Have you ever read a book that you loved so much, that as soon as you finished it you had to go right back to the start and read it all over again? Have you ever read a book so many times that it eventually fell to bits? And when you went to buy a replacement, although the book had been reprinted several times, you had to have the version with the exact same cover as the one that had disintegrated? Reading a book just like that led to me becoming a writer.
I was 13 years old and on a family holiday to the Isle of Wight. It was the height of summer, so it rained and it rained and it rained. While my brothers disappeared off to the amusement arcade, I found myself in a little café on my own, sat next to a carousel stacked with books by an author I’d never heard of. Jilly Cooper.
I know what you’re thinking. Jilly Cooper writes huge, glitzy, blockbusting novels about horses. But before Riders and Rivals, Jilly wrote a series of romantic comedies with girl’s names as the titles: Emily, Bella, Harriet, Prudence, Octavia and Imogen.
I handed over my pocket money in exchange for Emily and was soon transported to Scotland along with the heroine, who finds herself married to a brooding artist, spends the night in a haunted castle and is caught stealing roses in a see-through nightdress. I quickly handed over the remainder of my pocket money for the other five books and my parents didn’t see me for the rest of the holiday.
I think the reason I loved Jilly’s books so much was that they were hugely funny and didn’t take themselves too seriously. The heroines made the same mistakes as the rest of us, but rather than whinge about it they just cracked a joke and moved on. My favourite (the one that fell to bits) was Imogen. She falls in love with a bad boy tennis player and is whisked off on holiday to the French Riviera, which at the time seemed a very long way from a rain-lashed Isle of Wight.
Three years later, for my English Literature exam, I had to give a presentation on my favourite books. My friends (being complete suck-ups) picked authors like Dickens and Orwell. I chose Bella, Octavia and Imogen. Unfortunately, my passion and enthusiasm for all things Cooper failed to impress the examining board and I passed with only a B+.
I didn’t mind. If you’re the kind of person who loves reading, sooner or later you’ll want to create stories of your own.
And that is exactly what I did.