Deborah Moggach combines writing novels with writing scripts, and there’s a wonderful urgent energy in everything she writes – from boisterous expositions of family life like Close Relations to comedies like Heartbreak Hotel, to tales of dark goings-on and secrets in In the Dark. She has published 21 books and had many scripts filmed but, as is sometimes the way with films, the path from page to screen can be slow.
Efficiency is her watchword, I think, perhaps born of watching her parents make writing lives work. She has said, ‘They both worked every morning, on typewriters on the verandah of the cottage we lived in … They were both very unneurotic and unpretentious about it. They tucked themselves away and wrote some really good books, though my father also wrote a few of the old potboilers because he had to keep us going.’
Deborah now writes ‘to be free – free of money worries and free from having a boss.’ She writes a lot. She began with journalism whilst living in Pakistan in the late 70s and then turned to novels. When she felt her novels weren’t being given the attention they deserved, she turned to scripts – among them, her adaptation of Pride and Prejudice which was nominated for a BAFTA award – but went back to novels, and achieved major success with Tulip Fever and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (first published as These Foolish Things).
Part of her efficiency is economy – how unusual is it for the same writer to create a novel and a script from one piece of work, as Deborah has with both Tulip and Marigold? But she’s also ‘an environmentally friendly writer – no waste.’ All her knowledge goes into a book, which is why she has written only one sequel, Heartbreak Hotel. She’s also ruthless on page as on film, cutting out anything extraneous to guarantee a tighter plot. Her books are fast and lean and huge fun. I really enjoy them.
Try them if you haven’t already. I’m sure Deborah’s insights into her writing life below will tempt you to the bookshelves – with speed and efficiency …
- What was the first book you wrote?
It was called You Must Be Sisters and was very autobiographical, as first novels so often are. I ruthlessly used one of my sisters for a character in it, and also myself, of course. It was about a middle-class girl (guess who) who was rather rebellious, took some drugs, had an unsuitable boyfriend, had an abortion . . . in a way I regret it, because it lies like a hologram over my own youth and I can no longer remember what is fact and what is fiction.
- For which book would you like to be remembered?
Impossible to answer, there’s so many of them! I’m very proud of an early novel called Porky, which tackled incest and was way before its time. I’ve heard it’s been used in therapy centres, so I hope it’s been a help for some people.
- Is there a book you abandoned partway through?
No. I usually soldier on. Though I have abandoned an awful lot of ideas for books and plays – particularly plays, as I’m longing to write one and they never quite work out, in my head. They’re very tricky and I simply might not have the knack.
- Is there a book you know you’ll never write?
I couldn’t tackle the Holocaust, or trench warfare in World War I. Simply beyond my capabilities or imagination. Childbirth’s a difficult one, too; I’ve never tried to describe that.
- Which book do you believe should have fared better?
Porky – see above. My publishers never pushed it, and it didn’t sell much. I really think it was an important novel, and was very upset.
- Have you been surprised by readers’ reactions to a particular book?
Not that I can remember. I like it when my books make them laugh, which they quite often do. That’s why I like reading aloud at literary festivals and hearing that warm roar. Heaven.
- What book do you wish you’d written?
Gosh, so many. I think J.G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur, because it’s a perfect novel – funny, touching, gripping, humane, and telling us about an incident in history which enlarges our sympathies.
- What are you writing now?
I’m adapting three of my novels for TV and film. Hopefully one of them might get made – there are so many stumbling blocks on the road to a finished film. Tulip Fever, my novel set in Vermeer’s Amsterdam, has taken 20 years to get to the screen! (It should be released early 2017.)
Deborah keeps readers up to date with a regular newsletter on her website, which you can find here. There are details on all her novels, including her most recent, Something to Hide, out now in paperback.