Known for exploring issues at the heart of families, bestselling author Joanna Trollope’s latest novel, Mum & Dad, focuses on a family thrown into upheaval.
When ex-pat father, Gus, suffers a stroke. It’s up to the three children based in London to travel to Spain and step in, but they all have very different ideas of what’s best. We chat to Joanna Trollope about her new book and how it feels having a 30-year long successful writing career.
What are you aiming to achieve with each new novel?
What I’m trying to create is a handbook of what it’s like to live now. I started writing when my youngest daughter was 3 and now she’s 48 so things have certainly changed a bit, but I just write about whatever is grabbing me at the time – whatever the preoccupation is in society.
How do you think Mum & Dad deals with the position of women in society?
With my new novel I was conscious that both of my daughters work and took into consideration that it isn’t easy for anyone. It seems society hasn’t quite caught up with the fact that women are expected to do all the caring for the family, even though men are much more involved now. My youngest daughter who is the breadwinner in her family still wants domestic control, even though she may go into court (as a barrister) wearing a shirt ironed by her husband.
What kind of reaction do you hope readers will have to your books?
I hope my books act as conversation starters. It doesn’t matter if you’re with family or a bunch of friends, in a book group or at work, you can say ‘I’ve just read a book about this…’ You may be able to share it with others and say that it got you thinking about step-families or later life marriages, whatever it might be. My aim is to be right in the heart of where we are at the moment – what we’re dealing with now.
I want people to know they are not alone. Anyone reading my books will hopefully feel that they are not excluded from the human race. It’s not strange to feel jealousy, fury or anger – it’s normal. In fact it’s OK for the reader to feel whatever they’re feeling. I want to entertain but also console. Of course, my books are not without jokes. You’re not alone if you want to cut the crotch out of your cheating husband’s trousers.
How do you feel the Spanish setting and ex-pat life influences your book?
Mum & Dad is partly set in Spain where the parents have set up home. I think it’s wonderful that so many parents live abroad, and it can relieve their children from cherishing them, but it’s also terribly hard to get to them. You can see with the children in this book – it’s difficult. They have their lives to attend to, so when something terrible happens it’s difficult to just drop everything and go.
In my research I asked ex-pats how they felt about coming back. All of the women said they wanted to see out their old age in their own country and language, but the men didn’t want to return. Gus – the father in the book – was more detached from his children as he was from that generation, but Monica the mother wants to be useful to them.
Would you ever live abroad yourself?
Some people think that by living abroad they can escape their woes. But, of course your baggage goes with you. I wouldn’t live abroad. I thought I might go and live in Brussels if the children had been much younger. But work’s here, and I do love parts of England. I also don’t want to lose touch with all my grandchildren. Being a grandmother is wonderful.
Do you believe family relationships are often complicated?
The cliché is that grandparents and grandchildren have a common enemy – the mum. As a mum you have to make a good citizen of your child. A grandmother doesn’t have that same responsibility so it can be an easier relationship. And as far as adolescents are concerned, it just wasn’t as complicated when I was young.
Today girls may find themselves completely excluded from ‘the group’, and then of course their hormones are all over the place, which is not a new thing. I think with sympathetic mothers it makes a huge difference to keep the lines of communication open.
What do you think helps people to cope with the pressures of society today?
Possessing the strength to deal with what life throws at you is of great importance. We all need enough inner resources to cope. It’s false to think that life should be a bed of roses. You can have everything over your whole life but you can’t have it all at once. You can’t appear without make-up, you can’t be invisible. There’s immense pressure with that.
What advice would you give to the younger generation?
I’m very fortunate that I have the opportunity to go and speak to children in schools. I like to use my freedom pass to travel around London. One thing I always say to the children is ‘the only person you’re stuck with is yourself so you may as well make yourself an irresistible, entertaining and satisfying companion.’
How do you think overcoming adversity helps inspire writers?
In order to be a good writer I think you need to be knocked about by life a bit. You need to have had your heart broken, lost your job. You need to have survived a lot of life’s complications, difficulties and disappointments. There is no such thing as an ordinary, easy, comfortable life. The school of hard knocks isn’t just about dealing with the knocks, it toughens you up.
Do you still love writing as much as you did when you were younger?
I’m miserable when I’m not writing. The difference is that 45 years ago I was writing books off the back of a full tank whereas now the tank is emptier. But I have more experience, I am more tolerant and wiser. I know a lot more than I did.
How proud were you to receive a CBE?
I was really pleased to receive a CBE, especially as it was for services to Literature. I am a trustee of the National Literacy Trust, and it troubles me very much that what is known as “book learning” isn’t seen as a cool skill these days, with dire consequences in terms of mental health and career options.
Prince William presented me with my award. He was terrific. He’s taller and more personable in real life than he sometimes appears in photographs, and extremely easy and friendly to talk to. I took both my daughters and my son-in -law to the ceremony, which lasts an hour, with official and press photographs afterwards. We then all went off to the Wolseley to have a very festive lunch. The Wolseley gave me champagne on the house to celebrate – a wonderful extra in a memorable day.