The origin for this book began with a blog you wrote for The Daily Telegraph, in which you wrote the column as the fictitious Constance. How did that idea come about? Did any readers think Constance was real?
The idea came about, as I remember, over drinks with the online editor. We were talking about some of the funny comments readers left on the website, and wondering what it would be like if these people wrote blogs. I decided to have a crack at writing my own online diary of a Telegraph reader as an affectionate pastiche of the sort of views we came across in the online comments. Once I got started writing daily updates as Constance, though, the idea soon snowballed and she took on a life of her own. To my mind, it was always quite obvious that she was a fictional, satirical creation (what real person would put her son on a dating website without his permission, or buy the housekeeper cotton mix underwear?) but some readers didn’t quite grasp the joke and thought that she was real. This was a great source of fun in itself for me: the more people who thrive on posting venomous comments on the internet left nasty messages, the more “Constance” herself would reply in the comment thread, berating them for their poor manners and ludicrous avatar pictures. On the flip side, there was a core of lovely, dedicated readers who got the joke from the beginning and who would regularly comment on posts in a tongue-in-cheek style to advise Constance on her various crises and dilemmas. The book is dedicated to three of them (as well as my husband!). I also found that some people would set up avatars as characters in the story, so that, for example, when “Constance” blogged to say she was off on holiday, I would check in to find a whole story developing in the common thread, with Constance’s daughter confessing to having had a party and trashed the house and the others deliberating the best way to patch up the damage.
CONSTANCE HARDING’S (RATHER) STARTLING YEAR is your first novel, but you’ve spent your career in journalism. Was it hard to make the switch from writing about culture and news to fiction? Did it make it easier to write as Constance in the first-person, making it feel more like an autobiographical journal?
It wasn’t hard so much as a really fun creative outlet. Because I didn’t start out with any grand intentions of writing a book, the blog was a little piece of daily escapism and I absolutely loved writing it, so much so that I updated it every time I went on holiday and even on Christmas day. Having always worked in journalism, where you live in constant fear of accidentally committing some horrible factual inaccuracy, it felt tremendously liberating to be able to just make things up. As a journalist, too, you’re always looking for a story and just hoping that real life obliges with something you can get your teeth into: with fiction, the story is yours to invent.
Writing in the first person definitely helped. By impersonating my character on the internet I was able to find her voice much more effectively than I think I would have done had I gone about writing in a more conventional way. By blogging as Constance, I felt almost as if I was turning into her (to the delight of my colleagues, who nicknamed me Constance) – I had her voice very firmly lodged in my head, despite the fact that she is a traditionally minded 53 year-old and I was a 28-year-old Londoner at the time.
Are the parts on Constance that stem from your life? Are any of the other characters based on people in your life?
Superficially, no. I found it enjoyable to write about someone completely different from me in terms of everything from background to age to general views of the world. Constance is sheltered, judgemental and goes by the rule that you should never trust a man who doesn’t wear cufflinks. I like to think that I’m a little more broad-minded. However, Constance did get under my skin to the extent that I think I must have some inner cake-baking, bell-ringing harridan. Also – and I have to tread carefully here – Constance is influenced, to a certain extent, by my mother. When I started writing the blog, I made Constance the same age as my Mum and reflected some of her preoccupations (in a teasing, affectionate way, of course…) – such as wondering when me or my sister would ever get married and what size hat she would be able to buy for the occasion. My Mum used to read the blog online and would sometimes call me up and ask whether she was Constance. While my mother is from a much less privileged background than Constance, she does share a certain no-nonsense view of the world, as well as a fixation with royal weddings.
Other than that, by the nature of writing a blog post every day the odd snippet from my life worked its way in. My husband (boyfriend at the time) was alarmed to read a post all about Constance’s first barbecue of the summer, just after we had had our first barbecue of the summer. If I went on a ski holiday, so did Constance, although for the record the incident with the helicopter and the mountain rescue team is entirely fictitious.
What made you decide to turn the blog posts into a book? Is everything from past posts, or did you have to go in and connect the posts to make it more fluid?
I’d been writing the blog for about six months when I got the feeling that I would like to turn it into a book. I’d got carried away with the characters and the plot enough to feel that there was something there that I would like people to read all the way through, instead of dipping in and out, which inevitably happens online. However going from blog to book was a much more difficult process than I’d ever envisaged, and something I’d probably have been too scared to take on on top of a full time journalism job if I’d realised how much work was involved. All the blog posts, once I’d brought the original blog to a conclusion and stopped, added up to about 23,000 words – the novel is over 80,000. And it’s not just about word count, but structure. The blog was totally haphazard, I just bashed out a few paragraphs every day with no real plan or overall sense of where the main characters were going or how I would tie up the various story lines. To write the book, I had to go back to the beginning and then even further, starting the narrative from a point in time a few months earlier in Constance’s life than the blog. I had to restructure and rewrite a lot of the blog, but it was nevertheless an invaluable exercise for getting under my character’s skin. I actually found it hard to adapt to writing in a more conventional way, aiming at publication some distant point in the future. It felt staid to be tapping away at my computer with no end in sight, when I was used to the fizz of excitement I felt every time I published a post and waited for reader comments to appear. It took some adapting but I loved the different process of writing in the end and appreciated the idea that the pages of the book would hopefully have a longer shelf life than a blog post.
This novel is formatted like an online diary, which brings back memories of reading Bridget Jones’s Diary. In fact, Constance’s parrot is named “Darcy,” just like Bridget’s on-again, off-again love, Mark Darcy. Was Helen Fielding one of your influences when you began to write fiction? Are there any other writers that inspired you?
I love the Bridget books so yes, Helen Fielding was an influence. Bridget Jones is of course a playful reworking of the love story at the centre of Pride and Prejudice, so naming the parrot Darcy, after Austen’s romantic hero, was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the way different books connect to one another. I guess it also sets the tone of the book as something of an anti-romance: poor Constance has to look to her parrot for a hero, because her husband is too busy reading the Economist and playing golf. Plus I just think that Constance really would have given her parrot a name like Darcy.
Sue Townsend, author of the Adrian Mole series, is also an inspiration. I’ve read and snorted with laughter right through the Mole books and love the way that she manages to combine so many layers of wit, from the character study of a disgruntled adolescent to brilliant social and political satire. She also makes great use of the device of the diary reader knowing much more about what is going on than the clueless diary writer, something which I shamelessly borrowed.
PG Wodehouse is my favourite writer and a comic genius.
Is “Constance” still writing for The Daily Telegraph? Any plans for a sequel?
Constance, exhausted from the tumultuous events described in Constance Harding’s (Rather) Startling Year, has for the time being lapsed into blog silence. I’m working on a completely different idea for my second novel and haven’t planned a sequel as yet, but I wouldn’t rule it out.