Queen of hearts
It’s Saint Valentine’s Day – so no-one better to chat to, about affairs of the heart, than Caroline Anderson. The Suffolk writer is up for a major romantic fiction prize. She speaks to Steven Russell . . . about choosing underwear and much more besides
JUST like the course of true love, real life never did run smooth. It’s full of ups and downs we have to take in our stride, as Caroline Anderson is only too aware. In the space of a few weeks she’s experienced the low of a crashed hard-drive – containing the genesis of her latest tale – and the high of being shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Association Love Story of the Year Award. (The result’s due next month.) Fortunately, a computer wiz managed to retrieve quite a lot of crucial material, though the setback did put Caroline well behind schedule. The book is a month or so past deadline – demanding both late nights at the keyboard and early starts. A champagne breakfast at the Royal Air Force Club in London’s Piccadilly, where the shortlist was being publicly unveiled late this week as we went to press, held the promise of welcome relief.
“I may have the laptop under the tablecloth, because I’ll be sitting next to my editor!” laughs the writer with dozens of Mills & Boon romances to her credit. There are about another 90 pages to finish. “Once it gets down to double figures it always seems more do-able.”
She’s just heard on the TV that Elton John shuns much of modern technology – even mobile phones. “Isn’t that marvellous!”
Caroline, who started writing in 1998, is now on her 87th book. Most have been part of the publisher’s medical romance series – which reflects “the breathtaking rollercoaster of emotions, ambitions and desires of today’s medical professionals” – while others appear under the Cherish banner for “special moments” and romance titles.
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Mills & Boons have had to endure the sniping of critics for a century, but Caroline says they deliver the guaranteed happy ending readers yearn for.
“They’re not going to solve the problems of the world, but they have a specific purpose, in that they give you that feelgood ‘ahhh’ at the end. That’s what they’re for. If you want to feel as if you’ve been ripped into shreds and hung out to dry, it’s probably not the kind of book for you.”
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Romances aren’t a doddle to write, either. The critical opening chapter might require weeks of honing. The denouement is usually quick to polish off, since the characters are by then fully defined and the plot set, though the final line can take several days to perfect. The punchline needs to be a real zinger.
“The temptation is to do something starry-eyed and smaltzy, followed by ‘. . .’, though I do try not to do that too many times!”
Looking at British society in the 21st Century, what does Caroline think about our attitudes to romance and relationships. Have we got it right?
“I don’t know. I think we all want it, but I think we’re perhaps less good at knowing when we’ve got it.” What, happiness? “Yes. I think we’re looking for some ideal – I blame the media! – that doesn’t exist in real life. Everybody’s aspirations are to be something like a WAG (a top sportsman’s wife or girlfriend) or a footballer. Many children reportedly say ‘When I grow up, I want to be a celebrity.’ Well, what is that about?
“Weddings have become huge events, so girls want to get married. When I first decided to get married, I remember telling my parents. From then on, I was told we were having a marquee; we’re having an afternoon finger-buffet; we’re going to have this wine, this menu. ‘You go and talk to the vicar; I’ve made you an appointment.’ So off we went. We were just ‘told’.
“I made my wedding dress and the bridesmaids’ dresses. I chose the fabric, and I chose the flowers, but other than that I didn’t have any say in it. There were no wedding fayres or any of this nonsense – all the different ways people find to squeeze money out of you!”
Caroline is amazed that the average cost of a wedding tops �20,000. “Everybody now sees it as a huge great party for all their friends that takes the whole weekend. It doesn’t seem to be about the marriage; it’s about the wedding.”
I suppose we can now see what other people have, and that gives us ideas, aspirations and expectations.
“Everybody wants the same thing. They take the Hello! magazine along and shove it under the florist’s nose and say ‘I want that’, and the florist says ‘OK’, and charges accordingly.”
So what should we do to recalibrate?
“With marriage, I think we should realise it doesn’t end on Sunday morning when you wake up in your hotel with a hangover!
“I think very often people miss the point, and they are striving for something absolutely perfect. If their partner isn’t absolutely perfect they freak out and run away!
“I think it’s far too easy to get married and far too easy to get divorced. I think it should be harder to get married – and far harder to have children. And I think you should have to pass tests.”
“Almost. I think people get into it too easily. In the good old days – bear in mind I’m only in my 50s! – many people didn’t have sex until they got married: because they got pregnant, and they got caught, and couldn’t get away with it. So they got married in their very early 20s or younger. These days people do what they like.”
Her fictional sweethearts always end up hitched. It’s a sign of devotion. What’s wrong, Caroline asks, with entering into marriage or a civil partnership? “If you love someone, you want to demonstrate your commitment.”
She believes some people marry because they want a baby, or they yearn for a better house. “We’re getting married for the wrong reasons, I think, and this is partly why marriages aren’t lasting.
“Do we have a broken Britain as far as romance is concerned? I don’t know. I think we’re as romantic as we ever were, but perhaps we don’t know what real romance is when it smacks us on the nose.
“There’s so much muddying of the waters: it’s too public, and everyone’s on Facebook, saying ‘I’m off to do this, that and the other’ – and then they dump him by text! You think ‘Well, nothing’s private! You should sort things out yourself, and not canvas your friends and see what they would do under the circumstances.’”
The author herself has been married to her husband, a teacher, for nearly 33 years. They live north of Ipswich and have two grown-up daughters. Her first marriage lasted two years. “Far too young,” she reflects. “Ridiculously young! I didn’t know what I wanted. To escape from home, probably. By the time I’d escaped from home, I realised it actually wasn’t a bad place to be.”
The EADT last spoke to Caroline when her 50,337-word Christmas Eve Baby was published – part of a collection marking Mills & Boon’s centenary.
That was more than three years ago – as the fault-lines in Northern Rock widened and the global financial system began to shake. Has the recession brought consequences for her writing?
“It hasn’t affected me, but I think it has affected readers, in that when all around is going mad, it’s a little oasis – it saves them from all the hideousness.”
What she doesn’t want to see are cutbacks in library services. “I do feel very strongly about keeping our public libraries because for a lot of people it’s the only way they can regularly afford to read books, and to take them away from the people least able to access them any other way seems wrong to me. It was also how I got hooked on Mills & Boon, and so I owe the libraries a huge amount, because I’ve had a 20-year career because of it!”
Has the age of austerity influenced her stories and plots?
“Probably the characters, actually. It’s not just the recession; it’s also environmental things that change it. I tend not to have fabulously, obscenely, flashy, wealthy heroes. There’s quite a lot of that in some of the lines (sub-genres within romantic fiction), and there are people who want that. People who have drudgery in their lives want that amazing romantic ideal of fabulous wealth and substance – flinging money around, clicking your fingers and having the servants come running.
“I can’t be doing with it! I’m finding that my heroes are increasingly driving sensible cars. And very often they will swap their smart little car – a slightly flashy usually-German number – for something like a Volvo estate, because they’re suddenly becoming family men and want to prove they’re ready for it. And the heroine can say ‘Gosh, you really did mean it.’
“My brightness and optimism with my heroes and heroines is never about ‘I’ve got that rich man . . .’”
Caroline recently heard first-hand about some young people’s “romantic” aspirations . . . and was left rather dismayed.
“I was underwear-shopping the other day and there were these two girls working in the shop, wittering on about blokes and their men, how awful they were and what they’d done wrong. One of them was saying ‘I want to marry a footballer . . .’ I thought ‘Oh my god; her ambition is to be a WAG.’ Why?
“If she was saying ‘I’ve met this guy, he’s a footballer, so we’re going to be moving around all over the place and it’s going to be really unsettling, and he’s going to be away a lot of the time, and his career is going to be really precarious . . . but I really love him, so I’m going to tolerate it’, then I would have had some respect for her. But . . . you silly little girl; what are you thinking?!
“If the heroes are wealthy, my heroines often push against it. There’s nothing about love that’s to do with wealth. Absolutely nothing. My books are about people who meet and fall in love. It doesn’t hurt if the heroes can afford to put food on the table, but they tend to be ‘successful’, rather than ‘rich’.”
Caroline’s husband should be retiring in the summer – there’s plenty to do in the house and garden – but the author has no plans to stop working.
What’s the buzz from writing?
“What does it for me is when the words are absolutely pouring out through the keyboard and I can’t get them down quickly enough, and it’s really going well.” A perfectly-weighted pause. “Doesn’t happen very often . . .”
MOTHER of the Bride, the story that earned Caroline Anderson her Love Story of the Year shortlisting, came out last summer. It features a divorced couple who haven’t spoken in years. The impending marriage of their daughter means Maisie and Rob have to work on wedding plans while staying in a Scottish castle. Will they get another shot at being happy together?
In many ways it was an authorial busman’s holiday. It was written just after Caroline’s elder daughter, Sarah, got married in 2009, “so it was very, very fresh in the mind”.
The daughter of a banker-turned-farmer, Caroline worked as a nurse until a back injury stymied that career. She later trained as a teacher and instructed secretaries.
Caroline read Mills & Boons when Sarah was a baby, trundling to Felixstowe library from the family’s then home at Trimley to borrow six books at a time. The stories were handy to read in spare moments.
She began teaching again but after having six nannies in a year decided things were ridiculous. Needing something that could be done at home, she started a soft-furnishings business – “and was away because of that more than anything else. I was either sewing, in the attic pinning things up, down in the cellar sewing things together, or I was in the car, delivering them at the weekends and installing them in show-flats at the other end of the country!
“I thought ‘How is this better for the children?’ If we hadn’t had my mother living with us at the time it wouldn’t have been possible at all.”
Something else was required. And so, in 1988, she dipped a toe in the water and began writing. After plugging away, Caroline tried her hand at a medical romance and had it accepted in 1990.