The queen of fiction

PUBLISHED: 10:39 01 September 2015 | UPDATED: 11:00 22 September 2015

Essex Book Festival 2013

Essex Book Festival 2013


Joanna Trollope is one of the nation’s best-selling novelists – and she’s coming to Suffolk’s Flipside festival. Andrew Clarke caught up with her

Joanna Trollope at the Essex Book Festival launchJoanna Trollope at the Essex Book Festival launch

Depending on who you talk to, Joanna Trollope is either one of the nation’s most acclaimed authors or she is sneerily referred to as Queen of the Aga Sagas. She brushes off such literary snobbery with a resigned sigh.

Joanna refuses to engage in the debate, as she well she might – her novels sell by the truck load. The Choir, The Village Affair and The Rector’s Wife have all been adapted for television, and she’s been invited to take part in a project to re-imagine the works of Jane Austen for the 21st century.

Last year Oxford’s Bodleian Library snapped up her research archive before she could offer it to the British Library, something which still amazes her.

Without actually saying it, she put across the notion that for those who want to dismiss her work as populist paperbacks rather than works of literature it says more about them than it does her.

At the age of 70, the work still pours out of her. In October she will be one of the leading authors at the Flipside literary festival at Snape. But mention of age causes her to bristle – recent comments at a literary event in Dubai have come back to haunt her.

She was reported in one leading newspaper as saying that no-one could truly be declared a great author until they had been knocked about by life and passed that great age of 35.

The memory of the incident in March still rankles and she is at pains to set the record straight.

“I was responding to a question from the audience which made reference to lots of successful authors being very young these days. The point I was making was that writing is one of the areas of life where age doesn’t matter. You can write great books at any age.

“With a bit of experience, having weathered a few of life’s knock-backs and disappointments, you may have more material to draw on and may write a better book.” Her advice to anyone seeking a writing career is to keep a notebook and become an observer of people and life.

“You have to train your powers of observation – noticing things is crucial. I don’t mean a ‘Dear Diary’ sort of thing, but keep a journal of your thoughts and observations about people you meet, situations you have witnessed, things you overhear, pictures you like, quotations, germs of ideas, descriptive passages – build up your mental world. Create a rich archive which you can mine to create your work.

“Don’t despise being published by any publication that will publish you. I mean anything from the parish magazine upwards. There’s a feeling these days that you can spring fully fledged into the world. I call it the ‘X Factor syndrome’ – people expect instant success and, of course, it doesn’t happen like that. There is an apprenticeship that has to be served in any kind of creativity. You have to be humble about it and not feel that you have to be JK Rowling or EL James – this global superstar.

“That level of fame can be very counter-productive. It’s much better to be an author who sells by recommendation. That way you feel you have validity and quality to your work rather than the sales being a product of a marketing campaign.”

In the early 1980s, Joanna’s work took off by word of mouth. Her books have always been informed by the people she encounters in daily life.

“My characters are never any one person, they are a composite of a variety of different traits and personalities I see in people. They don’t really exist, but parts of them can be found in various real people. That’s where observation comes in.” She still looks back at her early work with tremendous pride.

“People ask me do I look back on my early work with a sense of horror and I say ‘no’. But, looking back, I think I would be a lot braver with some of the characters and the storylines. “You must never under-estimate your readers. I don’t like writers who spell everything out because they are essentially talking down to their readers. You have to take your readers with you. It’s a collaborative exercise.”

This need to take readers with her rather than creating a performance for others to enjoy is one of the reasons playwriting has never appealed.

“I have always been hooked on narrative. Stories are how we make our lives and how we communicate through the ages. When you meet someone new you exchange anecdotes.”

An invitation to follow in the footsteps of Jane Austen and re-write Sense and Sensibility for a modern readership was an opportunity seized with relish. But, I wondered whether stepping into the shoes of such an iconic literary figure was daunting?

“Not at all. I cannot tell you how enjoyable it was. The other writers involved in the project, who tackled other Austen novels, all said it was amazing because the story is all laid out for you.

“I stuck to the characters like paint, I stuck to the story, but I also stuck to Jane Austen’s attitude to the characters.

“I started the project thinking she was wonderful and I ended it thinking she was a genius. How did she know that money, class and romance would become the backbone of modern fiction?

“I like the fact you can see her evolve. She was brought up with the notion of romantic love, but she increasingly put her faith in rational thought and you can see she became quite brusque with human folly. I find it sad that people tend to skate over that and just concentrate on the romance. I loved revealing Jane Austen as a modern writer.” n

Joanna Trollope will be at Flipside literary festival, Snape Maltings on October 3, talking to Fernanda Torres, Brazilian actress and acclaimed novelist.

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