Elizabeth Buchan has seen success on both sides of the publishing fence. She began her career writing for Penguin, then took a job as a fiction editor at Random House. When she began writing for herself, she managed motherhood, writing and editing. Her medium is the romance novel, but Buchan produces much more than just escapist love stories. In an interview with iMagazine.com, she explains, "Romantic fiction is a wider, richer and more honorable tradition than it is given credit for. It includes some of the greatest novels ever written -- Jane Eyre, Tess of the D'Urbevilles, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina."
Although Buchan is best known for her romance novels, her first book was actually a biography of one of the world's most beloved children's authors. Beatrix Potter: The Story of the Creator of Peter Rabbit was released 1988. Written for young readers, the book covers Potter's extraordinary life, her art and her lasting contribution to children's literature.
Her first novel, Daughters of the Storm (1989), intertwines the fates of three women as the fate of a nation hangs in the balance. On the eve of the French Revolution, Sophie, Heloise and Marie each seek freedoms of their own -- in love and society -- and forge a friendship that will change their lives forever. In Light of the Moon (1991) Evelyn St. John is in occupied territory in France during World War II. When she meets and falls in love with someone who is supposed to be the enemy, political truths are redefined in the name of love.
London's Sunday Times called Buchan's third novel "the literary equivalent of the English country garden" when it was released in 1993. Consider the Lily is the story of two cousins -- one rich, the other poor -- and their competition for the love of the same man. Set against the backdrop of the English countryside in the years between the two world wars, the novel became an international bestseller and Buchan won the 1994 Romantic Novelists' Association Novel of the Year Award.
Eventually, after the success of Consider the Lily, the call to write became so loud that Buchan retired from her publishing career. Her fourth novel, Perfect Love (1996) also marks a shift in Buchan's novels. Her first three were historical romances, but with the fourth, characters and settings are brought into the 20th century. Here, Prue Valor has been in a proper English marriage with the much older Max for twenty years. Without explanation, but certainly with much guilt, Prue begins an affair with her stepdaughter's new husband (they are the same age) when they realize they cannot deny their attraction for each other. Living magazine said of the book, "The real battle in this novel is between raging passions and English restraint."
Set in the high-finance world of London in the 1980s, Against Her Nature (1997) tells the story of the fallout from being the subject of rumors of incompetence amid a devastating Lloyd's crash. Two women, Tess and Becky balance their fast-paced game of success with every opportunity afforded them, including children. In Secrets of the Heart (2000), four thirty-somethings have found love and must now find a way to hold on to it. Only two succeed in this clever story about the deals we make for love.
Buchan's next novel, Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman (2003) was released to much critical acclaim. This is the story of what happens during the "happily ever after." Shocked at her husband's affair and the collapse of their marriage, Rose reviews the last twenty years of her life, remembers the carefree woman she used to be, and makes a triumphant decision to fight back by moving on. The book became a New York Times bestseller, film rights to the book were snatched up almost immediately, and The Boston Globe called it "a thoughtful, intelligent, funny, coming-of-middle-age story."
Questions of fulfillment are also the subject of 2004's The Good Wife. Fanny is the devoted woman behind a very public, very busy politician -- yet her own ambitions disappeared somewhere along the way. Likewise, in Everything She Thought She Wanted (2005), two women must decide just how much happiness they can sacrifice in order to stay with their husbands.
In her earlier books, Buchan brought intelligence and depth to the historical romance novel. Her later books have also captured the hard choices women must make in love, in family and in society. With humor and intelligence, her contemporary characters are Bridget Jones aged 25 years, at the point where she has attained the life she sought so long ago, but finds that the searching never ends.
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Buchan is married to a grandson of John Buchan, the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps.
In our interview, Buchan reflects that "one of the great joys that hedges around the business of writing is making contact with other writers. I belong to a group that meets every month or so in a shabby old pub in north London, and we sit down to dinner, all of us writers, all of us totally absorbed by the problems, pleasures, and rewards of the process."
Buchan has had several books published in the UK, includiing: Daughters of the Storm (1988), Light of the Moon (1991), Consider the Lily (1993), Perfect Love (1995), Against Her Nature (1997), and Secrets of the Heart (2000).
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In the spring of 2003, Elizabeth Buchan answered some of our questions.
What was the book that most influenced your life -- and why?
Middlemarch by George Eliot. For me, the touchstone for the novel. Once read, the fictional construction of a small town in rural England in the early 19th century is impossible to forget. A truly mature work, infused by intellect and a vision of society, in which the author's sure, disciplined handling and analysis of human nature is perfectly poised, drawing together in a thematic whole the lives of the men and women who lie in "unvisited tombs."
What are your favorite books -- and why?
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Just to say the title evokes a childhood that was spent with my head in a book.
A Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft by Claire Tomalin. A masterly, brilliantly written book thath blends scholarship, psychological insight, and textural detail, which reminds me of how much we owe to Mary's boldness and vision as the first published feminist and pinpoints her struggle to achieve calm and happiness.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. A novel of intense emotion and subversion, spiked with Gothic thrills, that has, at its heart, an impassioned, moving plea for individual rights. It is a novel that one loves for different things at different stages of life.
Cheri by Colette. A sensuous, sensual story of a young man's infatuation with an older woman that tells you all you need to know about passion, aging, capriciousness, and sexual politics.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. An extraordinary, complex novel whose realist framework constructed around the story of a troubled young wife in the French provinces drives deep into a female psyche, exposing its intimate, pitiful, and, ultimately, destructive fantasies.
The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler. A novel that still makes me weep and laugh for its humanity, tenderness, and skill. Who else can write about "ordinary" people with such freshness and sympathy?
Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes. Both autobiography and meditation on the art of modern biography, intense and vivid, it fascinates, thrills, and deepens the understanding of how the biographer deploys fact and imagination to create his work.
The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck. I read this years ago so, I cannot recall it in any detail, except it remains with me. Any book that begins with words to the effect that life is difficult and there is no way around that except to deal with it has my vote.
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. The account of a young girl's experience of the First World War -- agonized, heartbreaking, sobering, haunting -- which speaks for a wasted generation in particular and for the agony and stupidity of war in general.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy displays his huge powers of observation, his exuberance and curiosity, his unmatched characterization, his insight into, and love of, Russia and his philosophical interests. Anna, with whom Tolstoy seems to have fallen in love, is a masterpiece of both feminine strength and neurosis -- wise, maternal, reckless, needy and seductive. She embodies the life-giving forces of passion and, paradoxically, its capacity for destruction.
Shakespeare in Love for wit, irony, and a radiant love story. The Hours for the sheer pleasure of magnificent performances, superb production values, and for something into which to sink the critical teeth.
Puccini, Richard Strauss, Berlioz, and, if I want a reminder of the heights to which a genius can take you, Mozart.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
Atonement by Ian McEwan. A novel that demonstrates a master absolutely on top of his form, in which narrative skill, emotional and psychological truth, and suspense are woven in a prose so clever and subtle and understated that one is almost persuaded that this is a simpler novel than it is. Also, the ending offers a big question for debate. What does it mean exactly? Do you agree?
What are your favorite books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Good biography and autobiography, travelogues, simple and ingenious cookery books.
Who are your favorite writers, and what makes their writing special?
The biographers Claire Tomalin and Richard Holmes, whose skill allows the readers to push their noses up against the window of the past and look through.
The novelist Margaret Atwood, whose political and emotional grasp widens the reader's horizon.
Short story writer Alice Munro, for her ability to net up the flow of everyday life onto the page in effortless, limpid prose.
Nancy Mitford, whose needle-sharp comedies of manners are both hilarious and merciless.
Evelyn Waugh for showing how it is done.
Sylvia Plath for her poetry, which sears into the reader.
What are you working on now?
My next novel. A study of two women at pivotal stages of their emotional development.
What else to you want your readers to know?
I confess to a bit of teeth-gritting when people say to me, "It's such an easy life being a writer." Writing is hard, and so it should be. Having said that, working from home gives one the irreplaceable privilege of being able to pace oneself. I have learned that it is imperative to give oneself regular breaks from the actual process of writing in order to allow the subconscious to do some work -- and this usually means doing something boring like the ironing when the conscious brain goes into inactive mode.
I love walking -- last year, my husband and I traced the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson over the French Cevennes, which he wrote about in Travels with My Donkey. A week -- and many blisters -- later we limped to a triumphant finish. While we were eating lunch at the top of a mountain in bright sunshine with spring flowers scattered everywhere, my son sent a text message to say my novel Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman had reached the U.K. bestseller lists, and I burst into tears. It was one of the special moments of my life.
My friends are very important, and now that the children are older, we plan to do more things together. I like nothing better than to whisk off to the theater and opera in their company and to enjoy a meal afterward. I am fascinated by wine -- it represents all the good and civilized things in life. My husband and I spend hours mulling over our small town garden. Every year we fiddle about with the plan and spend vast amounts of money on plants. I want -- but I cannot say I will manage to put my money where my mouth is -- to learn about mathematics, as I am completely numerically illiterate, and I know that it is advisable to stimulate areas of the brain that have been left fallow -- in my case, very fallow.
In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Elizabeh Buchan had to say:
Tough one, but here goes:
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh -- Written during the privations of the Second World War, it is infused with nostalgia for the decaying grandeur of an English aristocratic life style, with a doomed love story and the sharpest of social satire. Its portrait of the high summer of youth and hope is unmatched.
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain -- A reminder of what a previous generation suffered in 1914-1918, in particular its women. Serious and angry and grieving, seldom has the imprint of a war on a heart and mind been so brilliantly recorded. It is a book to reflect on and changes perspectives.
Jane Austen: A Life by David Nokes -- A wonderfully gossipy biography which evokes the daily minutia of Jane Austen's life -- relations, social life, money problems -- and, in doing so, illustrates just how much of it went into the creation of her novels. Perfect for the plane journey.
Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens by Jane Dunn -- Not a conventional biography, but an astute and probing look at the characters, influences and circumstances of two queens -- one of England, one of Scotland -- both tragic in their ways, and it reads like novel which is just the thing for a drowsy post lunch hour.
The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft by Claire Tomalin -- A masterly study of the author of Vindication of the Rights of Woman who, despite her intellect and daring, was crossed in love, suffered and was tormented and, yet, rose above her circumstances with her generosity and willingness to take risks. A reminder of what life was like for women before feminism.
A Place in the Sun by Frances Mayes -- The ultimate in delicious escapism and fantasy to read poolside. Who has not dreamed of owning a house in Tuscany? It is a case of settling back and drowning in descriptions of the house, the food, the wine and the landscape.
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold -- Exquisite writing, courage and generosity underpin what could be an overwhelmingly difficult and morbid subject. An astonishing piece of fiction which lives on in the imagination long after the book is closed.
The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood -- The deceptive ease and fluency of the prose flow through a novel which tackles the contrary and powerful undercurrents seething in relationships and friendships, yet is never parochial or small minded. It is also extremely moving in places.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath -- A short but unforgettable novel which hauntingly encompasses the terrors of mental breakdown, and also touches brilliantly on ambition, the first sexual encounter and the values of 1950's New York society.
American Pastoral by Philip Roth -- A novel that dismembers the false securities and assumptions of 1960's. A huge, ambitiously themed, powerful and energetic tour de force which has as its theme our longing for a settled, optimistic, ordinary life: the pastoral of the title. Excellent material for discussions over leisurely dinners.
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