Freya North: 'I just want a happy-ever-after ending'
The best-selling romance novelist tells James Kidd how her writing is therapeutic as well as escapist
You can call Freya North's novels many things. Romances, commercial women's fiction, steamy beach reads. But whatever you do, don't call them Chick Lit. "If anyone called me a chick, I'd belt them," North says when I mention the dreaded phrase.
North knows her writing isn't to everyone's taste. "My father has only read 23 words of my books," she says. "The 24th was 'clitoris'." But after two decades of writing fun, fizzy stories of girl-meets-boy; girl-shags-boy, North is weary, or possibly just bored, with defending her work. "People pooh-pooh commercial fiction as light and fluffy. But it is perennially popular because it describes everyday folk. I like to think I give my readers a mirror to their own lives, and a feel-good feeling at the end. Life is too tough for anything else."
I meet North at the Groucho Club in London. The 44-year-old now lives in rural Hertfordshire, where she moved after separating from her long-term partner and father of her two young children. The relocation also enabled North to be close to her mother, who was then recovering from cancer. "I knew we were back to normal when she really pissed me off again. The status quo had been re-established."
In conversation, North is a personification of her fiction. She is funny, smart, unpretentious and frequently saucy, albeit not always intentionally. I ask whether she uses modern technologies such as Facebook or Twitter to communicate with her readers. "I don't get off on gadgets," she replies, giggling at her own innuendo.
The intersection between life and art has proved central to North's success. (Her 11 novels have sold more than two million copies in the UK.) Take her new novel Rumours, whose heroine is a dead ringer for North herself: Stella is a newly single art history graduate who reboots her life in rural Hertfordshire. After her small gallery closes, she works at her uncle's estate agency, landing a plumb if formidable client, Lady Lydia Fortescu. Rumours has many ingredients of a classic romance: the hunky but vulnerable hero, Xander Fletcher, for one. But there is plenty more besides. Among the grittier issues confronting North's characters are suicide, the recession, single parenthood and the dire consequences of drink-dating.
For North, writing enables her to process her own life, for better or worse. "It is very cathartic. Other authors use it as a form of escapism. For me, it's a way to structure my feelings." That North's stories end in contented bliss is partly wish fulfilment, but also an extension of her own resilient optimism. Writing her previous novel, Chances, helped North navigate her recent personal crises. "Chances was unapologetically happy-ever-after. A friend told me to write my own happy ending. It was a soothing balm to my daytime which was beset with worries about my family."
Fairytale endings are also a requirement of romantic fiction. North was raised on a diet of classic romps – Tom Jones and her beloved Moll Flanders – and modern updates of the form. "I remember books by Jackie Collins and Olivia Goldsmith passed furtively around the classroom." She was drawn to the very British, mildly eccentric characters that populated Jilly Cooper and Mary Wesley's fiction. But something was missing. "Cooper was my mum's generation, Wesley my grandmother's. I wanted to read about people like me and my friends. I wanted a story that recounted things that we did, the way we felt, the fruity language that we used. Our squelchy fumblings and faffings with unsuitable boys."
In the 1980s, North couldn't find this story in any bookshop, so she wrote one herself. After two novels were rejected, she succeeded with Sally in 1991. This helped create the template of sex, romance and realism that would eventually spawn Chick Lit. "The classic bonkbuster tends to be quite remote from daily experiences. The hero is an unbelievably dashing film producer or international shipping magnate. The heroine is glamorous, tall and willowy. The locations are Monaco and LA. They aren't Middlesbrough, where some of my books have been set."
North didn't cast off the bonkbuster completely. Rumours may be no Fifty Shades of Grey, but its supply of sex is plentiful enough to warrant 30 shades at least. This has its challenges. "I wrote one sex scene," North recalls, "and after I read it through, I realised that in the jumble of limbs, the bloke had one right leg and two left legs." But while North's father understandably averts his eyes, other male readers have proved positively grateful. "One man shook my hand. Apparently his wife had read one of my books and they'd had the fruitiest holiday. They are good couple's therapy."
While her fiction continues to focus on romantic love, North herself has sought help in other places. Her two children, for example. "We are an exceptionally tight little unit." Her new life in the English countryside is another source of solace. North makes her own elderflower wine, has opened the local tennis courts, is organising a festival of children's literature, and has even appeared in the local pantomime.
Finally, she has found strength in the company of female friends. "People want me to find a handsome prince, like my heroines. My experience is that it isn't men who make everything better. It's these fantastic women. When you're in your forties, you don't expect to meet a clutch of new people who enhance your life so beautifully."
Despite her recent heartbreak, North hasn't lost faith in romance completely. She still falls in love with her heroes, although this makes her realise that none of her real-life boyfriends ever read her novels. "I don't know why," North wonders aloud. "I tell you something though. I bet they read them after they split up with me." She laughs. "The pen really is mightier than the sword."
Rumours, By Freya North
Harper Fiction £7.99
"The trouble with rumours, thought Stella, is that once the seed is planted, roots spread and the whole thing rampages around like ground elder. As fast as you pull it up, renegade shoots are already off on tangents.
But then she thought, it's impossible for something to grow from nothing. However tiny, there's always a seed of truth that starts it all off.
A bit like Love really."
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