Hix, the champagne and caviar bar in London’s Selfridges is an apt place to be meeting Sophie Kinsella, the author of the hugely successful Shopaholic series. Starting with Confessions of a Shopaholic in 1999, the series has followed the highs and lows of the endearing, yet retail obsessed, Becky Bloomwood – one of chick-lit's most beloved characters.
Fans love the Shopaholic books, of which there are six, as well as Kinsella’s four other standalone novels (and the seven books she has written under her other name Madeline Wickham), because of their romantic and whimsical plots. Humour is another important reason women - and men - keep coming back to her work, and before I get a chance to meet the glamorous and affable Kinsella in person, Hix’s maître d’, exclaims: “Ooh, which one is Sophie Kinsella? She’s great isn’t she; her books are actually really funny.”
A reaction Kinsella seems used to. “Men are often surprised. I’ve had a bunch of letters from men saying: 'my girlfriend had your book, and I read it, and it was actually funny'. They’re always surprised, but it’s great, I’m glad I’ve made them laugh.” For an author who has been writing for almost two decades, is being funny still difficult? “Yes, it is hard to write funny characters, it is something which I have to work at. Inspiration will suddenly come and you think oh God yes, this would be funny. I’ll be walking down the road and if something actually makes me laugh out loud I’ll think ok, that could be good, I’ll use that. When it comes to writing the scene and making it work however, that’s what takes the work, getting the timing of the scene just right, getting the dialogue just right. Those are the scenes I go back to and work at again and again and again; you think, yes it’s funny, but it could be funnier.”
After, the third book in the Shopaholic series, Kinsella took a break from Becky and her chaotic life to focus on two new funny female leads, Emma and Sam, in Can You Keep a Secret? and The Undomestic Goddess respectively. But Kinsella started to miss her original heroine, finding herself at events or places imaging Becky there and the escapades that would ensue.
“It was hard to say goodbye. I left Becky and I didn’t know if I would come back to her; after book number three I really thought that might be the end. Readers would write and say 'where’s Becky?' and ask what she was doing, like she was a mutual friend on holiday. So I thought, am I done with her? No, I don’t think I am. But, it is lovely to write standalone books too, because they are very different."
Kinsella’s next novel is one such standalone. Called I’ve Got Your Number, it tells the story of Poppy, who finds herself linked to a mysterious stranger through a mobile phone. Poppy starts the book, in true Kinsella style, in complete desperation after losing both her phone and, more tragically, her new sparkling engagement ring. In a blind panic she “borrows” a mobile phone that she sees abandoned, and a romantic adventure begins. Kinsella explains that “with this one, I had flash of inspiration of finding a phone that connects you to someone else. With that one tiny device you’ve got an insight into their whole world and who they are, which I thought was fascinating.”
Having spent so much time creating and developing Becky throughout the Shopaholic series, I ask Kinsella if, when she is crafting a new femme fatale, she finds herself going out of her way to establish clear un-Becky like characteristics? “It is tricky actually, as they have to be distinctive - the first step of writing any of the standalones is to work out who is my new character, who is she inside. It is a very instinctive thing, I feel my way into her really and the more I start writing, the more I can feel who she is.”
From Poppy’s missing engagement ring to Becky’s financial mismanagement, Kinsella’s characters often find themselves in a multitude of scrapes. With so many female protagonists under her belt does she find herself drawing on her friend’s lives for inspiration, making notes for potential comedic scenes over catch-up drinks? “I wish I could say that my friends provided me with all of my anecdotes - it would make life easier,” she laughs. “There is a little bit of me in all my characters, some more than others, but everything that my characters do is a bit too crazy for me to have not made it up. I’d love to be able to just ring people up and say: 'so what’s been going on this year?'and put it all in the next book.
“I like to write a character that I think people will understand, if you relate to the character you can go with them on their crazy journey. I like to ground my characters so that people can relate to them, so that from the beginning you think: 'oh yes, I’ve been there or I’ve thought that', and then when this adventure starts to happen you feel like you’re going with them. The more you indentify with the character at the beginning, the more you can experience the rollercoaster with them.”
Having firmly cemented herself over the years as one of chick-lit’s queens, what’s next for Kinsella - a terrifying zombie horror or a violent gang-land thriller, perhaps? She laughs again: “It’s funny you should say that, I did try to write a scary thriller once. I’d been reading a lot of Patricia Cornwall and I love plot and plotting, it’s like a really satisfying jigsaw puzzle, so I thought, you know what, I’m going to write a thriller. This was so many years ago, before I even wrote the first Shopaholic book. I devised this quite gritty thriller, and wrote about four chapters and I showed it to my agent, who passed it onto her associate, and he said: 'well the plot’s not bad, but unfortunately all of the characters are all these really nice middle class people who are running around killing each other and that won’t do, it needs to be grittier'. He asked if I had thought about going and shadowing a police office and learning about life on the street and I thought: 'hmm, is this me? No, no it’s not'.”
But, abandoned thriller writing career aside, what about future plans for changing genre? From Charlie Higson’s Young Bond books and Candace Bushnell's Sex And The City prequels, Young Adult revivals of some of literature’s favourite characters are all the rage and Kinsella won’t rule out the idea of a young Becky Bloomwood: “Now, that would be quite fun. Who knows?"
I've Got Your Number is out on 16 February, published by Bantam Press.