Women2Day - Lifestyle: Barbara Taylor Bradford has bestsellers in her blood

Thirty years since the anniversary of A Woman Of Substance was first published, we talk to the queen of the romantic saga, Barbara Taylor Bradford.

Barbara Taylor Bradford

In a plush suite at London's grand Dorchester hotel, the authoress Barbara Taylor Bradford is sitting at a writing desk, pen in hand.

But rather than embarking on another novel, she's posing for photographs - and at 76, the doyenne of epic blockbusters is the picture of elegance.

Dressed simply in a black jacket with a white corsage pinned on, pearls at her neck and ears, she's surrounded by blue hydrangeas and perfumed lilies.

"I only wear black or white," she declares, as the photographer captures her well-rehearsed smile.

In the centre of the room, a bottle of champagne rests in a cooler, for when the photos are over, and Barbara can finally relax with her American producer husband Robert.

It's not the first champagne cork the pair will have popped in their more than 40 years of marriage - and Barbara certainly has plenty of reasons to celebrate this year.

Thirty years ago, she became a best-selling author when her debut novel A Woman Of Substance charmed millions of women on both sides of the Atlantic.

Since then, she's had another 23 novels published - all bestsellers - and her 25th novel, Breaking The Rules, is published this month.

It's an extraordinary feat for any author, but then Yorkshire-born Barbara did start writing when she was seven.

"I always wanted to write books," she begins, when we're sitting comfortably on a sofa near the champagne. "I'd written a short story when I was 10 and my mother always wanted to read what what I'd written because she taught me to read when I was four and it really engendered in me a great love of books.

"So she read the story and she made me copy it out again, because it had blotches and crossings out on it. She sent it to a children's magazine and after a few weeks we got a reply and they said they were going to use it and they sent me a money order for seven (shillings) and six (pence).

"Ernest Hemingway said, 'You can only call yourself a writer when you're paid for what you write'. And I was paid at 10, so you can say that I've been a writer from 10 years old!"

Barbara's extraordinary success story goes on in similar fashion. At 15, she joined the typing pool of a newspaper in Leeds and became a reporter at 16. By 20, she was working as a columnist and editor in London's Fleet Street.

"But I always wanted to write books. When I saw my name as a child, I was thrilled," she adds, with a grin.

For those who haven't read it, A Woman Of Substance is the first of six novels about Emma Harte and her family.

We're first introduced to Emma as a grandmother who's preparing to pass on her retail empire to her granddaughter, before we leap back to Emma's childhood as a servant in Yorkshire, where the saga of three generations begins.

"Emma has lived and remained a role model," says Barbara, explaining the book's enduring appeal. "I think it's a good story and it has a quality to it that hasn't aged, it's as believable today as it was 30 years ago.

"It's a very entertaining book. It's a woman's life with all her successes and her sadnesses and her grief and all of the things that happen to her in quite a tumultuous life and that's why people love it."

How much of Barbara is there in her most famous heroine? "I think there's a lot of me... I gave Emma many of my characteristics - drive and discipline and stamina. But I'm certainly not her.

"To be a good novelist, you've really got to be able to stand in other people's shoes. So whether it's Paul McGill (the love of Emma's life) or one of Emma's daughters, when I'm writing it, I've got to understand the character and what it would be like to be them if they're having a bad day."

To coincide with the book's 30th anniversary, Barbara has launched the Woman Of Substance Awards to find real women of substance living and working in the UK today.

From a total of 300 nominations, Barbara will help to choose one "ordinary woman who's done extraordinary things" at the awards ceremony this month.

"We wanted to do something worthwhile, to celebrate real women of substance and do something that may continue," says Barbara.

The awards will also support cancer charity Target Ovarian Cancer, which Barbara chose to raise awareness of what she calls "the silent killer".

She explains: "Ovarian cancer is not easily detected. If you have certain symptoms, it gets put down to irritable bowel syndrome or you don't have symptoms that are detectable as cancer.

"Everybody's aware of breast cancer, but not ovarian cancer which affects young women. It's very tragic if somebody dies of an illness in their twenties because they weren't aware of the symptoms."

Barbara was born in Leeds, the only child of Freda and Winston Taylor. Her mother was a former children's nurse and nanny, but despite her influence in Barbara's early years, the author wouldn't describe her as her role model.

"She was a wonderful mother and I'm the person I am today because of the way she brought me up, but when I think of a role model, I think of women who go out and conquer the world, whether that's Madame Curie, who discovered radium, or Elizabeth Tudor, the greatest monarch we've ever known. Women that are strong and go out there and fight a battle."

She met television producer Robert Bradford on a blind date in 1961 when she was 28, and they fell in love at first sight. They married in 1963 and Barbara moved to New York to live with him.

She carried on reporting and turned her hand to writing books on decorating, but her big break came in 1976 when, after several failed attempts, she managed to sell A Woman Of Substance to a publisher on the strength of a 10-page outline.

Today Barbara and Bob live in a Manhattan apartment with their two Bichon Frise dogs, who sit under her desk while she writes. They never had children, but Barbara says it's not something she regrets.

"I had a miscarriage and then I never conceived again," she says. "Someone said to me once, 'Did you just stop trying?' but we didn't stop having sex. After I got to about 40, it didn't matter any more.

"I'm not sad that I haven't had children. If you don't have a child, you don't have one to miss and I've had a very fulfilled life. It would be worse if I'd had a child that died or, God forbid, was stolen. I've really been very lucky to have a good marriage and a good career."

The secret to her 46-year marriage, she says, is compatibility. "I don't believe that opposites attract, I think you have to be very alike in the sense that you have to have many of the same characteristics as the person you marry, because I think otherwise, you're really at odds.

"You've got to like doing the same things and we do, we're very compatible, although that doesn't mean that we haven't had our rows and our disagreements, because you're living with another person and it's hard at times.

"You have to work hard at marriage and I think a lot of young people maybe don't understand that you can't quit, you've got to keep working at it."

While she may be heading towards 80, Barbara's showing no signs of slowing down her incredible work rate. She still writes for eight hours a day, five days a week on her typewriter in Manhattan.

"I have 14 books in my drawer, titles and notes and a general idea of what the books are. And I have to deliver a book next May again," she says, her eyes sparkling.

For now though, there's more publicity to do for her latest book Breaking The Rules, a thriller about a young woman called M who makes it as a supermodel, before her past catches up with her.

"I always write about women who go out there and do it, conquer the world, and this is what she does."

And that is certainly what Barbara has done.

 
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