Kate Fenton

Books
The Colours of Snow
Dancing to the Pipers
Lions & Liquorice/
(US) Vanity and Vexation

Balancing on Air
Too Many Godmothers
Picking Up

JOURNALISM

BRIEF ENCOUNTER
(or, How a Romantic Novelist Ends Up On The Shelf)

A crowded room. Ice clinks, laughter tinkles. Somewhere a violin is playing. Our eyes -
meet. The conversation goes like this.

Tall Dark Handsome Stranger: 'And what do you do?'

Me: 'I write.'

TDHS: 'Shopping lists? Income tax returns?'

Me (unable to suppress smug little grin): 'Novels, actually.'

TDHS - reeling with amazement, admiration, etc: 'You're kidding.'

(Don't I look like a novelist? Should I wear bigger specs?) 'No, honestly…'
But I'm bracing myself because I can sense it coming, any minute now, the killer question.

Sure enough, he raises an arrogantly chiselled eyebrow:
'What sort of books do you write then?'

Oh blimey. Here we go again.

Why - tell me - is it so deeply uncool to write romantic novels? Oxford dons pen
whodunits, cabinet ministers scribble thrillers and science fiction is a respectable hobby for astrophysicists, but there's something about the very words 'romantic' and 'novel' in combination which prompts instant sniggers into the gin and tonic.

Mind, I've never met anyone who didn't intend (soon as they had a free weekend, a word-processor, a white Pekinese and a few other trade essentials) to knock off a quick bodice-ripper and apply for tax exile. Roll on the pink Rolls Royce. After all, it's only a question of finding the formula, isn't it?

Well that's what I thought. So, once upon a time, I studied the D-I-Y bestseller manuals and distilled the basic, foolproof recipe: take one blushingly shy and mousy girl-next-door. Whisk her on page 2 into the life of tall, dark, handsome, witty, worldly, wealthy Rochester/Darcy/Heathcliff sneer-alike. She hates him (naturally) for 199 pages and on page 200, dear Reader, she marries him. Proceed happily ever after to the Cayman Islands, thank you very much.

There had to be a snag. There was. As every How-to-Write-a-Blockbuster guide also tells you (a commandment carved on tablet of soap, this), for your plot to waltz along with the necessary zip and lilt-in-the-heartstrings, you (the writer) have to identify with your heroine. Well, fine. I can think myself into girl-next-door mode, no prob. Blushing? Why not. Shy - at a pinch. But dammit, I'm not stupid and I tell you if Mr Tall Dark Rich and et cetera strides into my life on Page 2, then I'm strongly inclined to fling myself into his witty, worldly arms on Page 3. And where's the plot then?

Which is when I came up with the formula Mark 2. Tall, dark, witty, worldly woman, ho ho, meets shy blushing vicar-next-door. Pursues him shamelessly for one hundred and seventy nine pages until he tumbles into her bed… and that, believe me, is when you really hit trouble.

Sex. Why do people always assume, when you write about sex, you're churning out autobiography? What's wrong with imagination? Do people ask Ruth Rendell how many murders she's committed lately? A tip. Do not locate your steamier trysts in your own backyard. I set the above story in an, ahem, fictional North Yorkshire valley which purely coincidentally resembled the one I live in. Farmers began looming from behind hedgerows with a strange light in their eye murmuring, 'I've read that there book of yours…'

Mind, adultery, incest, sadomasochism, blackmail and suicide wandered into this everyday tale of country folk, so maybe they had a point. You can see why I set the second novel a safe two hundred miles south in Oxfordshire. Purely on the basis I didn't know anyone in Oxfordshire. And I'm happy to tell my interrogator at the party, now, that the hero of that particular novel was short, greying, bankrupt and broken-nosed. Mr Darcy he most certainly was not. Anyway, the day of the moody, magnificent hunk is gone, if you ask me. Can you honestly see Rochester pushing a trolley round Sainsbury's? Heathcliff with a mouth full of nappy pins? Exactly. My novels, I say, aren't hearts and flowers and throbbing tides of desire and moonlit Caribbean nights and…

But I can see I'm wasting my time. My lit. cred. is zilch and sinking fast.

'Haven't you ever,' enquires the TDHS, 'thought about writing proper novels?'

'Proper novels?'

'You know, novels about Real Life…?'

A nerve is touched. I straighten, take a large swig of gin, and look him right in the eye.
'Tell me,' I say. 'How often have you been woken by your butler with the news there's a corpse littering the billiard room? Do you frequently,' I continue, gaining in confidence by the minute, 'encounter three-legged robots from the Planet Zog behind your compost heap? Or former Soviet moles lurking in the Town Planning Department? You don't, eh? Then tell me,' I snarl, 'do you now, or have you ever, had any experience of… love?'

Exactly. Just who's writing about Real Life round here? Let's hear it for the romantic novelist.

 

©Kate Fenton 2000