I read recently that Jackie Collins kept an immaculate archive, every press clipping about herself neatly cut out and filed, all editions of her books in every language shelved in order. No mean feat for a woman about whom so many reams of material was written and whose literary output was so prolific. She was one of my heroes when I first set out to write women’s fiction, her plots dazzlingly saucy and her work ethic phenomenal.
This week, I wanted to take a photo of my first Fiona Walker novel alongside this month’s debut by my alter ego Georgie Hall, the hardbacks of which are gorgeous. But when I searched for a hardback of French Relations, I drew a blank. I used to have one on the shelf in my study, but I must have given it away. There’s a box of my early editions and proof copies in the back of garage, but to get to that (and I tried) involves clambering over a quad bike, broken desk, cat boxes, unwanted satellite dish, assorted coal scuttles and fire irons, several saddles and a mountain of other book boxes, mostly my mother’s, a huge library she brought with her when cancer led her to downsize from the family home to live with us, and which was still only part of the way through sorting when she died. Faced with a wall of political biography and Iris Murdoch, I gave up. Then, feeling like J R Hartley, I ordered a second-hand French Relations hardback on eBay.
That’s just a very small part of the reason I will never, ever be as successful as Jackie Collins.
What I did find in the garage, crushed on its side between Christmas decorations and an elderly record player, was an unfamiliar box marked ‘Fiona’. Inside, beautifully tied up with ribbons, were several small, carefully curated collections. One held theatre programmes from the 80s and 90s full of hand-written notes beside each cast list saying things like ‘dreadful!’ ‘strange stutter’ and ‘unconvincing limp’. These date back to my drama degree for which wrote countless reviews. Another ribbon-tied collection from the same era contained letters I wrote as a student, all heavily illustrated with drawings and exaggerated truths. A third contained a pile of hardback notebooks full of ideas for novels, screenplays and the Edinburgh Fringe sketch show I never staged. Amongst my favourite treasures from the box is a photo album dating back to the mid-eighties judging from the shoulder pads on display, and labelled ‘Novel Mood Board’, in which I’d pasted pictures cut out from a selection of publications: Freemans catalogues, Just 17, Horse and Hound, several Sunday supplements and the Radio Times. There’s a lot of horsepower, floppy-haired testosterone and perms in there. I’d forgotten it existed.
That box, which arrived with Mum seven years ago, has lain undiscovered until now. In it are the seeds from which my writing career grew. Not the tattered, note-covered first manuscript of French Relations which I’ve still got crammed in one of my own boxes in the back of the garage along with that hardback author copy, but the very inspiration, the stuff I might have otherwise discarded, all of which she’d kept and catalogued, my own precious Jackie Collins, born to the same generation of women. She always kept my press cuttings too. And she displayed my hardbacks in date order.
Right in the bottom of the box was an old ’90s pocket diary of mine, scrawled with the days on which I was working part-time in a saddlery, rehearsals for an am dram play I was set designing, the parties and weddings that studded every weekend in my twenties. I didn’t get the significance at first, until I saw an entry for 16th July 1993: SOLD MY BOOK.
My mother kept it all. I’ll be forever grateful for finding it this month, this year. I’m now exactly the same age she was in 1993. I hope she would have been as proud of Georgie Hall and Woman of a Certain Rage as she was of Fiona Walker and French Relations. We both owe her – and Jackie Collins – a huge debt of gratitude.