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.
When it comes to romantic comedy, Jill Mansell is one of the best. Set in her native South West, her novels combine effervescent humour, enjoyably twisty-turny plotlines and a healthy dose of escapism. I met up with her to talk about, well, all kinds of things.
A very silly question first: how and when did you start writing?
Well, I’m doing book 22 now, so I think I started writing about.. oh it’s difficult to say… I think I was probably in my mid twenties. I was working in the hospital – I worked there for eighteen years altogether – and I read an article in a magazine one day about women who’d completely transformed their lives by becoming best-selling authors. They had been living in skanky little flats and now they were living in great big mansions; and I was living in a skanky little flat… So I thought, “Oh, this is something I could have a little go at”. And so I did! I started just like that. I wrote a book – I wrote it by hand, obviously, I still write by hand – and I sent it to a girl who worked with my husband and who’d offered to type it for me; and I never got it back…
…and it was the only copy I had. So that was what happened to the first book I wrote. Then I had a little go at writing for Mills and Boon, and they kept saying, “Too funny, too funny, stop being so funny”; and I just couldn’t. So then I thought, “I’ll try and write the kind of things that I like myself” – which was the Jilly Cooper-type stuff at the time – and that was it. I wrote up the first manuscript completely, and then I wrote off to a few agents; because it costs a lot of money to send off a great big manuscript and the return postage, and I really couldn’t afford it. So I sent it off, and the first agent told me that the book wasn’t publishable because too much happened in it. Too confusing. And then the second agent said that the book wasn’t publishable because not enough happened in it. I thought, “Well, if the third agent turns it down then I’m giving up, because it’s costing me too much”. And the third agent was my agent, who I’m still with now. She phoned me up and said, “I really love it, and I can sell it”.
Different agents do have different criteria and different tastes. I found out that the first agent was a man in his seventies then, so it just wasn’t his kind of thing. Choosing your agent carefully is quite a good idea. So that was it: I carried on working in the hospital for a couple of years and writing as well, but then I got pregnant with Lydia, so I thought that would be an ideal time to see if I could become a full time writer and have a little baby sleeping quietly… except she didn’t.
It was an absolute nightmare and I couldn’t afford very much in the way of childcare. It was just a question of whether she could fall asleep for half an hour and I’d quickly write for half an hour. Somehow or other you muddle on and muddle through and do it. I still do one book a year – I always have – but now it’s much easier. It’s probably not a good thing to have more time. Some authors say, “OK then, I’ve got this much more time so I’ll write two books a year”; but I can’t do that, because coming up with the ideas is a difficult thing for me. So it was difficult when she was young; and then I had Cory; and then, after six books published with Transworld, my sales dropped so much that Transworld dropped me. Then I was turned down by some more publishers, and I thought my whole writing career was over at that stage. That was pretty horrible, but luckily Headline decided to take me on. I think that before, with Transworld, the covers hadn’t been right and they kept trying a different theme with each cover. When I moved to Headline… I don’t know if you’ve seen the old style book covers with the legs, but that was how they started off, and it just seemed to click. They look old-fashioned now, but at the time they were fresh. And so that was it, and the sales went up with each book after that, and it was just brilliant. It was lovely.
What’s your daily routine; how do you work?
I take the kids to school, come down and sit here [in the living room]. I’ve got my iPad now, so I check emails and any business stuff that’s got to be done, and then I start writing. I write by hand. I’ve got my Harley Davidson fountain pen – it’s always got to be the same thing, and the same kind of notebooks – and I write. And now Lydia’s typing it up for me. That’s her little job; otherwise, she was going to have to go and work in a shop part-time, so that’s worked out quite nicely. And sometimes she’ll be typing away there, and she’ll say, “Oh, Mum, a seventeen year old would never say that!” I’m just an old fogey, what do I know? She tells me when I’m going wrong in that respect.
Did she have much input into the character of Georgia [Take a Chance on Me] by any chance?
I don’t think she typed that one. She’s doing the one that I’m writing now, and the one I wrote last year which won’t come out until next January. I think she typed the end of that one. She’s probably a bit like her, but she didn’t have any input into changing the character. But I think that when I write about seventeen-eighteen year old girls it’s always going to be quite similar to her.
Do you mind telling us about this first, lost Jill Mansell novel?
Well, to be honest, it was how many years ago now…? I know that it was a romantic comedy, because what I love is to make people laugh and to make people cry. I know that it was romantic, and it was a weepy thing; I know that it ended up with somebody dying on the last page, which probably isn’t the right way to go. The thing is, I’ve just put it out of my head now. I think, “Well, that was me learning how to write, and it wasn’t publishable”; though a bit of me thinks, “It’s still my writing, I might have been able to rejig it a bit and sort it out”. But yes, at the time, I kept saying, “So how’s she getting on?” (I never spoke to her; she worked in my ex-husband’s office) and he said, “I’ve asked her: she says she’s doing really well, she’s getting on with it and she’s really enjoying it”. “Oh good, oh okay, oh right.” Because she said she didn’t want any money for doing it, I always thought, “I’ll give her some money at the end”; but I was just grateful because I couldn’t have afforded a proper typist. And then after about a year I thought, “It’s not going to happen”. And then he said she had left; she’d moved to another town or something.
With your manuscript…
Is it somewhere?
Maybe we should put a call out on VL in case someone has it mouldering in a drawer! PSA to the readers: has anyone seen this book? Can you remember the title?
No… I don’t even know if I ever had a title, because I never write a title. I write the book, and then my editor says, “Yes, it’s fine, that’s great. Now you’ve got to think of a title.” I find it so weird that some people start off with the title.
Where do you start?
I always have one idea that sparks off the whole book. With Take a Chance on Me… let me think. I’d gone to the Badminton three day event and seen these amazing life-size wire sculptures – or larger than life-size – they were really fantastic and I was just so taken with this work. I fell in love with them, but I wasn’t allowed to have a great big sculpture for myself, just a little baby one [a little chickenwire lamb that lives in the back garden]. So that was one of the ideas, because I always find it difficult to think of jobs for the characters, and it’s much easier if they haven’t got nine to five jobs; because otherwise you think “Oh, something’s got to happen so they’ve got to be there. But how can they be there? They’ll be at work.”
This is something I notice in your novels, as opposed to the raft of chicklit novels where everyone works in PR or publishing. Your characters always have quite unusual jobs.
I don’t know what happens in PR and publishing; well, not really. In the next book that comes out, the main character works in an office, and I had no idea what somebody who works in an office as a PA actually does. I said to my editor, “I don’t know what she’s supposed to be doing. I’m just saying that she’s doing lots of typing and shorthand.” And they all laughed! Shorthand’s gone out the window.
How do you do your research? Do you often do fieldwork, or do you rely mainly on Google, or a mix of the two?
I don’t do that much fieldwork, because I’m quite shy about going to people and saying, “Hello, I’m a writer.” I know they’d probably like it, but I’d still feel a bit embarrassed doing it. It sounds a bit poncey. At one stage, I was trying to pluck up the courage to go into an art gallery to ask the people who worked there what they did all day, and I was so nervous that I couldn’t go in. I was just looking at the jewelry shops on either side, and I ended up buying two diamond rings rather than go in. This was the start of another story. I came home that day, and my partner came home from work… I used to wear all these cheap fake diamonds from Argos and so – he’s a man – if he even noticed I was wearing different kinds of rings, he’d just assume that they cost thirty pounds. It was just after I found out that my book was going on the Sunday Times list at the highest ever; Good at Games, I think it was, I can’t remember. And so he didn’t say anything, and I was a bit embarrassed that I’d done it – even though it was my money and he wouldn’t mind at all – you know how it is, you just think, “I spent a bit much; I shouldn’t have done that”.
So because he didn’t say anything, I didn’t say anything, and I didn’t get round to telling him that they were real diamonds. That was in August; and in December the Christmas post arrived and there was a great big glossy expensive Christmas card saying “To a Valued Customer”, and it was from the jewellers. And that was the basis for the whole book – The One you Really Want – when the wife opens the Christmas card and thinks, “Ooh, right. he’s got me jewelry for Christmas,” and she gets a sit-on lawnmower. That was inspired by that experience. I went back to the jewellers and said, “You shouldn’t send out those Christmas cards”… they still do though. Serves ’em right I suppose.
Perhaps that’s their way of righting some wrongs! Click here for Part II, as we talk about celebrity inspiration, predictable plots and those tricky authorial descriptions…
No linking theme this week, except that I'm really looking forward to all that's on offer. An alliterative mysterious Malcolm on Monday? Can't wait! On Wednesday, if you like to spend time in the ancient world, will you like John James? I do, and I really want to know. And, as someone who had mixed feelings about ITV's Victoria, I'm dying to find out on Friday if they were the same feelings, and were just as mixed, as Jackie's.
Monday: Simon reads C.S. Lewis' letters to the mysterious Malcolm.
Wednesday: Colin travels beyond the limits of the Roman Empire in the historical novels of John James.
Friday: Jackie has mixed feelings about the PBS/ITV series Victoria.