Author Interviews
4:39 am
Sat March 29, 2014

A Grand Tradition Of Family Drama In 'Cavendon Hall'

Originally published on Tue April 1, 2014 11:33 am

Barbara Taylor Bradford is one of the best-selling authors in the world — and, proudly, a working stiff. She's written 29 novels, beginning with A Woman of Substance in 1979, which became one of the best-selling novels of all time. Her books have been published in more than 90 countries and 40 languages.

Her latest is Cavendon Hall, which takes its title from the great old Edwardian home shared by two families: the aristocratic Inghams and the Swanns, who've served the Inghams since time immemorial.

As the book opens, Lady Daphne Ingham is about to be presented at court when — there is no nice way to say this — she is brutalized. And it's the Swanns, the household staff, who move to protect her. Bradford tells NPR's Scott Simon that she began her career as a journalist, struggled to write her first novels, and found inspiration in a quote from Graham Greene. "He said, I always remind myself that character is plot. And the moment I read that, Scott, I knew how to write a novel."


Interview Highlights

On the enduring popularity of the British great house drama

It's human drama. You've got one place, Cavendon Hall, where everything is happening there. Life is being enacted, there's dramas because of the attack on Daphne — how do they hide that, what's going to happen ... so, why do people love this? Because they see people interacting with each other — you know, I always say, go to a family and you'll find a lot of problems ... I think it's a way of containing life in one house, I suppose.

On Genevra, the Romany character

As you know, I grew up in Yorkshire, and we often saw the Romany wagons on a hill, or in a field, and I thought, I wonder who lives there? And that's where she came from. And she's always popping up, and Cecily, who is one of the main characters, she is always bumping into the Gypsy, who's got something interesting to say, and she's in there because she adds a bit of mystique, if you like.

On coming up with plots after 29 novels

When I wanted to go from journalist to novelist, [my mentor] said, you must put something down every day. And he was right about that, and I sometimes have a day when it's a bit tough, obviously — I'm human, and it doesn't always come the way I want it to come out of me. So I'm lucky that I had that advice so many years ago.

On whether it's important to have strong women characters

Yes, because I am strong, and wouldn't really — of course, I have weak characters in the book, you've got to have people of all kinds — but I think women have found the books both challenging and inspiring, because I have women that conquer the world, they overcome terrible odds and terrible problems, and I don't mean to send a message, but I guess in a funny way I am intending to send one, which is, stand up and be counted, and go out and do it!

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Barbara Taylor Bradford is one of the best-selling authors in the world, and proudly a working stiff. She's written 29 novels beginning with "A Woman of Substance" in 1979, and that became one of the best-selling novels of all time. Her books have been published in more than 90 countries and 40 languages. Ten have been made into TV miniseries. Her latest novel is: "Cavendon Hall," a great old Edwardian home shared by the Inghams, headed by Charles, the Earl of Mowbray, his wife, Felicity, and their six children, and the Swanns, including Walter, the earl's valet, his wife, Alice, who is the countess's seamstress, and the four Swann daughters. Now, Lady Daphne is about to be presented at court when - there is no nice way to say this - she is brutalized. And it's the Swanns, the household staff, who move to protect her. Barbara Taylor Bradford OBE, joins us from our New York Bureau. Thanks so much for being with us.

BARBARA TAYLOR BRADFORD: It's lovely to be here, Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: What comes first for you, the story or the characters?

BRADFORD: Well, you know, before I did become a novelist, I was a journalist, and trying to be a novelist and struggled with four books, which maybe I wrote 100 pages or 50 and then stopped. And I never finished one of those. And one day I read an interview with the late Graham Greene. Of course, he was alive at that time. And the journalist said to him what is it you bear in mind when you sit down every day to write, to start writing the book you're writing? And he said I always remind myself that character is plot. And the moment I read that, Scott, I knew how to write a novel.

SIMON: What makes this mix of upstairs, downstairs, gentry and servants, the abbey and the stables so popular all over the world and a century after its time?

BRADFORD: It's human drama. You've got one place, Cavendon Hall, where everything is happening there. Life is being enacted, there's dramas because of the attack on Daphne - how do they hide that, what's going to happen and on and on. I don't want to give too much plot away, but it does become a great tragedy and it could in fact ruin the Inghams. So, why do people love this? Because they see people interacting with each other. You know, I always say, go to a family and you'll find a lot of problems. So, there's a lot of problems in the Swann family, with the Inghams, in the relationships between people. I think it's a way of containing life in one house, I suppose.

SIMON: One house, one book.

BRADFORD: That's right. And there's a lot of drama in the book and, of course, everything is happening in the shadow of the First World War. So, there's a lot going on in the book and, of course, there's always, you know, a bit of romance, a bit of sex.

SIMON: I was going to say...

BRADFORD: (unintelligible)...

SIMON: ...intertwining, as you might put it.

BRADFORD: Yes.

SIMON: Let me first get to one of my favorite characters. I hope her pronounce her name correctly - Genevra.

BRADFORD: Oh, yes, the gypsy girl.

SIMON: Oh, Romany.

BRADFORD: A Romany, yes.

SIMON: And so where she come from? Where does she spring from in your mind? I wonder if she's a product of research or what?

BRADFORD: No. I do do a lot of research but that's usually historical research. As you know, I grew up in Yorkshire, and we often saw the Romany wagons on a hill or in a field, and I thought, I wonder who lives there? And that's where she came from. And she's always popping up, and Cecily, who is one of the main characters, she is always bumping into the gypsy, who's got something interesting to say, and she's in there because she adds a bit of mystique, if you like.

SIMON: Twenty-nine novels, right?

BRADFORD: Yes.

SIMON: May I ask, do you ever have a problem coming up with a plot?

BRADFORD: I had a friend, Cornelius Ryan, Connie, who wrote...

SIMON: "The Longest Day."

BRADFORD: ..."The Longest Day" and "The Bridge Too Far" and "The Lost Battle," and when I wanted to go from journalist to novelist, he said, you must put something down every day. And he was right about that, and I sometimes have a day when it's a bit tough, obviously. I'm a human, and it doesn't always come the way I want it to come out of me. So, I'm lucky that I had that advice so many years ago.

SIMON: But I wonder, looking at your novels, which you began writing, can I said gallantly in your mid-40s...

BRADFORD: That's right.

SIMON: Has it been important to you to have strong women characters?

BRADFORD: Yes, because I am strong, and wouldn't really - of course, I have weak characters in the book, you've got to have people of all kinds - but I think women have found the books both challenging and inspiring because I have women that conquer the world, that they overcome terrible odds and terrible problems. And I don't mean to send a message, but I guess in a funny way I am intending to send one, which is, stand up and be counted, and go out and do it.

SIMON: May I ask, what's a favorite compliment that you get sometimes from readers?

BRADFORD: I think the one is when they say that I've touched them or moved them or that I've helped them through a problem. "A Woman of Substance" was really an extraordinary book in the sense that almost every woman that I met when I went out to promote the book in bookstores and events, they would come to me and tell me if Emma Hart - that was the protagonist in "A Woman of Substance" - if Emma could do it, they could. And I would always invariably say, do what? And they'd say, well, I was in a bad marriage, an abusive marriage and I had the courage to get out even though I didn't know how I'd bring up my children or earn a living. And when they tell me that, it makes me feel good although, as I say, I don't really set out to send a message except to go out there and do it.

SIMON: Barbara Taylor Bradford OBE. Her new best-seller, "Cavendon Hall." Thanks so much for being with us, Barbara.

BRADFORD: Thank you, Scott. I've enjoyed it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: BJ Leiderman wrote our theme music. And this is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.