Joanna Trollope: 'I've been close enough to the fire to feel the heat'
Published 20/03/2010 | 05:00
Dressed in a jewel-purple capelet, elegant grey smoking trousers and a dove-grey blouse, author Joanna Trollope looks like a benevolent snow queen. The look is topped off with silvery blonde, pouffy hair and white-gold and diamond jewellery.
Her eyes crinkle with warmth as she takes both your hands in hers and holds on to them.
Trollope is the author of 15 novels, including her latest, The Other Family, along with a handful of historical novels. Her 'aga sagas', as they have been dubbed, are phenomenally successful, yet some critics dismiss them as nothing more than domestic dramas. But fans of her work point to her acute social observation and ability to transform the everyday into compelling tales, just like a certain Jane Austen. (Although Trollope says, "Comparisons with Jane Austen make me twitch. She is a Great: I am a Good -- on a good day...")
Still, she's been writing books for nearly 40 years now, so she must be doing something right. That's not to say writing novels has become any easier for her, and she still gets apprehensive when she begins each new book.
"I think to myself, 'I'm not going to be able to do it this time', which I now believe to be an absolutely central part of the creative process. I think anxiety and humility are crucial to the ongoing progress of a project. At the same time, what is consoling is I now do trust the power of my unconscious mind much more than I used to in that I have observed so much, I have been through so much, I have heard so much ... I can use far more than I am consciously aware of and often something will appear on the page and I'll think, 'I quite forgot I knew that'."
She has indeed experienced much. She has been married twice and divorced twice, has two daughters, two stepsons, and grandchildren and is now, at the age of 66, enjoying the life of a single woman in London.
"I've been single for 10 years, but not alone," she qualifies with a confidential smile. 'I'm 'singlish', which is perfect. You live alone, but you have a very nice time."
She combats any isolation with a quick dose of city life. "I think because writers are so solitary and isolated, to have the buzz of the city happening outside your front door is of incalculable worth. You know, if I've had a day shut up with myself I only have to go to the coffee shop up the street and then the clamour of humanity, all the interchange, happens around you. You don't have to say anything, you might be too tired for that, but it just reminds you that you belong."
The Other Family is set between London and Newcastle and takes on the modern dilemma of two-family relationships. When ageing singer Richie Rossiter dies suddenly of a heart attack, his partner Chrissie and their three daughters are left with no home and no money, as Richie's fortune automatically goes to his wife, who he separated from more than 20 years ago but never divorced.
"I wanted to have somebody die who would leave a legacy and I wanted him to have had two families," says Trollope. "When I started looking into the position of inheritance law as it affects a co-habitee, these awful anomalies came to light. You can be married for no time at all and if your husband dies intestate you are automatically entitled [in the UK] to the first £250,000 [€274,000] in assets. Have you two made a will?" she asks, referring to my own 'co-habitee'. "You don't need to marry him," she says, "but you must make a will ... " Then with a glint in her grey-blue eyes and a tilt of her perfectly coiffed head she asks, "Have you left anything to him?" For all her genteel manners, Trollope is mischievous and shrewd.
As well as the tricky nature of outdated inheritance laws in a world of contemporary relationships, Trollope says she wanted to look at the materialistic modern notion of measuring one's emotional worth in terms of how much one is bequeathed in a will. And it's not just something that applies to inheritance. Look at the phenomenon of ordinary women demanding 'rocks' of engagement rings that cost more than a deposit on a house.
"It's more about looking at the public manifestations of commitment and I think that's probably what the size of the diamond is about as well. It's not just 'I am loved enough for someone to want to marry me', but 'I am loved superlatively'. Now, with the supposed equality of things, the need to show someone that you've been 'chosen' is more acute than it ever was. Girls of my generation, we all expected to be married by the time we were 25, and it was of course exciting, but it was much more commonplace. Now, because it's rarer, there's more opportunity to say 'look' ... "
So essentially women still want the same things they always have. "I don't think the human heart does change and I think it goes on wanting the world to see that it has not only succeeded in all the great human areas, but also that it belongs in the mainstream of all human relationship areas. I just don't think those things change."
One thing that has changed is people's approach to marriage, singledom and co-habiting. Men and women both stay single for longer, or simply co-habit. What's more, in a 'Peter Pan' society, they are encouraged to do so.
"The boys are particularly encouraged to stay 'a player'," she says, trying out the lingo. It doesn't quite fit into her queen's English.
"Why would you give up Friday nights with the boys? Why do you want a mortgage and a baby? Why would you want to tie yourself down? Why don't you go work in Singapore, Asian babes coming out of your ears? It's very childish.
"The Peter Pan thing, never getting older, it's permitting you and sanctioning it, whereas when I was growing up society was saying to a man 'actually you should marry, we applaud the settled relationship' and now the idea of staying a kid ... even the prime minister's wife is tweeting, excuse me. I am a huge admirer of hers, but I think this is pitifully undignified," she says.
"And they're all sitting in the front row of fashion shows and fashion has now become the be-all and end-all. Everything has to have a name and so fashion becomes this other kind of identity. You begin to be dissatisfied with every rag you possess ... " She sighs and settles back in her chair, mini-rant over. Apart from her belief that everyone should write a will, there is another message in her book, a warning to women to look after themselves rather than relying on men for financial security. Is Trollope a bit of a feminist?
"I'm a passionate believer in equality of opportunity," she says. "I don't feel women should be given anything by merely their gender, but I do think equality of opportunity doesn't really reign and it should do."
With her own history of marriage and divorce, children and stepchildren, I wonder if she taps into her own experiences when writing her novels.
"I must be," she says. "Not necessarily something I've been through but something I've experienced as an observer or at one remove as a friend or a mother. I've been close enough to the fire to feel the heat, even if I haven't been consumed by it.
"I don't think you can really put everything you've been through into a book you're writing because all the human stuff involved other humans, and merely because I have the public platform I don't think that gives me the sanction to be the one to tell the story. On the other hand, everything I've been through sort of enriches and informs what I am writing."
Will she ever marry again?
"No," she says flatly. "In a way, it's foolish to say that, but I just can't imagine, not just the person, but the circumstances in which it would be either desirable or necessary. I've done all that. It's the best situation to have a child in without question, but I'm through all that. There really is no point and it would mean at my age inevitably getting involved with someone else's family situation again, new wills, new division of time and somebody saying to me, 'Why can't I see you this weekend; why are you going to see your grandchildren?'
"This liberty of mine has been very, very hard won and I'm not about to let it go."
The Other Family by Joanna Trollope is out now, published by Transworld