Family inheritance: Revenge of the stepmothers...
It started with a column in which she described herself as a 'fairy-tale baddie'. Now Sam Baker has been offered a six-figure advance for a novel about women who become stepmums
Wednesday 02 July 2008
First came Bridget Jones who made it acceptable for young single women to go home and drink a bottle of wine on their own. Then came "mummy lit", which made nappies as aspirational as a City bonus. Now, the biggest familial taboo is about to be broken: the wicked stepmother is to get her own back.
Sam Baker, editor of the women's magazine, Red, has been given a six-figure advance to write about the trials and tribulations of loving a man whose children are not your own. The Stepmother's Support Group, to be published next September, gives a voice to stepmothers who find themselves at the mercy of both difficult children and equally difficult men.
The novel, based around Natalie, a magazine journalist whose partner is a widower with three children, will vindicate the much-maligned figure of the stepmother. The publishing world, ever hungry to tap into the growing market for stories about female friendships and bonding in times of adversity has hailed the tale as "Sex and the City for stepmothers". It has been bought by HarperCollins for what is being described as a "good" six-figure sum.
Baker, 41, a former editor of Cosmopolitan and New Woman, was inspired after she wrote a candid letter to her readers last June, describing the trials of becoming a stepmother, labelling them "the most loathed of fairy-tale baddies". She was astonished after being deluged by hundreds of sympathy notes and emails from women in the same situation.
She was so inspired by some of the women's stories that she has conceived the plot of her book which focuses on five fictitious characters – most of them stepmothers – and their respective romances, relationships with each other and the often difficult children they have to parent. "One of the reasons there are around five main characters is so that each character can present a different perspective. One of the characters has a stepmother who she hated when she was young and made her life difficult. When she is older, she develops a different take on it. It's often not the stepmother who creates difficulties, the father can play a role, the ex-wife plays a role and the children play a role at times," said Baker, who was partly inspired by her own experience of becoming a stepmother to a nine-year-old when she was 26.
"We did a feature in the magazine about stepmothers and single mothers and because I try and write quite personal editor's letters in the front of every magazine, I wrote a bit about being 24 years old and meeting my (future) stepson who was six at the time. I got married at the age of 26 to my husband, who was 10 years older than me. At the time, I felt like there was no one I could talk to. It's not easy to talk about with friends.
"I did a radio interview about the subject after that and people started phoning in, asking me for advice, and the bags of mail from readers really struck a chord. It's quite taboo to talk about, the idea of taking on someone else's children to a lesser or greater degree, whether they will live with you and that you are not their mother. I started thinking "what does a stepmother look like?" she said.
Her aim, she says is to dismantle the stereotype of the "wicked" stepmother. "It's one of the things that I felt really strongly about, the idea of the evil stepmother and the minute you find yourself in that situation, you are judged and there are certain things expected of you," she said. "When I started my research, I found there was an enormous quantity of abuse out there towards stepmothers, whatever the culture, be it Greek myth, fairy-tales or the modern day," she said.
Baker whose tale sees Natalie endure a disastrous first meeting with the children, before forming a support group, has so far submitted a third of the novel to HarperCollins. She is the author of two books, Fashion Victim, and This Year's Model. She is married to the science-fiction writer Jon Courtenay Grimwood.
Lynne Drew, publishing director for HarperCollins, was so struck by Baker's initial letter and subsequent response that she called her less than 24 hours after receiving her manuscript to offer her a substantial "pre-emptive" offer which acquired the publishing rights without further negotiation, for Britain as well as Europe, as part of a two-book deal.
The book will hope to build on the success of previous books by journalists based on female bonding. Helen Fielding's novel, Bridget Jones Diary, which began as a column in The Independent, became a bestseller. Ditto, Candace Bushnell, whose sex column about being single in New York turned into the television series and film Sex and the City. Fiona Neill's The Secret Life of a Slummy Mummy, based on her column in The Times in which she writes about being a slovenly mother, has since been championed by Anna Wintour, editor of American Vogue.
"The thing that really appealed to me was the female friendships and the idea of a group of women supporting each other through tough times, so it's not pegged on the single issue of the 'stepmother'," said Ms Drew.
"I had just watched the Sex and the City film and this book felt of the moment, about friends supporting each other through good times and bad times. That is what she [Baker] has captured."
Ms Drew anticipated that the book, whose rights will be sold to a separate publishing house in America, would hold enormous appeal to readers who were demonstrating a growing appetite for such novels. Previous hits include The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs and The Jane Austen Bookclub by Karen Joy Fowler, which have both been made into films.
"These kind of books have been phenomenally successful in America," she said, "About women befriending each other and coming together to support each other through friendship."
Maureen Freely is a writer, lecturer and stepmother: 'There was a lot of hostility at first but now our children are the greatest of friends'
"When I first became a stepmother almost 20 years ago, I thought all you needed to do is make a new family. But it was more difficult than that. I didn't really know what to do. There was hardly any information out there and even the Government doesn't know how to define a stepfamily.
"With four of my own children and two step-children it was not easyat first. My children and his children did not get along initially. In fact they didn't want to be together. There was a lot of hostility. We had to overcome his children being jealous when he spent time with my children. The way they were brought up was very different. Now, though, they are the greatest of friends and look out for each other.
"I don't think a step-mother can replace the birth mother. That has never been my aspiration in any case. After all, the children do not want you to be a replacement. But it is useful for the stepchild to have another adult in their life who is interested in them. My stepson is in the arts so it is a great pleasure for me to share that with him, without treading on anyone's toes."
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