Will Self Meets Joanna Trollope

She was the best-selling queen of the romantic Aga saga. He was the enfant terrible of the right-on urban literati. Would the earth move when their paths crossed?
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I quite like Joanna Trollope; she's warm, engaged and responsive, and clearly has her heart in approximately the right place. To me, she is a quintessentially English phenomenon, the lower-middlebrow novelist who has just enough sophistication to be able to convince her readership that they may be getting an upper-middlebrow product.

She's also quite vulnerable, Joanna, and has had quite a monstering from the Daily Mail, that paper bastion of Agashire, which is, of course, her proper province. In an interview in another newspaper last week, Joanna seemingly admitted to leading a rather unseemly life nowadays, cruising the London streets on the lookout for thirtysomething men to have uncommitted sex with. She also posed for a photographer, exhibiting her long, slim legs clad in fishnet stockings. Predictably, the envious wrath of middle-aged Middle England descended on her, this scion of the sleeveless anorak and the Liberty headscarf. "I was miserable, and I then had stringers from the Daily Mail all over my patch in the country, my mother... everyone you can think of, trying to get people to rubbish me. And you do then feel like a cornered animal... I'm just so conscious a lot of the time that it's horrible for my children, having a well-known mother; it's beastly having a parent in the public eye."

I observe to Joanna that it's really quite vulgar, being famous, and she concedes that it is. She says that she continues to publicise her books quite as much as she does because she's "always waiting to go out of fashion, because with every book I think this will be it... and I suppose I've had a sort of superstition about prolonging that moment", but that "after last week I'm asking myself very seriously why." She says that the remarks about sex she made were general, rather than specific to her, and were quite misrepresented. Anyway, she said those things only after courteously answering a long string of sexual enquiries. I believe her in all this. Joanna doesn't want to make a fuss, although when I ask if she'd like me to outline the dispute as I have above, she says: "That would be excellent, Will."

Joanna uses my first name quite a lot when we talk, and I think this is partly sincere and partly political. She's quite attractive and looks – as many have observed – young for her 58 years. However, not absurdly, Dorian Gray-ishly so; she's no Marie Helvin. I think the brouhaha that surrounds poor youthful Joanna has as much to do with her rotten old borough of a constituency as it does with anything intrinsic to her. Sitting on the other side of a boring coffee table, in the dull matutinal hinterland of the Soho members' club in which we meet for an hour on a rainy weekday, she looks sleek in flared leather trousers, a hip-length woollen jacket with a leather collar, and silver jewellery (Boadicea shield-boss earrings, thin, multi-stranded bracelet). She looks, in fact, like what she is: a million-selling lady novelist of a certain age. The trouble is that on the evidence of her conversation, that age is about 33 rather than 58, and quite a young 33 at that.

There's this business of the "Will"s to begin with – when I tell her that both my parents are dead (hers are alive), her emotion swells and prolapses all over the table: "Oh, Will, I am so sorry!", although she then qualifies this by conceding that it's my children and my parents that she's sorry for. The Daily Mail feels that Joanna has reinvented herself as a leggy sex siren in order to flog more books, particularly as her latest, Girl from the South, features 30-year-old protagonists and is set in the distinctly racy environs of Parsons Green.

But Joanna says: "If I was once seen as a provincial housewife in a Laura Ashley cardie under an apple tree with Labradors – which was also a misrepresentation – the life I'm living now does not lack its own integrity; it is not a false façade. There's a sort of abiding irritation about being assumed somehow not to be true to yourself." Well, indeed, and I don't think for a minute Joanna has self-consciously and manipulatively created a new public image to sell books. No, I think she's distinctly immature and, despite 10 years of media exposure, she doesn't quite understand that press interviews are not the place to discuss your jejune self-image problems.

Joanna's had quite a bad time. Her second marriage, of 18 years, ended in divorce three years ago, and she had quite a severe breakdown that left her virtually incommunicado for a further year. Now, she's living in west London (she won't be more specific, as she savours her newfound metropolitan anonymity), attending cultural events galore, dating and – of course – writing more stories. I think Joanna's quite modest, but not as modest as she would like to be. To me she says of her books: "I think they're good, with distinct weaknesses, and sometimes I think I have a flash of insight. But there's a huge difference between being good and being great. It's very difficult to know, isn't it, looking at our contemporaries, who will emerge as great. Y'know, I think the odd John Fowles will. Penelope Fitzgerald I think will, but I'm under absolutely no illusion about where I fit in. I'm right for these times; I've got a kind of acuteness about contemporary relationships that's right for now, but it's not going to be right for ever."

Discounting the oddity of finding myself bracketed with her as a contemporary of J Fowles (b1926) and P Fitzgerald (b1916) – which rather stretches the notion of contemporaneity beyond the bounds of my sense – I find this 'umble dismissal of her craft by Joanna as being mere "acuity" quite difficult to take, as the only other writer she ascribes it to is the one she insists on calling "the real Trollope". No, Joanna has that affectation of the successful of appearing to be dismissive of her own standing, while clearly believing that the important voting is done by the feet of a thousand thousand readers. "I read every review, and the bad ones, if written by someone I admire, I take really to heart; I mean I think we can all profit from them. But the people I have the greatest faith in are the readers. They are amazing; they're the ones that have contributed to professional confidence."

Well, indeed, and why shouldn't she feel that way? Joanna has quite a passion for the queer intimacy afforded her by her craft. To me she says, "I met a woman in France last year who said to me, 'You've been sitting in my kitchen for the last three years!' " She admits, quite shamelessly, that she conducts numerous interviews as part of the research for her novels, but when I put it to her that this suggests she doesn't have much faith in her imagination, she vehemently asserts: "I'm not looking for information; I'm looking for what I expect to be the case to be confirmed." She's been quite nettled by reviewers who've said that her thirtysomethings in the latest book wouldn't use the archaisms she ascribes to them – "I wanted to hear it in their language, the urgency of their feelings... " I think the truth is that her interviewees – whom Joanna obtains by word of mouth – come from exactly her milieu, and that explains why they all sound rather like characters in a Joanna Trollope novel.

This quite blinkered perception of the world is common to the novelist and the books. Joanna is the sort of woman who says, "I'm just like every woman of my generation: we can all speak adequate French, we all went to ballet class and we can all ride." The missing adjectives in her sentence being, quite clearly, "upper-middle-class English". In a whole class, we would call this attitude bigotry; in a single woman of Joanna's age and breadth of experience, one can only call it naivety. Her observations on the current generation of thirtysomethings, as against her own generation at that age, are inconsistent and near-contradictory. She says to me at one point: "They're not politicised like my generation were at university. There's no clear-cut ambition for the world the way I remember it at university in the Sixties." Yet a few minutes later she announces: "There's a freedom for radicalism now that there really wasn't when I was growing up. I mean, that was one of the things that charmed me about the age group in this book – how free they are of so many of the assumptions and prejudices that we all grew up with in the Sixties."

Still, I wouldn't wish tedious consistency on Joanna, any more than I want her dragged back to the shires, kicking and screaming. She concedes that her success and consequent wealth have divorced her somewhat from her readers, but she's determined not to lose touch with "the little daily lacerations of the spirit" that she writes so acutely about. I suspect the truth is that while Joanna remains so in thrall to the way she and her work are received by the world, there are plenty more little lacerations in store for her. And that's quite a shame.