Sophie Kinsella talks about her latest novel, I Owe You One
WHAT could a coffee sleeve have to do with ro-mance? As it turns out, in I Owe You One — one of the latest novels to hit shelves under the genre — everything. Originally Madeleine Sophie Wickham or Maddie as she prefers to be called, it can be argued, is the current queen of chick lit. Yet, that’s a genre the author of the Shopaholic series, who goes by the pen name, Sophie Kinsella, wouldn’t necessarily slot her books under. “I aim to write entertaining books that offer the reader some escapism but also give them something to think about,” she tells us on a phone call from the UK.
In her latest release, the plot centres around Fixie Farr, who works at her family-run homeware store, Farrs. Like all other Kinsella novels, the female protagonist has a quirk that endears her to readers. In the current book, Fixie is obsessed with fixing everyone’s problems. “The irony is that she creates a bigger problem by trying to fix them, and she doesn’t really try to sort out her own,” explains Sophie, who has sold over 40 million books worldwide, adding, “It’s only when she starts this new relationship that she realises that she can’t keep helping everyone else and ignore her own issues.”
Coffee and conversation
Interestingly, the way the protagonists meet is based on a real-life incident involving the author. “While I’m planning my books and the plot, I frequent cafes to do my thinking. So I was at a coffee shop, with my notebook open and pen in hand, when a handsome American, sitting at a table opposite me, asked me to keep an eye on his laptop while he stepped out to take a call. I watched his laptop when he went out and came back, and he went on his way. I’ve never seen him again. And that’s where reality deviates from fiction. But this was the most amazing gift from the coffee shop gods. I realised this was the perfect way for my protagonists to meet,” she reveals, with a laugh.
The characters that Sophie creates are complex, intelligently composed and immensely relatable, be it Katie, the young office executive trying desperately to fit into city life and win the approval of her glamorous boss in her standalone novel, My Not So Perfect Life, or nervous flyer, Emma, who blurts out all her deepest darkest secrets, during a disturbingly turbulent flight, to a co-passenger, who turns to be her new boss, in Can You Keep A Secret. “I would say I put a little bit of myself in all my protagonists. I have many flaws so I can draw on lots of material,” she says jokingly, adding, “I take something that is real and make it a defining feature of the character. I write the thoughts I would have in that situation and I tend to do it in an instinctive way. I am not any one of them, but I relate to them all.”
The plots and themes of her standalone novels are as varied as their protagonists and Sophie shares that they are inspired by what she sees around her. “For instance, when I wrote Shopaholic, I saw people doing a great deal of shopping. In My Not So Perfect Life, the plot hinges on social media, which is pretty much the way people live their lives these days,” she explains. I Owe You One on the other hand, is about a woman whose opinions are never taken seriously and about how she finally garners the courage to find her voice and make herself heard. “I feel like lots of people find themselves in this situation. They feel they have strong personalities and valid opinions but are not able to express themselves,” says the mother of five kids aged between three and 22.
Besides the Shopaholic series and nine standalone novels as Sophie Kinsella, and seven under her real name, Madeleine Wickham, she has also written a Young Adult novel, Finding Audrey, in 2014 and an illustrated book series, Mummy Fairy and Me, for young readers, in 2018. Does having kids from diverse age groups help with her books? “Definitely, yes. For Finding Audrey, I enlisted the help of my teenage boys, because it involves computer games and the slang they use. It was my intention to try and make it feel like a real teenage environment. And then, Mummy Fairy and Me is the result of telling bedtime stories to my youngest children. In terms of writing them, it’s the same. I still want all of the books to be funny, to have a point, entertain and make you think,” she shares.
When Confessions of a Shopaholic was adapted to film, it was her first tryst with Hollywood. And now, with Can You Keep A Secret expected to hit screens soon, she talks about her experiences working with both films. “For Shopaholic, I was on set a lot. But I was not involved with the script. I got on board at a later stage. But with Can You Keep A Secret, I was very involved in the script, reading every draft, going backwards and forwards with the producers... but I have hardly been on set. It is kind of surreal when scenes that you wrote, wondering if they would even make it to print, come alive. It just takes it to another level,” enthuses the author, who just wrapped up work on another book in the Mummy Fairy and Me series, is currently working on another novel for adults and also has a film project up her sleeve. “But I’m afraid I can’t reveal more at the moment,” she says, before signing off.
Penguin Random House, Rs.599