Or: how to write a sexy best-seller
I first met Daisy Buchanan at the Port Eliot festival.
An outdoor festival in Cornwall encompassing music, literature, talks and events, it’s an idyllic place to be on a sunny day. But this particular year it started raining a few hours in, and barely stopped for the whole weekend. We were both speaking at the festival, and were introduced, briefly, by friends.
A day later, I was in a sea of festival-goers in wellies and waterproofs, trudging up a muddy path and trying not to poke each other with their umbrellas, when I spotted Daisy and her husband Dale, sitting at a table under a tree without any rain-gear on, soakeing wet but enjoying a jug of Pimms as if it was the gloriously sunny British weekend we’d all hoped for.
I remember thinking then, “That woman is magnificent, and I need to know her.” I bought another jug of Pimms, pulled up a chair – and we’ve been friends ever since.
She’s a prolific writer, producing high-quality journalism and two non-fiction books: How To Be A Grown Up, which explains why millennials are doing better than they think at life, and The Sisterhood, a searingly honest and very funny family memoir and tribute to her five sisters.
She’s is also astonishingly well-read.
In her successful podcast, You’re Booked, she noses about the bookshelves of writers and celebrities, asking about the books that shaped them – and their guilty reading pleasures.
She’s also a novelist in her own right, with two best-selling books – Insatiable and Careering – and a third on the way. We did this interview when her debut, Insatiable, had just been published. It’s a filthy, funny and oddly touching book about Violet, a young woman stuck in a dead-end job in London who yearns to belong, to be loved, to be wanted. This and her healthy libido draw her into a world of middle-class narcissism and sex parties – until she finally understands what she really, really wants.
You’re one of the most productive people I know. Do you still feel you have to work constantly to prove yourself?
Working for the [daily women’s magazine] The Pool, I loved the rigour of it, and living on adrenalin. Even though it was all online and it was mostly me writing in pyjamas, it was my romanticised idea of journalism.
It was largely comment pieces about newsy things, where you’ve not really got time to think about what you’re doing – or whether you should be doing it. I loved the flow of it. I could think and write more quickly and lucidly than I could speak. And that was quite exciting.
Humans have always been competitive, and they’ve always compared themselves to each other. Twitter really ramped that up for me, and made me feel like a teenager for quite a long time.
My relationship with work, and being a workaholic, it was really adolescent. Work was my crush, and it was all about could they see me, were they looking at me, did they know I existed.
It has definitely been an addiction. And not one I can give up easily, because I need to pay for my house! Working for myself also allowed me to work in a much more addicted way. But we really encourage it and reward it. People would be concerned and asking questions if we had that sort of relationship with other controlled substances. But with work, it’s always like, “You’re doing really well. Keep at it!”
So what shifted?
It was just becoming much, much harder to work the way I wanted to, juggling constant commissions and having a very full, busy in-box. I started learning more about personal development. And examining a difficult relationship with food and alcohol.
I was eating and drinking to excess when I was unhappy, but that seemed so normal. The way I was doing it didn’t seem very different from anyone else around me. And of course, we really reached for those things in the pandemic.
I started to realise that there was almost anything I would do before I’d sit with my own thoughts. And because I had enough things I like doing, I could switch them over and nothing ever became a terrible problem. I could eat a sandwich, drink some wine, buy a dress, find some work or accept a commission. It was a constant search for external excitement – or external validation.
I’d given a lot of power away, believing I only had value if someone wanted to work with me. Then The Pool collapsed, owing me lots of money. That was when I finished Insatiable. What made it hard for me to write a novel before was the idea that no-one wants this. I sold the non-fiction books on proposals, so I knew they would be published. A novel just seemed so speculative…
It’s a lot of work, when you don’t know if anyone’s going to read it.
Yes. But then I felt I didn’t really have anything to lose. I’d put all of my faith in the external – and it had left me there. So I might as well just throw all I had at doing what I really wanted to do.
What was the hardest part?
I felt a bit stuck, about 50,000 words in, with no idea how the story could end. I also had it in my mind that this is my first go. And most first attempts don’t go anywhere. Probably because you’re writing in the dark, and you just have to persevere and persevere.
You walk a very interesting tightrope with Violet, because she has given away her power and autonomy.
I’ve always loved books where you see a vulnerable person grow. But you start someone off at the lowest point because as a reader, you want to experience that joy and euphoria with them. With Violet, I wanted her to get what she thought she wanted, then realise that’s not such a good thing.
I’ve always loved books about women where I see something reflected.. I love Bridget Jones’s Diary, the comic writing in it is truly fantastic. There’s a lot of criticism about Bridget and her obsession with her weight and with dating. But she was never meant to be a role model. She doesn’t inspire us by doing the right thing.
I’m not interested in reading about anyone who does the right thing. Because we all know what we should be doing. What’s interesting is all of the reasons we don’t do it.
How did you get out of the messy middle, the stuck part where most writers give up?
I’m very interested in my answer here, because I’m at this point with the next one!
I remember thinking about the feelings I wanted the ending to evoke. I knew I could make it very, very dark. And that didn’t feel quite right. I was fond of Violet, I wanted good things for her, so I thought about what that would look like. And then I was walking home from the supermarket one day. It was really rainy, and the shopping bags were really digging into my palms. And then I suddenly thought, “Oooh! That’s what happens!”
I love books that are very character-led. And I love writing characters. So I was happy to let her dictate the story. There’s lots to the characters in the book that we don’t have to know as readers, but they’re there. In the very first version, for instance, Lottie [a key character], tells a long story. I cut it out later, but I’m glad I know that about her. She still has those dimensions, even if they’re not revealed explicity. It’s the only thing that isn’t explicit, in my book!
So even words that you cut aren’t wasted?
I think so. I am not one for planning, I wish I was. But I just think so much better on the page, or when I’m typing. We both do the London Writers Salon’s Writers Hour, and sometimes there’s the dread of thinking, “But I don’t know what I’m going to write!”
But of course I don’t know what I want to write exactly, until I just sit down and write it. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that.
What led up to you having that epiphany while carrying your groceries home? Was it showing up every day, even when you didn’t know what you’re going to write?
It’s much more just thinking about it, and letting myself be a bit slow and compassionate and curious. And realising maybe it was okay to be away from my desk, that the story wouldn’t turn up when I was frowning at my laptop. That I could just trust these people to grow and find room and make themselves known. In fact, it’s very useful to remember that now!
There are two things I think you do brilliantly in Insatiable. You write well about sex, which is really difficult. And you have these great comedy lines.
They’re definitely the things that I have always loved most in books. I’m a huge fan Jilly Cooper fan. When it comes to sex, her books have a lot more depth and breadth than she gets credit for. A lot of it is very rompy, and jolly – beds are bouncing. It’s still more explicit than lots of writers are now, yet it has something of The Archers to it.
I also love Jackie Collins, and Louise Bagshawe books. They’re all very much like: “And she went into the room, and she felt like a goddess. And she knew that every man wanted her.”
I wanted to write about desire, but I wanted to have someone who was very horny, but also massively insecure. Because that’s probably much more true to life.
Fifty Shades ghettoised sex in books. In women’s commercial fiction, things were a bit more explicit. Then suddenly, it was: these are the stories, and this is the filth.
But then when I was in the stages of talking to publishers for Insatiable, Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women came out, and that amazing book Luster by Raven Lilani, which I adored. It’s not as explicit as Insatiable, but themes are definitely there, and that vulnerability and darkness. And then there’s The Pisces by Melissa Broder, which is an amazing, really filthy book.
It’s that thing Elizabeth Gilbert talks about so beautifully in Big Magic. Artistic ideas are shared by people who don’t know each other, but something is in the air. I did wonder whether it’s partly a reaction to Me Too. Those conversations are still happening, and we’re rightly having a real reckoning around the endemic sexism and exploitation that’s been happening for hundreds – thousands – of years.
But we have also gone through this very bleak period where whenever women and sex and sexuality are discussed, it often comes back to violence, cruelty and anxiety. Violet does experience some of that, but I also just wanted to write a woman who is seeking out a lovely time.
Tell me about You’re Booked. Does the podcast feed into your own writing, or does it feel like a break from it?
While I’m promoting my own books, You’re Booked helps me to stay interested in stories and storytelling, and in other people and what they have to say. It reminds me that reading is a democracy. I’ve interviewed successful writers that I’ve been a proper fan of for years. They love reading as much as I do, and we love the same books.
There’s a typical episode where it’s me and someone like Lauren Bravo, Sarah Manning or Dolly Alderton talking about how much we love Nancy Mitford. But then yesterday I interviewed Simon Dooan. He judges America’s Next Top Model among other things. He’s also written a book about Keith Haring. And a memoir about growing up in the north of England, Beautiful People. He talked about loving football memoirs from the 90s. It’s one of his favourite weird genres.
Or recently, I was talking to Robert Jones Jr. He’s a very erudite and educated and well-read man, and he was being super-smart about books I’d not read and hadn’t heard of, and then suddenly he broke off to tell me about his passion for Wonder Woman. Those surprises are why I do it.
We both got our apprenticeships as writers through magazines. That’s not so easy now. What advice would you give a young writer starting out?
Don’t worry! The lovely thing about writing is it’s pretty much the opposite of being a footballer, where it’s hard to get going after you’re 30. As a 30-year-old writer, you’ve only just begun. You can learn at your own pace, and you can learn every day.
At Bliss magazine when I was 22 or 23, I wasn’t as interesting as I thought I was, and lots of the writing I did on my own wasn’t very good. Interviewing people, listening to their stories, seeing other writing and how things were put together: that’s where I learned the most.
It’s harder and easier now. What’s really, really frustrating is the money. You have to earn money, and the things you have to do are so draining and endless that you don’t come home from work and think, “Oh, I’ll make a podcast!” But equally, you can make a podcast. There are so many creative platforms and so many ways of using them.
Read and read and read and read. And read as broadly as you can, if you want to be a writer. It’s not about reading the classics. Although the brilliant thing about reading the classics is there is so much to learn in terms of style and form and universal themes.
I struggled through Anna Karenina, but what I loved about it and what surprised me was it was so gossipy! Lots of things never really change.
If you love something on TV, read the script. The BBC website has so many things that you can download. It’s a great time to listen out for stories and see what’s interesting.
What I loved about being on a magazine is that I knew I was a writer, because I wrote every day. If I didn’t, my boss would shout at me and I’d be evicted! It’s really hard to do anything if you’re not made to do it.
The heroine in Careering is just desperate to work in magazines. She’s been doing work experience and internships. She doesn’t know anyone in London, there’s no one to support her. And everyone’s like, “Look, why don’t you just give this up and come home, retrain and work the council or something?” But she is surrounded by posh girls who can afford to be interns, for five or 10 years at a time.
I like that as a character!
I like her too! It’s weird, wanting to make her different from Violet and knowing they’re similar because they’re of a similar age and circumstance. But she’s definitely coming out a lot pluckier. And maybe a little less introspective.
Sheryl Garratt is a writer and a coach helping creatives to get the success they want, making work they love. Ready to grow your creative business? Click to get your free 10-day course.