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.
Today, VL’s resident It girl and society reporter Ticky Dogge-Hare talks (in a rather chaotic way, I’m afraid) to fab novelist Fiona Walker. Fiona’s recent books include The Love Letter (Ticky’s review here), Kiss and Tell and Love Hunt. Her next novel, The Summer Wedding, will appear in June 2013.
Fiona, darling, welcome to Vulpes Libris. Let’s start with your very first book: the brilliant French Relations (1995). What gave you that first push to start writing? Was it sheer imagination? Wish fulfilment? Do you come from an incredibly strange family yourself, like Tash, and needed to get a few things off your chest?
All my books probably help get things off my chest, albeit subconsciously….that’s the bliss of writing; it’s therapy with metaphors. The initial idea for French Relations came to me at a family party, so they definitely provided the spark – my mother’s cousin Susie regularly hosted big summer parties at her house in Islington, at which she’d introduce guests to one another with a conversation-stopping character briefs: ‘Fiona, this is Monica, my amazing one-legged black lesbian friend who writes for The New Statesman’…’Fiona, this is Rudolfo, an exiled Mexican conde and human rights lawyer and hunts with the Bicester and Waddon Chase’…her social circle was gloriously eclectic. I, meanwhile, was inevitably introduced as ‘This is my cousin’s daughter, Fiona, she’s really nice,’ which made me realise I hadn’t achieved much in life. Admittedly, I was only twenty one at the time, but other members of the family were doing glamorous things like modelling, making movies, playing in bands and photographing war zones, while I sold advertising and dreamed of a career as a set designer. After one such party, I imagined what it would be like if we all got together for longer than just one evening….and thus French Relations was born, with ‘really nice’ heroine Tash French, who hadn’t done a lot, but was about to enjoy a riotous rites of passage on a long summer holiday with her extended family. Writing was something I’d always done for fun (usually when I ran out of bonkbusters to read), but this time it proved utterly addictive escapism, so much so that I packed in my day-job and spent a year building up debts and writing non-stop. It was probably pure wish fulfilment, but the gamble paid off and French Relations opened doors to a new career I could never have dreamed of, as well as a new preface from Susie: ‘This is Fiona, she’s a best-selling novelist who writes very funny books about posh people having sex.’
Well, yes , about that… your books are quite filthy, aren’t they? All in the best possible taste, of course. But do you find you get terribly odd questions at dinner parties?
Drunken dinner parties are terrific for research; by the time we’re on coffee, someone’s usually asked ‘have you tried a threesome?’ (I assume they mean in the literary sense…). I’m not afraid to admit that I find writing sex great fun, but a really snappy bit of dialogue is far easier, especially when you’re in a hurry to get 3000 words down that day. My first drafts inevitably come back from the editor with early margin notes demanding more sex (and fewer big parties, lush descriptions and horses). Trying to be original is a challenge after thirteen books….I have to work through what positions and places I’ve used in scenes recently to make sure I vary them like weekly menus (‘it was missionary on a sun lounger in Chapter 3, so we’ll have to have doggy on the slipper chair in 9 and a knee-trembler in the woods in 12’).
The school gates mums are also a surprisingly rich source of fruity suggestions, especially since the Fifty Shades phenomenon, although, compared to all those melting orgasms, my romps are terribly tame. I really adore the daftness of infatuation, the thrill of the chase and sexual anticipation, not just the full splendour of pink bits in action; if the tension’s built up well enough, two hands brushing together can be far more erotic than a three page description of a rearing manhood driving a crashing tidal wave. Ultimately, I’m happiest when it’s funny, because sex with the giggles is like smoked salmon with champagne.
Do excuse me, darling, I just spat Sancerre all over the screen.
Coming back to French Relations (and what a terrifically fitting title it is), you do have lots of characters who crop up — in various combinations, ahem — across books, but I feel as if Tash’s story is the most sustained of all. That might be quite an odd thing to say, because a quick scan of your bibliography reminds me that you actually wrote only two more Tash novels, with a massive gap in between: Well Groomed (1996) and Kiss and Tell (2011). So I suppose I have to ask whether those novels really do have a particular resonance for you, or whether it’s just that I have a terrible weakness for stories with lots of hot male three-day-eventers in them.
I love returning to characters I know – they’re like old friends one can laugh or cry with straight away. As my first heroine, I have a tremendous affection for Tash, as well as for Hugo, whom I invented in the days when heroes could be reactionary hell-raisers without fear of an edit note saying ‘can he be more metrosexual?’ There was actually another book in the series called Tanked Up, which I wrote in 2001 and shelved. God knows what possessed me (possibly the fact I’d just fallen for a very gung-ho action man in real life), but I decided Hugo and Tash would open a tank driving centre on their farm to help pay for the eventing. I did all the research, drove a few tanks, wrote over 200,000 words of a novel full of petrol-heads in camouflage frightening the horses, and then realised it was absolutely awful. Instead of delivering that, I begged a deadline extension and wrote Lots of Love in three months. It was a huge career wobble and I was tempted never to return to Tash and Hugo, however much I wanted to get it right next time, but I received so many letters and messages from readers asking me to bring them back that I eventually yomped off joyfully to Badminton and Burghley to start researching, and wrote Kiss and Tell. It was a great relief to find that the characters were still old friends, and much more fun without tanks.
Gosh, I do really want to read that now, about the tanks.
You mention heroes, and edit notes: if it’s not too ticklish a question, do your editors frequently have something to say about your choice of men? Fictional men, of course, darling.
My wonderful first agent Carol Smith – a full-time novelist these days – once told me ‘never marry and settle down, Fiona, because your heroes will become utterly dull’. I have to disagree; my latest bunch of leading men have been a gorgeous mob to let loose between school runs, but I can now confess that I wrote at least one book during my brief and none-too-settled first marriage in which I found myself focussing unnecessarily on the male characters’ domestic shortcomings. Heroes in Fiona Walker novels tend to be sexy hell-raisers for whom love is a shock to the system. Thankfully my readers (and editors) share my taste in unreconstructed men, although there’s a somewhat frustrating moral code in women’s fiction which dictates heroes can only be sardonic, brooding, quick-witted bastards if something in their childhoods damaged their outlook and/or they can now be redeemed by love. These days, one also has to limit their drinking, smoking, gambling, infidelities and baser instincts. Mine will always be one point away from losing their license, I fear, so my editor occasionally steps in to clean up their act, which she does with tremendous tact, and often with gales of shared laughter as we contemplate my new hero in a onesie, cooking risotto while catching up on Homeland. Over my dead body…
Well, darling, this is where I must admit to being a romantic wimp because I do find these hellraising sorts thoroughly fun to read about, but I break out in rather a cold sweat at the idea of actually having to deal with one myself. That whole fight-shag-escape mode, you know, like a crazed Jack Russell; not very appealing. I do enjoy darling Hugo, such fun to watch him careering about shattering hearts, but if we’re talking actual romantic aspiration here, the lovely Jago (from The Love Letter) is much more my sort. And yet it’s clear that plenty of readers really do fall in love with those unreconstructed types. So I supposed I’m asking — a bit of an eternal question, this, really — what is it, exactly, about bastards?
I think it’s almost more about the heroines who take on the bastards, and the devotion they inspire in such difficult men; I grew up with strong-willed fictional women as role models: Belle releasing the Beast from his curse, Christina winning over the Flambards men, Demelza mending Poldark’s broken heart, Jane taming Rochester’s ways, Cathy earning Heathcliff’s eternal love, Lizzie loosening up Darcy. I’ve always rooted for the girls, and the fact that their own flaws make the stories all the more entertaining. A big, challenging love affair with lots of sparks flying is plot-twisting heaven, although I agree in real life taking on a rogue is an exhausting prospect, and the all-round-mr-nice-guy is far easier, but I find he’s simply not as interesting in fiction, and his emotional journey tends to be a lot shorter. I relish the sort of heroism that involves conflict, by which I mean the battle of the sexes or an inner struggle, not naked wrestling a la Women in Love (although I did put a big comedy fight between two love rivals in my latest book and had huge fun with it). To that effect, I’ve probably given Hugo more tough calls than any other character – crashing falls, bereavement, public humiliation and a lot of scenes in pants – although he also gets some of the best one-liners. Bloody-mindedness comes at a price, and humour is the greatest leveller as well as a terrific aphrodisiac. The character of Felix from my novel Kiss Chase was a total bastard, but he was also very funny; he only starred in one book, yet he gets more comeback requests than any other I’ve written. Not that I always let the bastards get the girls: one very sexy but arrogant hell-raiser definitely misses out in my next book, The Summer Wedding. In that sense, I’ve just come full circle… Hugo lost out in French Relations because I thought he was far too mean to Tash, but I got so many complaints that he was The One, I wrote a sequel. If that happens again, the Jack Russells in this house will definitely jump for joy.
What a wonderful image to end on! Oh, one last thing: I hear that Well Groomed is going to be adapted for film. Could you tell us a little about that? (Do you get to vet all the male stars?)
It’s early days, but it’s hugely exciting…most especially because the woman behind it, Francesca Broadfoot, first read the book years ago as a teenager and loved it so much that she’s hung onto the idea of bringing it to screen ever since – and now as a fully-fledged film industry pro, she’s determined to do just that. When she shared an early mood board with me, I whooped for joy because she totally gets the book and its characters and setting, right down to the Moncrieffs’ tatty horse-box. There’s still a long way to go before the male stars clamber into breeches, and funding is the biggest mountain to climb at present, but Francesca is incredibly innovative and creative, so I really hope it happens.
So do I! Thank you so much, Fiona darling, for speaking to us today.
For more information about Fiona’s work, do visit her website.
This week, we scan biography, art history and current fiction.
Monday: Kate reads Frank O'Connor's two autobiographies about modern Irish history.
Wednesday: Jackie delves into Sebastian Smee's book of artists who influenced each other,The Art of Rivalry.
Friday: Moira negotiates the currents and quicksands of Jenn Ashworth's enigmatic Fell.