The bestselling author’s latest book, City Of Friends, charts the relationships between four women from their college days to careers (with an absorbing amount of secrets, betrayals and emotional fallout woven in). We caught up with Joanna to find out more. Plus, you could win a signed copy of the book.
Q: Your latest novel, City Of Friends, is your twentieth novel. Can you tell us about it?
City of Friends is about women and work. I can’t actually think of many other modern novels that focus on what a huge element of modern women’s lives work has become. Although I am quite rare to have worked all my life, my daughter’s generation (mid-to-late 40s) all do and it wouldn’t occur to my granddaughter’s generation (18+) not to. So this novel is about four friends who all read economics at university, are now in their late 40s, and work in various aspects of that most male bastion of work: the finance industry. One is married without children, one is a single mum, one is married with children and one is gay. And this is the story of the way their friendship and their personal and professional lives tangle and cause problems and strain loyalties – the stuff that we all, these days, live with.
Q: Do you have a network of friends you’ve known for as long as your lead characters, Stacey, Beth, Melissa and Gaby?
I have friends from every decade or stage of my life: from my sister, who I have obviously known since she was born nearly eight years after me, to friends I have made in the last few years. I also can’t think of anyone I have been involved with professionally who hasn’t become something of a friend. I think that is what women just do – we make relationships all through our lives, in all the various aspects of our lives, and friends can be made from one’s toddlerhood to one’s dotage. If you are fundamentally more interested in other people than yourself, friendship is simply what happens.
Q: Do you identify with one of the four characters more than the others?
Not really. I have sympathy with all four of them at various stages of their personal dilemmas. The trick is, I think, to explain – even if you cannot excuse – why people behave as they do, why their heads have got them to the place that they find themselves in. So what I find I do as a novelist, is to inhabit that character’s head as much as I can while I am writing about them, even if that head is very unsympathetic to my own beliefs. And these four women have, between them, felt or behaved pretty much as I have personally felt or behaved at some point in my life. So I identify with none of them, or all of them, somewhere in the book.
Q: Can you tell us about your process of writing, from the spark of the idea to research and actual writing?
Ah. The starting point is always something in the contemporary zeitgeist, something that I feel preoccupies people a lot at the moment. It could be stepfamilies, or adoption, or wills, or betrayal, or – in this case – working women. My aim is never, ever, to tell people what to think, but simply to get the conversation going, to stimulate or enable people to talk about a – probably – taboo subject. Once I’ve had the idea, I will create a cast of characters, decide on a setting, find the exact houses, or areas for the setting, and photograph it/them. Then I plot the first quarter of the novel quite precisely, and I plot the ending, so that I always know where I am going, but I don’t quite know how I will get there. That means that the book will develop organically, just as life does. I do the research – always a huge part of writing these contemporary novels – when the theme and the characters are pretty well sorted in my mind.
Q: You have quite a back catalogue of work – do you have a favourite?
I had a great friend once (now sadly dead), who used to point to her numerous godchildren and say to them, “You are my first and best. You are my second and best. You are my third and best”, and so on. I feel rather similarly about the novels. I am aware that some of them are much better (this is the old schoolmistress speaking) as constructions and plots than others, but that only makes one rather protective of the lesser ones. I suppose The Rector’s Wife rescued me from a pretty frightening penury, so that book deserves a particular kind of gratitude, but I couldn’t truthfully say that it was a favourite. Maybe my favourite is always, if briefly, the current one?
Q: Do you have any advice for would-be novelists?
Advice is so hard to give and even harder to accept. But one thing I would always say to aspiring novelists is the one faculty you have to train is your powers of observation. So – this is entirely my own homespun method – carry a stiff backed, spiral-spined notebook (this is purely practical, to make it easy to write in) with you everywhere, and make it your ‘Noticing Journal’. You can jot down remarks, or exchanges you overhear, descriptions that occur to you, quotations, newspaper cuttings, postcard reproductions of favourite paintings, photographs, ideas. I expect you could do this digitally if that is your preferred medium, though, I have to say that seems a soulless method to me. But it trains you to notice and notice, and that is crucial to getting fiction resounding with the reader.
Q: What are you reading at the moment?
I have just finished Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent and Grayson Perry’s The Descent Of Man. The next book on the pile is Simon Winder’s Danubia, and I have set myself to reading Zola as a new-year task, so Nana is coming up. In translation, of course!
Q: At The White Company, ‘white space’ represents a calm and creative environment. What does your ‘white space’ look like?
I love The White Company’s pieces. The catalogues represent a kind of fantasy of aspiration for my bedroom, which is part way there (silvery and grey with The White Company sheets), but never quite manages the serenity and beautiful calm of the photographs. But then, something in me quite likes not getting it quite right… Maybe I always need something to strive for!
Win a signed copy of City Of Friends
For your chance to win a signed copy of Joanna Trollope’s City of Friends, simply complete the form by midnight on Sunday 5th March. Terms & Conditions apply.