LUCINDA Riley brushes drops of rain from her coat, smiles and looks around, orienting herself. Her luggage is at her feet and she’s yet again in transit, stopping in Cork briefly amid the whirlwind her life has become since she began her book series.
The best-selling author has been in Clonakilty, checking renovations to the house she and her husband Stephen bought last year. She has a vision for her new West Cork acquisition: “I’m on the slow boat to Ireland, and I’m staying here. Last year I thought, ‘Where do I want to rest my bones one day? I want to come home again.’ It will be my primary residencein three years’ time when the kids finish school.”
Riley, who lived in Co Antrim as a child, moving to Leicestershire with her parents and sister at the age of five, has applied for her Irish passport; she’s a little coy on whether this move was in part inspired by Brexit, but says the house was purchased before the referendum took place.
In the final years of her 40s, slender, blonde and elfin, she is warm and engaging and energetic. It’s a good thing she’s the possessor of such energy; the pace of her peripatetic life, accelerated by the runaway success of the series she’s still writing, has entered hyper-drive. Her books have been optioned for a multi-season TV show with an LA production company.
The former actress is a natural-born storyteller. She leans forward, describing her visit to LA with a roomful of Hollywood execs.
“You know you have these moments in your life?” she says. “I just thought, what is this little girl from Northern Ireland doing in this temple of Storyville, Hollywood, with all these people asking me questions about the characters and casting? It was amazing, it really was.”
The books tell the story of seven young women named for the stars of the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, constellation, adopted from far-flung corners of the globe by a mysterious benefactor. Following his death, each girl is left clues to her origins, leading them on hunts through histories as diverse as 19th century British royal lineage scandals and the construction of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. Far-fetched? Yes, but that’s the appeal to a large, devoted and almost entirely female fan-base.
The project is enormously ambitious; the gestation period for each instalment is a fitting nine months. The first books were The Seven Sisters and The Storm Sister. Riley has just celebrated the hardback release of the third book, The Shadow Sister, and is beginning editing the fourth.
“The thing I hate is saying goodbye to the characters,” she says. “You’ve lived with them for nine months, like your imaginary friend. I’m so involved with their stories because they’re so complex and then you sort of come to an end. I came to an end with CeCe, the fourth sister, last Friday at two in the morning.”
Riley rejects categorisation as chick lit and outlines the in-depth historical research she does for each novel. “I am very much historical fiction. That’s where I am,” she says. Her work interweaves real historical figures with the stories of her fictional sisters and their modern-day lives. For Shadow Sister, the historical setting is the incestuous world of British Edwardian aristocracy.
The research may be extensive, but the present-day element is a naive fantasy world, inhabited by characters with names like Orlando and Star. The settings are crumbling Tudor mansions, vast apartments overlooking the Thames, and a Swiss castle called Atlantis, accessible only by boat.
Servants in both historical and modern-day scenarios are a stolid, loyal, ever-dependable bunch, serving only to free the protagonists from mundane chores, the better to focus energy on their satisfyingly complex emotional lives.
Riley describes an existence as unselfconsciously rarefied as one of her heroines; she divides her time between her houses in France, London and the Norfolk coast as well as the house outside Clonakilty, and extended research trips to Australia, Thailand, Brazil and Norway.
Life wasn’t always a fairy-tale. Born Lucinda Edmonds, Riley’s first early marriage to actor Owen Whittaker, with whom she had two children, collapsed after 10 years when she was in her early 30s. The couple lived in West Cork for five years, and their second-born, Isabella, was born in the Bons Secours in Cork city.
With several books published as Lucinda Edmonds, including best-seller The Orchid House, when Riley met and married wealthy businessman Stephen Riley after a whirlwind six-month romance, she drew a line under her old life. Following a three-year period where she didn’t write, (“I was having a book and a baby a year, and something had to give,” she shrugs) she emerged from her cocoon and spread her wings in a second incarnation as Lucinda Riley.
Her second marriage found her at the helm of a large composite family; to Stephen’s existing family of three and her two, they added two more, Kit and Leonora.
Stephen’s eldest daughter Olivia is PA to Riley, and does the vital work of transcribing the first drafts of her books, which she records on a dictaphone.“When I’m at home, I’m not Lucinda Riley, I’m mum,” she says. The uneasy balance between domesticity and writing is managed by compartmentalising.
“I have a very strong mental wall between mum, wife, writer, and the Lucinda Riley sitting here talking to you, so that I don’t ever become overwhelmed.I can’t write the first draft of a book at home with the kids, because I am the hub of the family.”
Seven Sisters is her “magnum opus,” she says. She’ll be heartbroken when she’s finished, but an executive producer role on the TV series will keep her connected to the stories.
Irish readers will be delighted that one of the Sisters books will be set here. She’s looking to the future not only in plotlines: seeing out the maelstrom of the next few years, the light at the end of the tunnel is the house in Clonakilty.
“I’ll potter: fold my laundry, make lovely food, go to the shops for groceries, see friends. You know what I’m not going to do? Travel. I’m staying in my own sodding bed for a year. I don’t want to go through Heathrow, or see inside a hotel room.”