A grand, redbrick hotel on a cliff overlooking the sea. Yes, the scene was like something out of a novel – which was rather appropriate considering we were all there to hear author Jill Mansell talk about her new book, You and Me, Always.
The event was part of the Purbeck Literary Festival and Jill had driven through the wilds of the Somerset and Dorset countryside to meet scores of her fans.
Interviewed by writer and Swanage hotelier Lyn Fegan, Jill talked about her progression from her hospital job in clinical neurophysiology to bestselling novelist.
She was first inspired to write a book after reading a magazine article about four women who had transformed their lives by writing fiction. She joined an evening class, learned what worked and what didn’t by reading excerpts to the rest of the class, gave up watching Coronation Street and EastEnders so she had more time to write and attempted to produce a Mills & Boon romance. “But Mills & Boon kept saying there were too many jokes and my writing was too funny,” laughed Jill.
Jill’s first book, Fast Friends, was published in 1992 and her latest is her 27th novel so Mills & Boon’s loss is clearly our gain.
Her books have been translated into more than 30 languages and she now writes one book a year, always in longhand. Her late mother used to type her manuscripts – “which is why there is no sex in my books.” Now her 23-year-old daughter types them – “and if anyone over 25 kisses somebody she goes ‘oh, gross.’” Jill’s mum used to help her out with details like daffodils not being out in November while her daughter puts her straight if a 21-year old character in her writing says something like “oh crikey.”
Jill writes between 9am and 3pm every day but doesn’t do lots of drafts, preferring to make alterations as she goes along. She doesn’t write in chapters either. She leaves natural breaks and inserts her chapter headings once she’s finished the novel. She also uses a timeline of pieces of paper taped together so she doesn’t forget crucial details.
Asked where she finds her inspiration from she revealed that she found the plot for one of her novels from agony aunt Denise Robertson on ITV’s This Morning. “Someone phoned in and said ‘it’s my 40th birthday and I want to have a 40th birthday party but my mother has told the new man in her life that she is only 48.’ I used that story in one of my books.”
Jill never sits in the quiet carriage on trains (unlike me) and often gets ideas from snippets of conversation she hears. She doesn’t plan her novels out in advance – “I prefer writing into the mist,” she said.
Jill reads avidly, although these days she enjoys reading novels outside her own genre, particularly thrillers. Her favourite author of all, though, is Jilly Cooper. She first met Jilly years ago at a book awards ceremony. It had been snowing heavily and Jill was worried about how she was going to get back to Bristol that night. Jilly immediately offered her a lift back to her own house in the Cotswolds, saying she could stay the night and go home the next day. Jill didn’t take her up on the offer but added: “How kind was that? Jilly is such a lovely person.”