After Never Mind the Botox: Rachel – Oxford graduate Joanna Berry’s latest book in the four-part Never Mind the Botox series, written with friend and fellow author Penny Avis – was published mid-January, I spoke to Berry about her latest book, her professional plans for the new year, and her career as a writer.
What made her want to take a break from her high-flying legal career to start penning novels? Berry hadn’t wanted to be a writer from a young age. Instead, Berry and Avis, who worked for Deloitte, happened to decide simultaneously to take a career break. ‘We were chatting over Sunday lunch. We were both at a break in our careers, and both of us had accrued plenty of material over our professional careers that we would be able to draw on while writing,’ explains Berry. ‘In my twenties, I was working in the City and there were lots of interesting characters and scenarios. I ear-marked them because I thought one day they would make good stories.’
Berry’s time at Oxford and subsequent career in the City led her gradually into writing. ‘I knew I wanted to do something which involved words when I arrived at Oxford. I dabbled in journalism, I did a bit of work with BBC Radio Oxford, but in hindsight I lacked confidence and didn’t do enough,’ reflects the St Hilda’s graduate. ‘My job was very much about working with words – communicating, drafting letters, articulating, using language – so the leap from lawyer to author wasn’t as great it as it might seem.’
Berry describes her work as ‘unashamed contemporary women’s fiction’, citing Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones and novels by Alison Pearson and Marian Keyes as her inspirations. ‘I didn’t seek to emulate these authors, but rather to draw on their heritage. We write about an area that has not yet been fully explored: young women starting out in the City. There were a lot of contemporary novels about very loveable but rather hapless female characters. Our protagonists are a bit less hapless and a bit more ‘together’ than the average chick-lit protagonist. They are successful, career-minded women although they do have to face career dilemmas. In most contemporary women’s fiction, we found ‘work’ was under-represented. Our novels are about young women striving to succeed in their careers. For them, life isn’t all about handbags and finding Mr Right.’
2012 is set to be a busy year for this literary double-act, as Berry and Avis have signed a deal with production company Future Films to create a six-part television drama based on their books. Rachel is the second of four books; the first, Alex, was published last June and the two that will complete the series, Stella and Meredith, will be published this spring and summer respectively. Berry and Avis are currently busy writing books three and four, and are already planning a future series.
Berry explains how the writing process works, emphasizing the social aspect of being part of a literary double-act: ‘We have a long lunch and plan the book and things like characterisation, and continue to meet up every four to five months as the books develop. It’s quite nice working with another writer; it’s a bit like having a job in an office with lots of people. We write chapters and send them to each other. Getting feedback from your co-author is a good way to build your confidence, and inspires you to keep writing. You learn not to be precious; you need to know how to take criticism in this business and it’s good to learn to take it on the chin when your co-author tells you it’s not working. By the editing stage we’re already used to criticism.’
Berry doesn’t miss giving up her legal career. ‘I’ve not practised law for five years and I have no inclination to go back. I’m busy with my book and doing some work for Children in Need. But I do miss other lawyers and the banter of the office.’
I ask Berry if she has any tips for budding young authors. ‘The key is planning,’ she stresses. ‘Without any planning it would be a very long process. Penny and I knew what was going to happen to each character once we sat down to write.’ Berry mentions that she and Avis spend time writing a four to five thousand-word back story for each of their characters which will never appear in the books themselves but help the authors form an idea of their characters’ personalities in their minds. ‘We even cut out pictures from magazines of how we think the characters would look, pictures of how their flat might look, what might be in their fridge if you open the door,’ laughs Berry. ‘You’ve got to feel confident you know your character well enough.’
For all ambitious authors who want to try writing their own bestsellers, Berry recommends reading Stephen King’s On Writing’. Finally, Berry emphasises the need for an aspiring author to write about something he or she enjoys. ‘If you don’t write about something you enjoy, it becomes miserable and a chore. You’ve got to write about something that engages you.’