I'd hoped to start my round of book-ish events at this year's Curious Arts Festival on Friday, with Rachel Joyce, but our late arrival due to traffic delays put paid to that, and so I had to wait till the next day, and Joanna Trollope's event. She's one of those authors frequently referred to as a house-hold name, and most of us will have read at least one of her books or seen TV adaptations of them - along with others of my age, I probably 'discovered' her through Ch 4's The Rector's Wife back in 1994. In her long career she's written twenty novels as Joanna Trollope, and more under the pseudonym of Caroline Harvey.
On Saturday, she was talking to Rowan Pelling about her latest novel, City of Friends - the story of four women, firm friends from their university days, who by chance rather than design studied economics and went on to have jobs in the finance sector, and specifically of Stacey, who, as the book opens, has just lost her job at a top private equity firm.
Asked why she chose to write a novel centring on the 'work' aspect of women's lives, Trollope replied that there have been endless novels about women and relationships, women and family, women and sex, women and children, but the relationship between women and work hasn't been explored anything like as much. She then chose that the 'work' in question should be that of finance as this is still seen as a male bastion, and placed her characters in management consultancy, private equity and banks.
During her research for City of Friends, Trollope spoke to many women working in Canary Wharf, in positions similar to those of her characters, and came to believe that there's only really space for one career-minded person in a marriage, and echoed an assumption that many of us have encountered - that no matter who is the major breadwinner in a family, dealing with the 'human' problems of children or ageing parents is the responsibility of women. She also feels that the dream of having it all - high-powered job, loving husband, lovely home, adoring kids - is basically just that, a dream, a modern fairy tale to replace the one of marrying a prince and living happy ever after in a castle.
In writing her characters, Trollope hopes to recreate that friend you have, who most of the time you'll agree, and get on well, with, but at others they'll irritate you beyond imagining. So, while she agrees at times with things they say or actions they take, she definitely doesn't agree with everything they say or do; in fact. it's necessary for a character to at times behave in ways she doesn't approve of, as they must above all be true to themselves, otherwise they lose credibility.
In answer to the 'how do you start a new story', Trollope explained that she starts with a theme - this time, as mentioned above, it's that of the relationship between women and their work - then adds in the characters. As regards structuring the book, she plans the first quarter, and knows how the story will end, but in between events are allowed to develop as they will, within reason.
I thought it was a particularly interesting author talk, raising matters of equality, feminism, and our attitudes towards career women which stretched far beyond the boundaries of the novel itself.