Queen of Romance Erica James beams down in Long Melford after being seduced by Suffolk
PUBLISHED: 10:00 08 February 2015
Queen of Romance Erica James this week met with Steven Russell to talk about her fresh start, why she never reads reviews, and her (sort of) neighbour, George Clooney.
I’m rarely invited into ladies’ dressing rooms, I’ll have you know, so it is impossible to resist writer Erica James’s entreaties. Eager to show the chandelier put up the day before, she displays the zeal of a mother launching a debutante.
A chandelier! she almost squeals, delighting in its kitsch. “I’ve never had anything like this before. It’s so over the top!” The room’s a dazzling white, with numerous cupboard doors. Er, does she have many clothes? I’m cast an old-fashioned look. “I go to Italy!” She has an apartment there, 20 minutes from George Clooney’s gaff. “What kind of a question is that?” she laughs.
The author beamed down in Suffolk only in November, from a converted barn in Cheshire where she’d spent more than a dozen years, but already she’s put her stamp on this Tardis-like house near Long Melford that stretches back and back.
Top priority was getting the study transformed. It’s where stories will be dreamed up: new ones in the vein of Gardens of Delight (a Romantic Novel of the Year). Indeed, the stirrings of what will be novel number 20 are there on her computer screen. Some commentators rather unimaginatively steer the books into the “chic lit” category. Erica says, simply: “I’m never going to win the Booker Prize – I know that – but I tell a story. My loyal readers know there’s going to be some sadness along the way, that they’re going to cry, going to smile – they might even laugh a little bit – but they’re going to feel good by the time they get to the end. I’m known for a happy ending!”
The early modifications to the house have all been achieved alongside the promotion of new novel The Dandelion Years and a Christmas trip to Japan to visit son Samuel. “It was so good to get on that plane and know for 12 hours I didn’t have to do anything, other than sit there and be waited on!”
So what brought to East Anglia an author whose geographic footprint has included the Portsmouth area and even Belgium? There’s an element of downsizing, but more to it than that. “I wanted to change the way I was living, in many ways.” How so? “In some ways Cheshire was synonymous with my marriage – and that had long since ended many, many years ago – but just being in the same county, there was always that reminder. I wanted to start afresh somewhere, and this is exactly that.” The Lombardy apartment, meanwhile, overlooks Lake Como. “I have quite a good social life when I’m there, and I thought ‘I don’t have that where I currently live.’ I thought I’d like to replicate what I had in Italy. I began to get itchy feet. I knew I had ended up in the north of England by default – in the nicest possible way. I didn’t want to move back to where I’d grown up, and the thing about my job is I can live anywhere.” In about 2012 or 2013 Erica and her editor went to Clays of Bungay to see her latest book being printed. “I remember being on the train and thinking ‘Oooh, this looks nice!’ My editor said ‘A little bit far out, Erica, don’t you think? When the snow comes down... That’s all part of the fun of it, surely?” When she returned the following year, it was with a view to having a good look around. By this stage she also knew a grandson was on the way, in north London. East Anglia made sense. What does she like about it? “The beautiful countryside. Everyone says Suffolk is flat. Which isn’t true. OK, it’s softly undulating. Everyone goes on about the vastness of the Suffolk skies, but I also wanted to be in a village where there was lots going on. I wanted the opposite to what I had before.”
Erica read as a girl, but started writing, really, only in her late 20s. “I enjoyed reading – it was about escapism – and I wondered if writing would give me the same sense. And, yes, it did. I set myself a new-year resolution that I would write a book. And I’m talking about popular fiction; I wasn’t reading the greats.” Like? “I do remember, a little earlier, Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman of Substance, which was the book of the decade” – published in 1979 – “and a terrific page-turner.” She did complete a manuscript. “Nobody – nobody – has ever seen it! And then (in about 1992) I went on a writing course with the Arvon Foundation. That was the turning point. It gave me so much confidence; and I was told by the tutors ‘You can do this.’ It was the first time in my life I’d ever been told I could do something.’ I was by then 32 years old. I went home inspired and that’s when I started on what became A Breath of Fresh Air, which became a best-seller.” Erica began the story while living in Brussels. “My children were very young. Edward (now 30) was in full-time school. Samuel (about to turn 29) was at nursery, but only in the afternoon. I’d drop him off and then walk to this park and sit and write. JK Rowling had her café; I had my park! I was like Little Red Riding Hood: I had my basket, a flask of tea and a couple of cakes, and a notebook and a pen.”
To be frank, it all happened at a difficult time. Erica, who’d married at 19, suddenly found herself alone to bring up her sons as she was writing the penultimate chapter. “So I was in this position where I had to earn money. I hadn’t done paid work in 11 years, because I’d been a stay-at-home mother… and then this amazing agent sold the book to Orion.” Sorry to ask, but did the demands of writing weaken the marriage? “Looking back, I think the writing was an ‘escape route’. The first book is quite autobiographical: about a woman living in Brussels, as I was; who was a corporate wife, as I was; so there were definitely aspects I was pouring into that book. Also, I was homesick for Cheshire, or for England, and the familiarity of what I knew. I think that was a reflection that things weren’t right.”
Erica was a finalist in the WH Smith Fresh Talent promotion in 1996 and the novel was a bestseller. But she didn’t allow herself to think she had it made. “I had to sell the matrimonial home and downsized into a tiny cottage with my sons – mortgage-free, so I just had to pay the bills – never thinking that by now I’d be embarking on my 20th novel.” Does she still fear it could all stop suddenly? “Oh yes! That’s why I work as hard as I do, because I look back and think ‘My goodness. I’ve been so, so, so lucky.’ It could all be taken away from me tomorrow. It’s part of that neurotic insecurity... I think that’s good, because it stops you ever being complacent. You always want to raise your game and do your best.” Writing does make you vulnerable. “You’re putting it out there, only to be judged. And it’s horrible!” She never reads reviews. “My skin is too thin. And yet I know authors who, every morning, check Amazon to see what people are saying about their books. I couldn’t do that.”
• The Dandelion Years is published by Orion on February 26 at £16.99