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.
Rhoda Baxter writes intelligent, contemporary romantic comedy with unusual settings; her latest book, Having a Ball, features a determined young heroine set on arranging a charity ball on a shoestring. Naturally, we asked charity ball habituée and RNA mole Ticky Dogge-Hare to invite her along for a little chat.
So, darling, this romantic comedy lark: how on earth did you get into it?
Hello Ticky. Thanks for inviting me for this chat. Pardon? Oh, that’s very kind, but it’s a bit too early for white wine for me. I’m a bit of a lightweight, but please don’t let me stop you… A cup of tea would be lovely, thanks.
Where was I? Oh yes, the romantic comedy. I started off wanting to write serious romance. With Angst and Issues and stuff in it. I spent three years crafting my beautiful first novel and sent it off to be reviewed by someone in the Romantic Novelists Association as part of their New Writers Scheme. I got a three page report back telling me exactly what was wrong with my book and a few suggestions on how to fix it. The key suggestion was ‘you have a naturally humorous voice, why not stop trying to write what you feel your SHOULD write and just write something you enjoy’.
So I did just that. My first book, Patently in Love, took about a year to write and it was so much more fun than before. Ditto the second one. After that, I was hooked. I’m might try and slip in a bit of Angst and the odd Issue in amongst the humour, but basically, it’s romantic comedy for me from now on, I think.
You wouldn’t happen to have a biscuit or two to hand, would you? I’m told that chocolate Hobnobs are the best for dunking. Something to do with capillarity and the chocolate disrupting the expansion of the stress fractures, apparently. Ta.
Of course I have biscuits, darling, of course I have. I once ran out in 2002 and was so horrified that I swore never to be biscuitless again.
You do have a fab comedy voice. Why exactly did you want to write Serious Romance with Angst and Ishoos and Stuff in the first place?
Well, you’ve got to write about Ishoos (and possibly tishoos) in order to be taken seriously. I was convinced I had a shot at the Booker prize. Or that one named after the coffee (or was it a fruit?). Anyhoo, all that serious stuff is great for people who like that sort of thing, but writing comedy is so much more fun. My favourite thing is when I write something that makes me laugh – even though I know the punchline. The best comic moments come from my characters doing what comes naturally to them.
You need some Issues to keep the conflict going. A bit of Angst comes in handy too, from time to time. Stevie, the heroine in Having a Ball, has self-reliance issues at the start. It gets pretty well sorted out by the end though, which is good because it would have been a pretty depressing book otherwise.
I say, these are lovely biscuits. I appreciate your stance on biscuits by the way. I’m like that with chocolate. There’s the Emergency chocolate, then there’s some extra-super-dark back up emergency chocolate in case of great calamity. You can never be too prepared when it comes to chocolate. Or biscuits.
The downside of writing romantic comedy is that people say things like “Oh, I don’t read THAT sort of fiction” or “Really? I’d have thought you’d write something better than that”. That’s bloody annoying, that is. Just because a book is easy to read doesn’t mean it’s easy to write.
Oh bother, I think I dunked my biscuit too fiercely then. Just a minute, I’ve got a wet wipe somewhere. Brilliant invention, wet wipes. Gets just about anything off anything. Even biscuit off chenille. See.
*takes a moment to regain composure*
*fixes polite smile back on face*
Marvellous. And yes, I agree — it’s just so *boring*, the faces people pull when you mention romantic fiction. As for Stevie, yes, she does terribly well, doesn’t she? You’re really cheering for her by the end. Now, the origins of Patently in Love are fairly obvious, I dare say — you’re a lawyer, aren’t you, darling — but what drew you to party planning as a career for Stevie?
Actually, I’m not a lawyer, I’m a molecular biologist…
Oh my GOD, darling, what an idiot I am. Sorry. Do have another biscuit.
Oh lovely, thank you. I work alongside patent attorneys for the day job, so I know a bit about the subject of patent law… and about patent attorney firms.
Stevie just wouldn’t shut up after Patently in Love, so I decided to write her book next. The rest of the stuff came from the setting, really. Evelyn’s house is based on a lovely hostel in Norham Gardens in Oxford which is a delicious combination of student hostel and eclectic community. I lived there for a few years as a student and I’ve always wanted to use the place as a setting for a book. Back at the turn of new millennium, we had a big fundraising ball at that house. I used a couple of experiences from that in the book. The bit about using the WW2 blackout blinds to turn the front room into a disco actually happened. The rest of it, not so much. There certainly weren’t people kissing in the coat cupboard.
The charity Evelyn and Priya are raising money for is real too. The World Children’s Initiative improves children’s medicine in developing countries. They’re currently training heart surgeons in Uganda and they performed the first paediatric heart op there a few months ago. Brilliant stuff. Ah, looks like one those pesky Ishoos crept in there. Sneaky little things Ishoos. They get everywhere. Like crumbs.
Yes, well. So, what comes next, darling? What do you have in the works, if you can tell me?
Funny you should mention that, because Choc Lit have just agreed to publish my next book (provisionally called Dr January). It’s the story of Beth who thinks she’s in love with her bully of a boyfriend, when really, she’s ideally suited to her good friend Hibs (Dr James Hibbotson). There’s a remake of the Studmuffins of Science calendar, glow-in –the-dark bacteria and Hibs. You’d like Hibs. He’s charming and louche and has the touch of the scoundrel about him. I think I might have fallen a little bit in love with him.
The WIP is about a man who has to decide between two women – Grace, the woman he loves, and the ghost of his wife, Sally. I’m enjoying the challenge of writing a character that only Grace can see. When I say enjoying… I mean banging my head against the desk and eating a lot of chocolate. The chocolate is quite enjoyable.
That sounds… well, it sounds… oh, terribly challenging. But lots of fun. (Are you sure you don’t want a glass of wine?) Finally, we always ask our guests to recommend five books, with a word about each: it doesn’t have to be romantic comedy…
Just one word? Like the Dr Who one word test? Oh, you mean that sort of ‘a word’. Gotcha. Hmm…
The Night Watch, by Sir Terry Pratchett. The Night Watch is a perfectly plotted time slip novel. The characterization of Vimes is incredible. If you want to see an author evolve from average to great, read all of Sir Terry’s Discworld books in order. You can see the point where he discovered plot and went from strength to strength.
The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark, by Jill Tomlinson. Read it or listen to it for the dialogue. Tomlinson paints a vivid picture of each character, just from a short conversation. Also, it’s funny without anyone actually doing anything silly.
Family Life, by Elizabeth Luard. Part cookbook, part family memoir. I’ve tried most of the recipes in this book (and they are yummy). This is how memoirs should be written, with a clear voice and good humour. The sad part in the book made me cry. I rarely cry when reading a book (I laugh, and growl and make other noises that scare fellow train passengers, but I do not cry).
The Viz book of Crap Jokes, because it’s HILARIOUS. The puns are terrible, the drawing are wobbly and the jokes are old, but it’s still one of the funniest things I’ve read. I re-read it every now and then and it makes me giggle all over again. Not very high brow, but…well… you know, funny.
Aargh. I’ve only got one more and there are so many to choose from… eeeny, meeny, miney… yes. That’s a good one.
Anne of Green Gables, because it’s the best romance story ever. There’s a bit of Anne in all of us and Gilbert is a wonderful hero. Reading these books always reminds me of dappled sunshine, because I read them in my favourite reading spot (in the guava tree in the garden) whilst growing up in Sri Lanka.
Thanks for having me round, Ticky. And thanks for the tea and biscuits. I shall have to return the favour sometime. Cake at mine next week? Fabulous. See you later then.
There is quite an emotional range in this week's reading by the Bookfoxes - from amazement tinged with inadequacy on Monday to disappointment on Friday, via a sense of unease.
Monday: Hilary, who cannot put two stitches into a piece of canvas without creating a hole and several knots, is amazed almost beyond description by the V&A's latest exhibition Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery - and has bought the book to prove it.
Wednesday: Kirsty D is unsettled by Deborah Levy's Hot Milk.
Friday: Simon learns to deal with disappointment - with The Eyre Affair.