What better way to spend a chilly autumnal evening than listening to the wonderful Jilly Cooper in conversation with Sunday Times columnist India Knight? Like millions of readers, I’ve adored Jilly Cooper’s novels for decades. As a teenager I remember reading a serial of hers called Circles in 19, my favourite magazine at the time (now sadly defunct). She later rewrote it and it metamorphosed into Emily, the first of her six short romantic novels. Fellow devotees will understand when I’m talking about when I say that Rory Balniel is like Rupert Campbell-Black’s Scottish cousin – just as impossible and just as devastating.
Jilly isn’t easy to interview, mainly because she always tries to ask the interviewer about themselves, but India Knight managed it with charm and aplomb. The talk flowed easily at London’s Mermaid Theatre, ranging from Jilly’s fondness for the work of Barbara Pym, Anthony Powell and Nancy Mitford to the fact that out of her own books Rivals is her favourite to the novel she is currently writing about the world of football. A man in the audience asked why she was writing about football rather than rugby, to which she replied: “It’s richer and sexy and much more corrupt.”
It helped, of course, that India Knight is a huge devotee of Jilly herself. As she told the audience at the start: “I have loved her books passionately with all my heart, from when I was a schoolgirl and read Octavia.”
India Knight began by asking Jilly about the writing process. “It’s like taking an A level – rather a low A level,” laughed Jilly. “The trouble is that I get terribly fond of all my characters. I go off in all directions and the books get longer and longer.” She still, of course, types everything on Monica, her trusty old typewriter. Even though “lots of earnest men and women” have tried to teach her to use a computer she always goes back to Monica.
Asked what she thought of Donald Trump, Jilly didn’t hesitate, explaining that she met him when she was researching Polo. “He was so dismissive and unfriendly and uncharming,” she said. “He’s awful.” Later on someone in the audience asked her who was her least favourite character in her novels and she declared it was Etta’s son Martin in Jump, a “beastly” fundraiser who insists on calling Etta “Mother”, moves her to a horrible bungalow when her husband dies and makes her babysit his two children day in, day out.
India Knight was surprised that Jilly is so self-deprecating. “You must know you are marvellous,” she said, which made Jilly momentarily speechless. Later on Jilly was on the verge of tears when a woman clad in a black jumper emblazoned with the words JILLY COOPER stood up to explain that she and a group of friends had set up a book club dedicated to her and they were all in the audience. “You are the person who got us through our teenage years,” she said. “There is nobody like you.” She asked Jilly what advice she could pass on in life, to which Jilly replied: “Trust in the unexpected” (a line from Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain). “I think it’s terribly important to love one’s children and love one’s husband and when you see someone, think of something to cheer them up.”
Jilly mentioned her late husband Leo a lot during the course of the evening, He was ill for many years – “we had a long time to say goodbye,” she said. She has two children she adores, four grandchildren and “a heavenly PA called Amanda” who was sitting in the audience, but she missed Leo. “I miss having a good bitch after parties,” she said.
Mount! by Jilly Cooper (Bantam Press, £20)