For me, it started when my mother threw a book across the room and said, ‘All that bodice ripping and fluttering eyelashes. What’s it got to do with me?’
My mum loved books, but she was very clear about what books she preferred; she was fond of gritty stuff: horror, war, historical, crime, romances where the heroines were strong and fought against poverty, injustice and bad men. She liked comedies, classics, fantasy, anything really as long as the women didn’t roll over submissively in order to be deemed feminine.
But the day she chucked the book – and don’t get me wrong, the novelist who wrote the book was a very popular and famous Dame who penned some 723 novels before she died in 2000 – a light went on for me. I decided that books need to acknowledge everybody’s lives, and that particular book which delighted so many other readers wasn’t working for my mum.
Occasionally, readers want to find protagonists like themselves represented between the pages of a novel, at the same time as being transported to somewhere wonderful with characters that resonate, that feel like friends.
I wrote my first novel while I was doing a Masters, about a 75-year-old woman called Evie Gallagher who escapes from a care home, buys a camper van, takes off across France and falls in love with a vineyard owner. My mum would have done that, or at least she’d have admired the pluck of it. When it was published, a woman wrote to me and said she’d bought herself a camper and was taking off across France, following the same route as the novel. I don’t know if she met a Jean-Luc, but I hope she had a great time. I realised then that older people need to read books about older protagonists. Yes, some of the characters would be grandparents, they’d die, bequeath money to younger people – all that is fine, but they’d also live, go on adventures, have fun, fall in love, fall out of love, misbehave, change. Everything is possible.
Some five years and ten books later, I’m still writing for my mum. My protagonists have great fun travelling to Mexico, Amsterdam, France. They swim naked in the sea, play strip poker, dance on the stage, ride horses and Harley Davidsons and Triumph Stags, throw wellies, go on a hen party to Paris, drive a motor home around the UK. They share adventures, laughter and tears.
Age is an interesting concept, and there’s a lot of prejudice that needs to be addressed. The word ‘old’ and its many counterparts are loaded with assumptions. There are more than 10 million over-65-year-olds in the UK. The phrase ‘Old Age Pensioner’ was introduced in 1909 and is now deemed pejorative as it puts older people into a box as a minority, albeit a large one, whereas in fact they are a very diverse group.
Writers of Hens’ Lit are doing their best to pave the way for change. Yes, age is a number; biological age is also factor, lifestyle and genetics, and even good luck. I really enjoy the fact that my protagonists may be over 50 or 60, over 70, over 80, but they are still delightful company, attractive and full of energy. In a future novel, out later this year, you’ll meet Violet, a woman who is 90 and yes, she’s not very physically active, but her mind is razor-sharp. Mimi, in The Highland Hens, has been a dancer and, although she’s no longer able to dance as she did when she was thirty, she still manages to perform The Time Warp. Her character is based on research: an inspirational woman I know well, who is in her mid-80s can still turn heads and jog in cut-off shorts.
I try to make my novels as inclusive as possible – the characters are of all ages, and it’s nice to put them all together in a community and enjoy them for the people they are. In The Highland Hens, the cast of characters is mostly over 55 but in my next novel, and the one after, there are characters of a range of ages who are supportive to each other and have great fun.
There are many writers of Hens’ Lit now. If you’ve never read any of Maddie Please’s books, you are in for a treat. Her novels are hilarious and her characters are totally brilliant. And so many more writers include older characters now; the stereotype of ancient frail people who sit on cushions waiting for The Reaper is a thing of the past. There are so many good books, my mum wouldn’t need to consider the one she hurled – someone else will love it.
Of course, Mum’s been gone a long time, and she’ll never know I write novels. She’d have been so pleased. Books were a huge part of her life; they were read for education, entertainment, escape. She’d have loved Evie, Molly, Lil, Dawnie and Billy, Barbara and Pauline, The French Hens, The Highland Hens and so many more. She was feisty and she liked a good feisty heroine, a big laugh, a cry. And I write them in her memory, because she taught me well.
The Highland Hens is out on August 4th and there are characters I hope you’ll love, from Mimi, the heroine, Jess the caring one, Angus the moody one, Fin the sensible one, Hamish the musical one, Isabella the couldn’t-care-less one, Charlie the sweet one, Heather the fun one, and Thor, the one with the waggly tail. I really hope you’ll enjoy the novel. I believe in my heart that my mum would have laughed and cried, and she wouldn’t have hurled the book across the room.
This one’s for you, Mum. They all are. And The Witch’s Tree, the one about the ghost and the treatment of women past and present. She’d have cared a lot about that. But that’s a blog post for a different time.