Dotty Winters talks to author Rosie Fiore about getting published, likeable women and the “strange protection of being middle-aged.”
South African-born and living in London, Rosie Fiore has published five novels. Her first novel, This Year’s Black, was longlisted for the South African Sunday Times Literary Award. Her most recent novel, After Isabella, is out now.
Tell me your story. How did you end up being a successful writer?
Writing a novel was always the dream. I moved to London from South Africa and I dreamed that one day I’d walk into a London bookshop and see my book on the shelf. So I started writing, with no clue about any of it.
I started at the start of the story and wrote my way to the end. I think that might be the only way to do it. How else will you know if you can, or if it works? That’s the advice I’d give to anyone who wants to write a book: “Write the damn book.”
I was freakishly lucky in getting my South African publisher. I was over there looking after my sister. A friend had a meeting with a publisher booked and wasn’t prepped for it, so she asked me to go instead. I did and they bought the book on the spot. I thought that was me set up and sorted. I’d come back to London, get a UK publisher and that would be that.
In the end it took me four years to get an agent and nine years and another three books to get a British publisher. It’s a really competitive marketplace; even getting an agent to read something is very difficult. My favourite book that I have ever written has never been published.
When I wrote Babies in Waiting I sat down intending to write something very commercial which would get published. It’s in the ‘mum-lit’ genre. I’d just had my second baby and I wrote about women from different walks of life who meet online through a Mumsnet-type forum while they are pregnant.
Wonder Women loosely followed on from that; it had a few of the same characters and again, I knew it was commercial. Both did really well, they sold well. They still sell (people keep having babies) and they got great reviews.
Then there were lots of changes. My agent went on maternity leave, my editor left, and then the next editor left and suddenly I was sort of back at square one. I decided I wanted to write something very different, something that truly came from the heart. I wanted to write about women my age.
I chucked out all the constraints of worrying about commercialism and wrote about the complex relationships that middle-aged women have. There is so much to write about in those relationships: mothers and daughters, friendships – there is lots of subtext about status and roles that I wanted to explore.
My agent came back from maternity leave and she loved it, she pitched it and now I am working with a new publisher, producing books which feel different to me.
Tell me about the women you write about.
Now, more than ever I am determined to write about the women I know. I don’t know Bridget Jones, none of the women I know are that ditzy, or need rescuing. None of them fall over as often as that. The women I know are complex and flawed, so I write about women like them.
I’ve never wanted to write about women that are obsessed with body image and I won’t have any of my characters saved by a man. When I wrote my most recent book, my husband and I had a rare row – he said he didn’t find the main character likeable. Why do women have to be likeable? Why can’t they be difficult and flawed?
It meant a lot to me to read how readers identified with the character. They responded well to a woman who wasn’t perfect, but who responded to things in the ways which real women do.
I work hard to make sure that the men I write are complex too. There are a lot of stories where you can pick out the characters: ‘the nice guy who she’ll end up with eventually’, ‘the bad guy that will teach her that she needs to be with the nice guy’ and so on.
I mainly write nice men. In After Isabella, the main character gets herself into all sorts of trouble, and throughout it all she is with this incredibly nice man; he doesn’t save her and he’s not the driver for her story.
“I am a women’s fiction writer. I have boobs and therefore I must only write books for people with boobs. This enrages me.”
Do you identify as feminist?
A thousand per cent YES, to my very core. That’s who I am. Sometimes I approach it a bit by stealth though. I think one of the best things I can do is to contribute new narratives, more options for women, different stories.
You blog and you are active on social media; how do you find that?
I think I’ve been quite lucky, I haven’t had the abuse on social media which some women get when they talk about ‘issues’. I wonder if it’s because I am middle-aged. I love the invisibility of being middle-aged; people don’t always see middle-aged women as women, or sexual beings, so there is a strange sort of protection in it.
I found someone asking for a copy of my book on a piracy site once and I responded to them. I explained that they may think that this was a victimless crime, but that I was the victim. I write for a living, and piracy makes that harder than it should be.
My response went viral; I did a lot of interviews and commentary. It was a positive experience, especially the support from other writers.
Do you think that women face different challenges as writers than men do?
Absolutely they do. I am a women’s fiction writer. I have boobs and therefore I must only write books for people with boobs. This enrages me. Family, parenting and relationships are all universal issues, but if a book is written by a woman it is marketed completely differently.
Take All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It’s a great piece of commercial literary fiction; it won the Pulitzer Prize. I think if it had been written by a woman it would have been marketed completely differently, with a picture of a woman on it, and some curly writing. I’m not sure it would have won the Pulitzer.
Marian Keyes is an amazing writer; her book Rachel’s Holiday is profound and deep. In her writing she deals with massive serious subjects, with a beautiful light touch. She is considered the Queen of Chick Lit, but really she should be seen as the Queen of Commercial Literature. Publishers need to be brave enough to publicise women writers differently.
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Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.