The very first thing I notice about Erica James is how tiny she is. Now I’m under five foot and I”m hardly a heavy weight, but I felt like a giant next to the petite writer from England.
The second thing I notice about her is far more important. Erica James is, in a word, delightful. Delightful is not a word I use a lot – I suspect I am the wrong generation for it – but it is the only word to describe this lady (and I mean that in the royal sense – for while she may not be one in title, she certainly is one in bearing).
Within minutes of sitting down and picking up her cup of tea, Ms James is laughing and chatting – and of all things asking me questions. The realisation that interviewer and interviewee have inadvertently swapped places brings another wave of laughter from both of us and I am struck by how surreal it is. After all, Erica James has written more than a dozen best selling novels, been a Sunday Times Top Ten Best Seller and has won the Romantic Novel of the Year Award.
And yet here we are, in The Langham, giggling over….well nothing really. I think the subject of men and relationships might have come up and the next thing we are behaving like school girls.
“It’s funny,” she tells me, ” I never thought I’d be in this position. I started writing in my early thirties because I was unhappy, but I didn’t realise it. When I was writing I wasn’t thinking about the things that were making me unhappy. When I was writing I was in a happier place.”
A Breath of Fresh Air she says was semi-autobiographical in the sense that she drew on where she was in her life at the time – emotionally and geographically.
“But it wasn’t really about writing about me – I just wanted to write about a nice place and I wanted to make this woman, the heroine, happy.”
She sips her tea and thinks.
“I think I’m a romantic at heart. I really do still believe in love. I can see genuine happiness in certain relationships.”
This talent for looking at situations that are perhaps not the happiest and using them as the basis for a novel has stayed with the author. In 2004 she was caught in the Boxing Day tsunami in Bali – and knew she wanted to write about it.
“I just didn’t want to write about me and my experience or even the experience of the tsunami itself.”
The result was best selling novel “It’s the Little Things” about a couple, who along with their friend, having survived the tsunami, are now struggling with the challenges of day to day living.
“I think that’s human nature,” Erica says, ” we can cope with the big disasters but its the little things that will drive us to homicide.”
One of her more recent novels, The Real Katie Lavender, was inspired by the current increase in public interest in geneology.
“Do you get Who Do You Think You Are? in New Zealand?” she asks. When I tell her yes and that its quite popular, she smiles and says it is in Britain as well – and she doesn’t quite understand why.
” People are fascinated with where they come from aren’t they? I love looking back at a character’s childhood but I don’t care where my own great uncles came from or what they did.”
The heroine of The Real Katie Lavender discovers a year after her mother dies, that the man she thought was her father wasn’t. She sets off to find her biological father simply to satisfy her curiosity and to answer the question that has bothered her since she has made the discovery: who is she really? The novel is a lovely, gentle read that passes no judgement and comes to a satisfying and, oddly, realistic conclusion. I say oddly because romance by definition, even great romance (sometimes especially great romance) tends to wave the flag for the unrealistic ending.
By now we’ve nearly finished our tea and I’m painfully aware the lovely Ruby from Hachette is going to drag Erica away. Ignoring my cup I ask her about process. Does she plot or is she a pantser (a writer who, essentially, writes by the seat of their pants)? Where does she get her ideas? What about endings?
The first question is met with a giggle. A somewhat naughty giggle I might add as she leans forward.
“I don’t have a synopsis, I make it up as I go along.”
As a pantser myself I’m relieved to learn this and tell her so and she seems genuinely interested and pleased. I guess even the best of need reassurance from time to time that we are not the only ones to do something a certain way.
As for her ideas, she is a self described magpie.
“I collect stories all the time. I listen and I watch and I collect them then I write stories about everyday issues that concern men and women.”
Ruby pokes her head around the corner – we really do need to wrap up she says, there’s another interviewer waiting. We promise we’re nearly done.
“What about happy endings?” I ask.
“Oh a happy ending is very important but it needs to be satisfying too and drawn together. It has to create order out of chaos.”
Before I leave, she asks Ruby to take a photo of us together and I’m slightly taken aback as I don’t really do photos as a rule.
“Oh it’s for me, a momento.”
I agree, the photo is snapped, we shake hands and I head back into my day.
Carrying with me a little flicker of romance passed on by a beautiful lady with a tinkling laugh and a wonderful way with words.