I’ve always written something. Stories at school, a play when I was at University (thankfully never published, but it was performed, and it was dire) While in Paris I wrote “Letter from Paris” for the Johannesburg Tatler, all breathless excitement about seeing Edith Piaf or Juliette Greco from the cheapest seats, or eating cous-cous or coq au vin for the first time.
My first cookbook was Leith’s All Party Cookbook, really a manual for caterers, illustrated with library pictures of Victorian banquets and picnics and even an etching of a human being spitted over a fire by dancing cannibals. That was to illustrate the Barbecue chapter. I must have been mad.
A dozen cookbooks followed, the best of them being the Leith’s Bible, which Caroline and I wrote together as the textbook for the school. It is still in print, and gets updated all the time. I reckon it’s so popular because the recipes work. So they should they have hundreds of students and dozens of teachers testing them almost daily!
My first “cookery correspondent” job was on the Daily Mail. Actually the editor wanted me to ghost a column for Lady Elizabeth Anson, the Queen’s cousin and the famous owner of Party Planners. I don’t know how I had the cheek but I agreed on condition that if I wrote under Liz’s name one week, I could write under my own the next.
I used to give Liz all the posh stuff: the apricots in brandy, the Rothschild Souffles, the Canard a l’Orange, and then next week I’d do Bangers and Mash and Fishcakes etc.
I used to get letters complaining “Why can’t we have Lady Elizabeth all the time? Who wants to cook that dreary woman’s tatties and sarnies, pizza and rice pud?” And then I’d get “Who does that poncy lady think she’s writing for? I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth! Has she any idea how much Best of Lamb costs?”
I migrated from the Mail to the Sunday Express, (which I hated: the editor was John Junor, an unreformed Scot who hated onions, garlic, and anything remotely spicy). I left for the Guardian which I loved because I had an editor, Liz Forgan, even keener on good food than me.
But I didn’t stop trying to write creative stuff. When my children were little I would send children’s stories off to publishers and they would come winging back. I’ve had a crack at writing a Drama series for television, which kept getting picked up, and dropped, by a succession of broadcasters and production companies, until Jamie’s Kitchen came out on exactly the same subject – a training school for young chefs in a restaurant - and killed it off for good. I could paper a wall with rejection slips and letters of regret. But hey, even JK Rowling got repeatedly turned down until Bloomsbury saw something in Harry Potter.
I’ve always written poems, sometimes just in my head. Even if I write them down I never show them to anyone though. I think you have to be hugely confident to admit to being a poet. I find it hard enough to say “I’m a novelist”. I chicken out with “I write novels”
One day I realised that if I went on writing about food, I’d never ever write my novel. So I quit food writing, definitely against the advice of both my publishers and my agent, and wrote Leaving Patrick, my first novel, set partly in India. I wrote the first chapter on the flight home from a holiday in Rajasthan.
My agent’s first reaction was “Can’t send this to a publisher! It’s broken backed, first half good, second half over-plotted, too rushed, as if you want to put everything you know about anything at all into one small novel.”
“But that’s the best I can do” I wailed, “What do I do now?”
She gave me the address of The Literary Consultancy, who will read your book and give you advice for a fee. They were great, and I’ve been sending my novels to Julia Bell at TLC ever since. She suggests very little, but when she does, it pays to listen. Once she told me to chop out a chapter that I thought was terrific.
“Yup” she said, “nice bit of writing, but it interrupts the main love story, it’s about side characters we don’t care about, and what we the readers want to know is, will she or won’t she? That chapter is a short story and you should keep it and sell it as such.”
I’ll never forget the feeling when my agent told me she’d sold that first novel to Penguin. I think it thrilled me more even than getting a Michelin Star for Leith’s restaurant, or the OBE, or Veuve Cliquot Businesswoman of the Year. I guess because those accolades are all really achieved by other people – the chef in the restaurant, the staff in the business, but with a novel you are on your own, baby.
Why do writers need to be published? Why isn’t just writing enough? First the ambition is just to finish the book. Then you want to get it published. Then it has to be a best seller. Then a movie!
Needless to say I’m not there yet. My novels sell respectably, but nothing like the cookbooks and flickers of interest from movie makers are few and far between. When a Hollywood production company showed an interest in Sisters, my American agent said, “Don’t get excited. Only 3% of movies that they say they are interested in ever get optioned, of those only 3% make it into development, only 3% of those get financed, and only 3% of those get made.
Ah well, one can dream. And if the are any movie moguls out there, Julie Walters, Meryl Streep and Pauline Quirke would make a perfect Choral Society trio, wouldn’t they? And how about The Gardener? Historic garden, sexy millionaire, a bit of rumpy-pumpy in the potting shed, twist in the tail. What more can they want?
For more about my books, click the Books link in the menu.