Hi Jilly! Thanks for speaking to us. Rupert has taken a bit of a backseat in recent novels, but is firmly back on the saddle with this one. What made you decide it was his turn to be our hero again?
When I wrote Jump! – my last novel, about jump racing, which is known as the winter game – I fell so in love with the racing community that I decided to switch to flat racing which mostly takes place in the summer. The result is Mount! Although Rupert won the Grand National at the end of Jump! with a little mare called Mrs Wilkinson, his yard contains mostly flat horses, so it seemed logical to carry on with him as the hero. But that’s just an excuse. In reality, I adore Rupert. He’s so glamorous, outrageous, appallingly behaved and does exactly what he likes, and my readers seem to like him too. He also has adopted children, and adores dogs, as I do, and is wildly unpolitically correct, so I can use him to voice all my own prejudices! And if he is an implacable enemy, he is a loyal friend, and he’s devastated at the end of Jump! by the death of his life-long companion, Billy Lloyd-Foxe, who always had a stabilizing and humanizing effect on Rupert’s behaviour.
Rupert will face temptation like never before in Mount! What made you choose to test him and Taggie, which is one of the most loved relationships in your novels?
Years ago I wrote a short story called ‘Forsaking All Others’, which began: ‘One of the greatest shocks of Julia Nicholson’s life was that being happily married doesn’t stop one falling in love with other people.’ These things happen. In Mount! Rupert becomes totally obsessed with his beloved stallion, Love Rat, being named Leading Sire, which is the stallion whose offspring notch up the most prize money in a year. This results in Rupert abandoning his racing yard and his angelic wife Taggie, and chasing winners in the richest races around the world. He still adores Taggie but is increasingly angry when she refuses to accompany him because there’s so much to do at home: coping with grandchildren, running the cake stall at the fete, organizing a huge surprise party for him. Also there are evil forces at work from the start, determined to jeopardize their marriage. Othello, for example, absolutely adores Desdemona and vows, ‘Chaos will come again,’ if he ever stops loving her. Enter Iago to put the boot in.
The dating scene in modern Britain is very different to how it was when Rupert was starting out. How do you think he, Billy Lloyd-Foxe and (heaven help us) Rannaldini might have fared in a twenty-first- century world of Tinder and other dating apps?
Oh, gosh! I’m so old, I don’t know about Tinder and dating apps. Isn’t Tinder the one that has something called ‘likes’? I’m sure Rupert, Billy and Rannaldini would get lots of those. Today I read about speed-dating, that you have to decide whether you want to get off with someone in four minutes. In my day, we had the four-minute-mile and admired Roger Bannister hugely for achieving it. Today you have four-minute-males! I don’t think Rupert would need to bother with the Internet because women are always throwing themselves at him.
Speaking of Rannaldini, his son, Cosmo, appears in this novel and he’s showing many of his father’s wicked characteristics. Is it great fun writing Machiavellian characters? If so, why?
One needs Machiavellian characters, because it makes your heroes more heroic for vanquishing them. Rannaldini, my villainous conductor, was so vile to his sweet, plain wife Kitty that Lysander, my gentle hero of The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous, felt impelled to rescue her. On the other hand, I’ve always had fun with Rannaldini’s evil son, Cosmo. In Wicked!, at his boarding school, he seduces the most beautiful mother, who is also his headmaster’s mistress. In Mount!, where Cosmo owns lots of racehorses, he tries to sell his opera-singer mother for 8,000 camels during the Dubai World Cup and organizes a splendid orgy that takes up several chapters. It is essential, too, with evil characters, that they have some redeeming qualities. Cosmo is best friends with Dora, Rupert’s teenage press officer, and he’s extremely kind to his trainer Isa Lovell when Isa’s father, Jake, dies.
Your novels are so well researched that your fans often feel they learn a lot when reading them. How on earth did you find out so much about showjumping, horse racing, running a school, etc., especially back when you were writing in the pre-Internet age?
Each volume of the Rutshire Chronicles I write is like taking an A-level, or even a degree. I always overresearch dreadfully, but I like to take readers by the hand and lead them into a new world. I can’t use the Internet or google. So instead I go and talk to people and try to experience what my characters are going through. When I wrote Riders, I was lucky enough to spend a week in Dublin with the British Show Jumping team. While writing Appassionata, which is about classical music, I travelled around Europe with the glorious Royal Scottish National Orchestra, partying with them and really getting to know the soloists, musicians and conductor. With Wicked!, about schools, I incredibly bravely spent an afternoon teaching English at a comprehensive. Utterly terrifying – goodness, I admire teachers. Equally, with Mount!, I had a blissful time staying with trainers and meeting all their horses and the stable staff, and drinking a lot of champagne at the races. I also stayed at stud farms, and watched foals being born and mares being covered. One stallion only liked greys, so mares of any other colour had to have white sheets laid over them before he would perform. I also spent time at Tattersals and watched beautiful horses being sold, and beautiful young men, who populate racing, being terribly nice to wrinklies like me in the hope that they might buy a racehorse.
What is your writing process? Is it true you still use a typewriter?
I have typed all my books since 1984 on a wonderful Olympia manual typewriter called Monica, who has a pair of royal-blue scissors attached, so I can cut and staple paragraphs in different order. Other members of the household eff and blind when their computers pack up. Monica never lets me down.
Horse racing is the other hero in Mount. What have been the highlights of learning about this glorious sport?
I’ve always adored horses and, in writing Mount!, I’ve been privileged to meet some of the finest in the world. The great Frankel, for example, is turning out to be as wonderful a sire as he was racehorse, and lives with a lovely tabby cat friend called George. I have also shaken hooves with gentle Gallileo in Ireland, who has been leading sire for the past seven years. Equally excitingly, I went to the World Cup in Dubai, which takes place in the desert under an indigo sky, where the top horses race for multi-million prizes. After some amazing fireworks, all the stars come down to cheer on the equine stars. It is so romantic.
Your characters are all so well drawn, and not just the two-legged characters! Were there any special animals who inspired you in writing this novel?
Yes. Forester, Taggie’s rescued greyhound, is based on my own beloved black rescued greyhound, Bluebell, who is a stroke-a-holic and claims divine right to every sofa and bed in the house. Once she escaped down the valley. Tearing after her, I forgot to take a lead and was reduced to taking off my bra behind a hedge and using it to lead her home. Taggie does this too and bumps into a devastatingly handsome stranger with dramatic consequences. Also, Master Quickly, my colt hero in Mount!, who only races if he feels like it, is based on a heavenly horse called Hurricane Higgins, who was trained by Mark Johnston. On one occasion, instead of starting, Higgins calmly laid down in the stalls and pretended to go to sleep, reducing both jockeys and loaders to fits of laughter.
Many of your readers will have noticed the huge number of literary allusions in your novels – from Yeats to Tennyson, Shakespeare to P. D. James. What books are currently on your bedside table?
I’ve adored poetry since I was a child, particularly when I was falling passionately in love with boys who didn’t return my love. Now, since my sweet husband Leo died, I find it a huge comfort. On my bedside table at the moment are the collected poems of Coleridge, Tennyson and Matthew Arnold. I especially love Arnold’s epic poem Sohrab and Rustum. Set in Persia, Sohrab, the mighty leader of the Tartars, is slain in a single combat by Rustum, the mighty leader of the Persians, who has no idea that Sohrab is actually his son. As they are movingly reconciled on Sohrab’s deathbed, Ruksh, Sohrab’s wonderhorse, clocks the tragedy ‘and from his dark, compassionate eyes, The big warm tears roll’d down, and caked the sand.’ It’s so touching.
Speaking of authors most loved, the opening scene of Mount! features Rupert’s great-great-great-great-grandfather in a thrilling race across the country, which will remind many of Georgette Heyer’s wonderful romances. Was it fun writing historical fiction for a change?
Georgette Heyer is one of my favourite writers. She taught me so much history, and fantasizing about her macho Regency heroes made boarding school much more bearable. I loved setting the Prologue in Mount! in the eighteenth century, because here lies the key to the whole story. But I couldn’t keep it up for an entire book, I rely on modern slang too much. On the other hand, I adore anachronisms. I can’t remember which film it was when some warrior bellowed: ‘Men of the Middle Ages, let us go forth and fight the Hundred Years’ War!’
And finally, can you tell us what’s next for Rupert?
I want to write my next book about football and a local club’s climb to great glory. But it’ll also be about a fight to save a local newspaper, because newspapers are having such a struggle to survive these days, and I feel they are truly the guardians of our democracy. Rupert will have a definite hand in both subjects. In Mount!, his other favourite horse, Safety Car, loves playing football with Rupert’s Jack Russells and will no doubt get signed up.