Why Wendy Holden is content to be a supermarket novelist

Wendy Holden at her home near Matlock in Derbyshire. Picture by Tony Johnson.
Wendy Holden at her home near Matlock in Derbyshire. Picture by Tony Johnson.
  • One of the founders of the chick lit movement, Yorkshire-born author Wendy Holden talks to Sarah Freeman.
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At the end of a slightly breathless two hours Wendy Holden has identified with some detail the best place to look for glamour if you should find yourself with time to spare in Cleckheaton, traced her early high falutin’ aspirations back to an early episode of Brideshead Revisited and revealed a soft spot for Jaffa Cakes.

Barely pausing to drink her Earl Grey tea, she’s also managed to squeezed in a few words about her new book Wild and Free, but it’s Yorkshire she really wants to talk about.

Tara Palmer-Tomkinson

Tara Palmer-Tomkinson

The day after our interview she emails just to clarify a couple of points and apologises for rambling. She wasn’t. Holden is nothing if not entertaining and besides she rarely gets the opportunity to wax lyrical about her home county.

She grew up in Cleckheaton and while there is still an invisible thread which pulls her back to that corner of the county for much of her childhood she felt like a round peg in a square hole.

“I blame the television, honestly I do,” she says with an accent that sounds like it has never so much as troubled the mill towns of West Yorkshire. “When I was growing up in the 1980s I became slightly obsessed by Brideshead Revisited. I remember thinking, ‘that looks nice, I fancy living there, I wonder how far it is from Cleckheaton and which bus do you get?’”

While disappointed to discover the Number 83 would take her direct to Brideshead, Holden did find escape in the town’s library and with her imagination sparked by Yorkshire’s literary greats and a life-changing English teacher – Mrs Symons – at Whitcliffe Mount School, she eventually set her heart on heading south to Cambridge University.

“Ahh that library. There wasn’t much glamour in Cleckheaton back then, but the library was my portal to another world. You should check it out. I absolutely loved it. My parents and my brother thought I was a little eccentric and they were probably right. Dad was a printer, mum was a secretary and my brother is a motor mechanic with a Yorkshire accent you can stand a spoon in. They were all very down to earth, still are, and then there was me. I used to cycle to Heptonstall where Ted Hughes used to live and think I was somehow channelling his spirit.

“I was quite an odd child, but while my family used to laugh at my fancy ways they never discouraged me or said I should take my head out of the clouds. I was the first one of the family to go to university and I honestly think it was my way of rebelling.”

Apologising for not making lunch, she instead produces a packet of Jaffa Cakes to go with the tea served in pretty vintage teacups. It just about sums Holden up. While she likes the finer things in life, she has little time for airs and graces and her entire career as a novelist has been built on puncturing social pretensions. “That’s something definitely in the genes,” she says barely batting an eyelid when the photographer accidentally tramps mud all over one of her rugs. “I remember one of the family getting married in the 1970s. The gift list included a continental quilt, which produced gales of laughter from our house, as did the chicken brick a bit further down. I mean who back then had need of a quilt? It was funny when I went to university because I suddenly experienced the opposite of people with misplaced aspirations. Cambridge was going through a bit of peculiar stage, which I don’t think has happened before or since when all the public school boys were pretending to be working class. It wasn’t what I’d gone looking for at all.”

After graduating from Cambridge in the mid-1980s, Holden went straight to London and after a brief spell on an arts magazine she got a job on The Diplomat. The monthly publication gave her a direct pass into some of the capital’s most affluent and influential circles and after a few years she had worked her way up to editor.

“I loved that job. It basically meant going to fabulous drinks parties in embassies and beautiful houses around Kensington. God, those drinks were strong, honestly, they were almost entirely gin, I don’t know how anyone keeps any state secrets.”

Gin or no gin, you get the impression Holden would inject a bit of life into even the dreariest party and after exhausting every embassy reception she landed a job on the Sunday Times where one of her main jobs was to ghostwrite a column for Tara Palmer-Tomkinson. At the time IT Girls were the new tabloid fodder and TPT was the queen of them all. The experience would later provide the inspiration for Holden’s first novel Simply Divine, but she admits now that it almost never happened.

“I’d always fancied writing a novel, but I never had a plot. To be honest the fact I had one staring me in the face almost passed me by. I was pretty resentful about writing Tara’s column because in those days everyone thought celebrities wrote their own columns. These days that particular mask has slipped, but back then I remember being at a dinner party and someone asked me what I did. When I told them I wrote Tara Palmer-Tomkinson’s column in the Sunday Times they just turned and very matter of factly said, ‘No you don’t, she does’. As Tara became more famous on the back of my work, I became more frustrated. I almost didn’t realise that she was a complete gift to a novelist. Fortunately I managed to stop being angry just in time.”

Simply Divine was published in 1999, just a couple of years after Bridget Jones’s Diary had dominated the bestseller list and Holden, along with the likes of Marian Keyes and Sophie Kinsella helped fuel the chick-lit bandwagon. Since then she has written a dozen more books, each set in a different location, each sending up a different set of social stereotypes. It’s a formula which has paid off. Holden has had 10 top 10 bestsellers and her books have been sold all over the world.

“My whole career has been one miracle of timing after another. My first novel came out just as chick lit was taking off and just before Tara crashed and burned, the film rights were snapped up and I thought. ‘gosh, how exciting, this must how it is for every new author’. Of course the film never got made, but it was the dream launch to a career.

“Of course chick lit gets a bad press, but I’ve never aspired to be taken seriously. In fact I am really happy to be a supermarket novelist. These days if you want to sell books, that’s where you have to be and surely the whole point of writing novels is that people read them? The market has definitely changed since I began writing, it’s always changing, but I just keep doing what I do. I think people always need a bit of humour in their lives.”

Some things have changed though. Married and with two young children, Holden left London for a house in the Derbyshire Peak District. Tucked away overlooking the hills above Matlock it’s a beautiful spot, but a very different life to the one she led when Simply Divine came out.

“Obviously I can’t write about living in a bed sit and searching for Mr Right, that wouldn’t work,” says Holden, who married to Jon, who she met at Cambridge. He’s a political consultant and divides his time between Westminster and Derbyshire. “I’ll have to wait until my daughter’s going through that particular stage of life to revisit that particular trauma again. But you there’s no shortage of inspiration up here. People think the countryside is this incredible serene kind of place, but it’s actually sort of naughty. Some unbelievable stuff goes on.”

Holden’s next novel will be set in a rural idyll, but for now she’s busy promoting Wild and Free which takes a gentle side swipe at the profusion of middle-class music festivals.

“I won’t name names, but let’s just say I went to one in the South West which was trying so hard to be ironic. There was an ironic flower festival where one of the displays was a piece of pipe in a pot and there was a band playing contemporary songs but in the style of 15th century minstrels and that, of course, was very ironic. Everywhere you looked there was another reason to cringe.”

Wild and Free was written in what she calls her glorified shed. It’s a little bit more than that. The walls of the small wooden lodge are lined with prints by the illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, a contemporary of Oscar Wilde which she bought at a sale at Chatsworth and the shelves are full of her dad’s old paraphernalia – he had a stroke a couple of years ago and has moved into a care home. During the winter she has to switch the heaters on two hours before she wants to begin work, but the views across the Peak District are worth the occasional icy start.

“I write when the children are at school and I can get terribly distracted, but I’ve always said the key is not how much you write, but that you sit at the desk and do something every day. I know I’ve been terribly lucky, but I think the teenage me who spent most her time daydreaming in Cleckheaton would be pretty pleased at how things turned out.”

• Wild and Free, published by Headline Review, priced £7.99 is out on April 23.