Sophie Kinsella, LOVE YOUR LIFE

Sophie Kinsella, LOVE YOUR LIFE

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sophie. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Sophie Kinsella: Thank you so much for having me. It’s such a joy to see you. I love it when these things work out and we can see each other. It all fell into place. The universe works. It’s great.

Zibby: Sometimes it does. Who knew? Where are you? Are you in the UK now?

Sophie: I am. I’m in my sitting room, which is the quiet room. You will notice there are no children in this room. It’s seven PM here. I have to say, this podcast has been the best thing ever because I’ve had children for the last hour. You know what it’s like. We’ve been doing homework and piano and eat and trumpet practice and, oh, I’ve got a cart. At seven, I was like, I have to go now and do my really important podcast. I’m really, really sorry about that. What a shame. See you later. Can we do this every night? This would be great.

Zibby: I would love that excuse too.

Sophie: I’ve got to go and have a really essential chat right now. So sorry to miss out on the whole bedtime chaos.

Zibby: It’s tear-inducing. It’s true. Sometimes we just have to solider on through.

Sophie: We do. So I’m very happy here.

Zibby: Good. I’m so glad. I’ve left the Zoom school situation in the next room because we’re still during the day, obviously. That’s also really fun.

Sophie: We are back at bricks and mortar school. We are not in that anymore. That is quite the challenge.

Zibby: It’s just the afternoons. They go in the mornings. Then they come back, and then there’s more in the afternoons. Of course, it’s on the iPad, so they’re like, let’s just play with something fun on the iPad.

Sophie: super motivated like we all are in the afternoon. after lunch, aren’t we? Work is exactly what we want to do right now.

Zibby: Totally. Of course. Yes. That’s nice. That’s all great. Anyway, now that bedtime and Spanish are going on in separate rooms, we can have our adult conversation, which is great. I have been reading your books since, I feel like, you started writing them. I feel like I’ve grown older as you’ve grown older, and all these major life events your characters have gone through in the Shopaholic series and all the rest. It’s just been great. Now to be talking to you about it is just the perfect ending to this journey through your books.

Sophie: I love meeting someone who has read my words and they enjoyed them. Perhaps they’ve made you smile or whatever. This is a real treat for me. As you imagine, authors, we’re on our own most of the time. We send out our words, and we just hope. It’s this act of faith. I hope somebody likes it. I hope somebody is whipping over the pages or they smile or they laugh. This is really quite a treat for me just to hear that.

Zibby: I feel like someone like you who’s had so much success in the literary world and best seller after best seller wouldn’t need that validation or wouldn’t even appreciate it anymore.

Sophie: Oh, no, it’s the opposite. However long you’ve been doing it, you start to think, do people still like what I do? How can I put that to the test? Especially this year when I haven’t been out and about, it’s just really important to connect in every sense, as humans, as family members, and as an author with your readers. We’ve all missed out on so much connection this year that I think we’re all craving interaction of all different kinds. For me, it’s lovely. Hi, reader. This is so nice. I feel a bit robbed of contact. I might get quite needy in a minute.

Zibby: I’m wondering if I’ll be able to actually close this laptop or if you’re going to be in there every time I open it.

Sophie: I will. You know it.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, so funny. Let’s talk a little bit about your latest book. Tell listeners what it’s about, what inspired you to write it, this hilarious writing retreat that you have your main character go on, which is just so funny with your characteristic sense of humor. I think that’s part of why I was so excited to talk to you because this is completely what I find funny, is what you find funny.

Sophie: You think, oh, no, is this just me? Really, looking at the differences between instinct and practicalities of love. My heroine is super romantic. We all go through a journey with a loved one. We meet them. We take in details about them. Maybe these days we’ve met them online. I think this is what makes it really interesting. You build up a picture. We kind of fantasize, don’t we? We fill in the gaps. Maybe you text them or you go on that first date. You’ve got so many good impressions, but you don’t quite know the rest of it. You fill in the gaps. Then gradually, you get to know the real deal. For most people, this is quite a slow process. You’re taking in information. You’re thinking, does this person match up to what I originally imagined? You have reality checks. I thought, what’s the most extreme version of the reality check? I set up this heroine who is a deluded romantic. She just believes in instinct. Then it happens that she’s at this writing retreat where nobody uses their name, nobody gives out any personal detail. I have to say, this was slightly inspired by — I have a friend who went on a yoga retreat, and nobody said a word all week. You’re just taking in impressions of people.

She falls in love with this guy. She doesn’t know what his name is or his job or anything about him except how he looks, his demeanor, what he says about writing, but nothing else. They don’t divulge any details. She falls in love and takes it to the max. They commit to each other. They pledge to each other. It’s like your most extreme version of your holiday romance. Then boom, come home, reality. It’s the most extreme of, wait, what? Wait, wait, this is not what I imagined. This is how you live? This is your job? She’s imagined that he’s an artisan carpenter based on very little evidence. She’s just got it in her head that this is who he is. She’s got the idea that he has a particular name. None of this is the case. Then she’s faced with, okay, so this is the guy in my head. This is what I’m presented with in real life. He, by the way, is exactly the same. He had all kinds of ideas of what she might be like. He comes to the end. He gets to the airport. Reality is there. She gets met by her crazy dog and her crazy friends. He gets met by Mr. Corporate Driver. They look at each other in absolute shock, like, wait, who are you? I love you, but I have no idea who you are, and now I’m going to have to find out.

Part of the inspiration was that saying that you read, and it’s around the place, love me, love my dog. There’s a dog in this book. I thought, I’m going to extend this to, love me, love my life, because they get to know each other’s lives from the dog to the friends to weird habits to things which seem small but actually become quite — there’s a moment where he runs her a bath. He says, “I’ll run a lovely warm bath.” He draws her a bath. This is going to be the healing moment. She gets in. She’s like, “What is this? This is not a warm bath. This is tepid. I’m freezing.” He’s staring at her in utter incomprehension, like, this is a really warm bath. It just signifies how they’re on completely different pages. They better get used to this. The book explores, what do you get used to? What can you put up with? At the beginning of the book, she is adamant she is not a deal breakers kind of a person. She doesn’t believe in them. She thinks they’re the work of the devil. She lectures her friends who are a bit more pragmatic and dating online and having to create profiles. She’s like, “I can’t engage with this. I could just love any man. I have no parameters. I’d never have a deal breaker.” Then she’s looking at this guy thinking, okay, I don’t like this. I don’t like that. I can’t relate to this. Your family has these weird customs. The question throughout the book is, what can they get used to? What can they not get used to? What could change? How could they compromise? And hopefully finding the comedy in all of that because that’s what I like to do. I like to slightly torture my characters in really terrible, embarrassing, cringy moments at all times. They certainly do go through a few of those.

Zibby: Wait, why do you like to do that to your characters? By the way, then your reader is similarly cringing and holding their breath and covering their face as well. What is that about? Why do you like to do that?

Sophie: I just find it so entertaining. I love to laugh. I love to push it, what I feel is just enough to make you laugh and go, no way, and also kind of be obsessed by turning the page to see, how are you going to get out of this? and hopefully not take it so extreme that it’s painful. Although, I do think that sometimes I do torture my readers. I just can’t help seeing the potential for the extreme version. Everybody doesn’t get on with some aspect of their partner’s life. I thought, I’m going to just take this to the max. So her flat, he can’t get on with her furniture, so many things about their life. At the same time, I do feel like comedy has to come out of reality. There is a real contemporary thread to all this. I read an awful lot online about online dating and, what are people’s real deal breakers? How do they go about this? It does cause pain as well as comedy. It does cause some thoughtful processes going on and some development. The characters have to go somewhere in the light of all this. Hopefully, there’s a mix. There’s comedy, but there’s real stuff. I hope there’s love in this book too.

Zibby: It’s great. I love how you set it up in the beginning when her roommates are online and she’s like, “How can you do that? How can you search ten miles from where you live? What if he lives eleven miles away?” They’re like, “No, no, no, it’s fine. He’ll lie about that part.” She’s horrified. It’s true. I think it speaks to this whole crazy falling in love thing in general, which seems completely random. What if you just missed, by your parameters, the guy of your dreams? What if he just walked out of the restaurant before he walked in? What if you never met and if it’s your fault? Nothing really makes sense, so you have to just roll with it.

Sophie: I completely agree. I think that we have an added pressure on us when we have to create a profile and define it in advance because sometimes you don’t know what you’re looking for. It’s a bit like shopping. One of my characters does actually liken it to choosing a white shirt on a website that has so many white shirts. You’re bewildered. Actually, I was slightly inspired. I created a fictious website with a million filters. I was slightly inspired by shopping websites where in order to make any sense of it all you just have to filter. This size, this kind of color, this sleeve length. Apply that to a life partner. Even with clothes, you think, wait, I don’t really know. What if I saw a great shirt and it did have a longer sleeve but I loved it? I’m stressed. What do I want? I can’t go through a thousand shirts. You put that to a man, I don’t know. Does the hair color — I don’t know. Once you start looking at it, it is quite funny, but it is also quite painful if this is what you’re having to do. As you say, it’s so arbitrary.

Zibby: Yes, so arbitrary. What it really comes down to is that it’s completely out of your control. I think that’s what all the filters are designed to fool you into believing, that you have some control over your search when really, it’s completely random and out of your control. So I know how you came up with this, but you’ve been consistently innovating and coming up with new ideas and taking your character through all these times. Tell me about how you decide what books you’re going to write, what you’re doing with your characters. Does it always come from life? How has the progression of your characters evolved?

Sophie: That’s interesting. I think that each book has a slightly different genesis. Sometimes I’ll start with a character. With the Shopaholic series, it was very much, I can see this character. Now I want to put her in different situations. Sometimes stuff just happens in life. I’m aware of what we’re all talking about. With social media, that became an interest to me because we’re all talking about this. I tend to plug into the conversations that I’m hearing. I wrote a young adult book about anxiety and computer games. That was very much picking up on the conversation of the day. When I was writing I Owe You One, I knew I wanted to get two people together and that they would exchange favors with each other. I didn’t know what would be the mechanism to bring these two people about. I’m sitting in a coffee shop. This really happened. By the way, people are always saying to me, I bet you pick up things from real life, don’t you? I bet you just listen in on conversations and use them all. I’m always like, I really wish that people would just act out a whole novel at the next table in the café and I could write it all down. That would be handy, but it’s never happened yet.

Anyway, the miracle happened. I’m sitting in this coffee shop. This guy — I have to say, he was very handsome, an American, which added a bit of sparkle to the event. He looked at me. He just went, “I have to step outside. Could you mind my laptop for a minute?” I was like, this is it. This is how my characters meet. The coffee shop gods have given me my beginning. That was absolutely given to me as a gift. As I say, each book is different. In this book, there’s a very naughty dog who is the bone of contention between our lovely couple. In a similar way, I was looking for a dog. I was thinking, I need a dog. I want a really good character of a dog. I have a dog. I met dogs, but they weren’t quite — then I stayed with some friends, and I met this beagle. He was such a character that I was like, that’s it. Okay, you’re going in my book. You get inspiration all around.

Zibby: That’s great. I love it. When did you know you wanted to write? Did you always know? Did you know from when you were a child? Did it come later?

Sophie: It wasn’t my childhood ambition. I wasn’t the child walking around saying, I’m going to write a novel one day. I loved to read. I read obsessively. I read books over and over and over again. Looking back, I think it gives you a real sense of story, how stories work, if you practically know a book by heart, whether it’s a classic or whether it’s just a run-of-the-mill book knocking around in your house. I loved stories and words, but I didn’t even really plan to write until I was in my twenties working as a journalist. Even at that stage, I thought, this is what I’m going to do. It was really going on the tube to work and reading every day. In the days before we were all on our phones, we read books. I read books the whole time. I just had this chord of recognition. Wait, I know I’m writing financial articles and that’s my job, but this is what I want to do. I want to make it up. I’ve never been any good at facts. I still am no good at facts. It’s all invented. I just started in my spare time. I sat on the train waiting until I got an idea. The minute I started, I just felt like, yes, now I feel at home. I was lucky enough to get that one published. That’s all I’ve done ever since. I’m fit for nothing else. Obviously, bathing my children I can do.

Zibby: Yes, that’s a skill we all somehow seem to magically acquire, not so much writing the Shopaholic series. Was that your first book, Shopaholic?

Sophie: I used to write before that under the name Madeleine Wickham.

Zibby: Oh, that’s right. I knew that. I’m sorry.

Sophie: Then I switched style. The first one was Confessions of a Shopaholic. That’s where I really found comedy and realized how much I like writing comedy. That felt like a new beginning. It was really exciting because it was a new voice. It felt like I was starting my career all over again, which is a great advantage that you have as a writer. You can rebrand, take a new name, start again. It’s quite liberating.

Zibby: That is your actual name, though, right, Sophie Kinsella?

Sophie: It’s not, no.

Zibby: It’s not?

Sophie: No. I know. I’ve been Sophie for so long.

Zibby: What’s your real name? Your real name is Madeleine? No way. Sorry, I should’ve somehow realized that. I apologize.

Sophie: No, it shows how good my disguise is. I answer to Sophie now. I practically feel like Sophie because I live so much of my life as Sophie. All my children know I’m Sophie. It’s actually quite nice because I’m anonymous day to day. I go and do my stuff, nobody even tweaks. Well, they sometimes tweak, but I feel quite under the radar, which is quite nice. It’s good for being a writer because you can eavesdrop in coffee shops, as previously mentioned.

Zibby: Yes, and come up with all your ideas. Wow, I’m sorry. I think I did know that at some point. I forgot. I’m sorry.

Sophie: Don’t be silly. Lost in the nick of time.

Zibby: Do you always have your next thing? Do you know what your next book is already?

Sophie: I always have a few things up my sleeve. I find with an idea for a book, you need to give it a bit of time. I’m working on something at the moment. I’ve had the shell outline for a while. I have all kinds of ideas. I don’t think you know instantly if it’s going to have legs or if it’s really a book. Is there enough to it? I like to think ahead and have them in different stages of development. Right now, I’m at the nice stage where you’re fleshing out an idea. I think this actually will work, so that’s nice. The bad moment is when you think, that seemed like such a great idea in the cocktail bar. I was super excited. I wrote all these excited notes in lip liner because I didn’t have a pen, and it makes no sense. It’s gibberish. It’s not a book.

Zibby: Wait, how far down do you have to go? How many pages or how much time do you invest before you decide whether it’s working or not?

Sophie: For me, I won’t have written an awful lot. It’s more in planning stages. I obsessively plan. It’s when I’m sketching out all my plan and the details and all of that, that’s when I know I’ve got a book. I won’t start it unless I feel confident in that. I have friends who, they just start. They just start writing. I’m in such admiration of that. I would love to be that kind of free flow, see where you go, let it grow, but I’m not that. I want to know that I have an ending even if it’s not “the” ending. I want to feel that there’s a sort of solid plan for me to follow.

Zibby: Do you have it on index cards? Do you just write it out? How does it look?

Sophie: I have a big board with index cards. I always get kind of impatient with that because I can’t put all the detail I would like on the index cards. At some stage along the line, I either abandon that and that starts to look a bit sad and unloved and I start to write things on computer. Then I write them on bits of paper. Then I have Post-its. I have a million different systems. My new thing is dictating into the phone, which is just great. A line of dialogue pops into your head and you just randomly say it into your phone looking slightly deranged as you do so. If you’re walking through London ever and seeing someone in Trafalgar Square talking into her phone with a glazed expression, that’s me. Then I forget what I’ve put where, so I have to do this go around — I had one idea on my phone and I had some other scene that I wrote on my laptop — and try and put it all together into a book. I sometimes forget bits. It’s a bit like when you’re doing a dinner party. You had this sauce. You had this side dish. Then you get to the end. You’re collapsed. You open the oven, and there’s that bread you had heating the whole time and you forgot to serve it. It’s a bit like that.

Zibby: Love it. Just even your mentioning dinner parties makes me sad. I am missing that time of life when we could entertain and see friends and all the rest.

Sophie: It’s so weird, isn’t it? I just can’t believe we’re still here.

Zibby: I know.

Sophie: I saw it as a summer thing. I felt psychologically that the new school year would begin and we’d all go, that was the summer, that was weird, and on we’d go. Now, don’t know. Very strange.

Zibby: Has it affected your work or creativity or all that? It must, or maybe not.

Sophie: Yes. It was weird. During our extreme lockdown, I was actually really glad. By absolute luck, I finished writing Love Your Life pretty much two days before lockdown. Family was here. We had to do, as you say, the home school and all of it. During lockdown, I edited it. That’s a really different process from writing. It’s changing what you’ve already done. I’m so glad because I think that against this apocalyptic backdrop, I don’t know how I would’ve written those final scenes, whereas to edit them was fine. There they were. I could change them. I could amend. Believe me, it was a wonderful escape for me to go back into that world. It felt quite indulgent, especially writing the Italy bits. It’s like, I’m not here. I’m in COVID-free Italy right now. I’m on the beach. I’m in this amazing monastery. I’m in love, and the food. It felt like a really lovely place to escape to.

Since then, that kind of obsessive following of the news and every development, I have been unable to keep up with that. I don’t have the stamina to be following every development. I just do what I’m told, try and follow the rules, which are quite confusing, I will say. They keep changing. Sit on the sofa is about it. I’m able now to go into another world. My brain isn’t constantly drawn back into, wait, what? Pandemic? It was for a while. What I did, actually, during lockdown, is I wrote Shopaholic Lockdown Diaries, just a little fun thing for my readers. A lot of readers, I’m touch with them on social media. They would say, “What would Becky do?” We had tremendous problems in the UK with stockpiling and shopping. You couldn’t get this and that. Shopping was topic A for a while. I just couldn’t resist it. I thought, this might cheer everybody up. I wrote what Becky was up to. You know, it was a tonic for me. I hope it cheered up some people. It was very of its moment, but it was kind of therapy as well for me.

Zibby: I have to go back and read those. I somehow missed that as well.

Sophie: It was very tiny. It was just her diary of a few days. I put it up on the internet. It was a gift, really, to my readers. Here’s something to entertain you today.

Zibby: Is it on your Instagram? No? I’ll go back.

Sophie: That was really nice. I’m someone who, I just try and find something to laugh at even in the worst lockdown situation. It took a while. I couldn’t do instantly. After a few weeks, I was like, come on, let’s cheer the troops up here. Let’s find something to laugh at.

Zibby: That’s great. So needed, so necessary to find those outlets of not just the end-of-the-world mentality. That’s great. Thank you for that. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Sophie: I’m someone who has had to find their voice. I started with one kind of writing. I changed into another kind of writing. It’s sort of similar but quite different. I would say be true to what you want to write. Don’t try and second-guess. Write what is right for you at the moment, but be prepared to experiment because there might be different versions of you. You may not hit on the right voice straight away. Don’t worry about that. Just keep trying. I’ve written comedy now because I really enjoy it. I think that you can tell writers who love what they do, whether it’s crafting an excruciating thriller plot that’s just so intricate or whether it’s making people laugh or whether it’s wonderful love scenes. Write something that is going to light your fire because, believe me, you’re going to be with this book for a long time. It had better light your fire.

If you really don’t know where to begin, something I sometimes say is imagine that you go into a bookshop and you see the perfect book. It’s like a visualization. Imagine walking in. You’re like, that’s the book I need to buy. There are some books, you walk in and it’s a no-brainer. I have to buy this. Of course, I am going to read this. Whatever that is, whatever speaks to you, that’s the book you need to write. That’s the book that you would pick up. If you would pick it up, then lots of other people would pick it up. It’ll be different for everybody. It might be the plot. It might be the premise. It might be a character or a style. It could be anything, but make it something really strong that is going to be still exciting in six months’ time when you’re at chapter ten and you hate the whole book and you forgot why you started and you’re thinking of giving up. You need to have that initial inspiration to come back to you to keep you going.

Zibby: Excellent advice. Love it. Shopaholic, is Becky going to make another appearance in a real book, do you think, or you think not? What’s the plan?

Sophie: I can never say goodbye to Becky. The book I’m working on at the moment is not a Becky book, but she’s always in my mind and in my heart. I don’t think we’ve said goodbye. I never know when. I’m someone who, I have different ideas floating around, but then I always act on instinct much like Ava. It was like, I have to write this book right now. I can’t always predict which one is going to grab me, but Becky’s not going anywhere.

Zibby: Excellent, phew. Thank you, now I don’t know what to call you, Madeleine. I started calling you Sophie. Now I’ll end this interview calling you Madeleine.

Sophie: I go weeks of my life at a time being Sophie. I feel like Sophie. It’s my middle name. It is who I am, really.

Zibby: Whoever you are, thank you for coming on my podcast. I’m sorry to have to say goodbye and release you to your kids. Maybe you could pretend —

Sophie: — I’m just going to carry on talking to the laptop. Right, that’s a very long question. Yeah, I’ve got to great length. This has been absolutely lovely to chat with you.

Zibby: You too. It’s been great. Thank you for this comic interlude in my crazy day. Thanks. Bye.

Sophie Kinsella, LOVE YOUR LIFE