Richard and Judy Interview: Dawn French on According to Yes

Richard and Judy Interview: Dawn French on According to Yes

Sorry to start with a silly question, but whose idea was the ‘Mary Poppins’ brolly on the book’s cover? More seriously, how important do you think covers and titles are to the success of a novel?

One of my favourite moments in the book is when Glen compares Rosie – rather unfavourably – to Mary Poppins. This started me thinking about umbrellas. . .

My book is really about a woman who, when she’s on a plane leaving a bit of heartbreak behind her, decides that she’s going to change her mind about how she lives. She’s going to try and risk a little bit more, and push herself to say yes. So this title was key for me – it’s the philosophy of Rosie, and becomes a force for good (and sometimes trouble!) for everyone around her.

Manhattan really comes to life on these pages. Did you need to spend time there before starting to write?

When I was about eighteen, I had a scholarship with the English Speaking Union to study in the U.S. They sent me a form which asked, ‘Where Would You Like to Live in America?’. I was a horse rider at the time, and I wanted to sit on one of those armchair Western saddles and ride across the plains, galloping with the mustangs. That’s really what I thought America was. So I chose Colorado, or Texas, somewhere that sounded like it would have big, wide, open plains. The fourteen other kids on the scholarship put New York as their first choice.

Perversely, I was the one sent to New York. And I thought grrrr, I don’t want to be in New York because that’s where Kojak lives, and that’s where you get murdered. . . frankly, I was terrified. Until I stepped off the plane. And then I realised that New York is just an AMAZING place. So I’ve taken that as my jumping off place for this book. I wanted to write about a girl from Cornwall going to Manhattan. I did also go back to Manhattan at the beginning of last year to see if the Upper East Side had changed much in the last 30 years. It hasn’t!

What kind of a nanny do you think you might have made?

I actually worked as a nanny when I was eighteen. I’d left Cornwall to go study in New York, and before I got on the plane my mum and dad gave me a hundred quid. I’d also saved a hundred quid from working as a chambermaid for a few months. But of course my money ran out after a couple of weeks in Manhattan. Mainly, I have to say, from being spent on pizza.

And I knew that if I didn’t raise some money I would have to come home and not complete my course. So I had to find a job. And the job I found was being a nanny. And of course I got the nannying work because. . . I’m British!

They hoped that Mary Poppins had just arrived.

I wasn’t Mary Poppins. I’d never looked after a kid, and I was actually pretty pants at it. But I got this job, and I got quite a lot of money for doing it.

I looked after a little chap whose parents were getting divorced – his mum had him one week and his dad had him the next. During the weeks that his dad had him, it was my job to pick him up from school, bring him home, cook for him, look after him. . . I had the keys to their flat, everything. I was right inside their lives. It was fascinating, if terrifying. But it gave me a good base for writing Rosie’s adventures with the twins.

Obviously this is a ‘say yes to life’ story. How much does that reflect your own philosophy?

I’ve always been a big believer in the idea that the difficult stuff can be handled via a bit of fun. So for the past few years I’ve tried to become more open to risk and adventure. I think it’s because I’m fifty-eight now, and I’m in a new chapter – I’ve got a new husband, and I am a bit older. And I’ve decided that I’m not going to worry quite so much. I’m not going to catastrophize as much as perhaps I did. I’m not going to predict my beloveds’ problems as much as I did. I’m just not going to worry about what might happen. Now I just think oh, you know what, whatever happens, we’ll cope with it.