Fairy godmother is smiling on Sue
Most of us are romantics at heart - which explains the popularity of Sue Welfare's 'cellulite lit'. The East Anglian author tells STEVEN RUSSELL why internet dating is a wonderful invention, that writing erotica isn't the dream job you might think, and how being a grandmother won't cramp her styleTHEY say art imitates life - and in Sue Welfare's case fact and fiction do seem to feed off each other rather neatly.
Most of us are romantics at heart - which explains the popularity of Sue Welfare's 'cellulite lit'. The East Anglian author tells STEVEN RUSSELL why internet dating is a wonderful invention, that writing erotica isn't the dream job you might think, and how being a grandmother won't cramp her style
THEY say art imitates life - and in Sue Welfare's case fact and fiction do seem to feed off each other rather neatly.
Most of her stories are about women reinventing themselves, moving on and up after rising to challenges, so it's perhaps not surprising she's had a bit of an authorial make-over herself along the way.
Sue's had 10 books published by HarperCollins: a handful under her own name; the three most recent as alter-ego Gemma Fox - born of a marketing initiative, it's a moniker that oozes sassiness. Picture a girl-about-town with an ever-trilling mobile and a burgeoning social diary. Research shows, apparently, that people browsing the shelves of bookshops tend to focus on surnames in the D to M section.
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Gemma wasn't her own choice, she admits. “I wanted to be Molly Fox, but it does sound rather too countrified, although I am a country girl at heart.”
Anyway, Sue's happy in her new skin - and has even perfected her Gemma Fox signature for book-signing sessions.
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Sue/Gemma's new tale, The Cinderella Moment, is a romantic read in which the course of true love doesn't even come close to running smooth. Cass meets a potential Prince Charming in a railway carriage. That chance conversation, and the discovery of a mobile phone, turns her life upside down.
There's more romantic turbulence in the other two Gemma Fox books. A sixth-form drama group reunion, 20 years on from its Macbeth tour, reignites cooled love, lust and rivalries in Caught in the Act. Meanwhile, Hot Pursuit sees sexy Nick Lucas arriving on Maggie Morgan's doorstep. Is he Mr Right? Maybe; maybe not. He seems to have no past - no family and no history - and things don't add up.
Similar themes run through her Sue Welfare canon. In Moving On Up, for instance, a would-be artist is submerged in marriage and the raising of children as her 40th birthday looms. Then a friend's housewarming party leads to her life changing forever.
Her stories are essentially about people past the first flush of youth who are moving from one phase of their life to another. “They're not 'chick lit'; they're 'cellulite lit!'” she quips. “The characters have usually got children; they're perhaps divorced. They've emerged as wiser women, and still long for romance.”
There are a lot of folk like that, she reckons - including quite a few men who read her books.
“One of the things I have realised is that the desire to be with someone, and to be loved, is a universal condition. Women are more upfront about talking about their requirements; men feel it too, but are a bit more quiet about it.”
When you're young, and part of a gang looking for lurve, finding someone is relatively easy.
“When you are older, and you've got a job to think about, it is harder. When you're in your late 30s, or middle aged, it's difficult to find a partner. You might have lots of single friends, but not many that you fancy.” Sex is probably not too difficult to come by, “but you want really someone you can wake up next to and have a cup of tea and a biscuit with”.
Fittingly, in another example of life mirroring art, there's a frisson of romance in Sue's own world. She's in a new relationship - “all loved up”, she confesses in that frank way of hers - with Phil, who lives near Bury St Edmunds. They met via internet dating - something she knows a fair bit about after researching it for her book Fallen Women.
It's a great way to meet people, says the 49-year-old - particularly when you're a professional writer from rural East Anglia with just a dog and computer for company for most of the day - and is increasingly useful in a changing world.
“Lots of people assume I'm sorted just because I have a job I love and do talks. But think: I read about Annie Lennox (the Eurhythmics singer) being on her own, and Nicole Kidman has only just hooked up with someone. And these are beautiful and talented people whose worlds seem perfect.”
A computer-based Cupid is a modern tool to tackle a contemporary dilemma.
“It's no more dangerous than standing in a pub - and you probably know more about a person if you've met them through the internet. If you've got a modicum of sense, you give out a limited amount of information online and you make sure you meet in public.
“I was discussing this with a friend, and I said 'Dangerous? Oh, right. You mean much more than getting drunk and meeting someone in a pub that you know nothing about?!'”
You do need to be quite robust if you're hunting for a soulmate in cyberspace, though. “Men lie about their age and post pictures of themselves when they were 20. They swear blind they're 5ft 9ins when they're 5ft 2ins,” Sue laughs. “Mind you, I've spoken to men and they say lots of women lie too!”
Another development in her own life is that Sue's become a grandmother.
“It's a lovely concept, but which one of the granny words goes with my sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll feeling about myself?” she jokes.
A relative late-comer to writing - it all kicked off about 12 years ago - Sue has more than made up for lost time.
She was born between Thetford and King's Lynn, and is rooted in the flatlands where Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire seep into each other. (“Suffolk has got hills. I'm basically a Fen Girl, so anything above two feet frightens me.”)
Dad was a mechanic and ran a garage. Mum was a dinner lady.
Sue worked for social services as deputy officer in charge of a children's home in Norfolk. Was it like Tracy Beaker's in the fictional children's TV series? “It was extraordinarily eye-opening. I wasn't much older than the residents and they were much more streetwise than me. You need someone street-smart, and they rang rings round me! I was basically a nice village girl.”
She married at 19 and had the first of four sons at 20. They're now aged between 29 and 16 and she loves them to bits.
A series followed of what tended to be part-time jobs fitted around the needs and movements of the children: helping to run a welding company, running a pub, working as a welfare assistant in a school. “Yes, I was Mrs Welfare, the welfare assistant . . .”
Sue had told stories from an early age. “One of my earliest memories was sitting on a book and reading it when I was about three and a half. I had a brain that loved words.”
It was a leaning that came into its own when, 10 or 12 years ago, her then husband stopped work as a result of the economic downturn. “That seemed the perfect opportunity to have a go.”
She made a list on an A4 pad of subjects she was interested in and things she could do. For about a year she wrote and sold lots of articles on the theme of “how to do this”.
Then there was erotic fiction - not so much fun as you'd think. “It's a bit boring to write,” Sue reports. “The first one was a real turn on to do, but then I ran out of facts halfway through book one!”
On the plus side, erotic stories seem to have a long shelf-life: pen 10 of them, as she did under a variety of pseudonyms, and they are likely to still be selling years down the line. “Sex doesn't change - and every generation thinks it has invented it,” says Sue.
In the mid-1990s came her big break. As a result of being a runner-up in a national newspaper competition, in a year when she also won a short story prize, she got an agent and, later, a contract with HarperCollins. Ten novels have rolled off the presses and an 11th is gestating.
The '90s were a fruitful time: as well as winning her publishing deal, Sue impressed in a Channel 4 sitcom competition. Her work, Write Back Home, was one of the entries chosen to be staged in play form in London. It was about a male author of erotica who was writing, as a woman, about sex from a female perspective. He moved in with his father, who disapproved of what he was doing. The dad was played by established actor Windsor Davies. “He was fantastic.”
Some of her books have been optioned for films, and Sue's plugging away with an idea for a psychological thriller for TV. In a busy life, she also teaches creative writing and has after-dinner speaking in her repertoire.
“That's the lot of the self-employed. It's like being a shark - if you stop swimming, you'll dry out.”
The Cinderella Moment is published by HarperCollins at £6.99. ISBN 0007179928