Adele Parks: 'I think I am a really good writer'
She has fought to escape the derogatory term 'chick lit'. Danuta Kean talks to her about her latest novel
Adele Parks is in the middle of a rant. "It's so sexist," she storms, wielding her hair straighteners like castrating irons. "No other genre is given a sexist name. Crime, science fiction, fantasy, none are named in a sexist way apart from, hey presto" – I dodge as the straighteners come dangerously near – "the one genre women write and read."
We are in her bedroom talking about "chick lit" as the bestselling author gets ready for The Independent on Sunday's photographer, who is setting up downstairs. Like the rest of the house, the room is tasteful, well-proportioned, modern and monochrome. Parks's anger adds a flash of colour.
"I think women are really interesting and much more complex than a stupid title like 'chick lit' would make you believe." She spits out the genre name like corked Chardonnay. The name has attached itself like a limpet to Parks and a generation of female writers, including Marian Keyes and Jane Green, since they burst on to the literary scene 15 years ago.
"I didn't think of myself as chick lit when I was writing, although I read Bridget Jones and Marian Keyes," recalls the author. "I didn't think about it until I was at a library event when someone put their hand up and asked, 'How do you feel about being called chick lit?' I just looked at her and said: 'Am I?' I wasn't being rude, I had just not thought of myself like that. She said, 'Well yes.' So I said, 'Define chick lit.' She answered, 'Oh, it's about young single women who drink too much Chardonnay while looking for a husband.' So I said, "I have never written about a single woman looking for a husband.'"
As she recounts the story, her Teesside accent hardens. But I understand why Parks is angry: since launching her career with Playing Away in 2000, every one of her 12 novels has reached the top 10. None has featured those chick-lit staples: desperate single women, gay male best friends or the drunken, desperate pursuit of an unattached widower or significantly wounded single man.
Instead, her career has been marked by a wilful determination to veer away from the expected, both in subject matter – "I could have become the 'go to adultery girl' after my first book" – and plot – she dismisses writers of books in which she guesses the ending as "lazy". Parks surprises and absorbs in equal measure.
Her latest novel, Whatever It Takes, is no exception. Thirtysomething Eloise Hamilton is the kind of smug married mother-of-three Bridget Jones should slap. A stay-at-home wife, she is married to solicitor Mark who determines they should swap their chichi lives in north London for the cosy charm of Dartmouth, where his parents are ready to offer 24-hour support.
The next stop should be the cover of Country Homes & Interiors, but Eloise has a problem: her best friend Sara Woddell, whose desperation to have a child borders on personality disorder. Eloise is the kind of forever best friend Eloise herself always wanted. Sara is an emotional leech: happy to feed off that need to be needed. At its core, the friendship is rotten.
"My last book, About Last Night, was about a very genuine female friendship," Parks explains. "What I needed for my own fun was to flip that, so that the next book would be about a really toxic relationship." She is only half-serious. From a large matriarchal family, she learnt storytelling listening to generations of Parks women gossiping around the table. "I think I absorbed it all early on. I am interested in the make-up of people, how they work, untangling their narrative," she says. In particular, she is fascinated by the way women interact: their friendships, rivalries and support of one another.
"Women are not especially good at saying, 'This doesn't work for me.'" she observes. I wonder how good Parks is at setting boundaries. I arrived 10 minutes early to the interview in her red-brick townhouse. On the edge of Guildford, in a private estate the developers probably marketed as Regency, I stood at the door expecting French nails and perfect hair. Instead, she looks startled, her white jeans and plum T-shirt thrown on, her face bare of make-up. She greets me with an "I thought this was a telephone interview" as she opens the door.
It sets the tone of the next hour, which leaves me feeling like Parks's New Best Friend. I toured her house. We swapped war stories about the nursery and school gates, as well as talking about makeup and men.
But when I listen back to the interview, I realise she gives away less in person than I gleaned from research. I know she is having a house built nearby – "I haven't taken to townhouse living" – and that second husband Jim comes home for lunch every day, and her 10-year-old son, Conrad, is an only child. That she was divorced at 32, proposed to 17 times and thought about having a second child when she hit 40 "because she wanted to be 31 again" is from the cuttings.
Readers looking for glimpses of Parks between the covers of her books will be equally frustrated. "I am so long in the tooth in this game now that I don't have to write characters that are me or parts of me," the 43-year-old warns. But I suspect Parks is tougher, more determined than the chatty warmth suggests.
It is there when she confides: "I think I am a really good writer." With sales of over two million, and a career as a novelist that has seen off lesser rivals, she should be more confident than she sounds. But that is the damage a pejorative term like "chick lit" does. It takes successful female writers and dismisses them. But I don't think Adele Parks needs to worry.
Whatever It Takes, By Adele Parks
'Sara had always believed that Eloise rather liked having a friend who didn't fall into one of the usual categories. Sara was useful to Eloise. Eloise was free to tell Sara stories about the girls' triumphs and Sara would celebrate them, rather than trump them, the way friends with children of their own so often did ... Sara and Eloise had never competed on the same stage and there must have been some compensation in that.'
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