Tilly Bagshawe, author of Showdown, answers our questions.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in London, in Lambeth, but my family moved to Sussex when I was four so I am definitely a country girl at heart. As well as Sussex, which I love and where I still try to spend as much time as I can, I spent some of the happiest summers of my childhood in the Cotswolds, staying at my grandmother's house in Burford.
How many brothers and sisters do you have? Is anyone else in your family a writer?
I have two sisters and a brother, and am very close to all of them. We still speak every day, although we live all over the world now. My elder sister Louise is a successful novelist, and my brother James is a TV writer – everything from comedy to historical documentaries to game shows. Alice, our younger sister, is only a teenager, so there's still plenty of time.
Did you enjoy school? What is your most vivid memory of your school years?
All in all, I did enjoy school, although the years between 11 and 14 were not a lot of fun. I was at a Catholic girls' school in Tunbridge Wells at the time and very gawky and skinny with braces on my teeth. Girls can be extremely mean and bitchy at that age, especially if you are terminally uncool, as I was, and looked like a boy.I moved schools in fourth year, to another ex-convent girls' school where I boarded, and life got a lot better after that. I blossomed a bit physically and made some good friends, and also fell in love for the first time. I was quite naughty in my mid-teens and was suspended from school a number of times before finally being expelled in my last term when I became pregnant with my daughter.Probably my most vivid memory of school is being helped into a classroom through the window by my English teacher when I was five months pregnant. The school had banned me from attending revision lessons before my A-levels, but all my teachers tried to sneak me in anyway and give me as much help as they could. I got straight As in the end for my 'A' Levels and got into Cambridge, despite the trauma of the pregnancy and expulsion. So I owe those teachers an awful lot.
What educational qualifications do you have? Have you had any formal tuition in creative writing? If so, where and what? Did you find it useful?
I have a degree in English Literature and History from Cambridge (2:1, St John's College, automatic MA three years later) but was never taught creative writing as such. Having said that, my mother, who was also the headmistress of my primary school, taught me and my sister and brother the rudiments of creative composition (making sure your stories are interesting and have a beginning, middle and an end) when we were very young children. She always encouraged us to read and to write. Mum is an incredible teacher and was very influential on all of us, educationally and creatively. I think the lessons you learn before the age of nine or ten are probably the most fundamental ones, that stay with you the longest and influence the way you think and write as an adult the most profoundly.
Did you always want to be an author? If not, what did you originally want to be and when and why did you change your mind?
God, no! I wanted to be an Olympic skier when I was a kid. Later, as a teenager, I was hugely into drama and wanted to act professionally. I had lead roles in most school productions, playing everything from Lady Bracknell to Oliver Twist to Macbeth. (All-girls schools you see, so male parts were up for grabs as well.) I would have liked to have done more drama at Cambridge, but by then I had a ten-month-old baby to bring up on my own as well as studying for my degree, and there just wasn't time for anything else. I still think I might like to take up acting again one day though.The writing came about almost accidentally, in my late 20s. I had given up a very high-powered, high-stress career in the City and taken a year out to be with my daughter and relax. After about nine months I was going faintly stir-crazy living down in the country baking cakes and decided I needed to do something creative, that would hopefully earn me a bit of money as well. I wrote a couple of articles, just funny, lightweight, lifestyle-y pieces and sent them off to a bunch of newspapers. Amazingly, The Sunday Times ended up buying them straight away, and soon I was writing regularly for them, eventually branching out into the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard too as a freelancer.After a while, my sister suggested that I should try to write a novel. I thought it would be fun to have a go but didn't really knuckle down to it until my agent and good friend from Cambridge, Tiff Loehnis, pushed me to write a detailed synopsis and submit it. After that, the idea for Adored took shape pretty quickly. I was excited about it and gave up writing journalism almost completely for eight months while I finished the book. Also: when I was ten, I wrote and illustrated a children's book about a character called 'Monty Muckworm', an imaginary worm who wore a monocle that my sister and I used to blame whenever our room got in a mess! The book was called Monty Muck – A Worm of Pluck. My mother probably still has it somewhere.
Who were your role models? Which writers have influenced you the most? Which person do you most admire?
Role models? In terms of my writing, I have to say that Jilly Cooper is without a doubt the author whom I have most enjoyed reading and I'm sure that her books have influenced me, although I couldn't pinpoint in what ways exactly. I must have read Rivals ten times. Whenever things go spectacularly wrong in my life or I am depressed, I find I can pick up Rivals or Riders and lose myself in those worlds again instantly. I read books to escape – they're so much better and cheaper than therapy! I certainly hope that my books will also help people to escape, to leave behind their problems and open the door into a new, exciting, all-consuming world.Aside from Jilly Cooper, I have always loved Victorian novels. I read pretty much all of Dickens when I was eleven and twelve and moved onto the Brontës and George Eliot in my teens. I like the big, sweeping landscapes of Victorian novels, and I like the notion of "moral" books. I'm not averse to a bit of Gothic melodrama either, with characters being punished or maimed or burned! Seriously though, I do like authors to have a moral vision of some kind, to get off the fence. Oliver Twist profoundly affected me. The scene where Fagin is awaiting his hanging, terrified in his cell, which I first read aged twelve, made me a lifelong opponent of the death penalty.I think I was also influenced, perversely, by the very left-wing literary criticism I was taught at Cambridge – Jacques Derrida and all that "death of the author" bollocks. What a load of crap! I have always seen books as a form of timeless communication from one human being (the writer) to another, allowing someone's personal words and thoughts and imagination to live on through the ages. It's incredible and wonderful to me that, as a young girl living more than a century later, I could read what Dickens wrote and still be moved by his vision and his compassion. Similarly, if Jilly Cooper hadn't created the divine Rupert Campbell Black, I would never have been able to escape into that wonderful fantasy world. That was her personal creation, an imaginative gift to me as her reader, and if I ever meet her, I'll thank her for it.So, to me, writing is very personal and very human – I think the author is still and will always be very much alive. (For non-literary role models, see my answer to 'What inspires you?')
What jobs did you have before you started writing?
I worked as a headhunter for six years, specialising in investment banking in London and Los Angeles. I enjoyed that career for a long time, but by the end I had become very exhausted and I think emotionally burned out. I was the youngest ever person to make partner (at 27) in the number one global headhunting firm (Heidrick & Struggles) and was the firm's biggest revenue producer in Europe before I moved to Los Angeles. So there was immense pressure on me to perform, and I had to deal with a lot of envy and resentment. It could be quite tough.Working in the City was fantastic in many ways. You earn a fortune and there's a certain camaraderie in that high-pressure, high-energy lifestyle that I enjoyed, although it is still a very male-oriented and sexist world. I made good friends there and it gave me financial security, so I can't regret it. But I am certainly very happy to be writing now. I think I am less rabidly ambitious in my thirties than I was in my twenties; and other things – creative expression, having time to spend with my family, not dying of a stress-related stomach ulcer – have become more important to me as I've got older.
What was your goal then? What is your ambition now that you have achieved success as a writer? What is the next challenge for you personally?
I suppose my goal when I first started writing journalism was just to be published – and that hasn't changed really! Obviously you hope that the stuff you write is funny and thought-provoking and interesting. With my novel, I guess my aims grew to the extent that you are hoping to create characters and a world and a story that people will love and identify with, something that can transport them out of grim reality into a satisfying fantasy world. I want people to lose themselves in my book. The more people, the better.As for the next challenge, I suppose you always hope that your next book will be better than your last. I am not trying to become the next Shakespeare and have no pretensions to literary greatness, or even literary credibility. I want to write the sort of fun, sexy, escapist books that I love reading myself, books that have made me happy when nothing else could. If people enjoy reading my books, I'll consider my goals completely fulfilled.On a personal level, the next goal is probably to badger my poor husband into submission and have lots more children!
What personal experiences do you feel have informed your writing? Do you have a connection with or fondness for particular characters or locations?
I think all of your personal experiences inform your writing in some way, because they make up who you are and who you are will determine how you write. Specifically, with regard to Adored, I drew a lot on my own experience of living in Hollywood and particularly the uglier, painful side of life there that I saw. I still live in Los Angeles for six months of the year and even after four years here I'm still struck by the contrast between the natural beauty of the place (the sunshine, the ocean, the canyons), and the inner ugliness of so many of the people, particularly in West Hollywood.I love England so much. The more I travel, the more convinced I am that it is the best, most beautiful country in the world. But America has also played a big part in my life. My husband is American, although he has lived much of his adult life in London, and in a way I think we both have a love/hate relationship with American culture that probably comes through in the book. On the one hand I greatly admire American drive and dynamism and honesty. I probably also have a rather romantic, nostalgic view of American history: Nantucket, for example, is a magical place that I have always been drawn to write about. I use it in Adored as the setting for my heroine's healing and redemption.On the other hand, Los Angeles is a town that I associate with unhappiness, emptiness and the dark side of American life. Materialism, lust for fame and disappointment are all big themes in the book.Clearly, my childhood in the Cotswolds was also an influence. Batcombe is an amalgam of the English villages of my childhood, places I associate with family, security and joy.Other things that have influenced me: I'm very interested in the relationship between parents and children and in how different people are shaped by their different childhoods. My own upbringing was idyllically happy, and I grew up assuming that everyone had a loving supportive family like mine. The older you get, the more you realise that this isn't true, and the more you come to appreciate how lucky you are. My husband had a very unhappy childhood, and experienced death, grief and abandonment very young. His mom died when he was ten and that one event shaped the whole of the rest of his life and adult personality. So I have become very interested in that and in children struggling to fulfil their parents' expectations of them.
What inspires you?
My parents' marriage. People who have a strong, real religious faith. My daughter, Sefi. She inspires me in every way. I am immensely proud of her and I hope that she is also proud of me. My husband also inspires me, because he's had to overcome so much in his life to find the happiness and peace that comes so easily to people like me. But I'm also inspired by lots of little things. My dogs inspire me, because they're so loyal and devoted and they're both such optimists. Beautiful scenery inspires me, and I'm lucky to be surrounded by it in both England and California.This is a tough question – the list is too long! I can truthfully say that I am amazed and inspired by at least one new thing every single day. My life is incredibly, incredibly blessed.