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Catherine has been writing romantic novels for many years, both under her own name and more recently as Kate Lace, whose first book under Headline’s Little Black Dress imprint – The Chalet Girl – was published in 2007 and reviewed by VL here.
VL caught up with her last week, to talk both about her writing, and about the RNA.
VL: If we can talk about your writing first – I’m always interested in how authors first made it into print. Now – you were a Captain in the Army, which seems a slightly unusual background for a romance novelist.
CJ: I know – the army isn’t renowned for developing the creative writing skills of its officers. It was after I left that I got into it. I was asked to help a mate who was running a magazine for fellow army wives; she didn’t want me to write but she knew I was good with organising people and getting them to do things. I said yes and the next thing I knew was she needed ‘about 200 words on living on the married patch – and make it funny’. I was used to obeying orders so I did as I was told. I was amazed when I got some really positive feedback and was asked to do the same again the next month. Eventually my mate, Annie, said she thought the columns had the makings of a book. It seemed a bit of a scary jump from columnist to author but Annie persuaded me otherwise, offered to help and the upshot was a book which took the micky out of officers’ wives – ‘Gumboots and Pearls’. It sold really well and I got the writing bug. We were then approached by an agent who wanted a comic novel about army wives. That book never made it, Annie and her husband got posted to the other side of the world and I had another shot at producing a novel on my own and this time I had more luck. Spookily and with stunning originality it was called Army Wives.
VL: At least the book buyers knew what they were getting … All but one, I think, of your ‘Catherine Jones’ novels had the Army as a background, which is understandable. ‘Kate Lace’ (great choice of name, by the way …) is a rather different creature, isn’t she? To what extent did you have to ‘reinvent’ yourself when you donned your new literary persona?
CJ: Kate Lace is also me – Lace is my maiden name. I mean, how lucky am I!? Anyway, I just try to think back to what I got up to in my late teens and early twenties and how I felt. Some of it is really clear but when the memory packs up I have two daughters of that sort of age and they help me out – they also make sure I up-date the details to rid it of dinosaurs.
VL: Being born with a name like Kate Lace seems to be a bit of an unfair advantage for a romantic novelist … The daughters must be a boon when it comes to keeping up to date though. Speaking as someone who can’t even stay upright on roller skates, I was absolutely fascinated by your portrayal of the world of skiing and ski resorts in The Chalet Girl – plainly based on first hand knowledge. Do you still ski, or has wiser counsel prevailed?
CJ: Skiing was one of the things the army taught me – along with pot-holing, climbing, gliding, sailing, shooting… The army is keen on things adventurous and often being the token woman in a regiment I felt beholden to the female of the species to keep up and not be a wuss. I stopped skiing for a bit while I bred but then took the kids skiing as soon as they were old enough to appreciate it. The youngest, Tim, doesn’t even remember learning and the girls look like they’re on rails when they go downhill they’re so stylish. Not fair. I still ski but more sort of Saga-decaff-lite skiing, which involves quite a bit of sitting down in cafés to check out the view and the vin chaud.
VL: Your previous novels took a world you already knew about as a jumping-off point. I suspect however that with your latest novel – The Movie Girl – you’ve moved a little out of your comfort zone. How did you go about researching it – or do you have a secret life you’re not letting on about?
CJ: I have a secret life – honest. Well, I did for a bit. I got taken on by Shed Productions (the ‘Footballers’ Wives’ and ‘Bad Girls’ people) to be the military consultant for a six part TV series called Bombshell. Sadly it’s never seen the light of day – I have no idea why – but it was the most fantastic insight into the world of TV and film. I had a lot to do with the wardrobe department because military uniforms are tricky things – which is where I got the idea for the Movie Girl from. It was a completely surreal 6 months but terrific fun and now I’m able to recycle the experience so all very environmentally friendly too.
VL: Well, aren’t you the dark horse? If the opportunity arose would you go back? It sounds a bit knackering, not to put too fine a point on it. Or am I showing my age?
CJ: Go back?! Try stopping me. Actually I was planning on Series Two for a pension plan. Sadly, I don’t think that’ll come about now. And yes, it was exhausting. The worst bit was the 3-day boot camp I ran for the actors with a Staff Sergeant mate of mine who’s still serving, to try to show them what being a soldier really might be like. We got virtually no sleep, had cameras shoved up our noses morning noon and night (it was all being filmed for ITV2) and most of it took place in the appalling weather. But even that was fun.
VL: I can’t think that the Chairmanship of the RNA leaves you too much time for writing at the moment … but is there another novel in the pipeline?
CJ: I have to find time to write as the next one – The Trophy Girl – is due to be delivered at the end of February. A deadline is like an execution and does focus the mind wonderfully. I find I don’t get much time away from my desk at the mo but being Chairman is only for two years and I’m almost halfway through my stint. Anyway, next year should be easier as I’ll have done everything once so the learning curve will have flattened out a bit. Also – and I really mean this – I have a fantastic committee who do an amazing amount of the work while I take the credit. Sneaky, huh?
VL: Sounds eminently workable to me! Can you give us an inkling of a hint of what The Trophy Girl is about? That title’s a bit double-edged.
CJ: It’s sort of based on Rebecca but the heroine – who has a name in my version – is the nanny after wife no.1 dies. (She’s a 3-day eventer.) So it’s about trophies, trophy wives….
VL: The Chalet Girl was long-listed for Romantic Novel of the Year 2007. I see from the RNA website that the long-list is chosen by over 100 members of the book reading public. How does the RNA choose the choosers? And who actually decides WHAT qualifies as a “romantic novel”? (Simple question – long answer, I suspect …).
CJ: When we first asked the public to help (which is a fairly recent innovation) we put an ad in New Books magazine. Now we have some stalwarts who do it year on year but our members are always on the lookout for new recruits. At a lunch party a while ago I met two girls in their twenties who were thrilled that I knew some of their favourite Mills and Boon authors. I asked if they would like to read for the RNA and they were overjoyed at the thought of getting 5 books each for free to read with just a short questionnaire to fill in as payback. As to what qualifies as a romantic novel – it’s a moot point. Basically I say that it has to have a love story at its core and be character driven not plot driven. But after that… Well, romantic fiction is such a broad church as it covers everything from sagas to historicals, erotica to Mills and Boon and chick-lit to the more literary books like those of Joanna Trollope.
VL: The RNA is primarily for published authors, but I was very interested in the “New Writers Scheme” … that’s a terrific idea … how did it start?
CJ: The NWS has always been part of the RNA so its been going as long as we have – nearly 50 years. The RNA’s aim is to promote and encourage good writing so what better way to encourage it than to find new talent? The NWS is becoming increasingly popular because we are the only body of professional writers who actively encourage the unpubbed, and every year, out of our 250 new writers about 5 or so get publishing deals. That means it’s a fantastically high hit rate and all down to the members of the RNA who comment in detail on the manuscript sent to them to help the new authors.
VL: I didn’t realize that the scheme was that old. Actually, I’m a bit depressed to be reminded that 1960 was nearly 50 years ago. It’s tremendous that the RNA members are prepared to give up that amount of time to would-be authors. Is there a waiting list to join the NWS?
CJ: We cap it at 250, otherwise we couldn’t cope with all the m/s that arrive each year. We used never to get full but for about the last 4-5 years we’ve been reaching our limit earlier and earlier in the year. Now you ought to get your application in by March to have a chance at joining.
VL: Romantic fiction gets a bit of a bad press, in a way that other genres don’t. Why do you think that people feel it’s fine to put the boot into romance novels – which are frequently very well written – when other genres are left to go their own way in peace?
CJ: We are the current Aunt Sally but it’ll probably change. Not so long ago it was crime fiction that had a dire and undeserved reputation. Maybe in a year or two the literati will focus their rather unpleasant gaze on another poor victim and leave us in peace – I think sci-fi may be next in line. The bottom line is that our books sell by the pallet-load because we provide entertainment. And what is wrong with that? I just don’t understand why some people think that every book you read ought to be ‘improving’. No one goes to the cinema with the sole aim of having their mind expanded – entertainment is a fine raison d’etre for films so why not books?
VL: Tall poppy syndrome? It’s riding high – let’s cut it down?
CJ: Couldn’t agree more. Also I think some of the literary types get hacked off that we have quite a number of authors who have had MILLIONS of copies sold around the world – think Penny Jordan with 85,000,000 and Sara Craven with 40,000,000 – oh, and all those authors in 26 languages. Just thinking about those figures makes me feel better when people get snooty about romantic fiction.
VL: Romantic fiction tends to travel in a fairly well-worn groove, doesn’t it? Boy and girl meet, Boy and girl very often hate each other at first sight, boy and girl sort of begin to get the feeling that maybe …, boy and girl have massive misunderstanding and part, boy and girl finally get together … that sort of thing. It’s what most people expect when they pick up a romantic novel … but would the genre benefit from a bit more diversity in the types of heroes and heroines in the stories? Does the hero ALWAYS have to be an alpha male, for instance? Discuss …
CJ: I think there are very few alpha males out there in fiction now, really I do, but the man must have some spark about him, something that makes him stand out from the crowd and to catch the heroine’s eye in the first place. I think readers quite like flawed heroes; they’re more believable than the perfect ones anyway. And the heroines are incredibly diverse and certainly don’t think that they need a bloke to protect them, far from it; there aren’t many in fiction these days who scream at a mouse or need a bloke to help her change a tyre. Most I think, when adversity strikes, square their shoulders, brace up and think ‘stuff you, then!’. The thing they mostly have in common is ‘likeability’; they might be independent and even brazen but they’re generally nice too. Just occasionally you read a book where the heroine is a card-carrying bitch but usually you respect her for being so go-getting and end up liking her for being so single-minded. Think of Becky Sharp and Scarlett O’Hara. As for the relationships between the heroes and heroines, there has to some sort of chemistry between the hero and heroine from the start – even if the chemistry is an adverse reaction. I think we can all identify with meeting someone you really hate at first but gradually he grows on you – so much more interesting than love at first sight.
VL: As Chairman of the RNA, are you a woman on a mission?
CJ: Too right I am. When I was vice-chair I decided that we needed better PR; I wanted people to stop thinking that romantic novelists are pink and fluffy. I certainly wasn’t going to change the name of the Romantic Novelists’ Association so I had to change the public perception of us. That’s when I rang Granada TV and asked if we could enter University Challenge – the Professionals. There was an audible ‘splort’ down the phone; firstly teams don’t invite themselves, they get invited and secondly, well… Romantic novelists? Doing a serious quiz show? After we did the audition, one of the toughest sets of questions I have ever encountered, Granada took us a bit more seriously and rightly so – we got to the finals! So now I think there are many more people out there, not just Granada, who take us seriously and realise that we are ordinary, bright authors who write books for enjoyment and for others to enjoy. My mission now is to get lots more published authors to join our ranks and be out and proud as romantic novelists and I think it’s working. I haven’t had this year’s membership figures yet but the indications are that it’s up on last year. So… result!.
VL: I remember University Challenge … that was hilarious. Some of the teams you beat plainly just didn’t believe what was happening to them. I know a lot of the commentators were gobsmacked, to put it mildly.
CJ: It was such fun. I don’t think The Economist will ever get over it. Tough! It was a shame we fell at the final hurdle but, well, I got the distinct impression Jeremy liked us more than the Privy Council and would have preferred us to win! And they beat us fair and square. I’ll ‘fess up though – I was only on the team because it was my idea, but I knew Stephen, Jenny and Annie could manage with a make-weight and being a shameless media tart I couldn’t resist the chance. Would you?
VL: Probably not. I have a question about the RNA website, which is either profoundly silly or profound, and I’m not sure which it is. Humour me. Why is it so … PINK?
CJ: It’s pink – I like to think of it as pale maroon – because the colour works well. We tried it with green (bilious), yellow (vile), blue (cold and dreary), black (stark), purple (odd) and pretty much every other colour of the rainbow and none worked quite as well as pin… pale maroon. Honest. We did think we’d get a lot of queries/comments/criticism on the subject of the colour but so far there’s hardly been one.
VL: Until now you mean? Okay. It’s pale maroon. One final question … recommend your five favourite books – with reasons.
CJ: Tough one….
The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Because it’s the most amazing idea and it’s so cleverly written and about 2/3 of the way through you know how it’s going to end and you know it’s inevitable and it is heart-breaking.
The Constant Gardener by John Le Carre. Because by page three you are sure you know that Tessa is a tramp and that Justin is better off without her and then you find out just how wrong you are. She haunts the book and Justin’s love for her is tangible. Amazing.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Huge, sweeping, profound, wonderful… Fell in love with it when I read it at 14 and have never ceased to love it since.
Notes from a Small Country by Bill Bryson. This man makes me laugh out loud more than any author I have ever come across. If you ever need cheering up any book by Mr Bryson will do it. He’s a wonderful storyteller.
Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford. There are things in her book which remind me of my own childhood – barking relations, endless games of patience while waiting for phone calls, the linen cupboard and measuring. (Not that that sentence will make sense to anyone who hasn’t read the book.) And she makes me laugh and cry – always a winning combo.
VL: That’s great … thank you very much indeed for your time. I’ve really enjoyed it. And good luck with The Trophy Girl …
CJ: Thanks for asking me to do this. I feel very honoured. And it’s been fun. Oh, and thanks for the good wishes on the Trophy Girl. xx
(You can read an interview with another member of the RNA – Phillipa Ashley – here. )