Sunday 17 December 2017

Conventions of society are wearying, claims Trollope

Bestselling author Joanna Trollope explains to Linda Das how she came to realise that she could no longer define herself by her lowest moments

Joanna Trollope
Joanna Trollope

Linda Das

Barely a minute into our conversation, Joanna Trollope made it clear how much she deplores a public catfight. "There's a kind of, 'Yummy, yummy, how exciting', attitude, which seems a little childish," she sighed.

So it must have been disheartening, to say the least, when Trollope found herself unwittingly embroiled in, if not exactly a catfight, then certainly a minor skirmish with claws.

Last week, the 73-year-old author made headlines after she appeared to berate Harry Potter creator JK Rowling for her use of Twitter, decrying Rowling's and other writers' "insatiable need and desire to be out there all the time" - a need, she said, that is "entirely driven by their ego".

To ensure her disapproval hit home, she added that ­"creating this mass following and tweeting several times a day is like wanting to be Cheryl Cole or Kim Kardashian. It's a ludicrous aspiration [for a writer]".

Naturally, her words were seized upon by many people - presumably spoiling for some kind of Twitter fight between the two writers (impossible, of course, given that Trollope doesn't do Twitter).

But, as she explained: "I feel that for Jo [Rowling] and for anyone who wants to be on Twitter, it's absolutely fine, and I want you to emphasise that I'm not in the least critical of anybody who uses it. I just say that I don't.

"I think for her it's different because her readership is comprised of children, young adults and adults and they're fascinated by it. I remember saying to a man once: 'How can you be incredibly unintelligent about loading the dishwasher when you're such a bright person?' And he said: 'Because it bores me.'

"I think the same is true of me and social media. I'm just rather bored by Twitter and I'd prefer to have a conversation with somebody.

"Obviously, it would be very useful for me [as a writer] to be fascinated by it, but I'm not.

"The aim of my novels isn't to tell people what to think or to tell them how I think, it's to get the conversation going."

And Trollope certainly has a knack for that. A few years ago, she caused a stir when she admitted that, "past the age of 60, fidelity doesn't matter". After her second divorce, she dated Jason Kouchak, a musician 23 years her junior, and though the couple never lived together, the relationship lasted more than 15 years.

She said: "I got comments from people all the time about it but it was nothing to do with anybody except the two of us. I see the same happening now with the Macrons [the French president-elect Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte, who is 24 years his senior].

"We are obsessed with the conventions of society - that men shall be strong, the women shall be pretty, and the age gap shall be conventional - and it's all so wearying and old-fashioned.

"As long as it suits a particular couple to be in a certain configuration, then good luck to them, I say."

Yet society does appear to be unusually obsessed by relationships that have an age gap. "Yawn, yawn," Trollope said. "I'm much more interested in the result of the elections than the Macrons' age difference."

Asked whether younger men are better able to handle successful women, she replied: "No - I think it's got nothing to do with age. It's got to do with personality and nothing else at all."

Prior to becoming a writer, Trollope worked at the Foreign Office, "at a time when it was quite rare for women to work".

She said: "What I remember were the tremendous opportunities for friendship. The girl I shared an office with was almost like a sister, and the women I spoke to as research for City of Friends were all very supportive of one another. But I'm very much of the Madeleine Albright school of thinking, that there's a special place in hell for women who don't support other women."

It's a description that could have been tailor-made for Trollope herself.

The daughter of a painter and a building society ­manager (her father Arthur was a distant relative of 19th-century novelist Anthony Trollope), she managed to juggle a career as a teacher while writing and raising her daughters, Louise (43) and Antonia (40), by her first husband David Potter, who was a banker in the City.

The marriage lasted 18 years, after which she wed TV dramatist Ian Curteis, who was a key figure in shaping the Joanna Trollope we know today - persuading her away from the historical novels she had begun writing and towards the contemporary style for which she is now known.

That marriage ended, after 15 years, just as Trollope was gaining success.

"And I think that was an element in the breakdown of both marriages," she admitted. "It was quite difficult, but they were of their generation. If they'd been brought up in a different way, who knows if they would have found it a bit easier."

Hugely accomplished and rigorously self-sufficient (she recently hinted that if she were to suffer from dementia, she would opt for assisted suicide rather than "moving in with my daughters and making their lives a nuisance"), she gives off the air of being thoroughly in control.

Therefore, it came as a surprise that when her second marriage disintegrated, Trollope had what she described as a "mini-breakdown", leaving her at times "absolutely sodden" with her own tears.

Was it difficult to admit, especially to herself, that she was having problems? "No, it wasn't, actually," she said. "It was a relief - because you have to tell people that life isn't all plain sailing.

"But while candour is a very good thing, you don't want to go on and on about whatever agony you're going through.

"It's like carrying around a sandwich board that says, 'I am in pain because this happened', and you can't ever grow or advance. You get bored with being at the bottom of the pit.

"I don't define myself eternally by my lowest moments, because I think that's a grave mistake. But there have been times when you feel despair and you have to tell people it's happened in order to say it's not always going to be that way."

Though she appears more glamorous with every passing year, Trollope is currently single, "and very happily single, too", she insisted.

Given her recent headline-generating brush with social media, perhaps she'd give online dating a try?

"Well, now, really…" she laughed. "What do you think?"

  • 'City of Friends' by Joanne Trollope is out now in hardback

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