Beenie Langley talks to Jilly Cooper about getting an OBE, who Jilly would marry from her novels and the inspiration behind Rupert Campbell-Black…
Who is your favourite character from your notorious series, The Rutshire Chronicles books?
I love nearly all my characters to bits, even giving screams of joy when the horrors like Martin and Romy in Jump! or Poppet and Alex Bruce in Wicked! or awful Gwyneth and Gilbert from the Arts Council in Appassionata get their comeuppance. I love Fen and Dino in Riders, I love Dora in the last three books because she is so good hearted, but so foxy in the way she works the media.
I adore the animals, particularly Visitor in Pandora when he goes out and bashes his fat hips against the bird table so he can up the fallen crumbs. I also love Taggie’s mongrel, Gertrude, and naughty Priceless the Greyhound and Chislom the goat in Jump!
Which character is most like you?
I think writers invariably spread their characteristics around. There are probably bits of me in most of my heroines. As a fat teenager I identified with Tory in Riders and also with Janey as a journalist and the way she let herself go to seed when she was writing and was so appalled when Billy suddenly dropped in on her one evening when she was finishing a piece. I certainly identified with Lizzie in Rivals. Daisy and Etta are much nicer characters than me, but I do identify with them in the way they are soppy about animals and not very good at saying ‘no’ to anybody.
Who was your inspiration for Rupert (I am totally prepared for you not to answer this question!)?
Rupert was actually invented in 1969 when I first started writing Riders but had instead named the story ‘Bloods’ which was the nickname for great athletic heroes in public schools. In this early version Rupert was the complete villain because he bullied Jake so terribly but Jake triumphed over him at the end. Then I lost the manuscript on a bus, it took 15 years to re-write the book, during which time, particularly when we moved to Gloucestershire in 1982, I met some absolutely gorgeous men. These were Rupert Lycett-Green, Andrew Parker Bowles, the Duke of Beaufort, who I’ve always described as ‘the handsomest man in England’ and Micky Suffolk, the Earl of Suffolk and Berkshire. None of them were remotely guilty of Rupert’s bad behaviour, but they have the same wit, brio and panache and fondness for animals and from them eventually his character emerged.
The one thing that stops my friends and me from completely falling for Rupert is the fact that he beat his horse in Riders. It’s the one unforgivable act I think he committed. Did you want your readers to hate him at that point?
I couldn’t agree with you more about Rupert beating up Macaulay in Riders. It’s absolutely hideous. As a character he certainly always regarded horses as stock rather than pets, although he is bats about his dogs. When I finished Riders and started Rivals, I wasn’t intending to use Rupert again. Ricky France-Lynch, the beginning of Rivals, was the hero, but I found I was missing Rupert so much and his jokes and his wildness, that I saved Ricky for Polo, and brought Rupert back in as the hero of Rivals, which I think worked very well, because he needed a Taggie in his life to redeem him and sort him out. It’s horrible Rupert laying into poor Macaulay, but in a way it illustrates the competitiveness and obsessiveness which is so much part of Rupert’s character.
Who would you marry – Rupert, Ricky, Billy or Luke? Or anyone else in your books?
Luke would have been much the nicest husband of that lot because he is so funny, kind and has huge integrity and loved poetry. Rupert would be impossible to keep happy. Ricky is tricky and I’m afraid Billy and I would have collapsed in a sea of alcohol together, although he was terrible sweet.
What led you to become a writer (I know you were formerly a journalist). Did you always want to write?
I always wanted to be a writer and as a pony-mad little girl spent my time writing novels, usually with titles like ‘The Warrens’ in which a girl from a poor family acquired a not-very-good pony and invariably ended up winning every rosette in the local gymkhana. She was then much praised by the rather gruff Colonel who ran the Pony Club. I’m sure he was a kernel (pun intended) for many of the heroes in my later grown up novels. I also wrote a play which I sent to Woman’s Own. They wrote a very nice letter back saying they enjoyed it but they didn’t do plays.
Were you ever aware how successful The Rutshire Chronicles would become (or remain to be, over the decades)?
I have absolutely no idea. It’s a complete miracle and so I’m terribly grateful that it’s happened.
How did you learn you had been awarded an OBE?
The OBE. I got a letter from a sweet man who’s name I can’t remember, describing me as a ‘trusty and well-beloved member of society’ and saying that the Queen was going to give me an OBE. I wrote back saying ‘trusty and well-beloved,’ sounded just like a black Labrador. We had a lovely correspondence about dogs after that right up to the time that I met him at Buckingham Palace.
When I first got the letter I burst into tears, because I was so flabbergasted, I didn’t tell anybody except Leo [her husband] which is pretty good for me because I am Mrs Indiscretion. But it was wonderful, such an honour and anybody who pretends they don’t want one is stupid I think.
How do you come up with new book ideas?
I have files and files and sackfuls of research on the new book. Every new character is like a hydra and always shoots off and turns into new characters and new plots so my problem is curbing my enthusiasm, not thinking up things.
Who was your childhood hero?
My childhood hero was definitely Captain Oates going off to the Arctic ‘for some time’ to die and cause as little trouble as possible.
Do you have any Trivial Pursuits?
I’m not sure I understand the expression Trivial Pursuits. I love grinding up a croissant and a piece of cake and pieces of bread for my birds every morning and I love feeding leftovers to the badgers and foxes at night. I love the stars and the wild flowers as I walk my lovely Greyhounds every day. I love collapsing with a large glass of wine when I’ve finished work around 8 o’clock in the evening. If I can possibly help it I never miss Holby City and I love Come Dine With Me and the Jeremy Kyle Show because the characters behave so badly.
My teacher tried to confiscate my copy of Riders (and later also, Polo) when I was 14. Luckily I argued my way out of it – and won subsequent kudos from my friends, when the ceremonial break time reading could commence once again. Do you like the idea that reading your books is considered a little rebellious?
I love the idea of people being considered rebellious for reading my books and I would like to put up a plaque to Georgette Heyer for the hours of pleasure she gave me to distract me from the boredom of boarding school, not to mention her thrilling heroes.
What would you have said to my teacher?
I would have said to your teacher that anybody who encourages people to read anything these days, when people are plugged into computers and mobiles, is to be applauded. If you get into the habit of reading you will hopefully continue it all your life and progress to better or different books.
Your books are brilliantly written. Does it bother you that Joe-Public tends to only ever associate your work with sex?
Thank you for saying my books are brilliantly written. I’m quite insecure about them and I do get hurt when people dismiss them as absolute trash. A lot of people have told me they wrap other people’s book jackets round my books so people won’t see them reading them in the tube but I think as long as one has something to read, that’s all that matters. I’ve always said writers like Jeffrey Archer and I long for a kind word in The Guardian and writers who get kind words in The Guardian, long and long for Jeffrey’s and my sales, but The Guardian have been very kind to me recently.
Trivial Pursuits would like to thank Jilly Cooper so so much for her time.
By Beenie Langley