Jessica Ruston's first novel, Luxury, has just been published by Headline Review. She has written two non-fiction books, as well as screenplays and articles. Jessica lives in London with her husband where she is currently working on her second novel. In this post she discusses Shirley Conran's Lace.
Jessica Ruston on Lace by Shirley Conran
When I started to write my novel Luxury, I did a huge amount of reading and re-reading of novels in the genre that inspired me. Some I had read and enjoyed as a teenager, some were new to me, but all were what I would call blockbusters. It's something of an amorphous term; some people use it to mean simply a book which has sold in massive quantities - which (although something that most writers would aspire to) is not what I was looking for.
To me a blockbuster is, most of all, about scale. A big canvas, big characters, big storylines. Big drama, above all. Big emotions. That's what I look for in what I read, and what I aim for in what I write. Though Shirley Conran's books are often remembered more for the sex scenes (a lesbian encounter on a beach in Savages, a scandalous and imaginative moment involving a goldfish in Lace), there is much to be learned from them about that most crucial of tools in the commercial fiction writers arsenal - story.
Story is absolutely central to the success of any good book, and not just the obviously 'story-driven' ones either. There are plenty of literary writers who could do well to pay a bit more attention to creating a compelling story. I digress. Lace is no work of great literature, nor does it claim to be. But it's a damn good story. You can craft as many beautiful sentences as you like; you can create delicious imagery and complex, multi-layered themes, but what will keep your readers turning those pages over and over, is story.
And who could fail to fall for a story whose first chapter ends with the immortal line, 'All right, which one of you bitches is my mother?'? It's the best possible type of hook, one that grabs our attention and which also provides a very clear impetus for the writer. The trick of opening a book with a question, a secret, a mystery to be uncovered, might be an old one but it is one that works. And as a writer, I find that there is something immensely satisfying about the process of burying little clues and lighting the trail of little mysteries in the characters' lives as you introduce them to the reader, and then delving down deep to answer them – or sometimes leaving them unanswered, as the case may be.
Secrets and lies are evidently at the heart of Lace, but it's about so much more as well: the intense loyalty that characterizes female friendship; the destructive forces of sexual passion; the search for and the creation of family. It swishes through the decades and across continents.
And while the story is what really counts, the writing is also wonderfully full of swagger, not in a literary, highbrow way, but in a way that thrills and entices, each chapter ending on a note that tantalizes and teases, that hints at more secrets about to be revealed and sheds more light on whatever has just transpired. Following the notorious goldfish scene, the woman who has just been the subject of Prince Abdullah's attentions speaks to him.
'Your Highness,' she said, uncertainly. There hadn't been time to get on first-name terms. He blinked and looked thoughtful. 'Not Your Highness,' he said, 'Your Majesty.'
The book also contains what is surely one of the best and most bizarre lines ever. Near the end, the beautiful Lili is being courted by a shipping magnate who has sent her a bird in a gilded cage, and Serge, her lover, is driven into a fit of jealous rage; chapter 46 ends thus: 'Serge stormed into Senequier, drank a bottle of brandy, then drove wildly to Cap Camerat where he strangled the white cockatoo.'
As you do. That sums up the tone of Lace, really. The drama, the glamour, the arched, plucked eyebrow-ness of it all. There are terrible accidents and violent rows. There are parties where guests have to come dressed as their favourite sexual fantasy, and racy encounters in the caves of champagne-makers. There's an illicit adoption, ambition in spades, manipulative older men who own chateaux and private planes. There are gilt-edged invitations, silk sheets, fur coats and no knickers. And there is a man who drinks a bottle of brandy then drives to Cap Camerat where he strangles a white cockatoo. What more could you possibly ask for?
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]