As you might already be aware, I’m totally obsessed with the LEG END that is Jilly Cooper (although as you’ll discover in the comments section of my previous post on the subject, not as obsessed as Nikki Bayley).
One of the articles I wanted to write for launch was meant to show how Jilly Cooper’s books have charted the last thirty years of sexual revolution (mainly based on the fact that in Riders all the heroines have a full bush, yet by her most recent work, Jump!, the phrase shaven haven is thrown about with gay abandon).
However, the sexual politics in Jilly’s books are so complicated and nuanced that it became impossible to adhere any hard and fast rules to them.
Essentially I had a half-baked idea for a feature, and couldn’t find a way to make it work. It happens.
But what I did get out of it was a rather fantastic bit of correspondence with the lady herself, including a hand typed (as in on a typewriter) letter on letter-headed paper – with Jilly Cooper written on the top of the page in the shape of a whippet, naturally.
I’m going to give you an edited version of our conversation below (edited because most of my bits are either disgustingly sycophantic or a bit boring. Everything Jilly says is total gold).
But first, I have a confession to make to you all. This fantastically busy author took time out of her insane schedule to write to me and I… forgot to send her a thank-you card.
I will, because I now feel so guilty I want to rip my own face off, but it’s already been a couple of months. My mother would be HORRIFIED.
Anyway, Jilly doesn’t have an email address (or if she does, she certainly isn’t sharing it with me). But after I emailed her publicist a few times, called up and generally made a nuisance of herself, I received this from her PA’s email address:
Thank you for the lovely, lovely things you said. I went all pink with pleasure.
How exciting. I'm afraid I'm absolutely frantic at the moment because I'm trying to write a book on flat racing and my husband isn't at all well, but if you could send me the questions I will try to answer them.
It's lovely of you to suggest a face to face interview but I am very pushed.
Thank you so much.
Reeling at the thought that I made Jilly Cooper go pink with pleasure I resolved the use the phrase in all my dealings with anyone from now on.
I also forwarded to my best friends, with the subject line: My head just exploded a little bit. Which it did. Brains everywhere.
Once I’d pushed all that grey matter back in my ear, I replied to Jilly within about 10 seconds (nice and cool):
Thanks so much for your reply, it's cheered up what was a very grey and miserable morning.
I completely understand re a face to face, and I'd love to send some questions over. I'll get working on them today and get them over either today or tomorrow...
I then sent Jilly (Mrs Cooper? JC?) some questions, to which I received the following:
Thank you for the questions. Gosh, they're very interesting. My only problem is I am absolutely frantic at the moment. I've got to go to Newmarket this week to research my new book and won't be back until after the weekend.
So if you could tell me when you need this by I will try and get my tired brain into gear.
Thank you so much for thinking of me and lots of love.
P.S. Have you a postal address?
At this point I was starting to feel a bit guilty about harassing an incredible busy woman with what was essentially jumped-up fan mail, but I was also a bit hooked on telling people that me and Jilly Cooper were friends (sort of, if you squint a bit).
I sent her my postal address, and didn’t really expect to hear anything back. Until one fateful day, this turned up in the post:
Obviously I screamed a bit, did a victory lap around the office and generally lost it.
Then I settled down to read the letter itself – I’ve added in the questions I asked Jilly initially in bold, to give you a bit of context:
I’m sorry, I’m still frantic, so I’m literally going to gabble these answers off to you. Darling child [darling child! ] I must say I do find these questions very, very taxing because my brain seems to work so slowly, but truly I will try [it’s not your fault Jilly, it’s the stupid question’s fault ].
Jump! has a gay sex scene in it – would you have included this 30 years ago?
I answer to the question about Jump! I think the sex in my book evolves and I usually write about the things that are happening as I write them. One of my first short stories was about a man being in love with a sweet girl and his best friend taking the man off him because he was gay and in love with the first man. There wasn’t any overt sex in it but usually I just decide when I want to write things, when I want to write them.
Do you find it harder to write sex scenes now than when you first started the books?
I find it much harder to write sex scenes now I’m older. I’m not going to talk about my own experiences but so many of my friends had wonderful racy lives they used to tell me about and now they’re in their seventies and they seem to have calmed down there is less material around.
I love the fact that in your books the women are described as being a normal size (someone might weigh nine stone, after going on a crash diet and losing 3 pounds, for example). Do you think it’s sad that describing women in such realistic terms is a real rarity?
I’m not sure what you mean about the ‘normal size’ question. Having always been worried about my weight, I like having people of all different sizes in my books. I was always very fond of Sophie who married Alizarin in Pandora and she was very plump, and Jonathan, Alizarin’s brother, said bonking her was like being on a bouncy castle at the village fete. Kitty was quite plump in The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous.
I was very mean and had a huge woman called Jude the Obese in Jump! So I think I’ve covered all sizes really.
I think people are getting larger, so maybe my characters should get larger too.
How do you stay married?
Oh gosh by luck I think, and by marrying somebody you love and I was lucky enough to marry a really nice man who’d been married before so when I got into a panic and said, ‘this is terrible, I’m packing my bags and I’m off,’ he’d say ‘don’t worry, marriage is like this, I had all these traumas the first time round and it’ll get better I promise you.’
Or he’d make jokes like we couldn’t let the cats be a victim of a broken home.
Also, we were helped by common interests and the fact that Leo was a publisher, although he didn’t publish me, but he could tell me if he thought I was writing rubbish. Although I sulked a bit it was very helpful with my journalism.
Then I basically pumpd her for info on what’s happening in the land of Rupert Campbell Black (sigh):
Rupert is tearing his hair out in his new book because his grandson Eddie has come back into flat racing and is packed with attitude, and his father, old Eddie, is going more and more off his head and is rushing around jumping on any women who comes to the house, particularly all the female carers, so Rupert is fed up with this and he escapes abroad with a wonder horse to win races all over the world.
Who’s your favourite character from the Rutshire chronicles?
My favourite character in the Rutshire chronicles is Visitor the yellow Labrador in Pandora. He is so sweet and so greedy and he even rushes around banging his fat hips against bird tables so he can eat up any crumbs that fall down.
I’m very fond of Rupert and I love Taggie and I adore Dora, who is going to feature like mad in the next book.
Who’s your favourite ‘baddy’ to write about?
I loved writing about Rannaldini, he was such a monster. I think he went rather over the top at the end of Score! But in the next book there’s a battle royal between his son Cosmo (who is now grown up, and a leading owner of horses) and Rupert, I hope Cosmo is going to be a wonderful character, badly behaved and even bitchier than his father.
I also had to ask Jilly one question that’s always intrigued me – Sean Connery (who, rumour has it, she once snogged) or Rupert Campbell Black?
Rupert Campbell Black but I love Sean Connery. He and his wife Diane Cilento used to be great friends of ours in Putney and I’ve always adored him and he is jolly attractive.
And finally, questions we ask everyone (when we remember):
What’s your favourite thing about being a woman?
I think the fact that if you are feeling like an absolute dog, you can cover all your red veins and liver spots and black circles with makeup and enlarge ones piggy eyes with eyeliner and come out looking not too bad.
What advice would you give your 16-year-old self?
I’ve so often been asked that question about advice to my 16-year-old self. I think I’d like to quote Mark Twain when Huckleberry Finn was setting out down the Mississippi and he was told to ‘trust in the unexpected’. This is because despite worries life has really worked out so well for me and I’ve been so lucky.
For example If I’d known I couldn’t have children at sixteen I’d have been heartbroken, happily, we went on to adopt two children who I feel are much more wonderful than anything we could have produced ourselves.
Also I remember a fortune teller telling me I’d never get married, when I was fourteen, and I was terrible depressed by this information, but then I met my darling Leo so life worked out alright.
What’s the most selfish thing you’ve ever done?
Far too many selfish things I’ve no doubt. Just after the war the first grapes came into the shops and I spent all my pocket money on a whole point and ate the lot myself, sitting on a bench at Harrogate Bus station. I felt terrible guilty.
And this is where our correspondence ends. Really it should finish with my thank-you card to Jilly, but as I still haven’t sent one, this is my open thank you letter to her for giving me (and us) her time and attention.
I’m literally off to Paperchase to but an actual card….NOW.