Angela Smith asks a group of 15 authors about their day jobs – before they became an author. Today it’s Karen Swan, Melanie Rose and Trisha Ashley…
KAREN SWAN (Christmas at Tiffany’s out now)
I was a fashion features editor before making the move into fiction, something that’s proved to be an enormous help, but also a hindrance in my books. I have had many people comment on the lavish descriptions of clothes in my books and people respond to them as enthusiastically as they do to descriptions of food or place. Fashion’s such an important part of our visual landscape and I do think very carefully about how each of my characters dress. For me, it’s a vital part for unlocking their personality and if I put them in the wrong clothes, it can completely skew my flow. I had terrible trouble settling on the main character in my new book (out next November) as I kept getting her style wrong.
The problem my fashion background can sometimes give me – and it’s going to sound ridiculous, I know – is that there are times when I need my characters to not be chic, sophisticated or stylish, and frankly put, I struggle to dress them! There’s a scene in Christmas at Tiffany’s when the heroine turns up for work in a dog’s dinner of an outfit, and quite literally I had my head in my hands, tearing my hair out, trying to put together an abominable combination. Even now I think I could have managed worse than I put her in!
I did draw directly on my fashion background for my most recent book Christmas at Tiffany’s. It is set in New York, Paris and London, all of which I know well from years of attending the collections, and there are many scenes set in and around the fashion world, without the action being directly about it. I took for granted the glamour and perks (oh! press discounts!) of my old job, and the further away I move from fashion – both in time (I left my last fashion job nine years ago) and in place (I no longer live in London) – the more I realise how lucky I was to have had such an insider’s position for so long: fashion shows, parties, openings, launches, awards, deadlines, shoots, interviews – you name it, I’ve done it. But it’s a ‘time in your life’ career, before marriage and babies, in my opinion. I haven’t done any fashion journalism for a long time now, and I don’t really plan to, but my stock of experiences in that world will keep me inspired for books to come. The characters in that world are pretty extreme (Bebe Washington in Christmas at Tiffany’s isn’t a million miles away from a high-profile designer I met on several occasions) which is always good for introducing a little humour, and fashion will always be a part of my narrative. Love my character, love her wardrobe I say!
MELANIE ROSE (Down to Earth out now)
I’ve been a writer all my life but I actually trained as a nursery nurse, caring for under-privileged children in council care and later becoming the play therapist on the children’s ward of a specialist cancer hospital in Surrey.
Although working full-time I wrote in my breaks, my scribbling providing essential escapism from the sometimes heart-breaking events unfolding on the wards. This double life was partly the inspiration for my first book, Could It Be Magic?, which is about a young woman who finds herself split between two worlds, living the life of another woman.
My work with children has always provided inspiration for my books and my own four sons, two of who are adopted, are no exception. Although my three books are very different stories with different characters, the underlying theme for my books is one of hope, the choices we make in life and that no matter what complications stand in our way, we can make those we love – even if not connected by blood – into our family.
TRISHA ASHLEY (Chocolate Shoes and Wedding Blues out May)
From being a little girl I knew I would be a writer and painter, so I didn’t really consider any other options. I thought writers just wrote, so what you needed to learn you picked up by actually doing it and by reading voraciously. I still think that.
So off I went to art college to address the other side of the coin, the painting – and I quickly transferred to a stained-glass course, because it seemed to me a wonderful thing to paint with light.
Of course, I’ve had a whole series of weird, wonderful or tedious jobs over the years to create some income, starting out by working for a lead light maker and plumber and finishing by being a visitor’s assistant at a stately home for the National Trust, but all experiences eventually compost down into something you can grow a novel from.
All the time I continued to write and paint: that’s what I do, that’s who I am and I don’t know how to be any other way. My first novel was published in the early 80s and I was picked up and dropped a couple of times after that, though collecting a small but loyal band of readers who, over time, have become good friends and the heart and core of my newsletter group, Skint Old Northern Woman News.
Eventually, with Avon HarperCollins, I broke through into the Sunday Times bestseller list – I think that was with A Winter’s Tale – and then worked my way up into the top ten with subsequent books including my last novel, The Magic of Christmas. That one is a rewrite of an earlier novel, Sweet Nothings, but if you count it then I think that’s about my fifteenth published book.
I have one son, who is at college studying costume making (the one who foisted an insane border collie onto me about a year ago) and for quite a while I also had a husband. Things got complicated and at one point it seemed the only hobbies I had time for were house moving, divorce and negotiating the intricacies of grinding poverty, but a few years down the line I’ve just moved into a house that is perfect for my needs, can write full-time and have space to set up my big easel permanently too, which all feels very luxurious and wonderful. In fact, I feel blessed.
I followed my star, but the support of family and friends – and my wonderful agent – through the bad times was crucial: without them, the novel of my life might have had a different kind of outcome.