Phillipa Ashley read English Language and Literature at Wadham College, Oxford, before working as a freelance copywriter and journalist. She also writes romantic comedies, published by Headline Little Black Dress. Her first novel, Decent Exposure, won the 2007 Romantic Novelists' Association New Writers' Scheme Award. Her third novel, Just Say Yes, was published in August. Phillipa lives in Staffordshire with her husband and daughter but tries to spend as much time as possible in her favourite place, the Lake District. Here she discusses romantic fiction.
Phillipa Ashley on reading and writing romantic fiction
One of the most frequently-asked questions I get is the one that goes something like this.
So how long have you been writing novels? Have you always wanted to write one?
Determined to be truthful, I always answer, 'Sorry, but no.' The unromantic truth is that I never meant to write a novel in the first place, much less a romantic one. I sometimes feel like I have been dragged kicking and screaming into this scary and surreal new world. Sometimes they have been screams of joy and delight. Other times not quite so exuberant. But (mainly for my agent and publisher) let me say I'd kick and scream even harder if I suddenly found that I wasn't a novelist any more.
From never having written a fictional word (if you don't count my work in advertising and PR) to being a published novelist took around 20 months. That's from no creative writing whatsoever to seeing the book on shelves.
I have an even worse confession to make. Until about four years ago, I had hardly read any 'romantic' novels. I certainly wouldn't have walked out of a bookshop with one or taken one on the train. I was addicted to a diet of crime, non-fiction and anything remotely associated with Jane Austen.
Yet now I'm a member of the Romantic Novelists' Association and an enthusiastic – no, passionate – advocate of the work of Jilly Cooper, Jill Mansell, Katie Fforde and even the odd vampire romance. Now, how did that happen?
Actually, I can pinpoint the exact hour it started. It was 9.00 p.m. on 14th November 2004. I curled up in a chair ready to watch the BBC's adaptation of North and South, starring Richard Armitage as Mr Thornton. Eighteen months later, I'd signed a two-book deal with Headline publishing for my first ever novel - and all because of that BBC period drama with its brooding hero.
Since I left Oxford in 1984, I've been a copywriter and journalist. I made my living writing articles, adverts and brochures for ad agencies and regional newspapers. I never once thought of writing fiction. I just didn't think it was me. Then at the age of 41, along came North and South. I was so fascinated by the programme that I joined hundreds of other fans on the BBC Drama message board. We liked to think we were discussing the novel, its themes and politics. In reality many threads centred on Mr Thornton, and whether he might take off his cravat again.
Suddenly - and I still don't know why - I decided to write a 'modern' version of the North and South novel, just for fun, to entertain myself and the other fans I had met online.
Overnight my world changed. I learned what it is like to become completely absorbed by creating characters and stories and sharing them with other people. I was hooked, probably for life, and in March 2005 I decided to write my own original full-length romantic novel.
A year later in March 2006, after many revisions and early drafts, I plucked up the courage to send my novel, Decent Exposure, to a London literary agent. A few weeks later Headline Publishing bought the story as part of a two-book deal for its new Little Black Dress romance imprint. My third romantic novel, Just Say Yes was published in August this year and the fourth is out in March 2009.
Romance and 'chick lit' sometimes get a bad press and inspire strong feelings. Last month, for example, the Guardian published an article on chick lit covers. By the furore, you'd have thought the article was about hanging, dustbin laws or lipstick-wearing hockey moms.
There seems to be a misapprehension that writers enjoy writing chick lit and romance because it is (a) easy and (b) lucrative. Ho ho. Hear me fall about laughing.
I have wondered why the genre upsets some people so much. Is it because most romantic and chick lit (or relationship) novels are by women for women? (There are some fabulous exceptions like Mike Gayle and Ray Connolly.) Is it that some (but by no means all) romantic novels adopt a rather torrid and intense tone that is easy to lampoon when taken out of context? Or is it because they sell extremely well, because they engage the readers instantly and maintain the pace until the final page? Is it because they often have 'happy' endings and make the readers feel good in a world of doom and gloom? Is it because they focus on emotions and love, and are written from 'the heart' in a way that's not considered trendy or clever? Is it because they're funny, sexy, entertaining and popular - and no one likes an author to be that successful?
Whenever I hear popular women's fiction getting a kicking for not being intellectually enriching, I always think of Mr Sleary vs the Utilitarians in Hard Times: 'People Mutht be Amuthed.'
Well, I have a confession to make. I love amusing people and I very much enjoy amusing myself. I've now discovered the joy of reading authors such as Jill Mansell, Katie Fforde, Veronica Henry, Freya North, Catherine Alliott, and Christina Jones. I love the lively, fresh style of my fellow Little Black Dress colleagues. I also enjoy the intense atmosphere and emotional realism of classic Mills & Boon authors like Liz Fielding, Sara Craven and Sophie Weston.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if North and South had not aired on that November evening and a shiver runs down my spine...