps in my knowledge or experience.

How do you write? Pen and paper? Computer?

I do all my business stuff on a computer, but creative work is strictly longhand… A4 pads, narrow ruled, margin: Papermate pens, medium point, blue ink… I love the silence and intimacy and simplicity. I can also, when it's going really well, write like the wind — 1,000 words an hour.

The Choir by Joanna Trollope
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Several of your novels have been made into successful television series including The Choir, The Rector's Wife and Other People's Children. Were you involved in that adaptation and was it an enjoyable experience?

To be honest, only some of the TV experience was enjoyable. What one hopes for is to recognise the spirit of one's book in the adaptation, and although I’m gratefully aware of the huge audience that TV reaches, if that isn't there, it is deeply depressing. All that having been said, I thought the BBC did me utterly proud over Other People's Children, as did C4, some years ago, with The Rector's Wife. Both were proof that a story, professionally handled, can work just as powerfully in two very different genres. I’m not really a member of the “take the money and run” school of thought — doesn’t that indicate a basic contempt both for the original work and for film as a medium?

Which writers do you most enjoy reading and are there writers who have influenced your own work?

To my mind, the Golden Age of fiction was the nineteenth century, right across Europe and America. So my lists would start with Jane Austen and run through Balzac and George Eliot and Tolstoy and Trollope and Hardy and Dostoevsky and Henry James and Chekov and Steinbeck… to Alice Munro and Richard Ford and Barbara Kingsolver and Penelope Fitzgerald and on and on… All writers I admire basically love their fellow men, and all writers I admire have both humour and humility.

Do you have a favourite among your own novels?

No. It would be like asking which of my children I prefer. I feel differently — but equally — about all of them.

Do you think of yourself as a feminist writer?


Do you enjoy writing and what stage of the process of creating a book is the most exciting and/or terrifying?

I find writing extremely hard, but then, I think anything worthwhile is inevitably going to be hard. Some parts (a very few…) are pleasurable some are alarming, but most involve a kind of grinding persistence — rather like revising for exams — which has no glamour at all and which I have learned to recognise, with some surprise, as inspiration. The most exciting moment for me is the penultimate chapter — the end is in sight, and clear, but the activity of the race isn’t quite yet over…

The media like to create genres of fiction from “aga saga” to “chick lit”. Is this fair? What do you think characterizes your fiction?

Oh, these labels… inevitable I suppose, but lazy and ignorant and inaccurate. And frequently unfair — have you noticed how categories like this are not applied to men? What about Nick Hornby and Tony Parsons? I get exasperated by the patronisingness of the “Aga Saga” — and then I remember how readers take not a blind bit of notice of this shallow nonsense and resolve to try and imitate them… I would describe my fiction as chronicling contemporary relationships. That's all.

Are you writing another novel? Can you give us a clue as to what it's about?

Yes! No. Sorry.

What advice to writers beginning to write?

Don't be in a hurry — after 35, with experience, is invariably better than before 35… and train yourself to notice. Keep a journal — not a Dear Diary — of scraps of things you notice/overhear/remember/think of. Stick in photos and postcards. Scribble down descriptions and snatches of dialogue. Watch other people like a hawk. And read. All the time, anything, everything. Also try your hand at all kinds of writing — poetry, drama, journalism, short stories — because it's all part of your very necessary apprenticeship.

Posted with permission of Penguin Putnam.
Photo © Derek Thompson

Posted with permission of the publisher.

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