'I don't do public displays of grief' - romance writer Lesley Pearse's life has been as strange as any of her novels
However, the popular novelist reveals she's happy now
Lesley Pearse is celebrating 25 years as a bestselling author. In her case, that means 26 novels, and more than 10m books sold. She is 73 - her first novel was published when she was 48 - and looks great, not just for her age but for any age: strong, vibrant, glamorous.
"My editor says I've got a portrait up in the attic," she says with a laugh over tea in the Clarence Hotel, then adds "I'm very happy now."
What is making her happy? "I've moved to Torquay, all my friends are gay - so I've got male companionship without any of the mucky bits, or, as my friend calls, it 'the squelchy bits', and last year I had a really awful year, but it's all a distant, dark memory now."
What was so bad about last year? "In September I broke my ankle, which was really life changing. I slipped on some cobbles. It was wet, I slipped, my ankle went under me funny, and that was it. It was a really bad break, I had to get an operation. I found how helpless you are when something like that happens.
"It's that feeling of powerlessness. You can't do anything, you can't get about. I was living on a cliff top overlooking the sea and it was so steep, I had to rely on other people for everything. I moved into the ground floor flat, which was on a level and I could scoot around in my typing chair. But I felt I was in prison. It wasn't my home, it was the guest flat."
At least she could write? "That's what I thought, but I couldn't because you have to keep your leg elevated, and when I didn't keep my leg elevated, it started to swell up. That's when I had to have another operation."
At the same time as Lesley was trying to navigate life with a broken ankle, "the guy who owns the land below me decided to build several townhouses right in front of my house. This was my dream home, I'd had it for two years, with a 360-degree view of the sea and bay". Not only was her view ruined, but "my garden just disappeared into a sinkhole. I was scared to live there because the house was creaking. It was only a matter of time before it came down, or so I thought".
From there, "everything", she says, went wrong, and she ended up selling the house to the developer, and losing "£200,000" on it. She moved into Torquay and bought a Victorian house; "it was in a 1950s timewarp and I did that up and it's really gorgeous now. So I'm really happy. Sometimes", she says, "things turn out to be a good thing even if it was awful at the time", then adds "losing that much money wasn't fun".
So what does she think when she looks back on the last 25 years? There was a time, she says, "particularly early on, when I thought 'I'll wake up one day and I'll have dreamt all this. I'll wake up in a grotty bedsit in Earl's Court with one cooking ring beside a nasty gas fire'. It is like a dream really. I don't have to worry about money any more. I can treat the kids [she has three daughters] when they need; they've got a start in life that they wouldn't have had. So yes, life is good".
Life may be like a dream now, but it didn't start out that way. Lesley's father was in the Royal Marines and away at sea when her mother developed septicaemia following a miscarriage. She died, with Lesley, then just three, and her elder brother Michael alone in the house. For three days they managed, somehow, until a neighbour saw them playing outside in the snow with no coats. That being the 1940s, the children were put into care, to Catholic institutions because their mother was an Irish Catholic from Roscommon. They were split up - Michael was sent to Gloucestershire, Lesley to London - and spent three years in institutions. Then their father married again and they were brought home, to a new stepmother, Hilda, and two new siblings, an older sister who had been fostered by Hilda, and a new adopted baby brother, Paul.
How much does she remember of those orphanage years? "My memory is incredibly clear. That never goes away. I can see that place now. It was hideous." The neglect was so bad that her stepmother tried to get both places closed down. Lesley's feeling for nuns to this day is "hatred".
Although she had a home again, and a new family, Lesley found that her stepmother Hilda was a "hard woman. There were no cuddles, no sympathy". Was she cruel? "She could be, beating me with a stick. But a lot of people did that kind of thing then." And, she says, "I don't really want to dwell on any of that any longer. I've done a complete about-face about my stepmother. My brother, Michael Sargent, became an eminent microbiologist. He died five years ago (his obituary in The Guardian says that "his pioneering work... inspired the field"), and just before he died, we were talking one day and I said 'you know, she was the best thing that ever happened to us'."
In what way? "Michael was a very gifted child in the days when people didn't recognise that. She saw that, and she pushed him so that he passed his 11-plus high enough to be able to pick whatever school he wanted. She sent him to a naval school, which she thought was the best and it turned out to be. I am partially dyslexic, I see that now but it wasn't recognised back then. That's why it took me so long to read - I was 10 - but once I got that, she gave me books and I read everything. She'd pick lines from Dickens that were particularly good, and had great expressions. She used to say 'I have net curtains to keep out the vulgar gaze'. She gave us that edge."
What about Lesley's father? Did he ever intervene? "I think he felt he had to take the line of least resistance, and that we were better off than in those orphanages which were horrible." And, she points out, "They were very happy together even though it wasn't romantic."
And, in a strange way Lesley understands the way "a strong personality can be seen as being hard; you're accused of being 'hard' if you never show lots of emotion", because the same accusations have been levelled at her. "I don't do a big display of public grief," she says. "I wasn't brought up to that. I'll go to bed at night and cry. I had hardships all through my life. I lost my mother, I was in care, by the time I was 15 I was living on my own and looking after myself. I didn't have anybody to run to. You soon develop a spine."
Having left home at 15 to become a nanny, Lesley wound up in London of the Swinging Sixties, and did various jobs, including being a Bunny Girl in the Playboy Club in 1967. "It was a very short time," she says, "but one thing it did do was, I didn't have much self-esteem at that time. I thought I was lumpy and plain, that kind of thing. People saying you're attractive, doing your hair and make-up, people looking at you… that boosted my self-esteem so I wasn't afraid of my own shadow or thinking I wasn't worth anything." Until then, she says, "I'd been a bit of a fool with men. I'd let them take complete advantage of me again and again. I don't know that I conquered that completely. But I have now," then she adds, "Women of my age were so conditioned from an early age. If I did have a new man in my life now, I would still have to wind his socks in pairs… I go back into that mode immediately."
Lesley was married three times. "Sometimes it's because I'm a bolter, but other times, things just disintegrate." Of her marriages, she says: "The first one hardly counts. I was only married to him for 18 months." Then there was John Pritchard, a trumpet player and friend of David Bowie who used to hang out in their flat and eat Lesley's shepherd's pie. When he wrote Kooks, (one of my favourite Bowie songs, and the anthem of broke, unconventional, optimistic young parents everywhere), it was part-inspired by Lesley, pregnant with her first child Lucy, trying to paint a second-hand crib she and John had bought. "He was humming along to it while he was writing on the back of a fag packet," Lesley recalls. "I wish I'd kept that." The friendship didn't last - "he and John were really good mates, then he was a bit funny with John a while afterwards. He got a bit full of himself. We didn't keep up contact" - but, she says, "it's a lovely thing to think of."
She and John separated when Lucy was 18 months old, but stayed in touch and when John died, suddenly, of a heart attack aged just 55, Lesley paid for his funeral. "I did my duty there," she says.
After John, Lesley moved to Bristol, opened a gift shop, and married Nigel, with whom she had two more daughters, Jo and Sammy. Then, when she was in her late 40s, "I hit a bump in the road. The shop had gone down the pan. I was 48, Georgia [her first published novel] had just been sold but it didn't exactly set the world alight. I was suddenly stuck at home all day writing, in a rather dark dining room, and I think I was depressed, although I never realised it until a few years later. Looking back, you can always see these things much clearer."
Her response was to run. "I had the idea, as much as Agatha Christie probably did when she went missing, to just go. The night before I ran off, we watched that Bodyguard film with I Will Always Love You. I still can't bear that song. I gave them [the kids] butterscotch Angel Delight which was their favourite thing. I couldn't tell them because I would have had to collude with them against their dad, so I waited 'til they'd gone to school, left the note and went."
What did the note say? "I just can't stand it any more." Where did she go? "I went and stayed in a little bed and breakfast near Bath, and I wrote. I took a little word processor with me and I just wrote. I was trying to get my head straight. I knew what I'd done was wrong. I don't know how I thought I was going to work it out. Jo, my youngest was 12 or 13 then. Sammy was 15 or 16, and Lucy was living away. Things had been wrong for years, but you kind of stick with things, don't you?" she says, and then, "It's very difficult to leave a man with three children. Where do you go, with three children? You need the help; even if the help isn't that great, it's better than no help at all."
After two weeks, having heard that Nigel "was falling apart", she went back. "That was in the summer but by Christmas I realised I couldn't possibly cope with it. For Christmas he bought me an eternity ring and he'd never ever bought me a piece of jewellery before. Then he bought me this eternity ring, symbolising forever and ever, and it got stuck on my finger and I couldn't get it off and my finger started to swell. I had to go to the fire station on Christmas Day and get it cut off. That was the final thing."
When she eventually left for good, Jo, the youngest, went with her, Sammy, who had a job by then, stayed with Nigel, with whom Lesley is "still great friends". She carried on writing, at a prolific rate, tackling issues such as domestic abuse, child abuse, feminism, adoption, neglect, survival and more.
For all that romance is a large part of Lesley Pearse's novels, there is always a strong vein of social justice too. For six years she ran the Lesley Pearse Woman of Courage Award; "I have strong, brave heroines and I felt there were women out there who deserved to be recognised for that courage. The idea was to find ordinary women who did extraordinary things."
As for the Irish side of her family, her mother's Roscommon relatives, that has been something of a disappointment.
"I visited when I was 17. They made me pretend I was Catholic," she laughs. "I remembered lots of things from the orphanage so it was easy." After she left, there was contact for a while but "then they dropped me. I think it was when I got divorced. Since then I've had no contact with them. My stepmother used to say 'this is the Irish all over. They'll tell you what you want to hear'."
And yet, there is an unexpected happy development there too. The evening after Lesley and I meet, coincidentally, a cousin got in touch through Facebook.
"My cousin came to dinner with me last night and she was lovely," Lesley told me the next day.
"She told me so much about the family and I'm sure I'll get to meet some of them before long. I never believed in the angels thing - but something or someone out there must have had a hand in this."
'The House Across the Street' by Lesley Pearse is out now, published by Penguin
The Five bestselling romance writers
* Danielle Steel has written 165 books, including 141 novels, and sold over 800m copies, making her the bestselling author alive and the fourth bestselling fiction author of all time.
* Jilly Cooper has written 17 novels and 25 non-fiction works with sales topping 12m. Known as the doyenne of the 'posh bonkbuster'.
* Judith Krantz, now aged 90, has written a comparatively modest 10 novels, with the first, Scruples, published when she was 50. Even so, she has sold over 80m books.
* Sidney Sheldon, who died in 2007, was (unusually for the genre) a man. Also aged 50 when he first published, he went on to sell over 300m copies of his 21 books.
* Dame Barbara Cartland died in 2000 aged 98 having written 723 novels - which sold over 500m copies.