That’s me (it’s all about me, isn’t it?) talking in the USA. Here’s the news: http://www.apbspeakers.com/speaker-news/new-apb-downton-abbey-insider-jessica-fellowes
When I was thirty years old, I was appointed Deputy Editor of Country Life magazine. To all my friends – and probably most of the staff of the magazine – it was hard to fathom. I had begun my career with six years at the celebrity-chasing Mail on Sunday, lived in London my whole life, could only walk in high heels and couldn’t tell my Doric from my Architrave. When the then-editor, the charming Clive Aslet, sent out an email announcing that I would be starting in the job, the staff Googled my name and the first thing that came up was an article I’d written about knickers. They didn’t hope for the best.
In the end, I stayed over four years, acquired five pairs of Hunter wellies and although I don’t think I succeeded in achieving my brief (to modernise the culture of the magazine – “like trying to modernise Prince Phillip,” a friend of mine remarked), I learned a lot. I also gained a real respect for the sometimes quieter way of going about things, for the men and women who had spent their years learning their craft or chosen subject, sometimes obscure but always valuable if they were not to disappear forever, whether that be the growing of cobnuts or the restoration of 14th century oak beams.
Some lessons were harder won. I was, after all, a townie, and the ways of the country were a mystery to me. After I asked my editor what the difference was between hay and straw, the only answer I could remember was that hay is a book festival and straw is something you drink cocktails with.
During my time there, I wrote a column for the now-defunct The London Paper, which appeared on Fridays, encouraging townies to go to the country at the weekend and indulge in the pleasures of pubs, stately homes, walks, strange Guy Fawkes night parades and so on. These formed the basis of my first book, Mud & the City: Dos and Don’ts for Townies in the Country (now available as an e-book). At the same time, I wrote a column for the magazine, as the Town Mouse, describing my various antics in and around the harsh pavements of London.
Now I have moved to the country for real. (This is partly why I’ve been a quiet on the blog front lately.) We are in Oxfordshire and I’m having to put some of my advice into practice – getting to know the neighbours, employing locally, chatting to the shopkeepers. There will be chickens, there may even be a dog. Some things have been surprising – for all the fresh air, I’m much more unhealthy in the country, baking and eating endless cakes and never walking anywhere (everything is a car journey’s distance away). Some less so – the house is freezing in the afternoon, it’s eerily quiet at night. I don’t feel quite up to writing a Country Mouse column yet (still using straws for cocktails), but perhaps a Town Mouse In The Country blog will do. I’ll let you know how I’m getting on. In the meantime, do come over for tea. There’s cake.
I’ve just pressed the last click on my Kindle (hmmm, it’s not got quite the same ring as ‘turned the last page’, has it?) and finished ‘Something Dangerous’ by Penny Vincenzi. It’s a fabulous book. A proper family saga, that stretches from 1928 until after the Second World War. There’s a vivid host of characters and I got completely swept up in it – again, doing rather more reading than writing. I was intrigued to read a Vincenzi book, partly because she’s the mother of a friend of mine (Sophie Cornish, with whom I wrote the ‘Build A Business From Your Kitchen Table’ book) but also because she’s a successful – very – novelist, former journalist, and I think one sometimes hopes to be able to detect the magic formula that made it work for her.
One can’t, of course. Each writer is different, each reader is different. But there were lots of things about her book that I thought really worked (and, reader, if you think I’m gushing because of the connection, I’ll tell you now, if I thought it was rubbish, you wouldn’t even know I’d read it). The rich variety of characters, for one, and the way she slipped from writing from all their different points of view. This is VERY hard to do – to have all the different voices, and yet keep the book consistent and keep the reader attached. But she made it very fluid – I found it, oddly, much less disruptive than the current fashion for having alternate chapters for two central characters.
The attention to historical detail was brilliant – just a smattering, just enough for you to know she knew what she was talking about. The names of the fashionable designers, then, or the Society names (she had two Fellowes’s in there – Mrs Reginald Fellowes, a well-known hostess and Daisy Fellowes, a beauty), the clubs they went to, the details of the big events being played out on the world stage and how they infiltrated and infected the smallest of domestic concerns. Sensing how reliable this knowledge is, makes one very comfortable with the rest and gives the right context – a made-up successful author is very quickly believable when set alongside casual mention of Hemingway and Dorothy Parker, for example.
She uses a lot of dialogue, without doing huge tracts of ‘he said’, ‘she said’. These exchanges took me longer to get comfortable with, just because of the use of the period colloquialisms (a bit like reading dialect, which I personally always find difficult). But it was still the right thing for her to do, and it got one into the characters, and helped you recognise them as got further into the book, to feel almost intimately familiar with them. But they also became a brilliant plot device, as conversations would start and you wouldn’t immediately know what it was referring to and you have an enjoyable guessing game.
Vincenzi is an absolute master of setting up tension. I’ve not been on tenterhooks so many times within one book. Two characters will be racing against time in one way or another and because it’s such a big saga, with so many people, there’s just no telling how it will turn out. So many times I either sighed with relief; others, I wept.
And for me, this was a great book because it absolutely tackled a fascinating time in history. A time when women who lost their lovers and brothers to the horrors of the First World War, then found they had to send their sons to the same in the Second World War. I’ve read less around the subject of the latter war, and I was very moved by the descriptions of the bombings in London, the emotional tiredness everyone suffered just to keep going, the people who abhorred the war, the ones who loved it.
Oh, and terrific sex scenes, too.
I’m rather bereft it’s over now. But very exited because 1) there are two more books in the trilogy to read (idiotically, I’ve only just realised this) and 2) I’ve decided I’m going to ask her out to lunch and try to find out more about how she did it. I’ll keep you posted.
If you want to buy the book yourself, go here: Amazon.co.uk
Although you should probably not do as I did, and start with the first of the trilogy – No Angel.
This is just a little heads up to say that I’m talking this weekend on Saturday 10th November at 11.45am in St Edmund’s Hall, Southwold, as part of the Ways With Words festival. Tickets are £10.
See details here: Southwold Ways With Words
Then on November 20th at 7pm in the Cadogan Hall, Sloane Square, London, I’ll be on a panel with Julian Fellowes, Gareth Neame (executive producer) and Allen Leech (Branson), being interviewed by John Witherow, editor of the Sunday Times. Tickets are £15, or £10 for Times+ members.
See details here: Times+ event London
For the second time, I was invited to speak at Cheltenham Literary Festival. Last year, I was on the stage with my uncle, Julian Fellowes, executive producer Gareth Neame and Dan Stevens, the actor playing Matthew Crawley. Mark Lawson, of Radio 4/BBC4, was our chair, and most excellent he was, too.
This year, the theme was ‘Women of Downton’, so I was there with Liz Trubridge, producer, and the actresses playing Mrs Patmore and Mrs Hughes, Lesley Nicols and Phyllis Logan respectively. We were chaired by the very lovely and clever Kirsty Lang, who presents Radio 4′s Front Row on Friday nights. A thousand people were sitting in the audience, and afterwards a fair number of them came to get their books signed. Of course, most people wanted to rush back home to catch the next episode. I love that in a world of catch-up TV, DVD boxsets and the like, everyone wants to watch Downton at the same time as everyone else.
Anyway, I’ve just found a bunch of photos from the event, so thought I’d put them up here. It was a good night, and not just because HarperCollins treated us to a slap up supper afterwards, with plenty of decent wine drunk. But also because after months of writing alone on my kitchen table, it’s nice to feel that one’s work is connected to so many people. The readers, the publishers, the people about whom the book is written – they all have their own view on it and relationship with it and to have been a part of that is a privilege.
A blog I did for the official Downton Abbey social meed-ya network. Enjoy. http://downtonabbeyuk.tumblr.com/
Would you drive a bus for free? I ask you, because increasingly, I am asked to work for no fee.
The enormous and growing appetite for content – on blogs, online newspapers and magazines, sprawling paper supplements, free papers, Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr posts, emails, text, tattoos – means that writers are more in demand than ever. It’s not just newspapers that commission writers but any Social Media Strategist or Marketing Exec working for companies from plumbers to PRs. But not one of them has a business model that knows how to turn a profit from of the vast amounts of content they supply their customers/readers/audience.
Which means that either writers have to be content with the ‘publicity’ instead of a fee – usually a plug for their own blog, which they also write for free – or they ask non-writers, who are plugging another business. Which means an awful lot of the content is either written in a slapdash manner by proper writers (who takes a job seriously that they aren’t getting paid for?) or written badly because it’s written by a non-writer.
Despite the fact that everyone thinks they’re a writer now, and in many ways this is nothing new (any published author has had to endure several people tell them they’d write a book too ‘if only I could find the time’), I’m going to say something very brave and bold against this: you’re not a professional writer unless you write, frequently, and are paid to do so.
I have nothing against amateur writers – I was one myself once. And I’d far rather the person who says they want to write and actually does sit down and write. But until someone publishes your work or puts on your play or films your script, thereby investing in the words you pulled out of your head, then you are not a professional.
Writing is not easy. It can be comfortable, yes – writing in my pyjamas, on my bed, or in a cosy cafe, a cup of coffee at my side. It’s not going down the mines. But simply being able to spell doesn’t mean you can write. Copying out someone else’s writing doesn’t mean you can write. Even being able to be a bit witty on email doesn’t mean you can write. It takes time to learn how to write things down as they happen; to describe a scene in a way that resonates with someone else who has experienced something similar or maybe never experienced it at all; to write down dialogue that sounds real; to put across an argument in a succint and non-hysterical way; to describe a person’s entire personality in just two or three sentences. I’ve been trying for 15 years and I still can’t do it as well as I’d like to.
But of what I have learned to do so far, I get a positive response to, quite a lot of the time. People read what I write and are moved, or laugh, or feel compelled to write me a letter. As I tend not to write shocking things, or provoke the more vulnerable elements of our society into feeling attacked and needing to defend themselves, this is not as easy as it might appear. It took practice. It still takes practice. It’s taken years of sometimes weeping over my laptop or feeling the pressure of a deadline, or fighting back tears of frustration after an editor has handed back copy with red marks seemingly on every line.
But now, I must do this for free.
Recently, I called the editor of a major online newspaper blog about writing them a column, which she had said she really wanted. We chatted for a while about what would be in the blog and it was all feeling rather exciting. Then I said – ‘oh, we need to talk about the fee.’ ‘Well, we don’t really pay our writers,’ she said. ‘Usually they can just plug their own blog or whatever.’ After a while, she said she might be able to find some sort of budget – around £25-30 for an 800 word article. To put this in context, 12 years ago, I was paying writers for the Mail on Sunday (when I was a commissioning editor) an average of 50p a word. At one point, I had to pay certain writers 25p a word, for a new section of the magazine I was working on, and this was hugely embarrassing. That would still have worked out at £200 for an 800 word article.
When I pointed this out, the editor said, ‘those kind of fees are for papers – this is online.’ So what? What of your boasts that online readership is vastly higher than newspapers? The problem is, of course, that we are still dealing with the hangover from the dotcom bust at the turn of the century. After that, publishers were so slow off the mark when it came to the interweb that they learned nothing from the music industry’s decline (‘people love the artwork on CDs,’ a high-up at EMI told a friend of mine around 2001, ‘we’ve got nothing to worry about’) and continued to shoehorn their ancient business models into the new technology.
Publishers knew they needed to build websites, but as they were already beginning to haemorrhage money on their print outlets (the Guardian now is losing something like £1 million a week), they invested zero cash. If readers were going to get stuff for free, the reasoning must have been, it wasn’t worth spending money on. Nor could they persuade advertisers to pay even a quarter of their usual fee because it was ‘free content’ and therefore not taken seriously or read properly.
Of course, all this has changed now. We know that writing is taken just as seriously online. We even know that people are prepared to pay for premium content. We know that the internet is our primary source of content and newspapers are for the old-fashioned or just anyone who doesn’t have an iPad yet and still fancies something to read on the train. (I’m aware that this is a lot of people.) The canny have found other ways to generate income if they can’t do it through content – live events (witness the growth of Damian Barr’s Shoreditch Salons, celebrating its fourth birthday tonight, having spawned further events around the globe, some of which are very poor imitators) or driving people back to print that has redefined itself, eg beautiful, limited-edition books. Or maybe, writing the blogs for the non-writers (I do this).
I don’t want to be a moaning minnie. I understand I’m in a privileged position. I was educated well, given great opportunities, and I’m doing a job many would love to do. But I don’t see that vocational jobs should be ‘punished’ with smaller fees because we’re doing what we love – cf. teachers, nurses. I love my job, but I have worked hard to get to this point and I still have to pay the mortgage and get the weekly food shop. In an era when my skills are apparently in demand, it seems frankly ridiculous that it should be the one era when I shouldn’t expect to get paid for them. (I do get, by the way, that I hardly help matters by writing this blog for free. But, the internet eats itself, and I still have to play the game – I need the public voice as much as anybody.)
There’s no real solution in sight. As I say, I’m lucky. I am still finding people who will pay me to write and I’m hoping I can make it last. But I may not be able to do it until I retire. To that end, I’m developing other skills – public speaking, for example – to supplement that income. When even the likes of international bestseller Susan Hill (‘Woman In Black’) posts on Facebook that she cannot afford to continue living in her home, and she doesn’t strike me as the extravagant type, then you know this isn’t a profession that is rewarding its professionals.
Our only hope is that readers vote with their feet: read what you feel is worth reading and has value. And pay for it.