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Home Life Weekend

'My experience of motherhood has been great. But even when you've got it good, it's still the hardest thing you'll do'

Dawn O'Porter is making a name as a writer of smart, female-led fiction. She tells Shilpa Ganatra about losing her mum to cancer, the importance of strong female characters and why actor husband Chris O'Dowd doesn't get to read her books until they're fully finished

Dawn O’Porter
Dawn O’Porter
Dawn O’Porter
Dawn with her husband Chris O’Dowd

By Shilpa Ganatra

Author, celebrity, TV star and vintage-fashion enthusiast Dawn O'Porter greets me in London sporting her classic style: her bob is luscious and glossy, her eyeliner is thick, she's wearing her favourite Ops and Ops retro shoes, Free People bellbottoms, and a Stoned Immaculate jumper with the female symbol on it.

She doesn't need the symbol to show she's a feminist and proud of it; we're meeting to talk about her new book, So Lucky, which follows the lives of three female protagonists facing challenges behind their facades. There's Beth, a breast-feeding boss who's frustrated in her sexless marriage. Ruby - based on Clara Francis, O'Porter's friend and wife of actor Jason Watkins - is a Photoshop whizz whose excessive hair growth distresses her to the point of pushing away those closest to her, not helped by her battleaxe of a mother. Through them both, we hear second-hand accounts of Lauren, an Instagram star whose perfect life is set to get even more perfect with her wedding to a rich entrepreneur Altogether, it's a marvellously crafted, accessible story of the pressures that women face, and the honesty, strength and solidarity needed to overcome them.

Four fiction books in, O'Porter recognises this as a theme in her writing.

"They always end with women coming together, and the power and the strength of female friendship," she says. "The women in my life are so important, and most women who have good friends feel that way - whether it's sisters, aunties or mums. When someone hasn't got good female relationships in their life, that's a real problem for them. That's basically Ruby, until she realises that her friends are actually good friends. But her relationship with her mother has been so hard."

Indeed, difficult relationships with mothers is another overarching theme, which she attributes to losing her own to cancer when she was seven.

"There wasn't negativity in our relationship, but it's a type of relationship that I don't really understand, so I seem to keep tapping into that complexity, even in Paper Aeroplanes," she says of her debut young adult book. "The mother-daughter relationship is not one that all women can rely on, and I think it does something to you. You have to become a certain kind of person."

If female relationships are key, she sure has a lot of gents around, too; she's close to her father in Scotland, and lives in LA with a bunch of them - her husband, Moone Boy and Bridesmaids star Chris O'Dowd, and their two sons, Art (4) and Valentine (2). Given the female-led themes in the book, I wonder how much she'd considered a male audience?

"I definitely write with the thought of women reading it, but I think the guys who have read it enjoyed it too," she says, citing radio host Chris Evans, who's show she's just appeared on, and who has said he is a genuine fan of the book.

"What books like mine and others do - and this is why strong female characters in film and on TV and in writing are so important - is they allow men to finally understand that we see and acknowledge everything, and that we're not as weak as we've always been thought of, especially in fiction.

"In (2016's) The Cows, there was a male character called Jason and all he wanted was love and a baby. Some people got cross about this character, saying he was a bit pathetic, and I laughed because that's how women have been written about for so long in every movie, in everything. We're just desperate for love and babies apparently, but put a man in that situation everyone's upset because he seems weak and pathetic. I'm like, 'great, now you get that's how we've been feeling for a long time'."

Her 73-year-old father read the book, twice, then afterwards researched polycystic ovaries, and "if this book encouraged him to understand the woman's experience bit more, I feel like it's okay for me to say men will enjoy the book". She has yet to hear her husband's final verdict; she only gave a copy to O'Dowd a few days previous, once the final copies were delivered.

"Chris is an amazing writer so I always get terrified when he reads my stuff. I don't let him read anything until it's completely finished, so he's only three quarters of the way through," she explains. "Whenever he shuts the book, I'm all like, 'where did you get to?' He probably feels the same way when I watch his film - it's an odd thing to consume your partner's work.

"It matters to me enormously that he likes what I do because it takes me away from my family a lot. So I hope that he enjoys the product of us making that work as a family."

Ah, the pressures of the working mother - another theme of the book and hot topic in today's society. How much of Beth's fraught work-life balance was informed by her own experiences?

"Nothing in this book is directly based on my experiences, however, I'm a mum of two boys, and some days they test you so far," she explains. "I'm stressed, I'm on a deadline and they're just screaming, kicking me - just doing what toddlers do. I shout at them, and that night, I feel like I'm just not doing very well. I only needed to take one of those moments to create Ruby's character.

"My experience of motherhood has been great, and I'm really lucky in terms of pregnancy and birth, and my husband's very hands-on. But even when you've got it good, it's still the hardest thing you'll ever do. As a feminist, I was like, 'I'll never feel guilty about going to work'. But I'm currently doing 10 days away from my kids to do this book tour and I'm ridden with guilt about it. They're with their dad, everything's fine, but they don't understand that I write books. But one day my boys will look back and go, 'God, my mum was a real badass', and they won't remember that I worked 12-hour days for two weeks, or I went on book tours. You do beat yourself up about such silly things when you're a mum."

The O'Porters and O'Dowds (she added the O' to her name when they married in 2012) are frequent visitors to Co Roscommon, where O'Dowd's family reside. But work commitments meant she was unable to join in when he took his older son camping this summer.

"He goes to touch base with his family even if I can't, but I love going back to Ireland. It's such a welcoming, lovely place."

Are they stopped on the street much?

"This is probably a really arrogant thing to say, but I always joke that we're like Will and Kate when we go back to Ireland: I feel like I'm waving to people all the time to people I don't know. But everyone is so sweet and so supportive, especially in Boyle. Maybe because he did Moone Boy, which was set there and did so many wonderful things for the town. They gave him the Freedom of Roscommon after that, and he was so proud. I've seen him win Emmys, but nothing was like the Freedom of Roscommon. Even though no one knows what it actually means!"

Looking ahead, O'Porter already has a two-book deal for more female-fronted stories, the first of which is slated for next Christmas.

She's back in broadcasting, albeit as the host of a companion podcast for So Lucky. And she's also writing the script for a musical about the 1980s pop factory Stock, Aitken and Waterman, which is likely to hit the stage either next year or 2021.

"I read a lot of scripts because the house is full of them, but still, it's very different to writing a book," says O'Porter.

"Usually, I've got six pages to explain how someone feels; in dialogue, I've got two lines. So the biggest challenge is being more economical. But the music was my childhood so I've been so happy, listening to nothing but Kylie and Jason and Bananarama for about eight months. I'm like a kid all over again."

So Lucky, published by HarperCollins, £14.99

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