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Author Wendy Holden: how writing is “fun”

Submitted by on May 29, 2017 – 10:00 amNo Comment

IMG_0004AIn a wooden summer house above a north Derbyshire village Wendy Holden taps out her latest work on an ageing computer. There is no internet connection and the only heat comes from an old, plug-in radiator. Not the ideal setting, you might think, for a top-selling author to write – but this is where Wendy has penned many of her best sellers.

It’s an incredibly busy time for the comic novelist who has had ten consecutive books in the Sunday Times Top Ten. This month her 15th book, Laura Lake and the Hipster Weddings, is published in hardback while she is also promoting the paperback version of her last novel Honeymoon Suite which hit the bookshops in January.

The former national newspaper journalist interrupted her hectic schedule to chat about how the Derbyshire countryside inspires her, where she gets her work ethic from and how people would not believe her when she said she used to write a weekly column for socialite Tara Palmer-Tomkinson.

Over tea and cake the bubbly, amiable Wendy expresses several times how fortunate she is to be writing for a living. She uses the word “fun” on no fewer than 11 occasions: writing is fun, promoting her books is fun and she wants to introduce a bit of fun into people’s lives through her work.

Laura Lake and the Hipster Weddings marks the start of a new chapter in Wendy’s career. After nearly 20 years she has left her publishers Headline to go with a relatively new company, Head of Zeus.

“I felt it was time for a change. The person I first went to work for at Headline is the boss at the new publisher and she was such a great inspiration to work with. So when she said ‘would you like to come and work with us?’ I said ‘absolutely’.

“She wants me to write comedies, which was the original brief I had at Headline, so that’s great. It was perfect timing.”

“It’s a crazy, funny romp through the different ways you can get married these days”

Wendy is expecting to write seven books, one a year, in the Laura Lake series. Obviously her new publishers have exceptional faith in her. So too has her heroine Jilly Cooper who has read an advanced copy of Laura Lake and the Hipster Weddings which she describes as “marvellous”.

The book enables Wendy to return to her earliest stamping ground as a writer – the world of glossy magazines.

“As the novel begins Laura desperately wants to be a glossy magazine journalist and she ends up getting a job as an intern, one of those jobs where you’re not paid. She lives in a cupboard at the office and she survives on canapés.

“Then she gets her big break, a brief to cover three society weddings. It’s a crazy, funny romp through the different ways you can get married these days.

Laura Lake cover“I suppose the idea for that began partly because my new publishers wanted me to write a comedy about glossy magazines but I wanted to write about weddings. When I was doing my research for Honeymoon Suite I realised that the world of weddings had really moved on. There’s an awful lot of comic potential there because guests are roped into these massive productions and I just thought it was a great subject.”

Wendy Holden was born on 12 June 1965 in Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire. She always wanted to be a writer but never thought it would happen.

She was the first in her family to go to university, studying English at Cambridge. She thought she might be an academic but then she landed her first job – in journalism, on a monthly magazine for foreign diplomats.

“I used to go and interview every single foreign diplomat who came to London. It was the most amazing job because I knew nothing about anything really. And so I’d find myself going off to interview the Israeli ambassador and I’d be sitting in a room with these Mossad agents and saying to the Israeli ambassador ‘what’s your favourite colour?’

“I’m sure people thought I was a spy and it was all fantastically interesting. There were parties every single night and the gin and tonics were of an unbelievable stiffness. How anyone keeps state secrets I just don’t know.

“That was the beginning of a career in which I’ve been able to see behind the scenes of very glamorous lives, write about them and inject a comic element.”

Wendy then went to work for Harpers & Queen (later to become Harper’s Bazaar), the Sunday Telegraph, the Sunday Times, Tatler and the Mail on Sunday.

“I’ve been very lucky and the timing’s always been fantastically fortunate. But I think I’ve also been able to spot when I can make something work.”

“I had an epiphany and realised that it was the novel plot that I’d always been looking for and off I went.”

It was while Wendy was deputy editor of the Style section of the Sunday Times that she edited a column for Tara Palmer-Tomkinson. “I used to write this column for her every week, which was great training because I had to make it all up.

“That was the inspiration for my first book, Simply Divine. It was about a glossy magazine journalist who has to write a column for a celebrity socialite who gets all the credit.”

When Wendy was at a party and was asked what she did, she said she wrote Tara Palmer-Tomkinson’s column. “People said ‘no you don’t, she does that’. In those days it was thought that famous people actually wrote their own columns.

“That turned out to be a great opportunity for me. I had an epiphany and realised that it was the novel plot that I’d always been looking for and off I went.”

IMG_0012AWendy thought that Simply Divine might be turned into a Hollywood film when Warner Brothers took an option on it. But it never materialised.

“It was incredibly exciting. They used to renew the option annually. It was loads of money and it was great. We used to live in a village and I got the whole cottage roof replaced by Warner Brothers!”

Wendy’s first book deal was for two novels. It was when she landed a second contract that she decided to become a full-time writer.

She was living in a flat in King’s Cross and visiting Derbyshire at weekends. After her son Andrew, now 14, was born, she and husband Jon, a political consultant, moved up here permanently. They also have a 12-year-old daughter, Isabella.

“Living in Derbyshire has been a great inspiration. I realised there was a lot to write about, there was a lot of material in swopping the city for the country, particularly as suddenly as I did.

“I actually found that living in the country was a lot more interesting because when you live in the city you go to work, you come back, you’re in your flat, you do the hamster-wheel thing, whereas here there’s so much going on all the time and there are lots of great characters.

“Honeymoon Suite is partly inspired by the country, by living here, and Laura Lake’s next adventure will take place in a village, so I get endless inspiration from living here.”

IMG_0009AWendy writes every day, either working on her next novel or writing articles. She reviews popular fiction for the Daily Mail, giving her views on three new novels each month, and she has been a judge for the Costa Book Awards. But she doesn’t intend to return to journalism.

“It’s really interesting to review for the Mail because you see what kind of books are being published and what people are writing. I think it’s important as a writer of contemporary fiction to keep your eye on what’s coming out, to see if anyone else is doing the same thing – which thankfully they’re not.

“I don’t think I’d really want to go back to journalism but I keep writing features to keep my hand in because I see it as my trade. That was one of the things the late, great Adrian Gill (food and travel writer A A Gill) said to me as I was leaving the Sunday Times: he said don’t forget that journalism is your trade.”

Many writers say they have a lonely existence because they are on their own when they write. Wendy agrees and shares her way of working.

“I’m lucky because I enjoy writing my books and they’re fun to write. Some people can write with radios on and people in the background. There are people who write in coffee shops. But I don’t do that. I’ve got to be on my own, sometimes even with earplugs in.”

Wendy stresses that she likes to have lots of things going on and puts her “massive” work ethic down to her Yorkshire roots. “I think if you’re a writer it’s such a fantastic privilege – I still can’t get over the fact that people pay me to write for a living. It’s just amazing – not something I ever thought would happen realistically. I think I’m really fortunate so I do as much as I can. I very rarely turn a commission down, whatever it is.”

Wendy, described in some publications as one of the founders of the chick lit movement, sees herself more as a satirist writing glamorous comedies.

IMG_0006AHer next book will be called Laura Lake and the Celebrity Meltdown. Wendy is hoping readers will take to Laura.

“That’s my ambition – to make her somebody that people want to read about who will cheer people up.”

So who is Laura Lake? “She’s not a drip – she’s quite feisty, she’s not put off by adversity. She’s a woman of today but she’s a little bit different.

“She’s half-French and she’s got this granny who gives her lots of life advice, like always have a glass of champagne before you read the papers because the news is a lot better that way – useful advice that we could all do with.”

Laura Lake may mean that Wendy Holden returns to the top of the Sunday Times best sellers – her book Fame Fatale was the number one in 2002. Whatever happens, she is contracted to produce another six Laura Lakes and you can be sure that comedy will be a crucial element.

“I think, particularly now, people need something uplifting and fun to read. I hope that I’m going to be able to give them that because there’s not really much else out there. I want to give people a reason to smile in 2017.”

* This article appeared in the March 2017 edition of Country Images magazine

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