On of the founders of the chick lit movement, Yorkshire-born author Wendy Holden talks to Sarah Freeman.
At the end of a slightly breathless two hours Wendy Holden has identified with some detail the best place to look for glamour if you should find yourself with time to spare in Cleckheaton, traced her early high falutin’ aspirations back to an early episode of Brideshead Revisited and revealed a soft spot for Jaffa Cakes.
Barely pausing to drink her Earl Grey tea, she’s also managed to squeezed in a few words about her new book Wild and Free, but it’s Yorkshire she really wants to talk about.
The day after our interview she emails just to clarify a couple of points and apologises for rambling. She wasn’t. Holden is nothing if not entertaining and besides she rarely gets the opportunity to wax lyrical about her home county.
She grew up in Cleckheaton and while there is still an invisible thread which pulls her back to that corner of the county for much of her childhood she felt like a round peg in a square hole.
“I blame the television, honestly I do,” she says with an accent that sounds like it has never so much as troubled the mill towns of West Yorkshire. “When I was growing up in the 1980s I became slightly obsessed by Brideshead Revisited. I remember thinking, ‘that looks nice, I fancy living there, I wonder how far it is from Cleckheaton and which bus do you get?’”
While disappointed to discover the Number 83 would take her direct to Brideshead, Holden did find escape in the town’s library and with her imagination sparked by Yorkshire’s literary greats and a life-changing English teacher – Mrs Symons – at Whitcliffe Mount School, she eventually set her heart on heading south to Cambridge University.
“Ahh that library. There wasn’t much glamour in Cleckheaton back then, but the library was my portal to another world. You should check it out.
“I absolutely loved it. My parents and my brother thought I was a little eccentric and they were probably right. Dad was a printer, mum was a secretary and my brother is a motor mechanic with a Yorkshire accent you can stand a spoon in. They were all very down to earth, still are, and then there was me. I used to cycle to Heptonstall where Ted Hughes used to live and think I was somehow channelling his spirit. I was quite an odd child, but while my family used to laugh at my fancy ways they never discouraged me or said I should take my head out of the clouds. I was the first one of the family to go to university and I honestly think it was my way of rebelling.”
Apologising for not making lunch, she instead produces a packet of Jaffa Cakes to go with the tea served in pretty vintage teacups. It just about sums Holden up. While she likes the finer things in life, she has little time for airs and graces and her entire career as a novelist has been built on puncturing social pretensions. “That’s something definitely in the genes,” she says barely batting an eyelid when the photographer accidentally tramps mud all over one of her rugs. “I remember one of the family getting married in the 1970s. The gift list included a continental quilt, which produced gales of laughter from our house, as did the chicken brick a bit further down.
“ I mean who back then had need of a quilt? It was funny when I went to university because I suddenly experienced the opposite of people with misplaced aspirations. Cambridge was going through a bit of peculiar stage, which I don’t think has happened before or since when all the public school boys were pretending to be working class. It wasn’t what I’d gone looking for at all.”
After graduating from Cambridge in the mid-1980s, Holden went straight to London and after a brief spell on an arts magazine she got a job on The Diplomat. The monthly publication gave her a direct pass into some of the capital’s most affluent and influential circles and after a few years she had worked her way up to editor.
“I loved that job. It basically meant going to fabulous drinks parties in embassies and beautiful houses around Kensington”.
She then landed a job on the Sunday Times where one of her main jobs was to ghostwrite a column for Tara Palmer-Tomkinson.
At the time IT Girls were the new tabloid fodder and TPT was the queen of them all. The experience would later provide the inspiration for Holden’s first novel Simply Divine which was published in 1999, just a couple of years after Bridget Jones’s Diary had dominated the bestseller list and Holden, along with the likes of Marian Keyes and Sophie Kinsella helped fuel the chick-lit bandwagon.
Since then she has written a dozen more books, each set in a different location, each sending up a different set of social stereotypes. It’s a formula which has paid off. Holden has had 10 top 10 bestsellers and her books have been sold all over the world.
“Of course chick lit gets a bad press, but I’ve never aspired to be taken seriously. In fact I am really happy to be a supermarket novelist. These days if you want to sell books, that’s where you have to be and surely the whole point of writing novels is that people read them?
The market has definitely changed since I began writing, it’s always changing, but I just keep doing what I do. I think people always need a bit of humour in their lives.”
Some things have changed though. Married and with two young children, Holden left London for a house in the Derbyshire Peak District. Tucked away overlooking the hills above Matlock it’s a beautiful spot, but a very different life to the one she led when Simply Divine came out.
“Obviously I can’t write about living in a bed sit and searching for Mr Right, that wouldn’t work,” says Holden, who is married to Jon, who she met at Cambridge.
“I write when the children are at school and I can get terribly distracted, but I’ve always said the key is not how much you write, but that you sit at the desk and do something every day.
“ I know I’ve been terribly lucky, but I think the teenage me who spent most her time daydreaming in Cleckheaton would be pretty pleased at how things turned out.”
Wild and Free, published by Headline Review, priced £7.99 is out on April 23.
WHAT IS CHICK LIT?
Origins: ‘Chick’ is American slang for a young woman, and ‘lit’ is a shortened form of literature.
The term allegedly appeared in print as early as 1988 as college slang for a course titled female literary tradition.
The books are often, but not exclusively, written in the first person
They are usually written for women by women
On the whole the books have a personal, light and humorous tone to them.