Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Interview with Phillipa Ashley

PAPhillipa’s first novel Decent Exposure was published last year by Headline under their “Little Black Dress” imprint. This year saw the publication of her second book, Wish You Were Here.

Her route to becoming a published fiction author is an interesting and slightly unorthodox one. I asked her about it.

You’re an Oxford English graduate, and a freelance journalist – but you started writing fiction under slightly unusual circumstances, didn’t you? Tell me about it.

Yes. It was a trifle bizarre and I still can’t quite believe it myself. I’d never written any fiction or had the slightest desire to do so until I watched the BBC adaptation of Mrs Gaskell’s North & South in November 2004. After a few episodes, I became obsessed with the idea of writing a story based on the novel. My first attempt was a Victorian style short story and it was dire! I realised my style is very contemporary and also, I kept wanting to be funny… After a few weeks, I launched into a ‘modern’ version of the novel called, with great originality, N&S 2005. Starting it made me realise, (1) this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life and (2) I had a huge amount to learn! However, the reaction I received from fellow N&S fans kept me going.

So the feedback you received for your fan fiction from the other members of the message board was a major factor in encouraging you to write Decent Exposure? Rather like an embryonic actor hearing applause for the first time at the end of term concert – if you’ll forgive the parallel?

I suppose it was a little like that but I think, while the feedback was unexpected and fantastic, it was a sea-change within me that made me carry on. I suddenly felt compelled to write and now wish I’d started writing fiction many years ago. The anonymity of the Internet was a real help. I felt I could write from the heart without anyone knowing who I really was or judging me. Now I meet N&S fans who know me ‘post-book’ and feel totally comfortable talking to them about my writing. It’s finding my work read by ‘pre-book’ friends/family that’s slightly scary…

I wonder how many would-be authors strike lucky with the first agent they contact? How did you decide who to send your manuscript to? Where did you take advice?

In May 2005, I joined the Romantic Novelists Association which I’d recommend to any aspiring author of romance or chick lit, contemporary or historical. My agent was featured in one of their newsletters as she’d spoken at their conference. I was also given her name by a fellow writer who cajoled and bullied me to send the manuscript of Decent Exposure to the agent. As soon as I’d sent it, I wished I hadn’t. Then I hoped she’d lose my book or not reply – anything other than a scathing response! I was very lucky that she loved it.

On the face of it, it seems quite a step from fan fiction to what’s generally referred to as “chick lit”. The narrative of Decent Exposure flows very smoothly – it’s relaxing and easy to read. Was the storyline something that had been bubbling around in your brain for a while, just waiting to be told, or was writing it – in fact – a really hard slog?

I’m glad the narrative appeared to flow smoothly – and you’re right, it was a hard slog because I had absolutely everything to learn about writing a novel. Once I’d written my fanfic and realised it was a romance, I decided to try writing a longer, ‘original’ novel. I wanted to write about the Lakes and the mountain rescue and the calendar idea came from a fanfic spin-off I’d written.

Your second book, Wish You Were Here is hugely enjoyable, but in a slightly different class to Decent Exposure in that it’s more tightly constructed and bears the hallmarks of – how can I put this? – having been worked on. Second novels are notoriously awkward customers. Did you find that?

Um. Yes. I did have rather a struggle with it which was painful at the time but I now realise that process taught me a tremendous amount about plot/construction. I still have huge amounts to learn but writing book number three has been a much smoother experience.

Decent Exposure is set very firmly in the Lake District. Wish You were Here is rooted there. It’s obviously a landscape that means a lot to you – you describe it so vividly. Is a sense of place important to you when you’re writing?

It’s vital to me. I can’t start without knowing where the book will be set. I always loved writing about ‘real’ places when I was a child and I have written a few travel features. Sadly I was the kind of child who wrote little travel brochures when I’d been on my hols (nowhere exotic back then – it was the 1960s). In a romance, sensuousness and sensuality are vital. A sense of place is a great way of making your world seem ‘real’ to the reader. Sights, sounds, smells, textures, tastes…they also make great metaphors for feelings/events/themes!

So book number three is on its way. Can you tell us anything about it? Anything else in the pipeline?

Book number three is set in Cornwall and is called Just Say Yes. It has been a joy to write from first to last and I hope people enjoy it. It’s a lighter theme than the other two, very topical and (hopefully) funny. There’s a touch of satire on the modern fondness for reality shows and media coverage of celebs. I’m just about to start book four which is called It Should Have Been Me and has a no-nonsense doctor hero and a turbulent, drama queen of a heroine…not based on me, of course!

There’s a bit of a prejudice against “chick lit” in some quarters. You sometimes hear it being used almost as a term of abuse. It’s a form of snobbery (like describing “popular culture” as an oxymoron) that tells you more about the perpetrators than the victims, but you must have to develop a bit of thick skin to deal with it?

I have a very thin skin. However, each to their own. Not everyone likes chick lit or popular culture but I enjoy a very eclectic mix of books/TV/films etc I also consider it a great privilege to be paid for entertaining people which I hope I do.

Actually, Wish You Were Here has moved slightly away from “chick lit” … It’s still laugh-out-loud funny in places, but it has a bit more depth – more meat, if you like – than Decent Exposure. Is that a direction you’d like to continue to travel in?

That’s very generous of you. I don’t think I’ve thought I might be ‘developing’ as I write. I always feel what I write falls short in some way even when things are going well. Producing a book feels like trying to keep an infinite number of plates all spinning at once. I’d like to expand my writing in all areas, if I can. I still want to write funny, romantic, sexy novels but would probably enjoy writing a longer book with a wider range of characters at some point.

The world is full of people itching to become published authors. Now that you ARE one – and quite a successful one at that – is it what you expected?

Yes and no. Far more fun and far scarier than I’d imagined. The best part is when people read your books and enjoy them and tell you. Now, I can’t imagine not dong this and hope I always have the opportunity to do it. The one aspect of publishing that hasn’t surprised me is that it is a highly commercial business. I worked (and still do) in advertising and PR. I love writing ‘chick lit’ and producing books that are part of a marketable genre doesn’t shock or offend me!

With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, and knowing what you now do, would you do it all over again?

Yes but I wouldn’t have worried about it as much…

Finally …. Recommend 5 of your favourite books – fiction/non-fiction/poetry – whatever. And give reasons. Marks will be awarded for spelling and punctuation!

Pride & Prejudice/Persuasion: Cheating, I know, but both are my Desert Island Books.
Octavia by Jilly Cooper: My favourite short romance. Sexy and outrageous with great characters.
The Eve of St Agnes by John Keats: Ohh er … there’s a story to this that I can’t tell you but I now realise what this verse is all about and it’s not about the fruit.

“And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,

In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender’d,

While he from forth the closet brought a heap

Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;

With jellies soother than the creamy curd,

And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;

Manna and dates, in argosy transferr’d

From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,

From silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon.” etc etc

The Perfect Hostess by Rose Henniker Heaton: I have no idea why but my copy is dog eared!

I am trying to think of something impressive, contemporary and literary so, Case Histories by Kate Atkinson, because it made me laugh, cry, wonder what had happened and frantically turn the pages.

There is a review of Decent Exposure here, Wish You Were Here here, and you’ll find Phillipa’s website here.

18 comments on “Interview with Phillipa Ashley

  1. RosyB
    December 6, 2007

    Great interview both! Very much enjoyed reading that. I find this fanfic community fascinating and keep wondering what it was about North and South particularly that inspired so many people to write. Strangely even my mother not so long ago was saying “here’s an idea for a book” and outlining something she thought of after watching and then reading North and South. Can anyone tell me what it was particularly about this series that had this effect? (Phillipa – if you have the time – I’d love to know your reasons.)

    I think Vulpes should explore Fanfic and do a low-down. (I’ve even heard rumours about Kirk and Spock erotic fiction floating about the net). There must be all sorts out there;)

  2. Phillipa
    December 6, 2007


    There’s every possible kind of fanfic floating out there now but I *think* that there was no N&S fanfic at all until November 2004. It began with a around half-a-dozen writers and now there are scores of N&S inspired stories on the web.

    I’ve asked myself many many times what it was about N&S that started me off writing romance. I really can’t pin it down. All I can guess is that I must have been in deep denial about wanting to write fiction for some time. N&S was the catalyst. (I don’t want to put it all down to a mid life crush, you see.)

    I now realise that Thornton as portrayed by Richard Armitage was a true Alpha hero in the romance novel sense and I guess I responded to that. My first attempt at a fanfiction made me realise I have a contemporary voice. Add a willing readership desperate for N&S fanfiction in the absence of the real thing and I was away. I’ve been very fortunate in every way.

  3. Ellie
    December 6, 2007

    Great interview!

  4. Leena
    December 6, 2007

    What an excellent interview – informative and entertaining! Thanks to you both.

    I wonder if any fan-fic has ever been published – *as* fan-fic, I mean? I suppose all those Star Wars novels etc. are ‘fan fiction’ of sorts. Perhaps some of them have even been written by fans.

    “The anonymity of the Internet was a real help. I felt I could write from the heart without anyone knowing who I really was or judging me.”

    This was also very interesting. A lot of writers find similar encouragement on online forums and workshops, and I can’t help wondering if this is even more important than we realise. It seems to change not only the process of ‘becoming a writer’ – but also the very idea of what a writer should be like, and who ‘can’ become one and how it’s ‘supposed’ to happen.

    PS: Glad to hear I’m not alone in having written little travel brochures as a child…

  5. Jackie
    December 7, 2007

    What a roundabout way to become an author! Great story. Ms. Ashley has a humbleness that is engaging & we get a feeling that she still has a sense of wonder about writing and publishing, which I thought showed how down to earth she is. Asking about the 5 favorite books was a nice twist, too.

  6. Clodagh
    December 7, 2007

    Great interview – very interesting and inspiring!

    I was interested that Phillipa said she would recommend joining the Romantic Novelists Association to ‘aspiring’ writers of romance/chicklit. I had always assumed that you would have to be a published author to join such an association. As an aspiring writer of that genre, I’d love to know if I’m wrong.

  7. Phillipa
    December 7, 2007

    Clodagh – the good news is that any romantic novelist, published or unpublished, can join the RNA. Unpublished authors can join under the New Writers Scheme but there is a limit of 250 members each year. You can apply from January 2008 but the places fill up very quickly. Here’s a link to the site:

  8. Phillipa
    December 7, 2007

    MTA I joined the RNA as an unpublished writer in May 2006 and found the New Writers Scheme very helpful.

  9. Amy
    December 7, 2007

    Philippa, I have bought both of your books purely on the strength of what I’ve heard alone! I haven’t read them yet, but I’ve yet to read a ‘Little Black Dress’ book I haven’t liked, so I’m confident I’ll love these too!

    Thanks for being an inspiration! xx

  10. Clodagh
    December 7, 2007

    Thanks for the reply, Philippa!

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  13. RuthS
    July 13, 2008

    There are a number of books of published fanfiction for example based on Pride and Prejudice. The books of Pamela Aiden and Abigail Reynolds are examples. Both self-published at first but have now been signed up by mainstream publishing houses to publish their work based on P&P.

    North and South fanfiction is a much smaller genre and probably has not produced anything of a comparable standard which would be attractive to a publisher.

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  15. Phillipa Ashley
    October 22, 2009

    North and South fanfiction is a much smaller genre and probably has not produced anything of a comparable standard which would be attractive to a publisher.

    Ruth – I’m only a year too late to this but I knopw that there has been an excellent period N&S fanfic that went all the way to the top of a major publisher’s team but N&S was deemed not commercial enough…the novel itself was greatly praised.

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This entry was posted on December 6, 2007 by in Entries by Moira, Interviews: authors and tagged , , , , .



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