Minette talks about her life in a recent interview with Anne Cattrell:
AC: Your father died in 1960 when you were 10. That must have been a difficult time for your family.
MW: It was. I remember my childhood being very light-hearted when he was around, although that may be a rose-tinted memory. He was a jolly person who used to take us blackberrying or swimming when he felt well enough, also on caravan holidays. After his death, life became rather serious. He had been ill for a long time as a result of his war service, and there were no savings to carry us through. The only money we had after his death was my mother’s War Widow’s pension (equivalent to the dole) and whatever she could earn by painting miniatures. It was a stressful and unhappy period, made worse because my brothers and I weren’t allowed to go to the funeral or even know when it was happening. I’m sure my mother did this with the best of intentions, but it left me confused about what I was supposed to feel.
AC: Eighteen months later, in September 1962, you were sent away to boarding school. How did that affect your life?
MW: It made me very independent. I certainly don’t regret going, although the outcome wasn’t what my mother expected. She hoped for a pliant, conservative daughter who would marry into money. Instead she got an unconventional, self-sufficient one! The irony was that I was only able to go to private school because my father was dead. As a ‘semi’ orphan of an Army Officer, I was eligible for – and won – a foundation scholarship that cost virtually nothing but which gave me an excellent education. I’m still struggling with that conundrum. Godolphin was the springboard for the rest of my life but, if my father had lived, he couldn’t have afforded to send me there or support me through a degree.
AC: You took a gap year between school and university which was unusual in 1968. Where did you go and what did you learn from it?
MW: I went as a volunteer to Israel with a group called The Bridge in Britain. It was founded by Greville Janner MP (now Lord Janner), and grew out of his desire to introduce Israel to non-Jewish English youngsters who knew little or nothing about Judaism or the Jewish state. Several hundred applied and 23 of us were selected — 12 boys and 11 girls. We spent nearly seven months working on a kibbutz and in Jerusalem.
On a personal level, I learnt never to judge anyone by his or her outward trappings or because of what I’d been told about them in advance. But it wasn’t just a Jewish/Gentile thing, it was also a ‘class’ and ‘sex’ thing. A private-school education counts for nothing when your job is to shovel chicken-shit. Not every 18-year-old male is a rapist, and girls don’t break out in green pustules when they lose their virginity. (You have to remember I was at an all-girls’ boarding school, run by elderly spinsters!) Telling the difference between a Jew and a Palestinian is impossible — they’re both Semites. Prejudice comes from ignorance, although bigots from all races, classes and religions pride themselves on how well informed they are.
AC: Are you still interested in the Middle East?
MW: Isn’t everyone? The world takes a shuddering breath every time the Middle East drumbeat starts up again. I was there in the wake of the 6-day war, and it was a magical time. There was no hostility and we made as many friends amongst the indigenous Palestinians as we did amongst Jews. Visitors could move freely, so we travelled around the West Bank, the Negev desert and the whole of Israel without fear.
Sadly, it was a false idyll that lasted only four-five years before the PLO began hijacking planes to draw attention to the Palestinian refugees. In 1968, they were a hidden problem because the world wasn’t interested in how many of them had been displaced. I abhor terrorism, particularly suicide bombers, but both sides are to blame for the terrible cycle of hatred and violence that continues to kill indiscriminately. It is no solution for Israel to barricade Palestinians into ghettos, then build one for themselves by constructing a wall around their border. It dishonours the extraordinary bravery of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto if today’s generation is content to live in one now. (top)
AC: You went to Durham University to read French. Was that an influential time?
MW: Yes, although I regret reading French. Psychology or politics would have been a better choice. I took the advice of my teachers who told me to read what I was good at, and I happened to be good at French. The trouble was I wasn’t interested in it and only stuck it out in order to gain a degree. (Sorry, France!) I went up in October 1968 and left in June 1971, having refused to spend a year in France because I knew I’d never come home.
I moved out of college as soon as I could because the rules were Draconian! It was single-sex and horribly reminiscent of my boarding school. I spent more time on extra-mural activities than I ever did in the French department, but I gained a broader education as a result.
AC: Something else that was unusual about you is that, in 1972, as a single, 22-year-old, you committed yourself to a mortgage? Why did you do that?
MW: I was earning good money as a magazine journalist, and I wanted the security of my own roof over my head. Also, I recognised that it was a good investment, even if it meant I had to hammer on a lot of doors before I could persuade a building society to take a chance on me. There was no equality in the early ’70s, and single women were viewed as potential risks because they might give up work to get married, and so default. (The same did not apply to single men!)
After ten rejections, I walked into the Fleet Street branch of the Abbey National and told the manager I was going to sit on his desk until he lent me the money. When he saw that I was earning more than most of my male contemporaries, he decided to take a flyer on me. He never regretted it, and neither did I. It was the best investment I ever made. As Jane Austen might have said, a woman of property is desirable. And my husband always claims he only married me for my house!
AC: What did you do when you left university?
MW: Headed straight for the lights of London. My first two jobs were secretarial positions at the Independent Broadcasting Authority and the Public Schools Club (now amalgamated with the East India Club). I loathed being a secretary, particularly as I did most of the work while my bosses sat with their feet up. However, I left Durham with a hefty overdraft and had to take any job on offer to pay it off. The PSC were prepared to pay me £1 per week more than the IBA, hence the change after 3 months.
When I cleared the overdraft (in six months) I took an evening job as a barmaid in the Parachute Regiment Officers’ Mess in Aldershot, which allowed me to write during the day and earn money in the evening. Sadly, my writing efforts (mostly one-act plays) were rejected by everyone and, as barmaiding paid a pittance, I decided to apply for a ‘proper job’ within the field of writing. I was given an introduction to an editor at IPC, and, to my eternal gratitude, she took me on as a trainee sub-editor.
AC: This was Woman’s Weekly Library, which published romantic novelettes in paperback form?
MW: Yes. I did some other sub-editing jobs as training, but my principal responsibility was to sub or abridge manuscripts into a 30,000-word format for WWL publication. This was another institution where the rules were Draconian. The watchword for our romances was ‘innocence’, and the restrictions were onerous. The hero and heroine had to be virgins, unless the man was a widower. (Widows were frowned on because knowledge of sex in a heroine was considered disgusting!) No kissing, except on the last page. No strong language. No strong drink. No words with smutty double meanings — e.g. ‘balls’, ‘tits’ etc.
In effect, authors were asked to construct romantic plots, using unrealistic, wooden characters who couldn’t touch or show emotion until the last page when they were allowed to ‘steal’ a kiss. It meant you had to be a skilled and professional writer to make it work, yet most of the manuscripts we received were from amateurs who thought it was easy.
AC: So you started writing them yourself?
MW: Yes. I began with a prototype to show potential authors. The trick was to have a ripping good yarn as the main plot (e.g. a crime story) while keeping the romance to a sub-plot. That way, the two protagonists could meet tangentially, develop a feisty relationship, and only recognise they fancied each other on the last page. The characters were strong and vibrant, the plot gripping, and the romance satisfyingly real because the reader knew exactly what was going to happen after the story finished. Yet it remained within the WWL ‘rules’.
In the end I wrote some 35 of them, also short stories and serials for other magazines. I turned freelance when I realised being an author was more enjoyable than being an editor… and paid a great deal more!
AC: Yet you stopped writing for seven years after you married. Why was that?
MW: In fact, I stopped in 1980 after my first son was born. Alec and I married in 1978 and I continued working freelance until I discovered how demanding — and noisy — babies are. I don’t know how anyone can concentrate with young children around. I have two sons, and they took it in turns to break my train of thought. It wasn’t until my second, Philip, started full-time education that I was able to return to writing, which is when I began The Ice House. Of course, I was lucky that Alec was earning enough to support us, which meant I could take the seven years off, but it was a useful break because I was able to choose a different path when I returned. I’d written myself out of light romantic fiction and wanted something more challenging.
AC: You and Alec have just celebrated your 25th wedding anniversary. How important has he been in your success?
MW: I couldn’t have achieved it without him. He’s always been my strongest champion. We’ve known each other for 35 years – we met on Freshers’ weekend in Durham in 1968 – and it’s one of the longest friendships either of us has had. It’s certainly the best and closest. He was even more thrilled with the success of The Ice House than I was, but that may have had something to do with the fact that it took two years to write and two years to sell, and there was no money coming in! I should have gone back into paid employment, but he told me to keep going because he had more faith than I did.
AC: All your books deal in different ways with dysfunctional families. Would you describe your own upbringing as dysfunctional?
MW: Yes, but it wasn’t as dysfunctional as the people I write about. To be honest, I think most families experience periods of dysfunction because the dynamics are so variable, particularly when children reach adolescence. Let’s just say I know what it’s like to live in a repressive, single-parent household where constant stress leads to constant criticism. In those circumstances, you rebel or you give in.
My mother chose to live near my brothers’ school because she thought boys would be more affected by a father’s death than a girl would, and I was left to fend for myself. The result was that I unwittingly upset the family dynamics whenever I went home. It’s why I believe so strongly that two parents (whether they live together or apart) are important in a child’s life, not because children need role models necessarily, but because they need someone to intercede when the abuse (physical, sexual or verbal) becomes excessive.
AC: You were a weekly prison visitor for 12 years and now you visit prisons to give talks. What have you learned from it?
MW: That catastrophic dysfunction in families is devastating. Between 50 – 75% of prison inmates are illiterate or semi-literate because there was no structure or discipline to their childhoods and they fell behind or truanted from an early age. Few of them know their fathers, although a procession of stepfathers is common. A shockingly high percentage have lost touch with their mothers by the time they reach 20. Most begin their criminal behaviour before they reach their teens. A high proportion of male inmates have several children themselves whose names they can’t remember. Drug addiction is common and is often the reason for their crimes. Most commit the crimes under the influence of alcohol to give themselves ‘Dutch’ courage.
Principally, it’s taught me that taxpayers’ money would be better spent on education than on building new prisons to lock up yet more illiterate people. The link between crime and illiteracy was proven years ago, and we should have addressed it long before we entered the 21st century. On a very simple level, an illiterate man cannot apply for a job; and that forces him into society’s underclass whether he wants to be there or not.
AC: Finally, you list ‘Do It Yourself’ as one of your hobbies. Why do you enjoy it so much, and how good are you at it?
MW: Pretty good! I’m an excellent interior designer and decorator, an above-average plumber and carpenter, a halfway useful roofer, and a completely hopeless bricklayer and plasterer! The last two jobs are always done by Alec who is excellent at both. He’s also a brilliant carpenter and plumber, although his interior design and decorating leave a lot to be desired. We make a good team. I enjoy it because it’s a different creative discipline from my work, and it’s fabulous exercise when I’ve been sitting in front of a computer all week!
We would probably never have started doing things ourselves if the builder I’d contracted (and foolishly paid) to add a kitchen extension to our first house 25 years ago hadn’t done a runner after he built the shell. With no money left, we had a choice of finishing the interior ourselves or living without a kitchen. We took some DIY books out of the library and got started. Since then, we’ve renovated five more houses. At the moment, we’re redecorating our listed 18th Century manor house in order to remove the ‘interesting’ ’70s and ’80s style that was chosen by a previous owner. When we’ve finished, I hope it’ll look more as it did when it was first built!