How Ulster-born author Lucinda Riley, who vowed to shun Hollywood, became the toast of LA after signing huge deal to film her novels for TV
Lucinda Riley tells Stephanie Bell why she gave up a promising acting career and why she still remembers fantastic childhood holidays in Northern Ireland
As a reluctant star who, despite her best efforts to remain in the background, has just landed a major Hollywood contract, author Lucinda Riley's life reads like the plot of one of her best-selling books.
The 48-year-old, who was born in Lisburn but now lives on the Norfolk coast, gave up a promising career as an actress because she hated the spotlight. Ironically, she has now found herself the toast of Los Angeles, where she has just signed a deal to have her novels turned into a TV series.
No one is more astonished by this latest twist in her life than Lucinda herself because, aged 20, she was flown to LA for a screen test for a part in the blockbuster Robin Hood Prince of Thieves... and disliked Hollywood so much she vowed never to return.
Opting for a quiet life as a writer and mother, she was never prepared for the success she enjoyed - or just how big a writer she would become.
A natural storyteller, Lucinda has sold millions of copies of her books, which have made best-seller lists around the world, including in the prestigious New York Times and the London Sunday Times.
She has just been offered a deal with a leading Hollywood production company for a TV show based on her book series The Seven Sisters.
A dream for any author, the contract has come after the publication of just two books in the seven-book series, The Seven Sisters and The Storm Sister. The third book, The Shadow Sister, is due out in November.
A mum to four and step-mum to three, she is currently enjoying a break at her summer home in France while she comes to terms with what is yet another astonishing achievement since she launched her first book - as Lucinda Riley - just six years ago.
Her husband, Stephen, a company chairman, has stepped in to manage her 30-plus publishers worldwide. Now, after five months of negotiations, she has signed a contract with a Hollywood TV production company and is still in shock at her latest accomplishment.
"It really does feel very surreal," she says. "You always think there is a 'moment', and when you go to number one in all sorts of amazing places that is a 'moment' and you think, 'It can't get any better than that'.
"It is sort of scary as well. I just write for myself. When my agent rang to tell me about the interest from LA in January, I was on holiday with my husband in Thailand and I didn't believe it at first.
"Then he said they wanted to Skype me from LA and, three days later, I was sitting in the middle of the jungle talking to an agent from Hollywood. Three weeks ago, they flew over to London, and we signed the contract in the Savoy Hotel.
"It is ironic that I was flown to LA for a screen test when I was 20 and, when I got home, I cried and said I never wanted to go there again. It's been a running joke with my current production company that they would always have to come to me for meetings."
Lucinda was born in the Lagan Valley Hospital and lived in Drumbeg until she was five with her parents, Janet and the late Donald Edmonds, and sister Georgia. The family moved to Leicestershire with her father's work, and she vividly remembers annual holidays back home in Northern Ireland throughout her childhood.
"We did that long drive from Leicestershire to Scotland to get the boat at Stranraer every single year, and I can remember back then the cars didn't go very fast and it seemed to take forever," Lucinda explains.
Mum Janet was an actress who Lucinda says enjoyed a great career on stage with an unusual claim to fame - she was one of the main characters in playwright John Osborne's only musical disaster, The World of Paul Slickey.
Her late dad, Donald, was passionate, too, about the theatre, but worked as a director for a textile company. It was he who encouraged her to follow in her mother's footsteps as an actress. "My mother just saw it as a horrible business to go into because she knew how difficult it could be," Lucinda says. "But dad encouraged me and I ended up going to the same drama school, Italia Conti, as she did.
"Now I'm a mum and my three eldest children are interested in doing something in the theatre business and I'm the person telling them to get a proper job as I know how hard it is."
Lucinda was only 15 when she landed her first major role as one of five children in The Story of the Treasure Seekers. She also got a part in the first series of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet alongside Kevin Whately and Tim Healy.
"I learned how to drink doing that show," she says. "That's all they seemed to do. I was only one of two females and the rest were all men. It was fantastic - I had a brilliant time doing it."
A turning point in her life came in her early 20s, when she became very ill and was diagnosed with glandular fever. She recently discovered that she had in fact had the Epstein-Barr virus. She was 22 and bed-ridden and newly married to an actor struggling to find work. "I was just knocked out by it and I couldn't go to auditions and I was feeling sorry for myself," she says. "I was married to an actor at the time who wasn't working, and we were broke.
"I always had an incredibly vivid imagination and, when I was acting, I always wanted to change the plot of whatever I was working on. I started writing in bed to try and take my mind off how I was feeling."
Writing under her maiden name, Lucinda Edmonds, she was stunned to be offered a three-book deal straight away by publisher Simon and Schuster.
Her first book, Hothouse Flower (also called The Orchid House), was selected by Richard and Judy's Book Club in 2011 and has since been translated into 34 languages.
However, after her initial success, she put her writing on hold as she went through some changes in her private life, divorcing, then meeting and marrying current husband, Stephen. For the next seven years, she stayed at home raising her children - Harry, now 23, Bella (19), Leonora (15) and Kit (13). She also has three step-children to whom she is very close.
Lucinda continued to write, and it was only when her youngest son was settled at school that she decided to again try and get some work published under her married name, Lucinda Riley. The first two books in The Seven Sisters series have already been top five best-sellers in Germany, Italy, Brazil and Norway. Book three, The Shadow Sister, is to be published globally in November and, of course, she has just sold the rights to a multi-season TV series to a Hollywood production company.
The Seven Sisters tells the story of adopted sisters and is based allegorically on the mythology of the famous star constellation.
"The Seven Sisters story begins on the shores of Lake Geneva, where six of the sisters gather in their childhood home after the death of their adoptive father and discover tantalizing clues about their true heritage," says Lucinda.
"We follow each sister on their journeys across the world to find their roots, but the overarching mystery is that of Pa Salt, the sisters' adoptive father. Just who was he? And where is the Seventh Sister?
"The story unfolds in locations around the world, both in the past and present, with the emphasis firmly on complex family relationships and the redemptive power of love."
Raffaella de Laurentiis, who runs Hollywood-based Raffaella Productions, will produce the TV series. The daughter of legendary film-maker Dino de Laurentiis, she has produced films across the globe, including Conan The Barbarian and its sequel, Conan The Destroyer, which launched the acting career of one Arnold Schwarzenegger.
As a studio executive, she has supervised numerous films such as Weeds, Crimes Of The Heart and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Television production credits include the critically acclaimed 2001 NBC mini-series Uprising and the action-packed Vanishing Son series.
Commenting on the contract with Lucinda, Raffaella said: "While Lucinda's storyline is completely different from What Happened to Monday, the book's title and the seven sisters connection compelled me to read it.
"Though What Happened to Monday? deals with seven sisters in quite a different time and setting, the coincidence was just too much to resist. I immediately fell in love with Lucinda's story."
Lucinda is also currently rewriting and releasing a number of books originally published when writing under her maiden name, including The Italian Girl, The Angel Tree and, in 2017, The Love Letter.
Lucinda Riley's latest book, The Olive Tree, is published tomorrow by Macmillan, priced £16.99