Friday, February 24, 2012

Jenny Coleman - ditch the research!

“Every knock back and experience helps in a way, even if it feels horrible at the time,” says Jenny Colgan, bestselling author of novels such as Diamonds are a Girls Best Friend, and The Good, the Bad and the Dumped. “Nobody's life is an unparalleled success, and if you want to write about people's trials and tribulations it probably helps to have had some of your own. Of course it sounds really trite to say that now: it didn't feel like that at the time at all.”

Having struggled herself, Jenny can well empathise: something that is often reflected in her books. “After college I started working in hospitals as an NHS trainee - it was awful, I was terrible at it. Really bad,” she says. “It's tough to be trapped in a career that doesn't suit you, and I was always looking around for something more creative to do. I did try stand up comedy, and I met some fantastic people doing it, but I was never any good at it. I also tried cartooning, children's books and sketch writing - being a novelist was the first thing anyone ever said yes to!”

Jenny’s latest novel, Meet Me at the Cupcake Café, is a comedy about a woman following her heart - which longs to bake for people- over all her sensible instincts. “I suppose if there is a theme, it's to try and find something to do for a living that you love,” she says. “And I know better than most people that it isn't easy!”

Before writing the novel, Jenny wasn’t a cook though she enjoyed watching The Great British Bake Off. “I didn't used to be able to cook, then I learned; that's what the book reflects, really. I really do enjoy cooking and baking, but I'm not a fancy chef. I make a terrific fish curry and brilliant cheese scones (not together), basic stuff like that.”

Despite the fact that the novel encompasses setting up a business, financial implications, health and safety etc., Jenny did very little research. “Like almost anyone else I've worked in bars and restaurants in the past, so I have an idea what goes into a catering business. I'm always impressed by people who run their own cafes or restaurants; it's an incredibly hard way to make a living.

“I think a lot of people who want to write get horribly bogged down in research and getting the details right,” she continues. “It's a total waste of time. Get the characters right; try and feel them as living, breathing humans who have something to say, and worry about the details later.”

Jenny tackles some important issues in this novel – redundancy, dementia, single parenthood as well as lack of confidence and setting up a business, yet with a light touch. “I didn't see it as issue tackling, just using the characters to tell a story,” she explains. “I did fall a bit in love with Pearl and Louis though - the single parent family. As soon as I started thinking about how she could manage a job with a child, I realised how unbelievably difficult it must be. I honestly don't choose types to write about, I get a view in my mind's eye of a person then take it from there, follow my instincts as to what their life is like.”

The setting is also important: Meet Me at the Cupcake Café is set in Stoke Newington, an area well known to Jenny. “It's a real melting pot, you get absolutely all sorts of people there. Also it's in London but it's not on the tube, so it has a proper village-y atmosphere right in the middle of all this high-density housing. It's a great place.”

Jenny now lives in the South of France, and she and her husband have a flat in the City of London for her work. Listening to her description of her family, it’s clear why her books are so popular. “Living in the South of France sounds show-offy but if you saw our house you would realise it really isn’t,” Jenny insists. “My husband is a marine engineer and works a lot round here, and we have three children. Wallace is four and likes calamari, trampolining and making loud announcements about just how he will run the world when he is Spiderman; Michael-Francis is nearly two and likes singing lalala, tucking bears under his arms and peering dubiously at new food, and Delphie is brand new and likes sleeping and the way the sun moves across the tree leaves.”

Although writing seems to come naturally to Jenny, not all her books have been easy to write. “Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend was the hardest to write,” she says. “It was really, really hard to get the tone right; to make this spoiled rich girl sympathetic. My editor and I must have ripped the whole thing apart about four times. I think it's rather good now, but there was a lot of unsightly tugging and sticking going on behind the scenes.” Whereas other books came out with very little effort: “Class, which I wrote as Jane Beaton, just tumbled out, easy as pie, in about four months; we barely changed a word of it.”

When it comes to what makes a good novel, Jenny believes page turning quality is vital. “It's really important, especially when we're all so busy and distracted all the time. My books are meant to be fun, and funny, and I hope I give readers a real urge to keep turning the pages. There's not much I like better than getting into a hot bath with a good book and a big mug of tea.”

Jenny is a self confessed bookworm: “I will read high, low, and the Richard and Judy lists in between. All that matters to me is that it’s good.” Her definition of good writers is eclectic – “Liz Jensen blows my socks off. The Rapture knocked me out. Curtis Sittenfeld is great.” She pauses. “Kashuo Ishiguro- imagine writing Remains of the Day AND Never Let Me Go in one career. I think both of those novels are perfect. Who else? Dan Rhodes is great, Jon Krakeur, and I think the best non-fiction writer at the moment is Michael Lewis.”

It’s clear that Jenny loves her work as “novelist, journalist and occasional radio big gob”. What she particularly enjoys is “Being your own boss, and the sheer fun of it, the chance to disappear into your very own world for a few hours a day.” She smiles. “Plus people are nice to you, and other writers are on the whole really nice, interesting people, and the parties are good.”

So is there anything that she dislikes, or would like to change? “I worry about the future for my industry, but I don't think I'm alone in that; a lot of industries are going through a lot of change.”

Like many writers, Jenny has found social networking to be a bonus for feedback. “Twitter is brill (I'm @jennycolgan); it's a lovely place to interact with readers directly.” But like many authors she steers clear of Amazon reviews. “You can always find something to spoil your day. The best feedback is good sales, it makes me so happy when people are obviously enjoying something and telling their friends.”

Jenny has written and spoken much in defence of ‘chick lit’ as a genre, and is rightly proud of her contribution to commercial women’s fiction. But the fact remains that public opinion is still very dismissive, even though many of these novels tackle vital and often rarely discussed issues. Jenny believes it’s because of “Sexism. That and the fact that a lot of people who don't read very much are idiots.” So who is at fault for this misconception?

“You know what, I’m not sure how much of a problem it is,” she continues. “These books do tackle important issues, and it's entirely possible that having a pink, or genre cover means they reach more people than they would otherwise. I'd much, much rather write a book that reached out to hundreds of thousands of people that had a pastel jacket, than a slim novella with a 1920s photograph on it that was well-reviewed and completely unread except by four blokes wearing expensive glasses who live in quirky apartments.”

There’s no danger of Jenny’s books being read by a mere four people, and her army of fans will all hope she continues to keep writing her intriguing, satisfying books. So how would she like to be remembered? “Like every other single person on this earth: as that old, old person who died safe and warm in her bed, surrounded by people who loved her.”



Meet me at the Cupcake Café is published by Sphere April 2011

Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop of Dreams is published by Sphere March 2012

Writers' Forum March 2012

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