Feature article

On the ball!

Feature interview with Joanna Trollope

Friday 17 September 2010 ~ Romance Matter, Autumn 2010

Joanna Trollope

Joanna Trollope

Joanna Trollope has a very surprising interest. ‘Watching football is a complete joy!’ Joanna’s love affair with Chelsea began when they helped her with a scene in Friday Nights. ‘The psychology of modern footballers is very interesting,’ was her conclusion after spending some time at Stamford Bridge. But perhaps the most appealing aspect was having fifteen minutes of Didier Drogba’s undivided attention. ‘Speaking in French, as it his first language… He is gorgeous, and very polite.’

But Joanna’s first love is her writing. ‘It’s not always a pleasure. But I become restless if I’m not writing. I need the communication it offers. I feel impelled.’ She wrote her first novel at the age of fourteen, though that is now safely under lock and key.

Joanna spent her student years at Oxford in the 60s reading English language and Literature, ‘getting over the dull bits’ studying Latin and Anglo Saxon. But she feels the rigorous intellectual discipline helped her develop her creative career. ‘Education is of inestimable importance even though it’s not valued currently.’

After working in the civil service she then became a teacher for fifteen years, but when her children were small she began to write, with the familiar juggling of home, family and job. ‘Women are used to that, it’s not a modern phenomenon. I have never ‘not worked’.’ She is currently involved in much charity work in addition to her writing.

Joanna actually gave up the day job before she had success as a writer. ‘But it wasn’t seen as such a glamorous career then, so I must have wanted badly to do it.’ And she has not stopped writing since, though it took a while for her to achieve success. ‘Immediate success is not necessarily good. I am old fashioned enough to believe you make a better writer after the age of thirty five than before, because you need to be knocked about a bit by life.’

She considers that the writing of her early history books was like an apprenticeship where she learned to create characters, dialogue and setting. ‘I was writing about a pre-Freudian period so there was a different approach to thinking. It was good practice to get into the heads of my characters.’ Although she wrote the history books originally as Joanna Trollope her publishers later suggested they should be marketed under the name Charlotte Harvey. ‘I still have a great respect for historicals. Novels are the best way of making sense of history. If you want to understand Russia you read War and Peace not historical tomes.’

However, contemporary fiction is her preference now. ‘I feel freer writing contemporary novels, not constrained by the pre-Freudian corset or facts of the past. There’s a flexibility of writing about the world we live in. It’s more organic.’ She hates the media tag of Aga Saga, and won’t say she writes women’s fiction as she has a large male readership. ‘I feel I have infinite curiosity and affection for fellow humans and I write contemporary studies of modern relationships.’

Joanna has now written many books, ‘I consider myself hard working rather than prolific,’ but does she have a favourite? ‘Not really. They are like children, all dear for different reasons.’ But she does feel a certain gratitude towards The Rector’s Wife because it was a turning point book. ‘Though I wouldn’t write it the same way now. Things move on.’

Is it difficult to let books go once they are finished? ‘No. I write to be read, they are not my precious babies, so I can let them go easily. Sometimes characters begin to assert themselves, not always in a likeable way. Then it’s time for them to go. But while you are writing you are very solitary and then suddenly you have to rejoin the human race. That can be disconcerting.’

Does she have a special ritual for writing? ‘I have my own study now but in the past I’ve written on the kitchen table. I can write in most places. I can concentrate in the midst of distractions.

‘I prefer to have a whole open-ended day and I sit down to write almost every day because I become anxious I won’t be able to write again. Though I now accept that as part of the creative process. I’ve learned not to panic if I get stuck. If it does happen I go off and do the ironing or make some soup, employing a different part of my brain in order to release myself.

‘Before I begin, I re-read what I wrote previously to think myself back into the mode. Then I write long hand – not with a special pen – on an A4 narrow ruled pad with a margin. I leave the computer for office work. I write on the right hand side of the page and make revisions on the blank side. I aim to write between two and five thousand words a week.’ Joanna’s novels are approx one hundred thousand words long.

How far does she plan her books? ‘I plan a scene, the first quarter and the end so I know where I’m going but not how to get there.’ She prefers to allow the characters to develop organically as they do in real life. ‘It feels like I am describing a movie in my head. I can see it and it has its own sound track.’ 

Joanna has lived both in the town and the country though she considers herself a townie now. ‘You need different things at different stages of your life. At this stage I like the anonymous companionship city life can offer. I get a feeling of anticipation whenever I come back. It’s a writerly thing to love the feeling that there are lots of people out there should you need them, but with the luxury of not having to become involved; a satisfactory gregariousness. I love seeing lots of mums on the school run, the children flying off with bits of toast in their hands….’

And of course she has her own nine grandchildren to get involved with. ‘They’re between the ages of twelve and eighteen months. They are all very different and interesting, and very clever. But the joy is I am not responsible for making them into good citizens. Nor into good writers.’ Can you make anyone into a good writer? ‘You can learn the craft regarding structure or dialogue but the X factor has to be your own. You either have it or you don’t. Education can help regarding the skeleton of writing but you have to become a writer yourself.’

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It's a fact

The RNA's first president Denise Robins wrote more than 180 books. The second, Mary Burchell wrote 110. Our third President, Diane Pearson has six so far. Current president Katie Fforde has 19 and she's still writing.