Anne Miller speaks to bestselling, genre-switching author Jenny Colgan about taking on romantic comedies, Doctor Who and puffins.
Jenny Colgan’s new novel The Little Shop of Happy-Ever-After is a love letter to libraries, bookshops and reading.
It’s for everyone who loves books, especially those who love them in 2016 as, she says, “when there’s so much distraction and so many other things to do, and Candy Crush and Netflix, those of us who still do read are quite a hardcore bunch.”
The story centres on Nina, who loses her librarian post in a Birmingham library and, rather than retrain for the corporate multimedia centre in town, decides to take a leap of faith.
Rescuing all the unwanted books headed for the tip she converts an old bus into a glorious bookshop and sets up (travelling) shop in the Scottish highlands.
If the books alone aren’t enough to draw you in, then the way Colgan writes about Scotland will be. She describes the journey through Edinburgh so beautifully that it made me want to commandeer the London tube train I was on and drive it straight to Scotland.
Colgan has a knack for books that completely envelop you in their world. Her 2014 book, Little Beach Street Bakery, was about a woman called Polly who – when both her relationship and business broke down – moved to a dilapidated cottage in Cornwall, baked bread by sunrise and ended up with a pet puffin called Neil.
Neil has since taken on a life of his own and has his own early-reader picture book series, Polly and the Puffin. The second in the series, The Stormy Day, is released today.
The author’s first romantic comedy, Amanda’s Wedding, was published in 1999 in a very different world from the one she now writes in. Emailing was still relatively new and she says she used to go to the office at the weekend so she could type as, “in those days no one had a computer at home.”
She thought she was being incredibly stealthy and her boss thought she was working too hard until the day he came in “and he went, ‘Jen, you’ve left your novel on the printer.’”
Amanda’s Wedding was very quickly a hit, Colgan had offers from the second and third agents she wrote to. They sent out the manuscript on a Friday and she arrived at work on Tuesday to hear the phone ringing.
She says, “It was that single second that changed my life completely, and I hung up the phone and I just walked out of the office.”
The book’s success was as much of a surprise to Colgan as the rest of her colleagues: “It was one of those overnight success-y things except that everything else I’d tried, like standup, and poetry, and cartooning – I’d failed dismally at all of those other things and this was really very much just another shot.”
But when it happened, it happened quickly – the offer was the highest ever given to a debut novelist and her publishers threw her a launch party at The Ivy.
When 2011’s Meet Me At The Cupcake Cafe came out (complete with recipes woven throughout the text) not only did readers have their own computers but social media was thriving so people could send in pictures of the things they’d made and Colgan had a direct route for feedback. Social media has also worked well for Neil who you can find at @neilthepuffin.
As well as her continued success with romantic comedies, she won the 2013 Romantic Novel of the Year Award for Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop of Dreams, Colgan is also pursuing her love of Doctor Who.
A lifelong fan, (when she was 10 she won a competition to meet Peter Davison, beating a boy called David Tennant who also entered) she now writes Doctor Who novels and audio plays. When she wrote The Time Reaver, for David Tennant’s Doctor, her local paper ran the story as “Prestwick girl and Paisley boy working together.” There is some sharing between different parts of the Who Universe; the Sonic Trowel that River Song had in the 2015 Christmas TV special was one of Colgan’s creations.
She also writes standalone sci-fi as Jenny T Colgan, but is quite relaxed about different genres. “The only thing I’ve ever been interested in is characters and funny romance… like in Resistance is Futile, it’s a romantic comedy where he happens to be an alien.”
Colgan has a new Doctor Who novel, Picnic at Asgard out in the spring and, if there weren’t already enough strings to her bow, there will also be a Christmas novel later in the year and a reissue of two books written years ago under a pseudonym.
Described as Malory Towers for adults, they’re timeless boarding school stories but will be getting one important update: when initially searching for a surname for an immigrant student on a scholarship, Colgan remembered the name of the little-known lawyer in the OJ Simpson trial. For 2016, Simone Kardashian will be given a less recognisable name.
The Little Shop of Happy-Ever-After and Polly and the Puffin: The Stormy Day by Jenny Colgan are out now.3982 Views
Anne is a QI Elf. She has two Blue Peter badges, reached the semi-finals of Only Connect and really likes puffins. @miller_anne