How to write a bestseller
Louise Fennell’s book was rejected by 17 publishers before becoming a literary sensation. Rachel Johnson asks her how she pulled off such a coup…
Louise Fennell (pronounced NOT like the vegetable, but with the emphasis on the second syllable) is tall, blonde and smiley – and cannot contain her joy. For Mrs Fennell, aged 55, former ragtrader and photographer’s agent, mother of two grown-up daughters (Coco, 23, is a dress designer, Emerald, 25, an actress) and married to the jeweller Theo (the ‘king of bling’ in London’s Fulham Road), is suddenly a late-onset publishing sensation.
So how did this unlikely turn of events (we all know how tough it is in print) happen? Well, I hope you’re sitting comfortably, and I’ll begin…
Louise had a friend who used to work in publishing. Said friend grew tired of hearing about Louise’s idea for a TV series about a dysfunctional, A-list celebrity family in Chelsea. ‘She said, I think you should write it as a novel. And I think you should HURRY UP,’ says Louise over tea in Portobello Road. ‘You’ve got to deliver something by 31 August. Once I’d been given the date, I wrote a third of it. I showed it to her and she said, “I think you’re on to something.”’
Then she sent it to Ed Victor. The epithet that usually accompanies the name is ‘Uber-agent’, so you are going to think she had it easy. And Ed loved Dead Rich, as I did. It’s like reading the best, darkest chick lit crossed with social satire: Jacqueline Susann meets Martin Amis, almost. The cast of wildly attractive celebrity characters is evil and endearing by turns. They jump in and out of bed and back-stab each other, and there is a subplot in which an ageing actress called Clio climbs Everest in a Chanel catsuit. Victor was thrilled with it – he told her it had that rarest of qualities, ‘narrative drive’. Friends such as Hugh Grant and Stephen Fry read it. Grant said, ‘It’s hilarious – the best thing I’ve read this year by 100 per cent. If it were a script, I’d play any part.’
Victor sent it out to 17 publishers, but all 17 turned it down. So Ed Victor decided to publish it himself, under his imprint Bedford Square Books, which republishes out-of-print books. Then the Evening Standard did a little piece. And then the head of books at Tesco was reading the Standard on the Tube and read the piece. He rang Ed the next day and asked him to send it over. Two days later he had ordered tens of thousands of copies to go into 800 Tesco stores (and Simon & Schuster has bought the rights).
‘It’s the dream,’ Fennell admits. ‘It’s wonderful. What could be more fun? I’m so happy.’
‘But how did you know how to write a book?’ I ask.
‘I didn’t,’ she says. ‘But I knew what I wanted to see, in my head. The characters took on a life of their own. They are people I know. They did lots of stu¥ that quite surprised me.’ She laughs her dirty laugh.
‘There is a sequel to this in my head, so I might as well get on with it,’ she says, explaining that when she writes, she writes 14 hours at a stretch, and could write the next one ‘in three months’.
But she’ll stick with her milieu. As she sees it, it is Shameless (the Channel 4 series set on the fictional Chatsworth Estate in Manchester), only set among West London’s super-rich. ‘There are so many parallels: both groups are isolated, stuck, living the same sort of life. OK, in Dead Rich it’s a nicer house and a better handbag, but both sets are con§ ned to who you trust.’
She wanted, she says, to deconstruct the cult of celebrity, and expose fame for what it is. The book starts with the quote from John Updike, ‘Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face’, and it gets more corrosive from there on in. ‘Everyone knows that being famous is hell,’ she says. ‘I think you have to be very brave to be famous, but no one knows that until they’re famous. I also thought famous people’s lives are § ction because they can’t give anything away…’
So she has given it away for them. Her book peers underneath the stone of celebrity, and it’s not pretty – but it’s unputdownable. In fact, as I tell Louise Fennell, I am in a terrible decline that I didn’t write it myself.
Dead Rich by Louise Fennell is published by Bedford Square Books/ Simon & Schuster, priced £9.99.
Daily tip from the lady archive
“HEAVEN forbid that we should go back to the days when beauty was under suspicion and plain girls were assumed to have angelic natures.”The Lady. With Prejudice. 28th April 1938