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An hour with Wendy Perriam: Dolphin Square’s resident author

Dolphin Square | 8 MIN READ

Described by the Sunday Times as “a writer of authority and skill, with a wicked ear for conversational quirks”, long-time Dolphin Square resident, Wendy Perriam, is celebrated for her frank-talking novels that tackle, head on, controversial issues such as sex, feminism and religion.
Wendy talks to us about her Catholic upbringing, leaving suburbia and why she will never get a smartphone.

“I first came to Dolphin Square in 2003, with my husband, and was very excited about moving into Central London. Up until then we had been living in Surbiton but, as both my brother-in-law and father-in-law lived in Dolphin Square, I had known about it for some time.

I also used to be invited to Dolphin Square, along with my writers’ circle, every Thanksgiving by American actor and former long-term resident, Maxine Howe, now sadly missed. Her apartment was spacious and elegant, and I remember thinking “What a great place to live”.

You mention that you are often associated as a novelist with suburbia – does Dolphin Square offer you an element of suburbia in London?

No, absolutely not! What I loved about Dolphin Square was that it wasn’t suburbia. I never enjoyed living in the sticks and I actually find life here at the Square more friendly and sociable than it was in suburbia, where many of the large houses had been converted into flats and were rented by commuters. This meant that during the day there was a mass-exodus, leaving me (who worked from home) with very few neighbours and little company.

What is your favourite thing about living in Dolphin Square?

Its wonderfully central position. When I was living in Surbiton, Deborah Moggach invited me to the screening of one of her books and it was set to be a very glitzy affair. Unfortunately, there were engineering works that day, which meant most of the trains were replaced by a meandering bus-service. I sat on the sweltering bus, increasingly frantic and eventually reached the venue so late, I missed the entire screening. “So, this is suburbia!” I thought, as I arrived to an empty room and a forlorn array of empty champagne-glasses!

Dolphin Square, in contrast, has fast and efficient transport-links to almost anywhere in London. I can hop on the Victoria line, or, if pressed, simply take a cab.

I love the fact that everything is on one site. It’s important at my age to keep fit, so I visit the gym regularly and can reach it without leaving the building. If it was further away, I suspect I’d find an excuse to give it a miss.

I’m a great fan of the shopping arcade and think Mary, who runs the greengrocer’s, is an artist in her own right. I pass her shop most mornings on the way to the gym and stop to admire her colourful displays of fruit, flowers, eggs and other produce everything laid out with consummate skill. And Mary herself is so friendly – as are the patrons of all the other shops, including the wonderful hair-salon - it’s like living in a village

How did you first break into writing?

I wrote from the age of four and completed my first “novel” at 11, and throughout my childhood and wanted to be either a nun or a writer when I grew up. However, I lost my once all-important Catholic faith when I was at boarding-school, which resulted in expulsion and put paid to my vocation as a nun! However, there is still a strong “nun” part of me, which I expressed in my novel, Devils, For A Change. This book tells the story of a nun who escapes her convent after 23 years living a wholly cloistered and almost medieval life, and feels like an alien from another planet when she hits the noise and crowds of contemporary London.

Following my expulsion, I went through a pretty traumatic period of insomnia and depression, which stopped me writing for quite some time. My Catholic friends and even my brother were told to avoid me, as a “dangerous influence”. Catholicism had meant everything to me and I felt I had lost all stability and meaning in my life. Even at Oxford University, where I was reading History, I spent a lot of time hanging round the Catholic Chaplaincy, desperately trying to regain my faith. I eventually stopped writing altogether and it wasn’t until I enrolled in a writing- class in the early 70s that I restarted.

By this point, I had been divorced - another source of shame for my Catholic family. I remarried and took on two stepchildren, which meant I needed to find a job that would fit in better with family life than the long hours I was currently working in Advertising. I decided I wanted to teach – but English, not History, so I enrolled at Kingston Polytechnic to do a second degree. There was a writer-in-residence at the college who passed on some of my work to his literary agent. I received a postcard from the agent, saying that, if I gave up the degree, he would take me on as a client. It put me in a real dilemma but, in my heart, I knew I must say yes.

I was so worried that I’d never get a publisher (and thus would have given up my degree in vain), I wrote my first book in bed with the covers pulled up to my chin, and wrote in pencil because I didn’t believe in myself enough to use a pen! But, to my amazement, the book was taken by the very first publisher it was offered to – Michael Joseph.

What are your tips for overcoming writer’s block?

I used to teach a class that included the topic of writer’s block, and the main thing I emphasised was that no one writes a perfect first draft. The important thing is to get something – anything – down on paper. I gave them permission to produce the most badly written version possible, knowing this would free them from the perils of perfectionism and paralysis. From there, they could work on the draft and gradually improve it. Giving yourself the freedom to do a bad job is far better than staring at a blank piece of paper. As Samuel Beckett said, “Fail again - fail better!” And, in fact, the act of writing itself can be incredibly liberating.

It also helps to create the right sort of surroundings for your writing. Even if you have only an ancient laptop on the corner of a table, make it a little “shrine”. Put up photos of writers you admire – I have one of John Donne - and try to follow a few rituals that tell your unconscious this is the time and the place for your writing – maybe immediately after the first coffee of the day. And choose a special mug for the coffee that signals to your unconscious that – right now – you are about to put words on the page! Mine is a Peter Rabbit mug, dating from my childhood.

As writers, it’s our job to observe all aspects of the world – the seasons, the weather, the sky, the huge variety of people we encounter, their appearance, clothes and habits, which is why I refuse to have a smartphone, because if I walk around talking to people, I’ll miss all that fascinating detail - the sort of valuable detail I can use in my next book.

What are your three favourite places in London?

My flat – it’s large, warm and on the top floor, looking out over the garden.

St Etheldreda’s Church, the oldest catholic church in London and situated in Ely Place, once the site of the Bishop of Ely’s London residence. It features extensively in my novel, Lying, in which a young girl with no religion falls in love with a devoutly Catholic man, and vows to be married to him in this atmospheric church. There’s also a very old and attractive pub in Ely Place - “Ye Olde Mitre”, the perfect place for a post-church pint!

The extensive new development around King’s Cross, where my brother and I often meet when he takes the train to London from York. It’s the perfect example of the old and new rubbing shoulders and, because it’s still being enhanced and upgraded, there are many cranes in evidence. I am fascinated by cranes and enjoy noting how their colours vary according to the area and site. 

In your work you tackle subjects such as death, religion and sex, which some would consider taboo, what is it about these topics that interest you so much?

In my 26 books, I have covered a wide variety of topics and certainly religion is one of these. How could it not be when my father spent four years in a seminary training to be a priest, before he left to get married? He remained a devout Catholic and his three children were all sent to Catholic schools from age 4. Later, at boarding-school, I became obsessed with death, because we were told every night to be prepared to meet the Lord, since this could be our last night on earth! Indeed, this life hardly mattered – it was the next life that counted. Many of my friends, especially those in their last years, find the idea of death very frightening. For me, it’s simply inevitable.

Growing up in a strict Catholic family, sex was never spoken about, except in the context of marriage and procreation. The nuns taught us that it was good to have lots of babies and thus “create more souls for God”. Sex outside marriage was a grave sin and most Catholic children, at that time, grew up with a deeply implanted sense of guilt.

Yet later I became known as someone who wrote explicit sex scenes, and even won the Bad Sex in Fiction Award (a coveted award, despite its name.) The passage that won was actually intended to be satirical, but I don’t think the judges realized that and took it at face-value. The next day, I had every national newspaper ringing me up – I’ve never had such great publicity in my whole career!

My family, however, were deeply ashamed of my books, despite the fact that I actually write literary fiction, not steamy romps. Writing sex-scenes is surprisingly difficult, since one has to tread a fine line between sounding crude and sounding too anatomical. I was reading another’s writer’s piece once, when the word “testicle” was mentioned and the entire erotic mood of the scene collapsed!

Of all your novels, which was your favourite and which was the hardest to write? Why?

My most recent book, The Tender Murderer, was the hardest I’ve ever written, because it required such a huge amount of research. It’s the first time I’ve ever included a murder in a novel, so I had to learn all about police procedure, the legal system, prison and probation. I had taught Creative Writing to prisoners for a short time, and had also included a prison element in my 16th novel, Broken Places, whose protagonist is a prison-librarian, but I lacked any in-depth insight into the trauma and restrictions of serving a long sentence. However, I managed to interview half a dozen ex-prisoners, the most eminent of whom was Jonathan Aitken, who not only helped me understand the day-to-day life of a prison, but also gave me invaluable information on the various bodies devoted to prison reform.

I also met a wonderful detective, to whom the book is dedicated, since he was extremely generous with his time in explaining all the intricacies of police procedure. He even read the entire book for me, to ensure I had made no errors. As for legal expertise, a member of the DSQ Gym, himself a barrister, introduced me to a Pupil in his chambers who was kind enough to give up his lunch hours to talk me through the complexities of my protagonist’s case and even gave me a private tour of The Old Bailey. This meant I could see for myself the actual courtroom where my character would appear in the dock, and grasp something of the whole atmosphere of the trial. This sort of research is vitally important in imbuing a novel with both authenticity and vivid detail.

However, it proved extremely time-consuming, and the pressures increased when my poor husband had an accident, followed by a deep-vein thrombosis. So, as I dashed from his hospital ward to an appointment with the detective or the barrister, I thought to myself: “‘this is the last time I’ll ever write a book on topics I know nothing about!’ Even my protagonist’s job began as a total mystery to me, since he works in Corporate Finance, whereas I can barely add up!

The Tender Murderer is featured on my website and even has a (temporary) jacket, but is not yet officially published, since my agent is currently sending it out to various publishing houses. Meanwhile, unable to relax, I’m already filling notebooks with ideas for the next novel and vowing to myself to choose less demanding subjects this time – maybe a gentle, happy story set in Dolphin Square!

What’s your favourite book of all time?

When I was five, I was given a book called Parlicoot, published in 1943 - it was a picture-book about a strange spotted creature desperate to find a mate. He spends the whole book searching for a companion, embarking on an arduous journey amidst pelting rain and many other hazards. Later, this became a metaphor for life: no matter what trauma you endure, you have to pick yourself up and keep on going.

Is there one piece of advice that has made a big impression in your life?

Yes, a friend once said to me, “You have to accept the things you cannot change and give thanks for all the blessings most of us take for granted”.

To view more about Wendy Perriam, visit her website.

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