With 20 million books already in print, British author Madeleine Wickham better known by her pen name, Sophie Kinsella is back with Mini Shopaholic, her sixth book featuring thrift-challenged heroine Becky Bloomwood. TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs reached the prolific novelist at her home in London.
Is it tough writing about a world-class shopper during a recession?
Shopping doesn't go away during a recession. People still hanker after things. They just do it in a different way.
How would you describe Becky Bloomwood?
An eternal optimist. She has the best of intentions, but sometimes no, always her plans go awry. But the great thing is that she's ingenious and she never gives up. And she always finds a solution. So, flawed, but I hope loveable.
In your new book, Becky has a 2-year-old daughter, Minnie, who is kind of a holy terror. You have four sons yourself. Why write about a girl?
I felt that Becky just had to have a daughter. It made sense. If I gave Becky a son, my poor sons would be under scrutiny you know, which one is it?
Does your business-reporter background give you insight into the psychology of shopping?
I certainly realized when I was a financial journalist how much the world is driven by money and credit, especially easy credit. Becky ends up becoming a shopaholic in the first place, really, from the banks encouraging her to take out credit.
What's the allure of shopping?
I think it's the feeling that your life will be transformed with this one purchase. It's not even so much about the thing itself. It's true [about] everything: cars, computers, gadgets. It's all about who we are.
How would you characterize your shopping habits? Are you a bargain hunter, or is it luxury goods all the way?
Both. I'll buy the grownup investment piece that they tell you is going to last forever. Then I'll find some really cheap bangle on discount, and I'll pick that up too.
You started writing novels under your real name, Madeline Wickham. How did you decide to morph into Sophie Kinsella?
I didn't want to confuse my existing readers. I felt instinctively that this was a new, fresh voice and it should be under a different name. It was like I was starting again. So Sophie is my middle name, Kinsella is my mother's maiden name, and when I put them together, they just seemed to fit perfectly.
Your books are sometimes described as chick-lit. Is that what you would call them?
I describe them as comedies. I don't really define them by gender. I'm not deliberately writing for women. I'm writing to make people laugh.
What's it like writing with a five-month-old son? [Kinsella also has three other sons, ages 5, 12 and 14.]
In some ways it's easier to sit writing around a baby than it is older children, who require your attention and your thoughts. You can't get away [with older kids] going la-dee-la-dee-la-dee-la, I'm thinking through that little plot twist that isn't working. You actually have to say, "OK, [do] your homework."
How long does it take you to write a book typically?
About 9 months, give or take. Bit like a baby.
What's your writing routine like?
If I'm planning a book, then I like to go out to a coffee shop and sit down and make notes longhand. Because I think the most scary thing in the world is to sit down at a blank computer, type Chapter One and see what happens. That would freak me out. Then when I'm writing, I have to start first thing in the morning. I make my coffee, I turn on my music and I sit there until I've done 1,000 words, that's my target. And then either I'm on a roll and I carry on or I'm like, I'm done! I'm done! Depends.
Are you a tortured writer or does it come easily?
Fits and starts. Sometimes [it comes] really easily. And sometimes it just grinds to a halt. Then that's when I walk away and I go out. I talk everything through my husband who is great, because he has the same sense of humor as me and he knows the way I write. We go out and we order cocktails and we drink them, and talk. And drink and talk, and drink and talk. Until the solution presents itself. Because I find that alcohol sort of helps the creative process. There's a little window where I feel like, "Yes! All the answers are coming to me!" Then you have to capture that moment, because very soon, you're not making much sense at all.
How do you research your books? Do you head for the mall?
I hit the stores, yes. It's tough. What can I say? Someone's got to do it.