Since a child, I have always enjoyed storytelling but there was no way I ever thought I would become a writer. It simply wasn’t an option for me. My mother wanted me to be a good wife and mother (like her) but my father wanted me to be a PR (a Public Relations Officer which in the US I believe you would call a publicist)—funny that he was the one who encouraged me to pursue a career, although not funny if you knew him. He was an artist. He could have become a penniless one but in order to feed his family, he put his talent into graphic design. Working in below the line advertising, often for fashion brands, the majority of his clients were women PRs. He thought it would be a good career for me. At 19, I started life as a secretary (my mother’s idea) but, being well behaved I soon followed the path my father had encouraged. After a few false starts, in 1978, I landed a job working in theatre PR, which I loved. This then led to television (I was the press officer who helped launch commercial breakfast television in the UK in 1983) which in turn led to becoming a TV presenters’ agent. In the rollercoaster years that followed, there was no time to think about becoming a writer but the itch was there and I was always scribbling some idea or another. Finally, in 2008, having been successful as an agent, I decided to dedicate myself full time to becoming a writer, which no longer seemed beyond my reach—little did I know how many years in the wilderness lay ahead. But, I got there and am so proud of DEATH AND OTHER HAPPY ENDINGS.
You were discovered on a subway platform in London and featured in Dove’s campaign. How did you get your style? Has that changed as you’ve gotten older? And explain “the power of red lippy”!
Both my parents enjoyed clothes and passed that interest onto me (my brother does not share that interest so it wasn’t a given!). My mother was more classic, my father flamboyant: I think I merged the two! As soon as I could legally earn money, I got a Saturday job and that wage immediately went into clothes. Not much has changed, although with more money in my pocket, my taste has improved and my style evolved. Having been single for six years has also been quite liberating. I dress for no one but myself and in so doing I have found who I am. I have never consciously defied age but realize now, thanks to the number of times I am stopped by women saying they love my style, that being in your sixties and happily wearing color is not necessarily the norm! It should be! There is a notion that women over fifty disappear. We don’t have to. We should wear whatever makes us feel happy, whatever colors make us smile. There is no such thing as age appropriate, just you appropriate. I think that was why I was spotted by the Dove scout. For the same reason, I am a big fan of the red lip. If there are two things I think are important about face make-up in your later years, I would say eyebrows and lips are essential. I never go out without having put on these two. Including when I walk Mabel my dog. She won’t be seen dead with me if I look like the walking dead and trust me without my red lips and dark eyebrows, I disappear. Wherever I am, you will see me coming but hopefully for all the right reasons.
You spent a long time trying to get published. Any secret to this? For example, how did you keep yourself motivated despite rejection?
One word led me to becoming a published author at the youthful age of sixty-two. Tenacity. But, that tenacity came from passion. It’s hard not to feel miserable when something you have put your heart and soul into gets rejected but weirdly, you do get used to it. You grow a resistant hide. The first time was terrible—the worst. But, to my amazement, I picked myself up, came up with another idea when I thought I’d never have another idea in my life, and I carried on writing. If ever I felt so bad that I considered another direction, (interior design was constantly suggested to me with every rejection) I quickly realized there was nothing else I wanted to do more. I loved writing these novels so much, became so immersed in my characters, I had no choice but to write even if I never got published. And, having found my passion, eventually the right person found me. Four manuscripts and ten years on, honing my craft at various courses and retreats, I finally got the longed-for email from an agent who said YES! And what a joy it has been. I have loved every bit of work I have had to do on DEATH AND OTHER HAPPY ENDINGS. Age has given me the confidence to leave my ego at the door and made me open to suggestion from my wonderful editors. Instead of taking their criticism personally, I relished their advice, appreciating their wisdom and the fact I still have much to learn. With a bit of luck I’ll carry on writing until my fingers can no longer move across a keyboard and I’ll carry on learning right to the end.
You are a single woman at sixty-two and seem to be thriving. Meanwhile, the cads in your novel … is this by any chance based on actual men you’ve known? Tell us some stories!
As Nora Ephron’s mother said, “everything is copy.” Over the years, subliminally or otherwise, men and my experiences will have lodged in my memory and undoubtedly some have been imparted into my characters. The men might be cads because cads make more interesting reading but I do believe there is truth to them. And it’s not because I dislike men. I’m a fan honestly but I definitely feel women are the more powerful sex. We are better communicators for a start and good communication is half the battle. I was born a feminist. Intuitively, even as a young child, I never doubted my place in the world. I may be small but that’s never held me back. In my head I am six feet tall. And having loving parents only reinforced that sense of self belief. Possibly because of my father’s influence I have never felt in the least bit inferior to anyone, let alone a man, but have always been aware that we still need to prove our worth. And this is where I think men fall down. Whereas women (certainly of my generation and before) were taught they need to earn their place, men have a sense of entitlement. That often leads to caddish behavior that I believe comes from weakness not strength. So yes, my male characters have that flaw but then some of my women characters are equally flawed (Isabelle has a sense of entitlement that comes from her beauty whereas Jennifer has had to fight for everything. That’s why I love Jennifer! Naturally, I love Isabelle, too, because, for all her flaws, she is entertaining.) And of course, she does come good. If people ask me who influenced the character of Harry, a few men come to mind but there is definitely one romance that affected me more deeply than any other in my twenties. I met a man at a Christmas party. There was an instant attraction. He was handsome (tick) with a beautiful voice (big tick). The attraction was mutual. I was twenty-three he was thirty. A grown up, I thought. The following weeks were spent on that magical high of new romance. It was Christmas. Then the excitement and optimism of New Year. Such a romantic time. One day, just after New Year, I was hanging out in his flat while he was helping his elderly neighbor sort out a problem with her hot water. You see, a kind man! The phone rang. I let it ring for a while. But, it rang and rang until I thought, oh well, I’ll answer. “Hello?” “Hello, who’s that?” said the female voice. “It’s Melanie, who’s this?” “It’s Mary, Michael’s fiancée.” Somehow, even as a twenty-three-year-old, I pulled myself together and said, “Oh Michael’s just had to go upstairs; I’ll get him to call you when he comes back.” After that, I paced the floor. I didn’t know what to do. So I stayed. I listened to his explanation. And I forgave him. If, as a sixty-two- year-old, I could have told my twenty-three-year-old self how to deal with it, I would have told her, “This man will never change. The fact that he lied to you from the beginning tells you how capable he is of lying. And let’s face it, it makes him a coward. Your heart will break into a thousand pieces but it will mend. Leave now and never look back.” But, that’s the gift of hindsight and this man has stayed with me most of my life as a “what if?” If you’re wondering, the relationship continued for a meagre eight weeks. Eight painful weeks of indecision. HIS INDECISION. Where was I in the process? But, that is what toxic love does to you. It makes you lose yourself. So it was very cathartic putting some of this guy’s traits into Harry. Now, I’d just like to meet Leo! I think he is definitely the elusive man we’d all like to meet. But I do feel he exists. Forever the optimist.
You are the mother of two men. What have you learned about men from raising them? What have you learned about motherhood?
Fortunately, life has changed dramatically in the last thirty years and my sons are of a very different generation from the men I grew up with. They are used to being raised by a strong mother who has always worked. I hope I have taught them that women are their equal; that nothing is theirs by right; that they have to earn respect in the world. I was never a helicopter parent. There wasn’t time, so I taught my children responsibility from an early age. This has served them well. Everything they have achieved they have done through their own hard graft. One son lives in New York and works in advertising, one is a lawyer and lives around the corner from me. I did not influence their choices in any way. They found their own path. I think that’s really important. They know that I am there right behind them, to offer support and encouragement when they need it and they know they are loved. I was told by a nurse that all children need is two things: discipline and love and I’ve never forgotten it. I hope I instilled important values in them, then trusted them enough to stand back and let them go. Some of their values are very different from mine but they are theirs and that’s important. We respect each other for that. And if they’re hoping for a financial legacy from me, I have told them that I am going to enjoy every penny I've earned by having the time of my life since I am now in the final time of my life. If I leave them anything, well, that’s a bonus. No expectations. And we can laugh about it—although I hope they won’t end up having to bale me out of trouble! I will say, that, without doubt, divorce has taken its toll. They were six and four when I got divorced—my decision, so I feel bad for having broken up the family unit. The good bit is without doubt I became happier and that makes for better parenting. My ex-husband has very different values from me, so my sons have learned to compartmentalize, which isn’t necessarily healthy. But, they are strong, independent, witty men and I am very proud of them.
You’ve had success in a number of careers, from celebrity publicist to host of your own Marie Kondo-type show in the UK (before Marie Kondo was a thing). What advice do you have for women about career and life?
This is a cliché but it’s true: be authentic. If you know who you are in the world, it really helps in your determination to succeed. And, women have just as much a right to succeed as men, so never allow yourself to be put down by anyone. Take advice for what it is, criticism when it’s justified but never take abuse from either a man or a woman. Furthermore, success is how you define it. I have enjoyed professional success. I was never cut out to be a full-time mother but if that’s what you want to be, then good on you. No one is entitled to judge you but you. We need to be who we want to be. Ultimately, that’s what brings contentment. And in today’s crazy online world, don’t compare yourself to others on social media. That way madness lies. Be your own best judge and remember be kind to yourself along the way.
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