Having written 14 New York Times Best Selling novels and the recently released “Tempting Fate”, do you ever get nervous about maintaining such a long run of success and creativity?
Yes. All of the time, all of the time! That’s one of the reasons I am enormously grateful for my editor because if I say, “I’ve got nothing,” she is the one saying, “That’s not an option.” We’ll sit there and she says, “Tell me about your life, what’s going on? What are you thinking about? What’s going on in your friends’ lives?” and we’ll come up with something. I think the misnomer is that writing is a creative process all of the time and the truth is you can’t wait for inspiration to strike, not when you are on track to do two books a year. You have to sit down and just write and then the inspiration will come.
How do you stay disciplined?
I think part of it comes naturally. I am very driven and I’m sort of your classic ADHD in that I’m either unbelievably and ridiculously disorganized and unfocused or I have the ability to hyperfocus. So when I set my mind to something I am able to put my attention on that.
You quit your full-time job in your 20s to give yourself three months to write a book and within that time got an offer. How did you celebrate after the bidding war?
I bought myself a BMW. I always had these really crappy cars that were sort of falling apart. The first car that I bought myself was a Triumph Spitfire, a little sportscar but it was rusty and had bits falling off. My neighbor said to me, “Don’t spend the money getting the roof done, I’ll do it for you,” and he did it but it never fitted and I used to have to hold it down as I drove. I really felt like I made it with this.
Who was your first phone call?
My dad and we sat on the phone and giggled at the amount of money they were offering.
Was it hard to wrap your head around at first?
It really was. My father was very unsupportive of me leaving my job to write [my first] book. I remember holding the manuscript and saying, “This is my baby,” and my father was like, “Well, that’s all very nice but when are you going to get a proper job?” Then when the offers came in I called my dad and we just giggled.
Describe the process of how storylines come to you. Do you ever dream it?
I never dream it. I keep a notebook next to my bed and sometimes I’ll think of something in the middle of the night and think, “Oh my God, this is going to be the best book I’ve ever written in my entire life,” and I write it down and in the morning I look at it and it is just terrible! So those ideas are never the ones I run with. Every book is different. It can come from a visual snapshot. “The Beach House” was based on a woman I used to see cycling around our neighborhood at midnight with a cigarette in her hand which gave me the idea for Nan. Anything that captures the zeitgeist of something is always a good thing. With “Tempting Fate” it was very much from noticing a trend. I noticed a number of women my age who suddenly announced they have been unhappy for years and left their husbands and we would always find out they were having an affair. I thought, “Well, I’ve never done this.” I’ve never tackled women’s infidelity. I’ve only written about men’s infidelity.
“Tempting Fate” follows Gabby, a happily married housewife and mother of two who gets swept up in an emotional affair with an attractive young entrepreneur. Did your husband ever give you a hard time to ensure life wasn’t imitating art?
Bless his little heart! The inspiration was women I knew who were having affairs and also this sort of realization that at my age, which is 45, I’ve reached an age where I am suddenly invisible. I was walking down Park Avenue one night during rush hour with a sea of men walking towards me and everyone was looking at the 22-year-old on my left or the 23-year-old on my right and not a single one looked at me. I thought, “Oh God, I’ve reached that age.” Then I went to a book festival and did a panel with this rather young, handsome author who started sending me these gently flirtatious emails which was exciting and unsettling and really made me realize how easily these things can happen. I am obviously happily married and now my husband has to sit through talk after talk where I say to people, “These flirtatious emails…” and every time I say it all of the women in the room turn and look at my husband.
How did you two meet?
When my [first] marriage broke up I was living on a very old farm in the country and three days after my former husband moved out I suddenly got this urge to live by the beach and to be by the water for the summer. I [normally] hate the beach. I’ve only ever wanted to live in the country but I decided to go back to Westport, Connecticut because that’s where my best friends are. I googled Westport beach rentals and found this adorable little cottage and phoned the number. The guy picked up and he said, “Jane, we know each other.” I had met him three times through mutual friends and I moved into this beach cottage, fell in love with being by the beach that summer and fell in love with my landlord shortly thereafter and he is now my husband.
Now that sounds like a good book.
Except that you couldn’t write it because no one would believe it. It’s just too perfect.
What gave you the strength to end your first marriage and make a fresh start?
I had been unhappy for such a long time and I was really too frightened to leave and too overwhelmed at the prospect so I told myself that I would stay until the children went to college. That was always my thing. And then it was just one of those little fights and that was it. My first reaction was this overwhelming sense of relief. Then I went through all of the stages of a breakup. You do end up grieving the marriage and it was at times terrifying. There were times when I really didn’t know whether I was going to make it but I wasn’t frightened about being on my own. I’m very blessed because I’ve always worked and supported everyone and being financially independent allowed me to have the choice. I just knew this was not the right partnership for me at all. We were not right together, nor was I right for him … But children change you, your priorities shift once you have children and I actually didn’t want to meet anyone. I didn’t want to get married again. I thought I was going to be on my own very happily. I was looking forward to lots of adventures and then of course [that’s when I met someone].
Were you writing during that time?
I wrote all of the time.
Did that distract you?
Well, you know what, I wasn’t really on my own for very long. My husband moved out April 6th and I moved into the beach cottage in the end of May. I mean, I was on my own for five minutes. I was too busy. On the weekends when the children would go to their father’s I do remember feeling completely lost, I didn’t know who to be. If I wasn’t someone’s wife and I wasn’t someone’s mother, who was I on the weekends? My friends would invite me over and all of their kids would be there and my kids wouldn’t be there. I couldn’t do that so I ended up having two or three friends who were just fantastic to me. Two of them are my best friends, this gay couple, and they would come and pick me up in their very fancy convertible and whisk me off to drunken dinners.
It seems like when you put your mind to something, things happen fast.
My friends describe me as a doer. I’m terrifically impulsive. I’m not frightened to take a leap.
When you are faced with temptation in your own life, how do you talk yourself out of it?
It all comes down to discipline. I have a tremendously addictive personality and really that addiction can go anywhere. So I no longer drink, I no longer eat sugar. Sugar is probably my greatest temptation.
And you were able to cut it out cold turkey?
Once I start I can’t stop. That one bite never ends at one bite … A lot of Jemima’s eating disorder [in “Jemima J”] was based on my own history. I was bulimic when I was younger and I don’t have a healthy relationship with food so I need very clear boundaries around what I eat and how I eat, so not eating sugar at all removes the chaos.
Do you have much free time to enjoy other author’s works?
I don’t read when I’m writing because it’s very easy for me to take on someone else’s voice if it’s a book that I love but when I’m not writing I am reading constantly. It really is unconscious [when I take on someone else’s voice], I’ll suddenly reach the end of a couple of pages [that I’m writing] and I’ll look back and think, “Wow that’s really good,” or, “That doesn’t sound like me,” if I’ve been particularly struck by something that happens. But of course that’s not sustainable so I always have to redo it.
At this level of success, are there any projects you work on that don’t end up being published?
I’ve never really had that and I recognize that I’m incredibly lucky. I have this new editor who works me so hard that now I often have to rewrite. With “Family Pictures” I rewrote almost the entire book. I’ve put much, much more work into things but I’ve never had to abandon anything. I think we’ve done that three chapters in but never more than a handful of chapters.
Are there any other genres you’d like to tackle?
I have always wanted to write a mystery or a suspense because I love reading that but the one time I tried to it was kind of a disaster because I lost sight of the characters. I spent so much energy focusing on the plot and the twist and the turns that I lost sight of the characters. It was “Dune Road”. The editor that I have now specializes in suspense so my books have much more suspense in them because of her but left to my own devices my natural inclination is to fall into melodrama. My first draft always has to be rewritten, it’s always incredibly melodramatic and she then pulls all of the melodrama out of it.
How do you stay grounded when success is all you know?
I had a dip for a couple of years and it didn’t help that I was sick [with Lyme disease] so I couldn’t go out on the road, I couldn’t tour. It felt very quiet and flat for awhile so with this book, “Tempting Fate”, I feel deeply grateful to be all over the place at bookstores because I wasn’t for awhile. I think it’s a great lesson for me. I had so much success so quickly that I took it for granted. I had a dip and the dip was good for me.
Do you ever go back and re-read your classics?
Very rarely. Not the whole thing but sometimes I’ll pick it up and I’ll flip through and think, “Oh my God, that needs a really good edit,” or “Oh, that’s really good actually!”
You are often described as witty, who do you get it from?
I’m probably not very witty in England. I just seem wittier over here. I don’t know, my brother is very funny. My [younger] brother and sister-in-law make me laugh more than anyone in the world.
If you could cast an actress to play Gabby from “Tempting Fate”, who would you choose?
I never think about casting but there was a girl who runs a blog, Melissa Amster, and she cast Minnie Driver as Gabby which I thought was just totally brilliant and inspired. She also had Dermot Mulroney in there as Elliott.
Do you consider yourself to be a romantic person in your private life or do you save it for the pages?
I think I am guilty of romanticizing my life in that whenever I make big changes I have these visions. When I moved to the country I had this vision of myself growing all of my own vegetables, having orchards, having these perfectly behaved children and baking bread. So the reality is sometimes quite disappointing but I don’t tend to dwell on that, I just move on to the next romantic vision.
Hardest decision you’ve ever had to make?
I’m very much a forward-thinker, I really do try to not dwell on the past. My first marriage was a marriage in which I was unhappy however it brought me to where I am today. Had I met my husband Ian [Warburg] at 30 we would never have had a relationship. We might have had a fling but we wouldn’t have had a relationship. I needed to go through what I went through to be ready for him.
What have you found to be the biggest key to a healthy relationship with an ex when kids are involved and you still have to communicate?
I think there are a couple of phrases that come to mind as my mantras in life and one of them is, “Don’t take the bait.” I spend a lot of time working on not reacting to things. My natural inclination is to be incredibly reactive so if I get an angry email I immediately react and I’m learning to pause, take a step back and wait for everything to pass because everything really does pass. I’m not always good at this however refraining from sending those things in the heat of the moment is definitely something that I work on. And then there is another phrase that I love which is, “Say what you mean, mean what you say but don’t say it mean.” Being very clear and setting boundaries are some things I think I’ve had to learn.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
I’d really like to sit down and have a drink with Armistead Maupin. I’ve been a huge fan for years and his “Tales of City” series was definitely a huge inspiration for me.
Now what if you could have a drink with one of your characters in real life?
You know, it’s such an interesting question because my characters are alive for me. When I’m writing those books I completely feel that I know them and they are living in my head. When things are going well it’s like watching a movie in your mind. If one were to step through the pages? I always loved Lucy in “Book Ends”, Lucy was the best friend. I wrote the sister I never had, the best friend I always wanted. I created this woman who just would have been a perfect friend.
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