That sounds like a rather grand title, doesn’t it? For clarification it wasn’t me actually interviewing the wondrous Jilly but the lovely Claire Balding and with her background in racehorses and television (not to mention recently publishing her children’s book) she was definitely more qualified than me. It was at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on Saturday and I had really gone along for pure indulgence, however, within five minutes of listening to the talk, I found myself whipping out my notebook and scribbling down much of Jilly’s wisdom which she had chosen to impart as a writer. And, having found the interview so interesting, it really only seemed fair to share some of that wisdom with my fellow writers.
To give you some background into the significance of Jilly Cooper and her writing to me begins in my childhood. I grew up in Bussage, the neighbouring village to Bisley, where Jilly lives. This was in the 80s when her novels were big news and every home in our village had a copy of that cheeky hand on a bottom with a riding crop on their coffee table. In fact, my mother and her friends must have discussed the plot at length because until I was about fifteen, I genuinely believed that Rupert Campbell-Black was some lothario who lived Chalford, our other neighbouring village. And it wasn’t until I was in my teens and started reading Jilly’s novels that I realised exactly who she was; a best-selling, bonk buster, author. As a child, she was Mrs Cooper to me, the lady my dad liked to stop and talk to over the garden wall when we took our neighbours little Jack Russell, Wilma, for a walk.
Having set one of my novels in the racing world, I was interested to hear Jilly’s take on everything horsey. She didn’t disappoint. Which was her first tip really, the significance of research. Her latest novel, Mount, is set in the world of flat racing. Rupert Campbell-Black is now a horse trainer and in order to make her setting authentic, Jilly visited many training yards and met lots of horse trainers. She even went to a dinner gala hosted by the Racing Post and ended up winning a trip to the Dubai Gold Cup to take her research even further. Which makes me all the more determined to become as successful an author as Jilly as my research for Fall for Grace was far less glamourous. She had some interesting facts too; horses breed (called covering) from February until June and the most successful horses can reach up to £150,000 per shag! She even had funny stories about horses not being able to perform unless the vet was present which brings about the attention to detail she feels a writer should put into their novel. She found that most trainers are quite immoral, that they are dealers first and foremost and that a win for a horse trained by a yard brings great relief to the trainer as he can then afford to pay his staff and running costs. All important facts if you want to authenticate the suspense happening in this setting.
Claire was very disappointed – spoiler alert – that Jilly kills Billy Lloyd-Foxe off in her latest novel but Jilly feels that this is all part of being a storyteller; you have to kill characters off because people die in real life and the writer is merely reflecting real life. The story allows Rupert to deal with his grief, even phoning Billy’s mobile just so he can speak to him; a way perhaps of humanising the loveable rogue that is Rupert CB. When asked whether she likes RCB, Jilly said that she loves him because he is foul and that we can all be foul and this gives her the opportunity to vent all her frustrations through him. She says that at almost eighty, she is terribly politically incorrect and that RCB is a great opportunity to unleash some of her incorrectness on society.
Jilly still uses her typewriter and her idea of cut and paste is to cut out paragraphs she’s typed and stick them together with the help of her PA. When asked whether she invented the bonk buster she said that it wasn’t her intention – and they are referred to as shagfests these days – but she does feel that sex scenes are immensely important in romance novels. Like dying, sex is another normal part of life and by showing your characters love each other you manifest their qualities, their characteristics by showing them in bed with each other. Which actually made sense to me and, I hope, will aid me in my next writing sex scene (because I still feel a bit awkward about writing them!).
All-in-all an exceptionally entertaining hour of my time and all for £12. If you are in the vicinity Cheltenham Literature Festival is on until Sunday 16th October and is well worth a visit.