Hester Browne is the author of numerous bestselling novels including The Little Lady Agency in the Big Apple, The Finishing Touches and Swept Off Her Feet. She divides her time between London and Herefordshire. Her latest book is ‘The Runaway Princess’.
- Your latest story “The Runaway Princess” is about Amy Wilde who falls for Prince Leopold and when they become engaged, a scandal makes him heir to the throne. But as their wedding becomes more extravagant, Amy begins to feels worried and unsure of whether she’s the girl, Leo thinks she is, especially when there is a scandal within her own family. But can she run from her true love and maybe return to her life as a commoner? What inspired you to write this type of story?
I have a guilty fascination with poor Charlene of Monaco – did she really try to flee the country three times before her wedding, only to be stopped at the airport and have her passport impounded? I mean, really? Even if it’s not true, imagine being in a position where people are making that kind of thing up about you! And then her wedding photos! Even if she was overcome with joy at marrying Prince Albert, heir to Monaco’s glittery fairyland and middle-aged father of several unofficial kids, she couldn’t even have a little weep without TEARS OF THE TRAGIC PRINCESS appearing over the photos. And Kate Middleton – how must she have felt when Channel 4 made that documentary specifically to inform the country that her third cousin twice removed was a bin man? It made me wonder how much of that you’d put up with in order to marry the man you loved – and, in fact, if any of us got engaged to Prince Harry, how much damage limitation would we have to do to our own families? And what if the press started digging up more than you knew yourself?
- Sticking with the royalty theme. Who is your favourite member of the Royal family?
The Queen. I think she’s an example to us all: a well-informed woman who’s worked extremely hard, way beyond the age that most of us would be retiring to our armchair with the Radio Times and the biscuit tin, she’s maintained excellent relationships with her colleagues (you can barely find a politician from any party who doesn’t admire her), she’s raised four children, she’s coped with family tragedy (and embarrassments) as well as national disaster, employed hundreds of people, found her own style, never put a foot wrong… God bless you, ma’am. And your somewhat under-appreciated husband, who was a total catch.
- To the readers of the website, that may not familiar with you or your writing, can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into writing?
I used to work in publishing, and loved women’s fiction of all descriptions, from Nancy Mitford to Chrissie Manby. After one funny New Year’s holiday in Ireland, I was inspired by my boyfriend’s bachelor friends to write ‘The Little Lady Agency’, about a can-do Sloane called Melissa who sets up her own freelance girlfriend agency to come to the rescue of single men in need of wardrobe advice, cleaner-chivvying and mother-calming – in the guise of blonde bombshell Honey Blennerhesket. But if Melissa is like Kirstie Allsop’s shyer sister, Honey is Joan Harris from Mad Men’s alluring English cousin, and somehow Honey’s blonde wig and retro stockings unleashes a side of Mel that takes everyone by surprise. It was a lot of fun to write, and I was really thrilled when it was bought by Simon & Schuster in the US as well as by Hodder in the UK.
- What was the first story you ever wrote?
I’ve always written little stories – my mum has my ‘what I did at the weekend’ exercise books from primary school and they go on for *pages*. Seriously, my teachers must have wondered how we fitted it all in. My sister was the same, but interestingly, whereas my accounts were long but with forensic details about what we ate and who was wearing what, Alex was far more imaginative, up to the point of inventing entirely new relatives and minibreaks that Mum had some trouble explaining away at parents’ evenings. Alex is now a teacher. I am a novelist. Hmm.
- Was there ever a book that you read, that didn’t live up to the hype that surrounded it and left you disappointed?
I’ve tried four times to read ‘Birdsong’, and just can’t get beyond about page 100; I’ve also tried and failed with ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’. I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem with the book, though – sometimes your brain isn’t in the right place at that time. I’ve got a whole shelf of books I intend to come back to at some point – ditto, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan and Wagner.
- What authors do you admire?
I love Kate Atkinson’s deftness with words, and her inspired plotting – she plays with language and structure so skilfully, but never at the expense of the story. There’s a snobbery about commercial fiction, that it’s somehow ‘easier’ to write than literary novels, but the conventions are demanding in different ways: was it Hawthorne or Hemingway who said, ‘Easy reading is damn hard writing’? I admire writers like Sophie Kinsella and Marian Keyes, who are able to hook in a remarkable range of readers within a matter of sentences, and then keep them turning the pages, heart in mouth, right up to the end. It might seem effortless, but it takes skill to achieve that wonderful state in which you’re barely aware that you’re reading words because the voices are so alive in your head. Similarly, I love Mary Killen’s journalism, Anthony Trollope, Laurie Graham, and Nancy Mitford, for the smooth way they transport me into their own minds.
- What part of the writing process do you find most difficult?
Finding the right names. It takes me ages. Until I’ve got the right names for the characters, I can’t really start, but until I start, I don’t know exactly what the characters are like, so it’s tricky. My agent must hate it; I keep sending her one-line emails with just ‘Helena?’ or ‘Kim?’ in the subject line. When I get desperate, I open my local paper and start picking names from the Births, Marriages and Deaths (jumbled up, of course).
- If you were stranded on a desert island, which three books would you bring with you to pass the time?
All of the Forsyte Saga – I love family sagas that unfold over generations, and this one is particularly dear to me, as I read it when I first moved to London, and all the references to the Mayfair mansions and ‘out of town’ streets slowly being drawn into the 20th century city remind me of the way I used it as an excuse to explore on the weekends. I’d probably take a long and difficult book I’d struggled to get into before, like ‘Wolf Hall’ (or ‘Birdsong’!), and then something funny to take my mind off things, like the Complete Works of Jilly Cooper.
- Out of the many books that you have read over the years, which one would you have liked to have said “I wrote that”?
Um…. ‘Rachel’s Holiday’ by Marian Keyes? I adore that book. It’s so funny and moving and honest and sexy and real, but having said that, it’s wonderful because it’s so personal to her, so I don’t think I *could* have written it. The idea behind ‘The Last Letter from Your’ Lover by Jojo Moyes is simple and clever – I wish I’d thought of it – but then I don’t know if I could have executed it as elegantly. Predictably, I wish I’d thought of the Harry Potter novels, because like most people I’m a dyed-in-the-wool boarding school story reader with a weakness for bad Latin and clever-clever in-jokes, and I would have LOVED to have had seven whole books to ‘grow’ all those running gags and develop a cast of thousands.
- What area do you suggest a budding writer should concentrate on to further their abilities?
Reading. You really can’t read enough – I hate being on tight deadlines because it plays havoc with my reading shelf! Read and read and read, and then write and write and write until you’ve found your own way of expressing what’s in your head. Then, read aloud what you’ve written – especially dialogue – to check that it’s what people would actually say in real life, rather than what you think they ought to say in books. Nothing will make you spot a cliche or a repeated word faster than reading it aloud.
- When sitting down to write, what is the one item you need beside you?
A cup of coffee. Ideally, I’d have one of those hot plate filters so I wouldn’t have to go to the kitchen to make more, but then my blood stream would be about 75% caffeine. I have a scary tolerance to coffee, which I blame on habits I picked up early in my working life: my first job in publishing was an internship at a lovely art publishers in Kings Cross, where they kept two Italian baristas in reception to make proper cappuccinos and espressos for the staff all day. FOR FREE. (This was the late 90s, ie, what I am starting to refer to as ‘ye good old days’.) Because all the interns were barely being paid enough to cover the bus fare there, we drank a *lot* of free coffee, and as a result, did a lot of work, so I suppose they weren’t so daft…
- And finally Hester, do you have any projects or releases on the horizon which you would like to share with the readers of the website?
I’m focusing on The Runaway Princess coming out today in the UK – I’ve finally got my website sorted out, which should be going live soon, and I want to make sure there’s lots of interesting new material on there for readers to stumble across!