Born Sally Kinsey-Miles in England, Sally Beauman graduated from Cambridge with a master's in English Literature and moved to the U.S. with her then-husband Christopher Bauman in the mid-1960s. She joined the staff of the newly formed New York magazine and traveled extensively through America before returning to England, where she continued to write for various publications, including the Sunday Times, the Daily Telegraph, The Observer, The New York Times, and The New Yorker.
Bauman received the Katherine Pakenham prize for her journalism and became the youngest-ever editor of Queen magazine (now Harper's and Queen). But after the birth of her son, she found the demands of journalism and motherhood hard to combine, so she turned to full-time writing. Published in 1982, her first book was a serious, well-received work of nonfiction (The Royal Shakespeare Company: A History of Ten Decades). In 1986, Bauman forayed into fiction with Destiny, a controversial "romance" that raised eyebrows for its graphic sex and record-breaking one million dollar advance, the largest awarded to date for a first novel. The book, which became a huge bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, was widely misunderstood at the time of publication; today it's viewed as a feminist, genre-subversive study of a materialist woman living in a materialist man's world.
Destiny was followed by other bestsellers, including Dark Angel, three linked modern thrillers (Lovers & Liars, Danger Zones, and Sextet), and The Sisters Mortland. But the book for which Bauman is best known is Rebecca's Tale, a sequel to Daphne du Maurier's classic novel of gothic suspense. Growing out of a 1993 article on du Maurier written for Tina Brown's New Yorker, Bauman's story gestated for several years before emerging in 2001 as a rich reimagining of the first Mrs. de Winter's life at Manderlay.
Not unlike her idol du Maurier, Bauman has been saddled with the label of romance writer; in fact, the novels of both women embody a sophistication and complexity that transcends the genre. In an interview with her American publisher HarperCollins, Bauman stated emphatically: "The 'romantic novelist' tag infuriated du Maurier, and quite rightly: that particular slur was a product of lazy thinking, of feeble critical acumen. Rebecca is a profoundly anti-romantic novel, I would say; it uses the conventions of romantic fiction to explode and shatter the entire concept of romance. Is it romantic to end up as Mrs de Winter does, shackled to a murderer and a perjurer? Is it romantic to allow such a man to determine your very identity? I'd say that Rebecca is a novel fuelled by rage, not romance -- and in some ways the same is true of my own Rebecca's Tale."
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Some fascinating anecdotes from our interview with Beauman:
"My first proper job was in America. I was hired as editorial dogsbody on the newly launched, shoestring budget New York magazine. By the time I got that job, I'd had rejection slips from just about every magazine on the East Coast, so I'd have done anything to get it -- if they'd wanted a cleaner, I'd have said ‘When do I start?'"
"I was hired because I had a Cambridge degree, a twenty two-year-old pretty face and an English accent. Tom Wolfe, Gloria Steinem, and Jimmy Breslin were working for the magazine -- so I learned fast. I learnt: a) not to be English b) to meet deadlines and c) to push hard. The first piece I had published, and the first interview I ever did, was with Norman Mailer. He was making a movie on Long Island, and he threw me off the set. It was an excellent start."
"I'm a woman, and a mother and (just recently) a grandmother. That's important: women writers have to juggle their personal and professional lives in a way that very few male writers do -- you can't retreat to an ivory-tower study and slam the door when you're breast-feeding. I view that as an advantage: babies and children make you constantly re-examine your priorities; they're a humanizing force. Humbling, too."
"I like isolation. When I worked as a journalist, I was constantly surrounded by people -- it took a lot of adjusting when I began writing fiction, and learnt to spend long hours alone. Now, I love to be with my family, but I'm also addicted to silence and solitude -- so I have a house on a remote Hebridean island, and I go there every year to write. Miles of empty white sand beaches and a pounding Atlantic sea -- nothing but ocean between me and Newfoundland: I think it helps the prose."
"I don't really believe that readers should know very much about writers -- too much biographical information is irrelevant, and can get in the way. What matters is the work -- so I'd like them to know me through my books, through the words I put on a page."
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In the winter of 2005, Sally Beauman took some time out to tell us about some of her favorite books and authors, and her career as a writer.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye: I first read it at school, when I was about thirteen. I was at a very academic, girls-only private school, and up until then we'd been made to concentrate on 19th century classics -- we'd been drilled in Austen, the Brontës, Eliot, Dickens, and so on. Suddenly, here was a truly modern novel, addressing modern concerns. Holden Caulfield's voice, the immediacy of the writing, the humour -- it blew me away. It made me understand the possibilities of fiction for the first time. I guess I realized that you don't have to write according to nineteenth century rules, and for someone educated the way I was, that was tremendously freeing -- I suddenly saw how many new continents were out there, waiting to be explored.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Jane Austen, Mansfield Park. I love all of Austen's novels, and re-read them regularly, but this is the one I return to most regularly. A masterly portrait of the social forces that restrict women's lives. I can never decide if Austen intends us to admire Fanny Price, or condemn her -- it's a book that requires careful decoding, a fictional puzzle. Is it conservative, or subversive? I can never decide.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. The great American novel, I think. Brief, lucid, and brilliant, it uses the unforgettable setting of East and West Egg to explore a social and moral divide. I like its reticent narrator, its exploration of gossip and fantasy and their relationship to truth: it's a razor-sharp portrait of the 1920s era, but also a novel ahead of its time -- there's a post-modern slipperiness to it that I hugely admire.
George Eliot, Middlemarch. I get impatient with some of Eliot's novels -- I can't stand it when she intervenes, preaches and moralises. But Middlemarch is less beset with such sins: it's a truly great book that grows in stature each time you re-read. An indelible portrait of England; a deep and subtle questioning of love, marriage and the gender divide.
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights. A novel that's often misread, I feel. I wish readers would put aside all romantic pre-conceptions, disregard the decades of claptrap that's been written about the Brontë sisters, and just read the novel with an open mind. Then you see it for the astonishingly complex, rich and harsh book it is. The setting and the characters print themselves indelibly on the mind, but what fascinates me most is the intricacy of its male/female narrative structure and the implications of its disguised time-scheme. One of the greatest, and most subversive novels ever written by a woman, I feel.
Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust. England's wittiest twentieth century writer -- I'd happily re-read any of Waugh's novels, except possibly the overrated Brideshead Revisited, but I value this the most. Brilliantly structured, with an ending that haunts and terrifies (hell can be reading), it's a savagely funny, superlative satire.
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations. I can never decide whether this, or Bleak House or Little Dorrit, is Dickens' greatest novel -- but Great Expectations is certainly the most rigorously shaped and honed: it's not as bulky a carpet-bag of a book as the others, and it's unusual in that it's unmarred by sentiment, Dickens' fatal flaw. For once, we don't have a heroine who conforms to Victorian pre-conceptions as to female piety and obedience -- we have in Estella a woman whose character has been deliberately mis-shaped and mal-formed. A flawed hero, Pip; a brilliant study of ambition and snobbery and their corrosive effect on the soul. It's haunting, tragic, funny, always exciting, and very dark. One of the greatest endings in literature too.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick. I read this for the first time last year -- disgracefully late. Everyone has "great' books" they've successfully avoided reading, this (and Don Quixote) were mine. I'm allergic to books about the sea and sailing ships: men always seem to love them, but they bore me to tears. So I finally tackled the Whale with reluctance -- and realized what a fool I'd been within a page. What an extraordinary novel! Published in 1851, yet it might have been written yesterday. I loved everything about it, the curious, hyper-modern interrupted narrative, the outpourings of abstruse information, the terror of the quest, the (timely for us) investigation of the clash between nature and man. But above all, I loved the language, its Shakespearean vitality, its constant effortless shift between the demotic and the high-flown.
Charlotte Brontë, Villette. A far greater novel than Jane Eyre, and one that has deeply influenced me. It astounds me and annoys me in equal measure -- but I like that: reading shouldn't be a smooth process, one needs books that get under the skin, and act as an irritant. Villette certainly does that: it is, like all Charlotte Brontë's work, deeply (and sometimes deviously) autobiographical; there are episodes of special pleading, where you can see a novelist use fiction to exonerate herself from her own past. There is an insistent note of hysteria that can grate, and a competitive mean-spiritedness towards certain female characters that annoys the hell out of me -- you can see Brontë settling old scores. Even so, for all its faults -- and they are many -- I return to the novel again and again. I like the book's female anger -- the pages are scorched with rage.
I'm going to cheat: anything by John Updike (especially the Rabbit novels) or Philip Roth: they tie.
Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. There has to be a children's book because the books we love as children stay with us, and stain our imagination for life. I'd have numerous candidates, including The Wind in the Willows and The House at Pooh Corner, but if I have to have one, it's this. I must have reread it a hundred times or more, and it influences the way I think and write every day. The ultimate fictional universe -- Alice visits a world where anything can happen, and where nothing is what it seems. Reality is as mysterious as the Cheshire Cat's smile, and actions are as anarchic and unreasonable as the Red Queen's decrees. It reminds one how superbly unpredictable fiction should be: every novelist should read it once a year.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to yo?
Too many to list. I have catholic taste in films, so everything from Some Like it Hot to Wild Strawberries. I like films that are filmic. So what I want to see is the work of a director with a strong visual sense -- someone who imposes his own vision on the world. I'd cancel all appointments to catch anything by Truffaut, Hitchcock, Renoir or Bergman -- but I also love Hollywood's slick assurance with genre, so I like Lubitsch-style romantic comedy, or cowboys or gangsters or vampires -- and I love B-movie film noir.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
Catholic again: anything from Mozart opera to The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, or Bob Dylan. And I'd never have music playing when I'm writing -- I have to work in total silence: it's requirement number one.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I like to give people novels I value that I know they haven't read -- I've recently converted a male writer friend to Jane Austen that way. I'm hard to buy books for, because I read so much, but I love it when friends give me books that matter to them -- I've discovered some marvels by that route. The kind of book doesn't matter: I'll happily read anything good -- biography, memoirs, travel, history, criticism. Science fiction is the one and only category I'm allergic to: I'm afraid that would go straight in the bin.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
No rituals beyond silence, coffee and (alas) cigarettes. What matters is the regime not rituals -- nine to five, without fail, every day. I'm blind to my desk, so what's on it doesn't matter: there's a computer, obviously, and a mess of papers -- I make notes on the back of bills, on invitations, on envelopes -- anything that's close to hand.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
What's widely regarded as ‘overnight success' can have its perils too. My first novel, Destiny, was a #1 New York Times bestseller -- it had similar success in the UK and Europe; but it meant I was then pigeonholed as a writer in a way I detested. People made assumptions about my books and, I felt, misread them badly: it's taken a long time for me to escape the labels slapped on my work two decades ago. This happens: all you can do is ignore it, continue to work, and pursue your own goals. What matters most about writing is not so-called
"success," which is often spurious -- it's writing well
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Don't think about being "discovered," don't make the fatal mistake of dreaming up that rave New York Times review -- concentrate on the writing. If you write well enough, you will eventually get published, and that's what matters -- forget publicity, best-seller lists, prizes and the other fol-de-rols: they're unimportant. But to write well, you have to read well -- so read the best and read it closely, let it work in your mind. Then be vicious with your own efforts -- it's not so much how you write as how you re-write that's important. Make every sentence tell.
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