I’ve mentioned earlier my love of Penny Vincenzi novels so you can imagine my excitement when, just before Christmas, I noticed she had a new book out. My idea of escapist reading has always been a 700-odd page saga with a cast of more than 20 characters that explores the huge, messy themes of life. My perfect holiday read.
To be honest, it’s my perfect-any-time-of-year read as her stories are so readable. Page-turning. As she said in a recent Sydney Morning Herald interview, “I write to entertain my readers and hopefully make their lives just a little better, not to win prizes. What I like best is when I get notes from readers who tell me they've had a long spell in hospital and my book has helped them get through it; that makes me very happy.''
I laughed. In the last few years, I have only been able to convert a few friends to becoming Vincenzi fans during enforced rest time: late-stages of pregnancy, or looking for something ‘easy’ to read during all the hours spent breast-feeding and most recently, a friend who spent a spell in hospital.
While pregnant with Ned, I had the opportunity to interview Penny for Good Reading magazine and leapt at it. Despite her success – 16 bestsellers and seven million books sold to date – she is extremely modest, spending much of our interview time asking me questions about my pregnancy and telling me stories about her own four children and grandchildren.
But, about her career and her writing, here is what she had to say...
First published in Good Reading magazine October 2005
Penny For Her Thoughts
Watching Penny Vincenzi pour our tea from across the table, I am struck by how unaffected she is. Despite having sold over five million books worldwide, she is more interested in my pregnancy and chatting about her husband and four daughters, than promoting her latest novel, Sheer Abandon. Settling back into our armchairs, the pregnancy conversation segues towards the idea for her latest novel.
Sheer Abandon follows the lives of three women who meet aged 18 on their way to Thailand. Nine months later, one of them returns to London, giving birth at Heathrow Airport and abandoning the baby. The book moves forward 16 years, when the women are reunited and the now-teenager begins the search for her natural mother.
“The original idea came from a story in the paper. I thought it was an irresistible idea for a book but there needed to be more. Then I thought of the three girls, not knowing who the mother was and the story slowly unravelling. I also realised that the emotional fallout of everyone finding out years later would be as hard to cope with as the discovery.”
As with all Penny’s books, she doesn’t know how her stories will end: “I start with the idea, marshal a few of my characters…it’s a bit like going to a party and thinking ‘He looks interesting’, ‘she looks smart’ and I gradually get to know them. Then I wind them up, off they go and I follow them. They very much shape the plot as they take on a will of their own.”
Indeed, she is often as shocked as the reader with plot twists: “I remember with one book, after writing all day I went for an evening walk with my husband. I was telling him about the terrible day I’d had with one of the characters and then I realised, oh my God, she’s died! And it really was a shock. The minute I said it, I knew it had to happen for the story to work.”
Any fan of Vincenzi’s work will know that all her books are at least 500 pages — and you still don’t want them to end — packed with extraordinary detail of the characters, their careers, and the era and society they live in. Unsurprisingly, research is one of the things Penny loves most about writing:
“I used to be a journalist and it was such a lovely, chatty job; whereas fiction is incredibly isolating. Doing research is like being a journalist again.” Politics plays a major role in Sheer Abandon; a world she knew little about: “I spent a lot of time at the House of Commons talking to MPs and political journalists, going to their restaurants and bars…soaking up the atmosphere. You have to get the tone of voice right, so I spent a lot of time listening and immersing myself in their world.”
With Penny’s natural flair for creating such readable escapist fiction, it is a shock to discover she never intended to write a book, or that even after writing the first one she would become a novelist:
“I was approached to write a novel and I had an idea so thought I’d do it and then go back to being a journalist. It was a complete surprise to me how much I loved it and how it has turned into something really wonderful. I’m amazed that I have all these plots and sub-plots in my head!”
After writing a book nearly every year, and Sheer Abandon being her 12th novel, it does seem the ideas have never stopped flowing: “I’m very workman like about what I do. While I have days when I can’t write, I just sit there and sweat it out. I think it’s a bit of a luxury to get writer’s block. I’ve always got a deadline, so have to keep going.”
Up at 6am every morning, Penny walks her dog and during this time does her plotting. She is at her desk and writing by 9am. “I work office hours really but as a deadline gets nearer, I’ll do six days a week, then sometimes seven.”
She is also very aware of balancing her life: “I have a family and it’s not fair to them so I do stop work in the evenings and cook my husband supper. I’m a good 50s housewife: I cook, shop and keep house for him because that’s how I was brought up and I can’t change it! My children and grandchildren take up a lot of time too…they’re the only ones I will stop work for.”
As we sit with our second cup of tea, analysing her characters as if they were real friends, it is evident that Penny is a long way from running out of fresh ideas. “I love finding these people, seeing their foibles and strengths. It’s my favourite part and it’s a hideous blank when you finish.”
As it is for her readers.