Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published by The Irish Examiner, on 13th June, 2009.
In the middle of my interview with Penny Vincenzi, she received a text message. Reading it, she started jumping up and down. Why? She’d made the number one bestseller spot in England. And for the second week in a row.
“It’s like having an Oscar,” she says, going pink with excitement. “No one can take it away from you. So the next week you are not number one? It doesn’t matter. You have been judged and found not wanting.”
And that’s important to Penny. Now 70, she was once an award winning journalist, and she’s had huge success with her novels. But women’s popular fiction, she has discovered, is too often dismissed by critics.
The Best of Times is Vincenzi’s 15th novel, and like the other 14, it’s a glorious blockbuster. It’s 751 pages of cleverly written romance, friendship and intrigue. It’s a book to devour, to laugh and to cry over. The kind of book friends tear in two to share on holiday.
The novel starts with a car crash; a huge motorway pileup. A lorry slews across the central reservation disgorging it’s load. Washing machines, fridges and dishwashers shoot down the carriageway causing further chaos. And the lives of those involved change forever.
“I was stuck in traffic on the M4 and I was seriously late for something,” says Penny as we chat in The Merrion Hotel. “It didn’t terribly matter; I was trying to get to London for a meeting, but there were people there who were going absolutely mad.
“It was such a brilliant idea for a novel, but it was the most nightmarish book to write. The hardest I have ever written. I had this huge climax almost on page one, and then I had to keep up the momentum. And although you are following the people’s lives, the drama had to be sustained somehow. And that was tricky.
“Then there was the crash itself. I had plans for that all over my study wall. I didn’t get it right for ages. I have never pressed the delete button as much as I did with this novel.”
There was a stage, in fact, when she very nearly threw in the towel.
“I was sitting in bed with my husband Paul and I said, ‘I can’t do this book. It’s impossible. I’ll have to scrub it and do something else,” and, beiong a man, and practical, he said, ‘I’m afraid you have got to. You have your contract.’”
So she continued, and, after a day talking it through with the two younger of her four grown daughters, she pulled it off wonderfully. She’s produced a series of sustaining plot lines. We follow Jonathan, the smug Obstetrician who is caught up in the crash with ‘the other woman.’ He’s a hero on the day, but will his marriage to the perfect Laura survive the fallout?
There’s the bridegroom Toby and his best man Barney. They miss the wedding, but why were they, anyway, cutting it all so fine? Will Toby survive, and will their relationships to the beautiful Tamara and Amanda endure?
There’s Mary; who, widowed at eighty something is on her way to meet the wartime lover she’s not seen for over fifty years. Then there’s Georgia, an aspiring actress on her way to a seminal audition. Why does she flee the scene of the crash?
Come to that why did the crash happen? Will the detectives be able to piece all the clues together? And what of the doctors who tended the injured? Will their lives change?
All this makes for a hugely entertaining read. Vincenzi’s expertise and care for her characters comes shining through. The plot is driven by them. That is something she learned back in 1989, when she left her lucrative career in journalism because she’d been given an offer she could not refuse.
“I was Deputy Editor of a magazine called ‘Options’ at the time and a lot of journalists were being signed up to write sex and shopping books. I got an agent; wrote my synopsis and three chapters, got the offer, and thought ‘how wonderful.’ Then I realised I had to write it.
“I’d worked out the plot really carefully. The heroine was going to fall in love with her stepson. It was going to be wonderful for her, after she’d been married to an old man, but when I tried to write it it would not work. She just would not fall in love with him. And I realised that it was because she had a father complex and did not like beautiful young men.”
Writing makes Penny hugely happy.
“The things that make me flying happy are my family, which I am besotted with, and it is large a close which is lovely, and my writing. I once interviewed Judith Kranz in California. She said that when a story is going well she felt wild! And you know what? She’s right,” says Penny with a laugh.
The best of times by Penny Vincenzi is published by Headline at 14.99 euro.
© Sue Leonard. 2009.