WHEN Joanna Trollope strides into the bar of the Merrion Hotel in Dublin, heads turn.
And it’s not just because, at 73, she carries her slender height with such dignity and grace; her 19 contemporary novels have won her legions of loyal fans.
And it’s obvious, from the covert glances directed towards our table, and the excited murmur of conversation, that her fame has spread wide.
It’s 15 years since I first met Joanna. She was 58 at the time, not long out of her second marriage. I’ve interviewed her five times since then, and she’s always delightful.
She shares that particular blend of English charm and impeccable manners shown by Joanna Lumley and Mary Berry — but she speaks more eloquently than either, choosing, always, the exactly appropriate word.
It’s five years since we last met. In the interim she has written one contemporary novel, Balancing Act, as well as a modern day version of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.
“I was asked to do that by a marvellous young editor, Louisa Joyner, who is now at Faber. The idea was to stick to the characters and story, but to bring it up to 2013. I was copying everything but I was free.
“It was very liberating. I decided to stick to Austen’s attitude to her characters, and there are only two — Colonel Brandon and Eleanor Dashwood who she doesn’t tease. Everybody else is up for mockery.”
Balancing Act showed a woman running a business, and in her new novel, City of Friends, Joanna wanted to expand on that theme.
Deciding to concentrate on women who had reached the top in various roles in financial institutions, she needed to understand what the different instruments were. And that took a great deal of research.
“I must have talked to 16 women who worked in the City and Canary Wharf,” she says.
“Most of them were managing director level, and they said that they had been helped up the ladder by a great many male colleagues, particularly those brought up by enlightened working mothers.
“I got the impression that looking after their junior teams was top of their priority list, and they could hardly see any difference between the boys and girls; the only thing was that society expected that whenever there was a family dilemma, whether it was looking after sick old parents or little children, it was the girl who would automatically give up work and go home.”
The novel opens when Stacey asks her company for flexi-time to care for her mother, who has dementia. She knows she has a legal right to it, and is flabbergasted when her boss takes it as an opportunity to make her redundant.
“If Stacey had been a man and had asked for flexi-time to look after his sick mother, it would have been ‘my goodness! There is a devoted son. What a caring person he is!’ but Stacey is just going to get stick.”
Stuck at home with her mother and the dog, while her husband, Steve, gets promotion, Stacey falls into apathy. The expected help from her three close college friends, all of them financial high flyers, proves unforthcoming.
There are uncomfortable secrets between the four that only now come to light. And though Melissa, Beth, and Gaby are all at the pinnacle of their professions, all is not so smooth on the domestic front.
The glossy Melissa, single mother to Tom, is unsettled when Tom’s father appears, welcoming the teenager for weekend visits to his house and new family. And when Tom hooks up with one of Gaby’s three children, neither mother is too thrilled.
The fourth woman, Beth, is devastated when her girlfriend of years moves out of the house they have renovated together, but is she better off without the conniving Claire?
“I couldn’t have written that relationship in a novel 20 years ago,” muses Joanna.
“A gay character would have had to be predatory and dangerous and sexually beguiling. Claire is a minx; making her so would have been proselytising. But now it’s accepted, and I could make Claire into somebody that even the most devoted reader would be ambivalent about.”
All of Joanna’s contemporary novels have looked at the lives of women. She writes them with the aim of starting a conversation about the issues that are currently engaging or enraging her.
“If you think, Sue, when my late mother was born in 1919, women only had a partial vote. I was quite rare having worked all my life. Motherhood was encouraged and was easier than it is now, but the expectation was that you wouldn’t work. Your mother-in-law’s attitude was that it was your job to look after her son.
“My daughters’ generation, who are in their mid to late forties, have always worked and expected to do so; one of my daughters is the breadwinner. And it wouldn’t occur to my granddaughter’s generation not to work. In three generations that is quite an advance.
“I thank goodness that we are getting somewhere,” she says. “I’m satisfied that women are quietly making their way into far more boardrooms than the press is giving them credit for.”
Joanna has lived alone for more than 20 years now.
“I would loathe to live with anyone,” she says. “I live in London in a house I can lock up and leave very easily, so when my daughters needed me for childcare I will go to them.”
She doesn’t have a relationship, and doesn’t want one. But she has plenty of friends.
“A perfect evening would be an utterly absorbing bit of theatre or a concert, with dinner beforehand, with somebody who is equally thrilled to be there with me, and I don’t care what kind of friend it is.”
She is more than content just spending an evening at home.
“There has been many a time when I have let myself in at the end of a busy week, leant against the front door, and thought, this is wonderful! Nothing lies ahead except things I can do to please me. So I can go to bed at eight if I want to.”
With a change of publisher, Joanna says she’s had a new lease of life. And she’s happier now than she has ever been.
“The inside of my head is a much more manageable thing. There was always terrible anxiety and inadequacies and obligations. I feel more liberated now. If you have the good fortune of being well, you gain peace of mind with age, and the freedom to be yourself at last.”
Writing doesn’t get any easier. She can no longer work in the evenings, and finds long stretches of writing leave her ‘sandbagged’, but she’s fit and agile, thanks to a good diet and plenty of exercise.
“In London you can walk everywhere,” she says.
“I walk to all my destinations and I do pilates. I get enough time on my own, and I’m still needed. I’m in control of my life, and I like being in charge of things.”
With another novel written, and a third germinating in her mind, Joanna has no plans to retire.
“In creative things, as long as you do them well, you can continue forever. I remember going to see PD James a few months before she died. I think she was 94. She told me that she was halfway through writing another Adam Dalgleish novel.
“She also mentioned that Death Comes to Pemberley was the most commercially successful things she had ever written. And that was published when she was 92. So as long as hand can clutch pen, on we go.”