Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published in the Irish Examiner. March 2008.
At 64, Joanna Trollope looks amazing. And it’s not just her everlasting legs and whippet slim figure that make her so. It’s her air of utter serenity; her obvious contentment that make her stand out from the crowd.
“I revelled when I reached 60 and I have gone on revelling,” she tells me on a trip to Dublin to promote her latest novel ‘Friday Nights.’ “It’s a fantastic decade because society stops expecting anything from you. There is a freedom.”
This sense of settlement impacts on her writing. All 14 of Joanna’s contemporary novels have shown acute observation; in Friday Nights she shows an extraordinary tolerance of; and understanding for her multifaceted cast of characters.
A distant relation of Anthony Trollope, Joanna won a scholarship to Oxford University. She worked for the foreign office, and spent many years teaching before she began to write the historical novels that preceded her contemporary ones. She has been married twice, and now lives alone in London.
Passionate on the subject of women; their issues, relationships and work life balance, this time, Joanna has focused on friendship.
“Women have always needed women,” says Joanna. “It used to be their sister, like Jane Austen and Cassandra. When they married and lived three streets away from their mothers and sisters their families provided that intimacy. Now, though, that families are scattered all over the globe, instead of making friends out of our family we are making family out of our friends.”
As for Joanna, she has kept some friends for over thirty years. She has friends of all ages; and makes one or two a year; mainly younger ones.
“I have some friends of my mother’s age, in their eighties. They made a friend of me when they were at my stage. Once you are through the competitiveness of the fertile years you can relax, and look around you for a much greater variety of friends.”
In Friday Nights, she has taken six, very different women, who became friends through Eleanor; a retired career woman who noticed some lonely mums on her street, and decided to get them together.
Soon a group has formed. There are two single mothers and three singletons, all of whom work. Ranging in age from the recalcitrant Jules; a wannabe DJ of 22, to the ageing Eleanor, they all find solace from their Friday night get-togethers.
“In those fertile years those intense friendships are a marvellous opportunity for support, unity and mutual sympathy; but there’s a terrifying opportunity to sabotage the friendship over a man.”
Joanna demonstrates this, in the novel, by introducing Jackson; an enigmatic man who is shown off to the group by Paula, one of the single mums. And gradually, everything changes.
“The novel hasn’t a narrative thread; it’s really watching something unravel,” says Joanna. “You take this group of six women; throw in the catalyst and watch the group break up. It’s like watching an explosion happening in very slow motion.”
Eleanor is at the centre; watching the other women as they make muddles of their lives. Joanna, like the fictitious Eleanor has also become a more reflective observer of late. She often takes herself to the Café Nero in the King’s Road to relax after a day’s writing, and to eavesdrop on the life around her.
“You don’t think. ‘my goodness there is a party going on there which I am not part of ,’ the way you did when you were younger,” she says. “You think ‘how absolutely riveting, there is a party going on and I’m going to watch it.’
“There is a lot of selfish immaturity going on among young women just now,” she muses. “I am rather horrified when I hear, ‘what about me in this?’ and women saying, ‘I am so angry.’ You hear that such a lot.”
Jackson inveigles himself into the lives of all Paula’s friends. He doesn’t seduce them; but one of them makes a play for him.
“I wanted that demonstration that men are not always bastards who treat women badly,” she says. “And that sometimes women behave in the most asinine ways around an attractive man. And they embarrass their children.”
The characters are, clearly, still in Joanna’s head. She talks about them; and particularly about the four children who populate the book with great tenderness. They feel real to the reader; so lovingly are they portrayed, with their individual quirks and worries.
Joanna has seven grandchildren between the ages of 9 and eighteen months. (Four blood ones and three step.)
“But my stepsons are very sweet about including me. I do observe the grandchildren, yes; you notice the boys when they start school suddenly not wanting to have the girly conversations about feelings and how people look. And when you mention girls it’s ‘yuck!’
“The research for this book was such fun,” she says with glee. “When I wrote ‘Brother and Sister’ the research was harrowing, because some of the stories about adoption were so painful, but for this one I researched house music and football.
“The clubbing was, of course, such fun, though I don’t want to go again; but football has become a passion. I read the sports press now, and I am an ardent Chelsea fan. I have been to the training ground and had my photograph taken with Drogba. My status with the grandchildren is now sky high.
“Writing, though is a kind of love hate thing. It is endless hard work; endless self discipline and denying yourself . I’m not complaining,” she explains, “just describing. I regard writing as a serious profession. It would be easy, at this stage to just go to Harvey Nichols. I tell myself, ‘this is a writing day.’
“It becomes harder too. The readership has been astonishing loyal for about 15 years, and there is a great anxiety about letting them down. And of letting myself down.” It worries her that, once a writer sells well, nobody tells them if their writing has slipped; or if they have fallen into bad habits. So she reads all her reviews with great attention.
“If I was a dancer I’d be going to classes; if I was a singer I’d go to a voice coach. You can learn an enormous amount from a review which will point out a mannerism you have slipped into, or where the book seems to have fallen down.”
She needn’t worry. Of all her books, Friday Nights is, I believe, the most accomplished. What, though, would she like her readers to take from it?
“I’d like them to take away a feeling of this extraordinary capacity women have for self reinvention,” she says. “And that friendship is to be found in the most unlikely and eccentric places and people.
“And, I think, that women have to be on their guard about how they treat their friends when a man is in the equation. Like money, you might need them. Neither money nor friends should be squandered heedlessly.
“I love it when I hear one of my novels has been chosen by a book club,” she says. “I like the idea of this book being a springboard for women to talk about friendship. I hope it gets them going.”
Friday Nights by Joanna Trollope is published by Bloomsbury at 19.99 euro.
© Sue Leonard. 2008.