Joanna Trollope has been writing for over thirty years and is well known for her enormously successful contemporary works of fiction. She has been described as one of the most insightful chroniclers and social commenters writing fiction today.
Born in her grandfather’s rectory in the Cotswold village of Minchinhampton in December 1943, Joanna says: ‘Being born somewhere with a strong local sense, like the Cotswolds, gave me not just a sense of rootedness, but a capacity to value landscape and weather and the accessible richness of community life.”
Joanna spent her school days in Surrey, but by her own admission, Joanna is not someone who loved her schooldays. ‘I only really started to enjoy education when I got to university. No school can be blamed, however, it was more my childhood and adolescent sense of being an outsider, of not belonging (a very formative sense, I now know, for being a writer) that made me miserable at a time when 99.9% of children long to conform. But, I was very well taught, however, and I think I sensed this, even then.’
After winning a scholarship to Oxford University, Joanna joined the Foreign Office and then became a teacher of English. She began writing ‘to fill the long spaces after the children had gone to bed’ and for many years combined her writing career with working as a teacher. By 1980, Joanna became a full-time author. ‘My first novel was written when I was 14, all about myself, of course (it is now kept under lock and key in case my children find it…) I suppose I wrote it for the same reason that I still write – to communicate. I don’t think we should ever underestimate the power of story – story is how we negotiate with each other, how we build up relationships, how we learn. And nothing is so fascinating as good narrative – nobody of any age can resist What Happens Next …’
Joanna still writes longhand and is happy to write almost anywhere – an airport departure lounge, a country kitchen table, or the quiet, west-facing study in her London house. ‘I often write at an ordinary table – often in my kitchen and have not succumbed to the computer, so everything is handwritten. I start, as you guessed, with an emotional situation which grows into a story. Then I choose a cast of characters, then I decide where they are going to live. I will plot the first five or six chapters of a book quite minutely – and then I will plot the end so I know where I am going, but I do not know quite how I am going to get there which allows the book to develop organically – as life does!’
For all her novels, Joanna undertakes meticulous research, involving huge amounts of interviewing and travel – often on foot or by public transport, of which she is an enthusiastic fan. ‘The research varies from book to book, but it always includes talking to people who have known, or are in, the situation I am concerned with—in the case of one particular book ( it was “The Other Family”), bereavement and living with what seems an unjust will. People are wonderfully generous about talking to me—maybe because I’m not a journalist? — and often seem almost relieved to be able express their intimate feelings openly.’
Joanna’s first books to be published were a number of historical novels under the name Caroline Harvey. These were followed by Britannia’s Daughters, a historical study of women in the British Empire and more recently, her enormously successful contemporary works of fiction. The Choir was Joanna’s first contemporary novel, followed by A Village Affair and A Passionate Man. The Rector’s Wife, first published in 1991, was Joanna’s first number one bestseller, and made her into a household name. Since then, she has written nineteen more bestselling contemporary novels.
Joanna devotes a considerable amount of time to supporting her chosen charities and in particular those associated with literacy. She says: ‘I’m really saddened by the abiding shame that accompanies not being able to read and write properly – and cheered by the real joy that comes with learning to do both.
For more information on Joanna’s chosen charities, click here to visit her webpage.
When asked to comment on who or what has been the greatest influence on her writing, Joanna’s response was; ‘Simply – just life, I think. At certain stages – I’m sure this is true of everyone – a particular person or book or idea or movie can strike a huge chord, but, looking back, I can see a whole series of influences – personal, educational, social, professional, economic – that have shaped me rather than being able to point to one single colossus and say ‘It was him, or her’.
Very few writers who could be said to be prophets, true inventors, What most of us are is interpreters, translators. We take the old human truths that Shakespeare and Sophocles described inimitably, and we re-interpret them for our own times, in our own voices, coloured by as it were, our own messages to the world.
The pen is there to illuminate, to describe the human condition in contemporary terms, to – in fiction’s case certainly, – describe ourselves better than anything else can – except for the simple struggle of just living life. Writers aren’t there to tell you what to think. They are there to beckon you into a book and join them in the thinking.’
Joanna’s family is hugely important to her. She is the eldest of three, the mother of two daughters, stepmother of two stepsons, and, now, is immensely enjoying being a grandmother. Joanna once saw a car sticker in the States. It read: “If I’d known how wonderful grandchildren were going to be, I’d have had them first”.
She has been married twice and now lives on her own in London. Joanna still has the same core group of close friends she’s had for the past thirty years, and many more friends in the world of writing.
When Joanna considers what has happened to her career she says: ‘I think we all have a particular filter through which we see the world. It could be sport, or dance, or numbers, or pictures, or music – anything really that each of us feels is where we are most at home and most able to express ourselves. And for me it was always words…. I also wanted to communicate with other people, I always have. All of which, I suppose, adds up to becoming a writer.’