Good Reading : October 2005
goodreading 29 up close word of mouth Watching Penny Vincenzi pour our tea from across the table, I am struck by how unaffect- ed she is. Despite having sold over five million books worldwide, she is more interested in my pregnancy and chat- ting about her husband and four daughters, than promoting her latest novel, Sheer Abandon. But as we settle back into our armchairs, the pregnancy conversation does segue to the idea behind Sheer Abandon. It follows the lives of three young women, all aged eighteen, who meet on their way to Thailand. Nine months later, one of them returns to London, gives birth at Heathrow Airport and abandons the baby. The book moves forward sixteen year s, when the women are reunited and the now-teenage daughter begins the search for her natural mother. ‘The original idea came from a story in the paper,’ says Penny. ‘I thought it was an ir resistible 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 every- one finding out years later would be as hard to cope with as the discovery.’ As with all Penny’s books, she didn’t know how the story would 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 long, packed with extraordinary detail about the characters 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 – a world she knew little about – plays a major role in Sheer Abandon: ‘I spent a lot of time at the House of Commons talking to MPs and political jour nalists, 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 that she never intended to write a book, or that even after writing the first one she didn’t intend to become a novel- ist. ‘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 journal- ist,’ she explains. ‘It was a complete surprise to me how much I loved it and how it has turned into some- thing really wonderful. I’m amazed that I have all these plots and sub- plots in my head!’ After writing a book nearly every year since 1989 – Sheer Abandon is her twelfth novel, and there has been an additional three-book series, Spoils of Time – the ideas have never topped flowing. ‘I’m very workmanlike about what I o,’ she says fir mly. ‘While I ave days when I can’t write, just sit there and sweat it out. think it’s a bit of a luxury to t writer’s block. I’ve always t a deadline, so have to keep ing.’ Up at six every mor n- , Penny walks her dog and es her plotting while walking. is at her desk and writing by 9 am. I work office hours really,’ she says, ‘but as a deadline gets nearer I’ll do six days a week, then sometimes seven.’ She is 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 fifties 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. Sheer Abandon by Penny Vincenzi is published by Headline, rrp $22.00 penny for her thoughts Bestselling author of popular fiction PENNY VINCENZI tells GERMAINE LEECE how she began writing, where she gets her ideas and how she organises her day.