Author Penny Vincenzi: Writing books saved my life
Penny Vincenzi admits that although she initially found writing novels traumatic, her work helped her cope with illness and the death of her husband.
You may not have heard of her but you will have seen her books, with her glamorous-looking name slashed across them in a font that looks like it's been written in red lipstick. She's sold seven million books to date and A Perfect Heritage is her 17th novel. But it very nearly was her last.
In 2011, she developed a rare and difficult to diagnose blood disorder, which led to a bout of pneumonia and then eventually organ shutdown and kidney failure. Just two years before, she had lost Paul, her husband of almost 50 years, when he died suddenly of a brain tumour, leaving Penny Vincenzi in a pit of grief. Getting back to work on her book was the start of her recovery, she says.
Vincenzi writes good old-fashioned family sagas with modern themes of sex and business thrown in for good measure. She started her career as a fashion and beauty journalist in London in the Swinging Sixties and only started writing books in the Eighties because she had heard stories of the ‘mad money' advances that were being paid for the ‘sex and shopping' novels of the era.
“It's not a very edifying story,” she says. “I had no desire to be a novelist. It never entered my head and I just loved being a journalist. It was the Eighties and there was a lot of silly money about and I thought the money would be nice and I could just do one and go back to being a journalist. So I thought it was worth a try.
“Jilly Cooper is a great friend of mine and she said you should go to Desmond (Elliott, the literary agent) and he said what I want is three chapters and a dramatis personae and we'll see.”
It took her a while because she had four children and so by the time it came up for auction she had almost given up thinking about it.
“Do you know when you have wonderful days when everything goes right and you can find a parking space and you just feel great and then you find a dress that you really hadn't been looking for and then someone says, yes, I'll do that interview.
“I had one of those days. I was making the children's tea when my agent rang up and said are you sitting down, dear? I said no, and he said, well sit down. And I thought, oh no. And then he named this incredible sum.”
Her debut novel, Old Sins, had been auctioned for £100,000. She and her husband had been fantasising about what would happen if it sold for £10,000.
“It was totally life-changing of course. Paul and I went out that night and I can't tell you how drunk we were. Then in the morning I thought I don't know how I'm going to write this. I rang up my editor and said something terrible has happened. It's not working out how I said it would in the synopsis.
“I thought, I'll have to give the money back. She said, don't worry about that, carry on, find out what happens! And that's how my modus operandi came about.”
Today, Vincenzi looks frail but glamorous and her attitude is stoic and no-nonsense. She knows how lucky she is to be alive. There were times when she wasn't so optimistic, though, particularly when she was recovering.
“It requires a lot of health and energy to be optimistic and sometimes I just thought I don't want to go on with this, what's the point? I was more miserable afterwards than during.
“I've got a cottage in Wales that I love more than anywhere in the world and I couldn't go there. I thought, I'm writing crap, I can't look after the grandchildren anymore — the other grannies were taking over — and it's very hard in the face of that to remain optimistic and positive. That was the worst
thing, staying on top of it. It was like having a baby — you think, this has got to end. One way or the other this is going to end. But it was really hard.”
Slowly, she got better but ended up deleting four months of work. “It was complete rubbish. I had to press the delete button. I think my head was in a funny place.”
Famously, Vincenzi doesn't plot but finds out what happens along the way, which is perhaps why her books always weigh in at about 1,000 pages.
“I just thought a really good thing to write about now would be a company going down because people were losing their jobs.”
Vincenzi has had what she calls ‘one proper job' in her life, where she worked in the marketing department of a cosmetic company but for the most part she has worked as a journalist, mainly for daily national papers in the UK.
“I was an assistant to a wonderful woman called Felicity Green, who was the first woman to be on the board of a national newspaper and she was a huge power.”
There are plenty of powerful women in her new novel, which looks at the financial problems of a family-run cosmetics company.
“Women had to fight a damn sight harder in those days. You still do, but all this stuff about sexual harassment ... I was always having my bottom pinched and you'd just say ‘Oh stop it!’. If I had said to Felicity Green Mr so-and-so just pinched my bottom, she would have said, go on, grow up and get on with your article. It was so tough being a woman. You were just regarded to be lucky to be there at all because you were a woman.
“And if you were a mother you were even luckier. I was fired when I was on maternity leave, which was six weeks back then.”
She thinks the conflict between work and home life is still difficult for women to negotiate and being a mother is now akin to an Olympic sport.
“It's extraordinary, the changes I've seen. When I had my babies I was the only working mother I knew and I was something of a pariah I have to say. There was no pressure to work.
“The pressure was not to work. Babies then were a pretty picture on father's desk, not even to be mentioned. It's so different now. It's another world. Now we have to have a job and be successful and be perfect mothers and be very thin and the pressure! I do feel very sorry for mothers these days.
“They've turned mothering into an industry — you have to have this pram, this food, don't let it cry for more than two-and-a-half seconds or it will be emotionally damaged.
“I just feel very sorry for them. We were much more free range. There was no health and safety so you threw them into the back of the car. We had a Volvo estate and quite often I had seven children in the back, some in the boot, some on the back seat, and I'm sure it was very dangerous but at least it wasn't a worry. I think we had it much easier.”
She still loves writing and says she will never retire. “It's like wanting a drink ... you know that feeling? Well, perhaps you don't but it's that feeling.”
And, again, she will always be grateful for the fact that it was the thing that got her through her husband's death.
“In that awful grief, it's hard to take comfort in anything but what you need is things to do, things to put between you and it.
“The writing gave me a reason to get up in the morning. It was a lifeline. I visualise any kind of grief as a huge, yawning hole that you've got to get away from. The ice is so thin in the middle and the writing every day helped me edge back.”
- A Perfect Heritage by Penny Vincenzi is out now, Headline Review, £19.99