'It's hard to trust certain women' says top author
Romance author Louis de Bernieres talks writing, financial success and the real meaning of love with Niamh Horan
He has sold millions of books, writing one of the greatest love stories of the last two decades, but Louis de Bernieres says that the success has brought unusual challenges to his own quest for true love.
Speaking to the Sunday Independent, the author of Captain Corelli's Mandolin - which sold over 2.15m copies and spent 240 weeks on the bestseller list - described how his success has brought with it a certain type of "predatory" woman.
"There are a couple of things about getting successful. You have suddenly lots of people who want to be friends and you can't trust their motives. It's particularly true of male writers. There's a certain kind of woman who is almost a predatory type, who you just can't trust. It's very difficult to know who is real.
"If I was still a school teacher, I wouldn't have done nearly as well in [romance]," he laughs. "But then these are people with an agenda, which they don't have if you are just an ordinary citizen." Describing how agents and publishers act as a sort of "guard dog" when sifting through both hate and fan mail, he said: "I think my last agent and publisher screened a lot of [fan mail] and they didn't forward it. I have often been told 'I have tried to get in touch with you' and I have no recollection.''
But he added: "I told them I wanted to see all the mail. I don't care how horrid it is, I still want to see it. Asked why, he replied: "It's just pure curiosity."
One pleasant encounter did occur with a female fan, however - the only one he ever agreed to meet.
"She wrote to me and I did meet her and, you know, we got on really well. We went for a nice walk on Brighton beach and we had a cup of tea and a bun and then we went home. I went back to London and she went back to her place. It wasn't anything like what she'd dreamed of. We were just a couple of people who got on fairly well."
Asked if her sole motivation was friendship or more, he laughed: "She wrote me a letter with a picture of her saying 'do you want a shag?'
"I was just overwhelmed with curiosity and then we went for a walk on the beach and had a cup of tea."
His romantic work became known as the publishing sensation of the 1990s, taking readers' breath away with a tale against all odds and emotive descriptions. On his own thoughts on 'what love is', he says: "It's assuming that there is an answer. My feeling is that there are many, many different kinds of love and any person you love is different from other kinds. If you want to define it, you are going to have to find what it is with the person concerned. Love is between two individuals in the end and every relationship is different."
The 62-year-old said the success of the novel - which made him a millionaire from a single work - has been both a gift and a curse in other realms too, saying: "It was a gift, in a sense that it gave me wonderful financially security, which I had never had. It was amazing suddenly to be able to afford to buy a pair of trousers. But it gave me a feeling that everyone was looking over my shoulder when I was writing, which was really inhibiting."
Weeks after Irish author Donal Ryan's admission that he had to return to the Civil Service to pay his mortgage, the former school teacher also warned that swapping the day job for writing "never works" until you're sure you can match your nine-to-five salary in the publishing world.
Recalling his own transition to full-time writing, he said: "I was working as a supply teacher in London. I was doing four days' work in these quite difficult schools and I wrote when I got home, fuelled by coffee and cigarettes. After my first novel I realised that I was earning the same writing, so I just dropped the teaching.
"I didn't do what so many people do, which is give everything up and then start from scratch, which never works. You always end up back in some bum job at the other side of the burrow."
However, Mr de Bernieres says there is an added bonus to sticking with the day job: "It is fantastic research. If you just sit in doors on your own the whole time, what subject matter do you have? You need to be out there with people. Don't do your shopping on the internet - go to the shops." Describing his annoyance at seeing poor authors financially succeed ahead of award-winning novelists, he said: "It can be [frustrating].There isn't always the connection between quality and success, as we all know. You can be a superb writer and not sell an awful lot.
"I do find it mildly irritating when I see yet another bonk buster," he said, "but on the other hand I sort of feel there's room for all of us and most people aren't actually as snobby about reading as I am, so they will read trash one day and Dickens the next. People's reading habits are quite strange."
Mr de Bernieres says he knew he wanted to write since the age of 12, but added: "I also knew at that time that I wasn't good enough. It took many years after that to actually feel like I was." It wasn't until his 30s that his gift for writing took full flight. He has stacks of notebooks, noting down daily observations which he uses in his books and writes from 9.30am to lunchtime each day. On the way in which his inspiration strikes, he says: "With some characters you really do feel as if you are a medium. I often dream about things which turn out to be useful - particularly characters. I would sit for half an hour with my eyes closed - anyone would think I am asleep - but I am not, I am receiving. You quite quickly begin to think 'was that me? Did I really do that?' Most of the things I've written in the past I can't believe was me.
"I am not really the captain of this ship. It sounds strange, sort of Californian doesn't it?" he muses. His favourite book continues to change with time. "In my 20s it would have been One Hundred Years of Solitude," but more recently he says he has become taken with the work of young English writer Gemma Wade.
"She is absolutely wonderful. Her characterisation and plotting is exquisite. I am really impressed with her.''
And on his advice to budding young writers, he says: "Be sure of what genre you want to be in. Normally you tend to write the things that you read, so if you want to know what you should be writing, just take a look at your bookshelf.''
He also warned the love of it must be felt, instead of desire for the image, saying: "Don't do it because you just fancy the image. You have got to want to do the actual work. You have got to want to sit at your desk and do it."
Louis de Bernieres will appear at the Dalkey Book Festival on June 15-18. Tickets are available from dalkeybookfestival.org