After ever after
02.06.10 | Alice O'Keeffe
Adele Parks' début Playing Away caused quite a sensation when it was published in 2000. Among a sea of contemporary female fiction, led by Bridget Jones's Diary, about young women searching for husbands, Playing Away featured a heroine who was newly married, but unable to resist the lure of an affair. It went on to become the best-selling début published that year and established Parks as a writer with an interest in exploring what happens after "happy ever after".
We meet at the offices of her new publisher, Headline, which will publish her 10th novel Men I've Loved Before in July. Ten books in 10 years would indicate an impressive work ethic: "Technically, I probably am a workaholic," admits Parks, blue eyes sparkling and her soft Teesside accent still discernible after years living down south. Men I've Loved Before tells the story of Natalie and Neil, a young couple who find their five-year marriage under threat when one of them decides they want a baby. Unusually, it's Neil who is desperate for parenthood and Nat who refuses point blank to even discuss it. Instead, worried that her husband's sudden change of heart might mean he's not "The One", Nat decides to track down her ex-boyfriends to see if somewhere along the line she made a mistake.
Throughout her career Parks has often written about heroines who can initially appear to be quite unsympathetic—married women who have affairs, women who "steal" other people's husbands, and even a bigamist. She says her readers love this about her fiction: "I think they feel it's very realistic. Not many people are absolutely lovely all the time. And really lovely people do some terrible things." I wonder if she's ever concerned that she won't take her readers with her? "I write about these amoral or immoral situations but I always make my characters go through that learning arc where they have to come to terms with their own faults, perhaps the faults in the people they've chosen and they pay for it . . . I feel I have to write about real-life situations. And it just isn't as a simple as the mistress is this terrible woman, she usually has her own motivation."
She adds: "I like putting myself and my readers and my characters in these tricky situations that perhaps within my genre we [authors] are not known for doing. So it's nice to be that daring."
On the subject of genre I ask how she feels about being described as a chick-lit writer? It's a double-edged sword she thinks. "It has one huge advantage, which is very close to my heart, it makes me less intimidating [to readers]." During events—she estimates she does an event "once a fortnight of some description"—she meets "literally hundreds" of people who have said: "Oh, I didn't think reading was for me" but were encouraged to pick up a book because they liked the cover, or read a review in a magazine. On the other hand, she is aware of the "literary snobs" who might dismiss her work out of hand because they don't read chick lit: "I think that's a shame if there are people turned off the category because of the labelling. I also think—let's face it—it's just sexist. And that's irritating."
She muses on the short-lived "lad lit" phenomenon: "It never stuck did it? Because nobody needs to define David Nicholls or Tony Parsons or any of those other authors in that way. We can just like their work, we don't need to give them this vaguely patronising label. I think generally I could have done without it [the chick-lit label] but I don't care, if it's brought one more reader into the fold then I'm for it."
Change of publisher
Men I've Loved Before is her first novel for Headline after nine "happy years" and nine books with Penguin. Of her decision to change publishers she says: "There comes a time when change is right and you need fresh eyes to look at what you're doing and to think about what you're doing, and I felt I was at that stage. Headline are an incredible emotional fit for me."
Her first novel was written while holding down a demanding advertising role with lots of foreign travel. She was "always on an aeroplane, quite often on my own" and used her spare time to "write the book that I'd always talked about". She warns me that her path to publication story is "quite sickening, it's really annoying for would-be writers to hear"—she sent three chapters to Jonny Geller with an "elevator" pitch, he rang her the next day (her 30th birthday) and asked to see the rest. He took the finished novel to five publishers who all expressed an interest and a bidding war developed that resulted in a "ridiculously healthy" first deal for two books. As she says: "I was in the right place at the right time with the right genre, and I'm aware of that."
Since 2006 Parks has been very involved with World Book Day "that really is my greatest passion, getting people reading" and wrote a Quick Read, Happy Families in 2008 which won the Learners' Favourite Award that year. The creative restrictions involved—length of sentences, vocabulary—were one part of the challenge. For, beyond that, the stakes are high: "It's got to be a thrilling page-turner. That [Quick Read] book might have the responsibility of making somebody want to be a reader, or not want to be a reader. It's a huge responsibility."