Happy things

I’m between books, which is a strange time. I really need to start finding my voice for book 4, because my main character is struggling to get out and she won’t stay locked up in my head for long. Meanwhile, here are some of the things that are keeping me going while I lie on my chaise-longue, eat grapes and do all those other things authors do when they’re not chained to the laptop.

After a certain amount of hint-dropping and plain all-out begging, my husband has bought me the book of fashion by the Kyoto Costume Institute, which has just become my all-time favourite fashion book. Two books, actually. Enormous, hardback volumes that require a small trolley for transportation purposes. The illustrations are incredible. How did so many glorious historical outfits end up in Japan? I can only assume they’ve had a series of inspired curators and a LOT of money to spend. Anyway, one day I have to go to Kyoto and see these in the flesh. They are wow.

These cakes and sandwiches literally kept me going when I visited Gravesend Grammar School for Girls last week.

When you’ve just presented your inspiration and a potted life-history to 80 or 90 Year 8s, you need sustenance. The sandwiches were yummy and the cakes were very wow. I was treated like a princess throughout my stay and the girls asked some great questions.

One of them was ‘How do you choose what genre you’re going to write your next book in?’ There are lots of answers to this. One is ‘The books simply appear from nowhere and I just write them down. I have no control over the process.’ I wish.

Another is ‘I stick to what I’m good at and hope my readers will like the next one as much as the last one.’ Which is kind of true, but possibly a bit boring for all concerned. It’s nice to mix it up a little bit. Plus I’m intrigued to see what other people are doing, and what other people are reading, and it’s impossible not to be even slightly tempted do be a bit more mystery-y, or romance-y, or sci-fi-y. Actually, scrub that. I’m not even remotely tempted to be sci-fi-y. But I still like to experiment.

So I guess the real answer is, ‘You pick what feels challenging, but what suits your characters and the story you want to tell, and you hope for the best, and you take a risk, and you go for it.’

Oooh! Scary! I love my job!

My top 5 not-so-guilty pleasures

The nicest thing that a reader can say to me is that she read my book in a day and couldn’t put it down. That, since a wake-up call when I was 18, is what I’ve aspired to achieve as a writer. Sure, it would be great to be Meg Rosoff, but if I had to choose between literary fabulousness and sheer unputdownability, which I probably do, I’d go for the latter every time. As a reader, it’s got me through broken love-affairs, tricky times at the office and long summers of teenage boredom. Sometimes there is nothing to beat an unputdownable book.

Summer is here (not that you’d know, looking out of the window today, but that’s beside the point; it has, in recent memory, been hot). For your delectation and delight, these are some of the writers who aren’t necessarily known for their towering literary virtuosity, but whom I’ve adored, and who are sitting on my bookshelves, and at the back of my mind as I write. If you’ve read Threads, bet you didn’t guess number five.

Jilly Cooper

Not the doorstoppers. The sweet romances she wrote before those: Imogen, Harriet, Prudence and the short stories of Lisa & Co. Her pre-equal rights girls were plump and sexy, knew how to make an omelette and were relieved to settle down with the right millionaire or racing driver and make him happy in a house in the country, with dogs. They also knew how to melt with sheer pleasure when said racing driver did that thing with his hands up and down their spines. Nothing wrong with that.

Jackie Collins

If you are reading this and you are under 16, don’t read Jackie Collins, OK? (I remind myself of the librarian nun at school – before my time – who had kindly written ‘Please do not read page 137 of this book’ in the fly pages. Needless to say, the book in question was pristine, apart from page 137, which wasn’t, in either sense.) If you are over 16 and you want to see what the Mel Gibson saga sounds like when made into a novel, she’s your girl. One of the Hollywood Wives books had a stalker theme to it that gripped me from beginning to end. And one of my favourite bits was when the heroine opened the door to the hero ungroomed, unwaxed, in a man’s shirt and with her mind entirely on something else she was doing. He found her irresistible. A good lesson, I thought.

Jeffrey Archer

I’m not kidding. Again, I’m not a fan of the doorstoppers, but Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less is one of my favourite stories. I loved the hero, with his drive and quick-thinking, combined with not really knowing what he was doing. I loved the intertwining storylines and the way the love interest worked. A Quiver Full of Arrows was another great set of short stories. I’ll probably get shot for this, but some of them reminded me a bit of Roald Dahl. No Comebacks was brilliant: great concept, nicely done.

Dan Brown

Every line of The Da Vinci Code makes me want to weep. Reading through each sentence is like treading on a beach of sharp stones. And the names! Sir Leigh Teabing? Has the man never been to the UK? Sir Leigh – or was that Sir Teabing? – was plainly the villain (spoiler alert) from the second he was introduced. The whole thing is so ripe for parody it hurts, as The Asti Spumante Code brilliantly proved. But, Reader, I read that book in two sittings. The plotting, though obvious and implausible, was irresistible. A chase, some sketchy art criticism AND code-breaking? And being made to feel more intelligent than the author? Sheer genius. A worthy bestseller. Thank you, Mr Brown.

Thomas Harris

I am not very often a reader in the bath. Books get wet. Pages fall out. Water gets cold. It all gets very messy. But I’d got to that bit in The Silence of the Lambs where Clarice is being chased through caves of dead women by the creepy loony in the night-vision goggles and even though it made me feel nauseous, I couldn’t stop. Sometimes, I had to for a moment, so I could stop feeling sick. Then back to the plot again. The pages got wet. The bath water got cold. Clarice eventually got the better of the creepy loony and the cavalry arrived just too late to save her, so thank goodness she did. That is a good book.

Tristram Shandy is good too, I admit. So is Middlemarch. So are Pride and Prejudice, Tales of the City and Right Ho, Jeeves. However, none of these, much as I adore and admire them, suffers from water damage. Mind you, if Bertie Wooster had been chased through a house-party of charming but inappropriate chorus girls by a creepy loony in night-vision goggles with a cow creamer – that would have been a different story …

The Heartbreaker

One of the many great things about having older teenage children is that … they can babysit! So even though we were, as usual, pretty tired and couldn’t think of any  movies to go and see, we went off to the cinema anyway and left the sixteen year-old in charge, with the promise of much-needed cash when we got back.

I think it’s because of Eclipse, and maybe Shrek 4 and Toy Story 3, but film distributors are not keen on releasing great movies at the moment. I imagine they’re saving them (assuming they exist) until the vampires, werewolves, ogres and toy spacemen have done their bit, soaked up all the movie-going audiences and moved on, like locusts. Which leaves the latest Woody Allen – so terrible it’s apparently even more terrible than the last two really bad ones; Sex and the City 2 – so terrible that only my US editor has urged me to go and see it, which I want to do, but couldn’t subject my husband to in a million years; a couple of UK movies that even UK critics seem to think are hopelessly miscast and dire; an action-horror-flick (no); and the Ashton Kutcher/Katherine Heigl spy thing, which nobody, suspiciously, is talking about, despite its hot two leads, who do, now I come to think of it, have a bit of a talent for choosing stinkers. Oh, and a much-raved-about French romcom, with Johnny Depp’s wife and subtitles. To which my husband said thank you, but no, until he eventually agreed that it might be less awful than everything else out there.

It’s called The Heartbreaker and reader, it is brilliant. It is the first romcom I’ve seen in years that had me actually believing in that crucial scene where the mismatched guy and girl have to suddenly get each other, and in such a way that you’ll know they’ll continue to get each other for life. In this case, they were in a rain-drenched Ferrari at the time, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s the first one I’ve seen in years where the preposterous ‘he has to get her to fall in love with him in 5 days’ scenario made sense, and kinda worked.

It’s got Vanessa Paradis in head-to-toe designer and red lipstick. Nothing wrong with that either. An opening scene that’s both funny and sinister, and leaves you wanting more. A supporting couple (his sister and her husband) who are sweet and consistently funny. And a cast-full of characters whom the writers actually liked, which shows.

Very occasionally, I fantasise about being a Hollywood guru and sitting in my house overlooking the beach in Malibu, explaining to a bunch of expectant screenwriters about how to write a proper romcom. It’s a nice fantasy. It includes my Art Deco collection, my Picassos and Matisses and my Corbusier furniture. But I digress. What I’m explaining to them is that you need to love your characters. They can be as flawed as you like, but if you don’t respect them, the audience will resent spending 90 minutes in their company.

Compare When Harry Met Sally with You, Me and Dupree, for example. No don’t, because that means you have to sit through You, Me and Dupree. Why would you? The characters in The Heartbreaker are lovable. The hero does some truly terrible things, but when he breaks his own heart, you believe him.

We sat through that movie and kept looking at each other with  ‘Oh my God, did you just see that bit? That was really good’ expressions. And it had a great soundtrack and enough lush shots of Monte Carlo to put the Monaco tourist board out of business for a decade, I reckon.

Some day, they’ll remake it with Jennifer Aniston, or Katherine Heigl, poor girls, and it will be ghastly. But if you get the chance to see it as it is, then go. It’ll revive your faith in romcoms, and after everything that’s been said about SATC2 recently, that’s got to be a good thing.