As she releases her 27th book, the former Yorkshire Evening Post hack-turned-top novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford talks to arts editor Rod McPhee about being a traditional workaholic and a product of her roots.
If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all. Better still, if you’re Barbara Taylor Bradford, pretend you’ve never heard of them.
As we chat about female elegance in the 21st century, three names are put forward for the novelist’s consideration: Cheryl Cole, Jordan and Lady Gaga.
“Who?” she replies mischievously, barely able to suppress a quiet giggle on the other end of the line.
“I joke, of course,” she continues. “I know who they are, but they aren’t my idea of elegance. Now, the Duchess of Cambridge, she’s another matter – I think she’s absolutely wonderful.
“Kate’s beautiful, well dressed, well mannered and has that common touch which means she can reach out to anyone regardless of whether they’re a princess or the regular man or woman on the street. She has more than a hint of Princess Diana about her, I think.”
There’s something reassuringly old school about Barbara Taylor Bradford. From her opulent New York apartment – dripping with antiques, flower arrangements and oil paintings – to the racy genre of novel of which she is unquestionably queen, you know just where you stand.
“I’m politically incorrect too,” she says, speaking from her suite at The Dorchester in London. “For example, I can’t stand the (energy saving) lightbulbs in this room I’m in because they’re decreed by Belgium, why? Because of the environment? What a load of rubbish.”
It should be pointed out that she’s also rooted in the modern day which is why she is, among other things, currently blazing a trail to combat poor educational standards on both sides of the Atlantic. “If you can’t read or write it’s a death sentence” she says, referencing her own, blessed education in her home city of Leeds.
She’s still knocking out books at a phenomenal rate too. This week she releases her 27th novel, Letter from a Stranger, and despite turning 79 next year doesn’t show any sign of slowing down.
“I’ll think I’ll die at my desk,” she laughs. “But not today, don’t worry. I’ll certainly never retire because I’m just a workaholic and like to think I have a tremendous work ethic. I still get up at 5am and like to be writing by 5.30 every day.
“And I do think it goes back to when I used to work at the Yorkshire Evening Post, taking a tram from Upper Armley to Albion Street in Leeds. I used to have to get there so early and that’s just stayed with me ever since.”
Barbara joined the YEP after leaving school at 15. She was already a rung or two up the educational ladder thanks to her mother, a nurse called Freda Taylor.
Despite coming from working class stock (her father, Winston Taylor, was an engineer) Freda was determined to imbue her daughter with a cultural worldliness few of her contemporaries enjoyed.
Trips to the ballet and theatre opened the eyes of the future journalist and novelist and the relationship with her mother appears to have smoothed off some the rougher edges which, back in the 1940s, might have held back a young girl from a northern city.
“I never really had a strong Yorkshire accent,” she says, with cut glass received pronunciation. “That’s because my mother didn’t for some strange reason, my father did a bit, though.
“Actually, I don’t know if I ever had a strong accent, you don’t really think about it when you’re that age do you? But I don’t think my voice has changed that much. The only time I’m doing it is if I’m doing it as a joke saying ‘Ee by gum!’ or something.”
Her life certainly is far removed from her formative years in Upper Armley. The double-barrelled name comes from marrying American filmmaker Robert Bradford, her partner for some half a century.
The couple live the high life together in Manhattan – small wonder given that, since she first published her defining work, A Woman of Substance, in 1979, Barbara has reportedly accrued wealth of more than £170m.
In that time A Woman of Substance has sold over 31 million copies in 40 languages and 90 countries. There are now some 80m of her books on shelves around the globe.
Not content, she’s determined to go on writing and every book is as important as the last. She’s particularly enthused by her latest offering, Letter from a Stranger.
She says: “It’s all about a letter which is mailed from Istanbul to a house in America. This letter reveals that something terrible was done 10 years earlier.
“But the woman it’s addressed to no longer lives at that house and the letter is instead opened and read by her daughter, Justine, who’s the main protagonist of the book.
“She discovers that a lie has been told to Justine and her brother, basically that someone is dead and, in fact, they’re still alive. And she goes in search of them.
“I don’t want to say too much more, though because I don’t want to give too much away – after all I want them to read the book!”
But how does she come up with the ideas?
“I really don’t know,” she laughs. “People ask me that all the time and I haven’t a clue really. It depends. What happened with this book was an idea came to me about two years ago when I started writing it.
“I had an idea about a woman who might have a secret past – so I did what I usually do and I sit at a desk and do all the ‘what ifs?’ and it just develops from there.”
In between writing novels Barbara juggles her time between numerous causes, among them the aforementioned campaign to improve literacy rates in the US.
She says: “I’m a member of an organisation in America called Literacy Partners and we’re a group who got together 25 years ago to raise money in order to open centres where people can go and be taught to read.
“In the States some 48m people can only read a little and some 42m can’t read at all – in total that’s almost a third of the population of the United States.
“I mentioned these figures in a speech once and someone actually challenged me at the end to say: ‘Where exactly did you get these figures from?’. They thought I’d made them up!
“But I’m very passionate about this. I really do believe the inability to read is a death sentence: how can you get a job? How can you take medicine if you can’t read the label? How do you know where to go or what to do in a terrorist attack?”
But amid her work she still puts a little time aside to think about home.
“It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that I would come back to Britain,” she says. “And if I did come back to the UK I think I probably would come back to Yorkshire, probably to somewhere in the Dales.
“It’s funny because I am very aware of being a Yorkshire woman living in New York, you know. I have my feet on the ground and I often think of Leeds and my parents and wonder what they’d think if they were alive.
“I might be far away from Leeds, but in my heart I’m often there.”
l Letter from a Stranger is available online and in bookshops published by Harper Collins priced £17.99.