In 2008, my second book, East of the Sun, was chosen for the Richard and Judy Book Club. My agent phoned me at ten o’clock at night and said, ‘Expect everything to change now.’ I laughed, somewhat nervously. I was in my pajamas in the kitchen at the time, about to put the dog out and turn the lights off. She was right. I had yet to experience the Richard and Judy Book Club’s incredible power and reach.
My first book, The Water Horse, had ‘sold respectably for a first novel,’ which is kind publisher speak for, ‘Don’t ask’ (since you’re asking, 4,000 copies). But over the next few months I experienced all the exciting anxieties of vertical take-off.
It was surreal to have a book in bookshop windows and on the bestseller lists. East of the Sun was a featured book on the TV (I missed that bit, I was at home behind the sofa) and the BBC bought the TV rights. I had what felt like astronomical sales, but the most real, the most magical thing of all, was that after years in the wilderness I had actual readers. The first time this really hit home was when an elderly lady approached me in a small book shop in Usk, Wales, and delighted me by discussing my characters as if they were old friends. Other readers wrote to me in similar vein; to discuss, complain, amend, suggest.
It may sound like a glimpse of the blindingly obvious, but finding readers makes all the difference: it gives you confidence, it gives you hope. It was, as I say, a life changing experience, one I am profoundly grateful for.
To be chosen for the Richard and Judy Book Club again this year was as fantastic as it was unexpected. In many ways, Jasmine Nights is the most personal of all my books. It takes me back to the Middle East, where I spent a magical period of my adolescence. Home for the holidays from a convent boarding school in Norfolk where we swam in the blisteringly cold North Sea, I discovered, in one summer, moonlight swimming in the warm milk of the Med; the smell of roasting kebabs in roadside tavernas; kissing my first boy in a garden in Cyprus scented with jasmine. Jasmine Nights, which is set in Cairo and Turkey in 1942, is also a way of understanding a much loved but mysterious father who, like my main character Dom, was a Battle of Britain pilot.
In the past year, as well as enjoying the varied delights of the new Richard and Judy list, I have also, after years of resistance, joined a local book group in Wales. Apart from the wine and the laughs, what I’ve discovered about book clubs is that they make for great conversations – the kind you rarely have at the school gate or dinner parties.
Thanks to authors from Norway (Per Pettersen), Australia (Tim Winton), the Wild West (Patrick deWitt), and Washington (Katherine Boo), we’ve talked late into the night about what it means to be human, to have faults, to have children we adore/despair of/worry about, parents who we miss or whose faults are our own. We’ve met murderers, surfers, Mumbai slum dwellers, remittance men. Without books, would our discussions have been as rich, or as wide ranging? I doubt it. It’s a night I look forward to with keen anticipation. So, glasses raised, please, for book clubs, I can’t think now why I resisted them for so long, and to the irreplaceable Richard and Judy, for making so many people read.
Julia Gregson is the prize-winning author of three novels, one book of non-fiction, and several short stories. Her novel, East of the Sun, was chosen for the Richard and Judy TV Book Club and became a Sunday Times bestseller in the UK. It won Romantic Novel of the Year and the Prince Maurice Prize and has since been translated into more than twenty languages. Previously a journalist, for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Times, Good Housekeeping, and Rolling Stone in the USA, she is married and lives in Wales.