‘The most exciting story is the story of people’s lives’

Best-selling British novelist Joanna Trollope who believes the human heart longs for the same things anywhere in the world, discusses her own story of success with Renuka Sadanandan. Pic by Indika Handuwala

It could have been a setting straight from one of her books- the mellow glow of the Governor’s Residence at night on its hillside perch in Galle, a garden party on the lawn; except it’s in the cool of a tropical evening. It’s not difficult to spot Joanna Trollope in the crowd. Tall and willowy, impeccably attired in a diaphanous sea-green kurta, she has an effortless grace, an ease of manner that sees her turn to perfect strangers with smiling interest. Grace enough to consent to slip away to the back of the house even while the Galle Literary Festival launch party is lighting up and sit in a kitchen corridor, unfazed by insects whirring around (it’s that time of evening) so that interview deadlines can be met.

But then she understands deadlines. 2012 is a year full of them for this best-selling British novelist whose stories of fraught relationships and the complexities of contemporary life have won warm acclaim from readers, women in particular. She’s chairman of the Orange Prize for Fiction – the prestigious international women’s writers’ award that has brought in the likes of Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi and she’s also on the panel of the UK Sunday Times AFG Short Story prize in the very literary company of Melvyn Bragg, Hanif Kureishi and Edna O’Brien.

The Orange is a prize she takes singular pleasure in - open to women writers all around the world, to books published in the UK between April 2011 and April 2012. The long list is chosen at the beginning of March, 20 books, the shortlist of six in April and the winner announced in May.

It is a mountain of work. “There are four judges for the Orange Prize besides her, (younger than my own daughters- she smiles), they all have 35 books to read and I read everything. Nobody can read 143 books in four months. I’m reading 100 pages intensively and skim reading to the end.” She was hoping to read everything electronically and found it impossible because “it homogenizes everything for me.…you can’t tell if you’re reading chick lit or War and Peace”.

To do the writers justice, she feels every book must be read at least by two people. “I want to treat every writer as seriously as I could and so I realised I had to read the book in the form that the writer saw it going out into the world- in its published form, in its proper jacket.”

“There is an enormous body of very good writers from all over the world,” she says, adding that while she sometimes sees a slight lack of originality in topic, the standard of writing is impressive. “I just think women could be braver - I don’t think any subject is off limits. I think the seed wisdom is that women should stick to a particular lot which is so not the case. There are fantastic books out there that tackle adventurous enormous universal themes - women really pull it off.”

She could be describing herself. In a career that she started off writing historical novels under the name Caroline Harvey, before penning under her own name the family dramas that strike deep into the heart of her readers, Joanna has established her space in the literary landscape for her forte is the timeless themes of life, love and relationships. Her new book ‘The Soldier’s Wife’ will be out in the UK in early February, again a theme that will surely resonate – Forces’ families and what it’s like when the men return from war.

It’s a subject she has some familiarity with. She was four when she first saw her father who was serving with the British Army in India. “It was common back then,” she says matter-of-factly. “Now the men come back very quickly—in the old days the troopships would probably take three weeks now it’s 48 hours from Helmand to the UK. A shave, five pints of lager and a comedy show on a stop over in Cyprus and of course, their heads are all over the place.”

There’s lots of confusion and heartache and bewilderment, naturally, she says. The men have incredibly strong bonds with their comrades and the young women have brought up the children; so when they return the adjustments are very hard. And the Army, though admirable in many ways has not got its collective head round how to modernize its approaches to the family particularly in terms of therapeutic measures, she feels. She makes no bones that there are no easy answers. “I don’t know how if you train them to be an unquestioningly obedient fighting force, you can flip a switch and have them crawl about playing Lego with a two-year-old they hardly know.”

Then there’s Jane Austen. Her childhood favourite is to be given a Trollope retelling, a modern version of Sense and Sensibility for Harper Collins. She will approach it with ‘the most profound respect’ – the fact that so much of what Austen wrote about doesn’t date is important, she remarks, seeing it more than purely from a romantic standpoint but as encompassing issues like women, property, dependency, money. “What I’m doing is looking at the situation in 1809 and trying to look at as similar a situation in 2012. So Willoughby’s horses are Willoughby’s cars.”

That confidence to embrace Austen, the Orange Prize and a literary festival in a country she has hitherto never visited stems not just from her years of experience as a writer but the assurance of a loyal readership. Yet while her readership has burgeoned some things haven’t changed in her four decades of writing – she still handwrites her stories in notebooks. “I find the computer screen frustrating,” she says, laughing that it’s a generation thing! But she feels it’s a good filter when her scribbled prose on A4 pads comes back to her as a typescript, “I can be much more ruthless in editing it.” By the time her editor sees the book, it’s probably the 5th or 6th draft, she adds- “I write on A4 pads and leave the accompanying page blank for tinkering with it.”

These days she actually cuts out far more than she adds. Her home is London now, but she grew up in the Cotswolds living mostly with her grandparents, her grandfather a priest, giving her a solid base on which to draw from in writing her early novels like ‘The Choir’ and ‘The Rector’s Wife’. After studying English at Oxford, she worked in the Foreign Office for three years, before moving to teaching. In those days (the late 60’s a hundred years ago!) you didn’t need to train that much, she says. She wanted too, a career that could fit in with having children. Pregnant with her first daughter and “increasingly egg-shaped”, she taught boys and girls in grammar schools and then as the family grew, she began to write, also teaching part time-- English as a foreign language, Shakespeare to bank managers, whoever had the inclination to learn.

History was no particular love she says frankly of her first published books, nor was there some grand plan to be a writer. Initially she started out wanting to describe how it felt like to be someone quite ordinary in history. Her first book was based on a compilation of diaries of men who fought at Waterloo “because of my great belief that ‘a cliché is only a cliche if it’s happening in someone else’s life, if it’s happening in your life, it’s the first time in the history of the world’. I think the entre to that realization was these rather military stories.”

The storyteller in her had actually surfaced much much earlier- her first novel written when she was a 14-year-old schoolgirl. “Nobody’s ever seen it,” she says with a little flourish. “When I’m dead, the children can laugh as much as they like.” But it was quite hard work, she says, filling all of four spiral-bound notebooks, “about the sort of adolescent I wished I was”. Another still unpublished written when she was first pregnant, also remains out of bounds.

“I don’t think I ever said to myself I want to be a writer but there must have been something welling up,” she concedes. That she is a great believer in stories is patent. Story is really the building blocks of our lives, she explains. “When you think of all relationships, they happen through exchange of stories. If you’re going to build up a friendship, it works by telling each other anecdotes to have a picture of the person who might become your friend. All relationships are story. The most exciting story for everybody is the story of people’s own lives.”

It’s these lives she tries to penetrate and understand, particularly those for whom existence is sometimes bleak. “We don’t use the word stoicism that much, but I think people suffer so much. The thing is not the people who are constantly emoting about how they feel, but the ones who are getting on with very difficult lives.”

She shrugs aside any credit laid at her door for her remarkably empathetic characterization, be it of a woman, child or elderly person. In her book it’s just a question of trying to inhabit the head of somebody of six or seven, somebody who’s 37 or 57. “And when you’ve met an enormous number of people in your life, it’s not terribly hard to imagine how they’d react to someone. It’s a bit more of an exercise when it’s someone you don’t particularly like. But even then there’s nearly always a reason why people behave and think the way they do, even if there isn’t always an excuse.”

There’s nothing for you the reader unless you are being asked to make a decision, she says. “I sort of lay out the psychological carpet and you walk on it. I would quite like it if in the course of a book, with a single character - one moment you feel quite sorry for him and the other moment you want to slap him.”
The ideas, the inspiration for her books, she has honed into a fine instinct, “as if I’m picking up things by osmosis”. She recalls being on a bus in London, full of people and looking around her at all the women on board. “It just popped into my head ‘My goodness, everybody on this bus, is or has a daughter-in-law. The minute you start a relationship with a boy or a man, his mother becomes a figure in your life. It can be a very uneasy relationship…’.That led to the 2010 novel ‘Daughters in Law’ to which she devoted a session at GLF.

Life is just as complex for women today, she feels, as it was when she was struggling to manage a young family and a career. “It’s always difficult and you’re going to drop some of the catches. You always are. I would say the motto should be ‘try not to be perfect’. I don’t think the period of intense juggling is for most people more than a decade..managing career and children” and she adds, with the older generation living much longer, one finds oneself a sandwich in a way you weren’t before. “If women can say to themselves this really isn’t forever..

“When I go and talk to schools I do say, do go and think about your 40s and 50s. You really do need to think about a value-added life once your young family has grown. If you’re going to live for decades you need to think about it. It doesn’t matter whether you want to run the country or make money if it satisfies you, and you exercise the talents you have.

There’s an enormous amount of life experience that goes into her books and also research, very deliberate research at getting as much reality as she possibly can. It can take anything from three-to nine months (A Soldier’s Wife took nine months). It has also led her to unlikely places and passions, like for the Chelsea Football Club. “It was while researching ‘Friday Nights’,” she says, that has a scene where a young single mother is being wooed by a rather predatory man who has the idea that he might seduce her by taking her young son to a football game. “I had seen little bits on TV but never really followed the game and so I thought I had better go and look at one. I persuaded the driver of my UK publisher to take me to Stamford Bridge and I walked out on to the stand and it was just like falling in love. I was just blown away,” she says gleefully.

The passion has lasted. “You can always buy a ticket online at the last minute and there’s a bus that goes from where I live in West London and so sometimes I just sneak off with my collar turned up,” she says. I really feel very energized” The bonding with the crowd is a fascinating feeling- because of this absolute political correctness we all have now, there is something rather primitive about being able to detest the opponents. “ I don’t yell obscenities,” she hastens to add, but she does enjoy the roar.
Her books apart, Joanna has also been quietly involved in projects to promote literacy and while here, hopes to find the time to visit some of the Adopt Sri Lanka schools and do a story class with a picture book in a school where the English isn’t so good.

Back home, she is part of a programme where well-known writers write simplified novels for adult readers with the reading age of children. “My brief was to write a novel for women between the age of 35 and 55 with the reading age of 9 to 10.” Getting London Reading another programme she is part of was aimed at sending people into schools, into youth groups and prisons to encourage just this. “People will never admit that they can’t read, it’s such a stigma,” she says soberly, giving the example of a woman who had gone to work on the bus every day for 30 years with a newspaper held up in front of her even though she couldn’t read. The world is closed to you if you can’t.

The sixties for her have been liberating. “I think this oncoming need to work much later than 55 can only benefit. Work is good for us, it gives us a validation and a purpose. We all need a purpose. It’s not just the working in my 60’s it’s the independence, I just love it. I can run my own life and make my own choices.” Pragmatically, she adds a proviso-“It makes an enormous difference if you have enough money. I think you need enough for dignity and choice.”

Choice is something she cherishes. With two marriages behind her, she says she’s been in a relationship for over a decade but values too her independence. “It’s a wonderful stage. Grandchildren are sheer joy she has found, her face lighting up as she speaks of her nine - five from her daughters and four from her stepsons– ranging in age from 13 to 3. She quotes an American bumper sticker with relish: ‘If I’d known how wonderful grandchildren were going to be, I would have had them first’.
Her readers stretch far around the globe and with so many books behind her she writes with the assurance that she knows them. “I think you know a broken heart’s a broken heart whether in Colombo, Tokyo or Manchester and though we do different things and our social codes of conduct are a bit different, I think the human heart longs for the same things, fears the same things anywhere in the world.” Vintage Trollope.

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