With stories like To The Moon and Back and her new novel A Walk in the Park, Jill Mansell just wants to make people happy
Felicity Wood: To the Moon and Back has been shortlisted for a Romantic Novel of the Year award in the Contemporary Romantic Novel category, can you tell us about it?
Jill Mansell: It’s a romantic comedy about a woman called Ellie who has to find happiness again after tragedy. I’ve always wanted to write a romantic ghost story along lines of Ghost, the film, but knew that after writing so many ‘non-ghosty’ books, I couldn’t suddenly bring out a ‘ghosty’ one. So instead I made Ellie’s dead husband a character in the book, with her conjuring him up in her imagination. After my mum died I found I was doing that, I would just imagine her walking into the room and sitting down next to me and talking. So that was the way I chose to use the character in the book and he’s now actually one of my favourite characters. A couple of people who have been widowed young have said that they felt like it had been written for them – that’s the best compliment a writer can get. When you’re writing about something you haven’t been through yourself, like loosing a husband – well I did loose one, but he didn’t die – it’s always scary, as you’re hoping that you’re not going to offend anybody. Of course it also has an uplifting ending, because I always write feel good fiction.
FW: Are you excited to be nominated?
JM: I’m thrilled, I won last year for the Romantic Comedy Novel award and I never imagined I’d be shortlisted again. When I accepted the award last year I shared on stage that the only other thing I had ever won before was a competition for tearing a telephone directory in half. I was against all these burly men, in a nightclub.
FW: Despite Ellie’s grief, TTMAB has some very funny moments in it, was it hard to get balance between tragedy and comedy right?
JM: No, because that’s life isn’t it? Life is awfully sad and horrific in one minute and in the next minute something hilarious can happen, and sometimes it is inappropriate to have them next to each other, but that’s life. It’s just like watching Coronation Street, one minute they’ll have tragedy and the next slapstick comedy.
FW: You’re about to start writing your 26th book, is it hard to keep finding inspiration?
JM: I do find that more and more I think: “Oh that would be brilliant,” and then I realise unfortunately I’ve used that scenario in another book. So it does get more difficult to think of more unusual scenarios, but there is lots of inspiration out there, you just have to search a bit further.
FW: Your next novel, is out this month, called A Walk in the Park. What’s it about?
JM: It is about leaving everything you know. My heroine Lara left Bath suddenly, but two decades later she’s back and everybody finally finds out why she’d left… and she finds out about the family she’d left behind. There are lots of intertwining stories in it, and again, it is [a] feel-good [story]. I like creating books that will cheer people up and make them feel happier. I grew up reading Jilly Cooper, and her books always made me happier, so when I first started I wanted to have a stab at doing that myself.
FW: Do your friend’s lives ever end up cropping up in any of your novels?
JM: A little bit, they have with AWITP. The idea for a scene where a woman is left without a make-up artist or a hairdresser on her wedding day came from something that happened in a friend’s life: after an argument with a friend, she was left looking up videos on how to ringlet your hair with straightening irons on YouTube. It is funny now, but at the time it was horrible, but she’s absolutely thrilled it is in the book. I’d never heard of it happening before, so I said to her: “Oh, I’ve got to use that, it’s brilliant.” That was my little starting off point for AWITP – every time I start a book there is one little thing that triggers it, and then I build the whole of the rest of the book around it. Sometimes I’ll be in a restaurant and I’ll just see a character. Two people can be sitting there and I don’t know them, and I don’t even want to, because just looking at them and getting an idea of them and what there lives might be is enough. It makes me wonder how many people don’t realise that this has happened to them, that a stranger, who’s written a book about them, has used them.
FW: Your novels move around England, from London’s Primrose Hill to Bath and Cornwall, is it fun to go of on little jaunts for research?
JM: It is indeed! It’s always places that I’ve sort of been too. I grew up in the Cotswolds and so I love writing village-y books, because when you’ve grown up in a village you know everybody in that village and they all know you. Now that I’m in a city, I know hardly any of my neighbours. When I first moved to Bristol if I saw someone at a bus stop I’d stop and offer him or her a lift… but you’re not allowed to do that in a city. Different readers also like all the different aspects of the locations. The next one will probably be another Cornwall one… people love Devon and Cornwall.
To the Moon and Back by Jill Mansell is out now, published by Headline Review. A Walk in the Park is out on 16 February