Helen Moffett – An Interview

Helen Moffett
Pic by Cara-Lee Gevers, used with permission.

I knew of Helen Moffett long before I met her. I think it was her famous Women’s Day rant that caught my attention (Read it here) or perhaps it was the erotica books written together with Paige Nick and Sarah Lotz. Doesn’t matter now. The point is I was IN AWE. I eventually met Helen in the flesh at a lunch hosted by author and publisher, Karina Szczurek at her house in Cape Town. Helen and I bonded over books, cats, bubbly and our love of the word ‘fuck’. I have interviewed her before for my vlog, this latest interview is about her new book, a sequel to Pride & Prejudice called Charlotte, and what it means to launch a book during a pandemic. Enjoy!

You are one of the Covid longhaulers. What has been the most difficult part of your experience?

Maybe the loneliness. Not just handling a serious, long-term illness alone, but the fact that so few people know or understand anything about this. Everything is new, but not in a bright and shiny way. And ye gods, does this condition try one’s patience. The symptoms just keep coming back over and over again. It’s exhausting.

Such a thrilling experience getting an international book deal for Charlotte and then the disappointment of being published during a pandemic. How has it affected you, both in practical terms and emotionally?

Practically speaking, almost everything special about launching a book was demolished. The book fairs and festivals, the signings and launches in both SA and the UK, the events and tours planned, the fun I was going to have with my publishers and friends in two countries: all swept away. No clinking glasses and celebrations, readings, signings, sharing the joy. I haven’t even been able to see my book in the shops yet.

At the virtual launch. Helen was in convo with Elinor Sisulu.
At the virtual launch. Helen was in convo with Elinor Sisulu.

We have no idea yet what impact this will have on sales, but it’s fair to say it won’t be good. All this has been emotionally devastating. The moment will never return. The book will exist, but those heady joyful post-publication weeks, seeing it in the windows of Waterstones – they can’t be recalled. Worse, given that people have lost their lives, or loved ones, businesses and jobs, I feel I have to put on a stiff upper lip. It seems dreadfully trivial and whiny to complain about losing a book tour. Even if it was going to be in England in the spring.

I first read Pride & Prejudice when I was 15 because it was our set-work in what was then Standard 9, and I completely fell in love with it. When did you first read it and had you been planning a sequel for a while or was this a recent thing?

I read it as a teenager, but it really came into focus for me at university, when I realised the issues it raised were in fact weighty – and timeless. And that was when I first became fascinated by Charlotte. She’s one of the only Austen characters whose married life we witness after her courtship (such as it is). I always wanted to know what happened next for her. I badly wanted her to be happy. And so when my erotica co-author and stellar friend, the writer Sarah Lotz asked me, “If you could write any novel in the world, what would it be?” my immediate response was that I would write the story of Charlotte.

What is Charlotte about?
The gorgeous cover
The gorgeous cover

It’s a Pride and Prejudice sequel that tells the story of Elizabeth Bennet’s plain, poorer and older best friend, Charlotte Lucas, and the choices she has to make to ensure a halfway-decent life for herself and her children.

How does she achieve a little bit of autonomy and respectability, in an era and society when women had little or no power, were seen as property at best, and legally viewed as minors? How does a woman in this position – which is true of millions of women around the world today – live her life?

Does she experience joy and fulfilment alongside her role as a dutiful wife and mother? Plus we get to see what happens to a cast of characters familiar to us from Austen’s novel, as well as the film and TV adaptations.

The husband brought the vids of the original P&P mini series back from the UK for me in 2000. I watched them while I was in labour with my first child (but that is a story for another day). I still think that scene with Colin Firth emerging from the lake is one of the sexiest ever. Tell us about your nod to this in the book.

I am going to be annoyingly coy and suggest that readers hunt for this Easter egg themselves. I really enjoyed planting little references to all kinds of Austen material in the book: there are snippets from Austen’s other novels, her letters, her life, several hat-tips to Jo Baker’s Longbourn (my favourite P&P sequel), as well as the various films. So of course that lake scene gets a whirl.

Charlotte is very sensual in your sequel (and I adored the line about her realising she loved her husband!) Some writers loathe writing sex scenes, how do you feel about them? If Miss Austen were writing now, how would she deal with sex scenes?
Helen Moffett A Girl Walks Into A Wedding
A Girl Walks Into A Wedding

I seem to have a knack for writing sex, which is weird. I laughed till I cried when reading local author Eva’s Mazza’s words: “Sex scenes are such fun [to write], especially when you’re over 50 and you’ve been married for just about that long (and to the same man.)”

Like her, I’m sedately monogamous, yet I’ve written all this piping hot erotica with Sarah Lotz and Paige Nick, as Helena S. Paige. I think it’s essential not to take sex scenes completely seriously (the writing, yes, the sex, no). And people, do the choreography: in one sex scene we wrote, the heroine ended up with three arms.

As for Austen, she was no prude; she said some pretty crisp things about sex in her letters (including suggesting separate bedrooms for a couple who kept producing children); but she had a strong sense of propriety – culturally and contextually she would never have written descriptions of sex; that was a private matter.

An enormous amount of research went into this book. You have an academic background (Helen is DOCTOR Moffett); does that help you? Do you enjoy doing research or do you find yourself going down the rabbit hole and not getting any writing done?

I love doing research, and yes, I fall down the most delicious rabbit-holes, but my experience is that they feed the writing. I’ve done so much research as an academic, and researching fiction is so much more pleasurable – you get to pick and choose what to use, distill discoveries down to a few favourite details for texture and colour. There’s no pressure to be comprehensive or cite correctly. I also found that visiting places so I could give an authentic sense of geographical location was absolutely essential. I took masses of photos of places in which I’d sited Charlotte, and I’d have them open on my screen as I wrote those scenes.

The book has the most STUNNING cover. Did you have any input on that? Whose idea was it?

I was consulted via Skype, and bleated something about not wanting the clichéd back view of a woman with a ringleted updo and a vaguely historical gown seen on so many historical fiction covers. And then silence. Meanwhile, Alexandra Alldren, then head of design at Bonnier, was producing this exquisite work of art. There’s a lovely story about first seeing this cover: I was staying in a villa in Tuscany (as one does) with Sarah and Paige, and the cover came through via email via slooooow wifi.

Charlotte by Helen Moffett

I was so nervous, I covered my eyes and called Paige (whose design standards are stratospheric) to come and take the first look as the image downloaded. I heard her gasp, then say, “It’s the most beautiful cover I’ve ever seen.” I opened my eyes and burst into tears. We didn’t change or tweak a thing. It is that rare thing in publishing, a cover that was perfect from the outset. Alex later told me she had wanted to design an Austen cover her entire life, and she pulled all the stops out.

Talk to us about your journey to getting published. Both your highest and your lowest point.

I think the highest point was the day Bonnier made me an offer for two books. I was delirious with happiness. The best part was ringing people I loved to tell them the news. My parents first, then my sister. And then, of course, Sarah and Paige. I Skyped Sarah, but without the camera on, and there were these funny muffled sounds coming from her end: she was weeping such joy, she couldn’t speak. Then I rang Paige, who was in a studio recording a podcast for a client. She knows I never ever call people on their cellphones, so she ran out the studio asking, “What’s wrong, what’s happened?”

The lowest point was when my UK publishers called to say the whole tour was off (they were flying me in to launch the book and attend the early summer literary events). I had seen it coming – when the London Book Fair was cancelled, I remember thinking things weren’t looking good for Charlotte. But it was crushing. My only consolation is that it’s unlikely to happen again. (Next time will probably be a tsunami, or an asteroid hitting the planet.)

You write both fiction and non-fiction. Which do you prefer (or is that like asking you to choose your favourite cat??)
Signing "Wise About Waste" for moi
Signing “Wise About Waste” for moi

I’ll be honest: although it can cause great hair-tearing as one gets trapped in thickets of plot, I prefer writing fiction, especially poetry. Writing non-fiction feels a bit day-jobbish, because I was an academic for a long time, and writing was work. So although I enjoy writing non-fiction, it can be humdrum, or, in the case of my sexual violence research, scouring (I’ve published quite a bit of academic stuff on this topic, and written a memoir of Rape Crisis).

The impulse driving non-fiction is completely different: in the case of what I call my little green books (101 Waterwise Ways and Wise About Waste), I felt compelled to do something, first in the case of the Cape almost running out of water in 2017, then about the vast and monstrous waste problem created by consumer capitalism. Doing the research for that – facing the reality of how we have trashed the planet, our only home – was devastating.

I’m currently writing about how to cope with crisis, and once again, it feels necessary, but not necessarily enjoyable. Whereas in the case of Charlotte, the short stories, novel fragments and poems I’ve written, there’s often great pleasure.

Not at first, though! Sarah and Paige had to drag the first 30 000 words of Charlotte out of me.

You are also a very sought-after editor. How does editing other people’s work help your own writing? Which are some of the most memorable books you have edited?

Ooh, how long have you got? Karina Szczurek has commissioned a memoir of my editing life because I have so many great stories to tell about the writers I’ve worked with (oooh yay! Sounds fascinating). Editing the work of others has taught me a great deal about writing; but it absolutely messes with my own writing (these are two different things). I had to learn to be very strict about taking off my editor hat when writing my own fiction.

To return to memorable books, I’ve edited well over a hundred, including earlier novels by greats such as Ivan Vladislavić and Zakes Mda, so it’s almost impossible to single any out. I must say that doing all five of Lauren Beukes’s novels (and her short stories) has been one damn fine adventure after another; editing Fiona Snyckers’s Lacuna (given how much I have longed to see an intelligent feminist response to Disgrace) was a high point; I got goosebumps all over when the MS of Thando Mgqolozana’s Hear Me Alone landed in my inbox, plus that process was such a humbling and heartening learning curve for me.

Probably most special of all: working with Elinor Sisulu on her biography of her revered parents-in-law, struggle icons Walter and Albertina Sisulu. It’s led to trips around the world, meeting the great and the good (including George Bizos, whom we’ve just lost), but by far the best, an enduring two-decade friendship with Elinor, who is a great Austen fan. My copy signed by her and both elder Sisulus (six weeks before Walter’s death) is the most treasured (inanimate) thing in my home.

Talk to us about your process. Are you a pantser or a plotter? Do you need a deadline to motivate you or are you very disciplined?
Helen at Love Books
Helen at Love Books

I’m somewhere between pantsing and plotting: I did find, to my amusement, that as I was writing, characters and situations would run away with me. In Charlotte, this is especially true of the character of Anne de Bourgh. None of her adventures were planned, and she nearly ran away with the story (literally).

I also found that my research led to plot development; researching rural Kent in the early 19th century and the history of hops-growing led to the subplot of the gypsies (which fitted nicely, because they get a bad rap in Austen’s Emma, and I wanted to rework that if possible).

Without a deadline, I get naaaaaathing done. It’s not laziness: it’s just that I have so many work deadlines that they get priority. If I’m not given deadlines for my own writing, then it just gets repeatedly pushed to the back of the queue.

How important do you think backstories are for your characters?

I think they have a useful role. What helped me a lot was that someone else – Jane Austen, no less – had already created the “backstories” for most of my characters. I had fun combing through all the dialogue and details in P&P looking for hints I could develop. The fact that she has pallid, sickly Anne de Bourgh drive a phaeton (the Regency equivalent of a two-seater sports car) prompted the way I developed that character, for instance. Writing the sequel (where I have to make up everyone’s backstories from scratch) is a lot harder!

Any advice for aspiring authors?

No great secrets. I’d stick to these three things:

  • Read like your life depends on it, do a decent writing course, and learn how to edit your own work. This especially applies if you’re considering self-publishing.
  • Lose any idea that your words are precious. You’ll have to discard them over and over. Thirty thousand words of Charlotte lie in the cutting-room floor, never to be seen again.
  • Have good friends who write (and read). People who will sit with you for hours earnestly discussing your imaginary world. Who will nag you and cheer you on. Who will give you brutally honest feedback.
Any book recommendations? I, for one am looking for uplifting reads at the moment…

Covid infection reduced my ability to edit, write or read to rubble. I have been slowly relearning how to read, and although I haven’t read this yet, it looks AMAZING: Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books by Cathy Rentzenbrink. I really hope it’s as good as it looks. Just what we all need. https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1509891528

Will you only be doing virtual book launches or are there any book signings fans can attend? Also, when will you be visiting us in Joburg?

The second I can do signings in the flesh, I’ll be there. It’s all going to depend on this bloody bug. The good news is that I cannot infect anyone (it’s the only thing they know for certain about the virus). The trickier bit is that the specialists don’t know if I can be re-infected, or how long my immunity (which I have at the moment) will last. The irony is that right now I could fly up to Joburg and zoot around in absolute safety. But am still so debilitated (everyone, wear your masks!! You do NOT want to get this!), I struggle to manage even driving.

Charlotte goes to hospital
Charlotte goes to hospital (Helen’s anaesthetist friend’s Kindle version being sterilised between surgeries) – Pic by Adalbert Gordon-Ernst, used with permission.
Where can we get the book? Are signed copies available?

It’s been picked for Exclusive Books’s Christmas list, hurrah! So any branch of EB, also Wordsworth, and any good indie. I know Love Books in Joburg, and the Book Lounge and Kalk Bay Books in Cape Town are stocking it. For signed copies, contact the Book Lounge.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. May Charlotte fly off the shelves. Hope to see you in Joburg SOON! xxx