Best-selling wordsmith Joanna Trollope explains the inspiration behind her latest novel to Al Gordon
She’s the multi-million selling author whose latest chart-topping page turner (The Soldier’s Wife, published in hardback last month) has significantly increased her reported £6million fortune. But, as she told me, that doesn’t mean that Joanna Trollope’s afraid to immerse herself in a different world in the name of her art.
The Cotswolds-born novelist, now 68, infiltrated the ranks of the Northumbrian Regiment while researching her book, which examines the complexities of an army marriage – and found herself knee deep in mud for her efforts.
“I was so welcomed at this regiment”, she says. “The men and women there were only too happy to cooperate and talk about their relationships and difficulties in their family lives. But somehow, I found myself on a cross-country training circuit, running through the fields of Northumberland… and I loved every moment. I may live in London but I’ll always be a country girl at heart.”
Joanna, a literary institution with an astonishing 17 novels under her belt (plus seven she has written under the name Caroline Harvey), believes that the damage a military existence can inflict on the modern family unit is an issue much overlooked.
“About 20 years ago, I wrote The Rector’s Wife, about the problems involved in being married to someone else’s vocation, and I wanted to look at that again,” she explains. “This time, I wanted to choose a profession that had enormous approval from the public but was quite hard for the private life involved behind the scenes. Of course, the modern army is the perfect answer to that. Whatever the public feels about the discretionary wars that we’re involved in at the moment, there is universal admiration for our brave boys and girls out in the field. But being married to a modern soldier is a very different matter altogether.”
© Barker Evans
Given that this grandmother of two has a celebrated back catalogue including Other People's Children, Marrying the Mistress and Daughters-In-Law, it seems that she has examined each and every emotional facet of the British family unit. Surely she must be starting to run out of material?
“Quite the contrary,” she says, laughing. “I’ve only scratched the surface. I’ve looked at step-families, broken families, adoption, empty nests, children leaving home, female friendship, a man leaving his wife for someone much younger... I’ve looked at every permutation of family life that I can possibly think of and every time I think there can’t be anything else, but there always is.
Relationships are now evolving and developing at an astonishing rate, Joanna believes. “And the more we go along, the more some families are closing off on each other while others are opening up. For as long as families continue to have relationship problems, I’ll never run out of something to write about.”
While an abundance of source material secures her future work, the publishing world is in as great a state of flux as the relationships about which she writes. What’s her opinion on the advent of digitised self-publishing and the birth of the Kindle? Does she see this as a threat or as a complement to the literary world?
“The more ways to be published can only be good,” she says, “so I’m all for self-publishing, I think it’s marvellous”. She acknowledges that breaking into print is incredibly difficult now, with publishers tightening their belts ever more, and therefore reluctant to take a risk.
“People will always be favourable to the quality, not of just the writing, but more the quality and styling of ideas. So many were rude about Dan Brown as a stylist and yet the ideas behind those novels were absolutely fascinating. The same goes for Stieg Larsson – I mean not that it’s my cup of tea – but the idea of this anti-heroine and the fascination with technology was brilliantly up-to-date and deserved the success that it got.”
Her enthusiasm for the digital world has sadly waned of late, however. “…I’m not a big fan of the Kindle or any of that technology anymore, not after a recent trip to a literary festival in Sri Lanka. I loaded up my Kindle before boarding the plane and it died on me. A book is never going to do that so I’ve put the Kindle to rest and will always rely on the tangibility of books from now on.”
Having been described many moons ago as the Queen of the Aga Saga, Joanna has always poured scorn on a label that simply wouldn’t go away, calling it ‘sloppy’ and ‘lazy’ and patronising to her readers. Lately, though, it seems that she has come to a form of understanding with the nickname…
“I always hated it,” she explains, rather crisply. “I felt it grouped my books into the same niche, put them under the similar jurisdiction when I know they all come from incredibly different ideas and observations. But I’m not offended by it anymore; I just assumed it would die a death though I understand there’s a catchiness to it. So I imagine it’s here to stay.”