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Lesley Pearse: ‘It isn’t easy to write about the hurtful or shameful parts of your life’

The author talks about her reunion with her Irish relatives, her 31 novels and her first nonfiction title


You have written as many books as there are counties in Ireland but your 32nd is your first nonfiction title, your autobiography. Tell us about it.

Quite simply it’s my life. Good and bad. From when my Irish mother died, while my dad was at sea, and being placed in an orphanage. My life in bedsit land in London during the 1960s and the many calamities which befell me. It’s also about friendships.

You write stories about strong women who have had to overcome many obstacles. That description could apply to you as well. What was it like writing your own story as opposed to your fictional heroines?

Much harder because in an autobiography you have to tell the truth. It isn’t easy to write about the hurtful or shameful parts of your life. With fiction you can write as you’d like to be, giving your heroine beauty, brains and good fortune. The unpleasant things I make my heroines go through will all end, and almost always there’s a happy ever after.

How did it feel being reunited with your mother’s relatives in 2022?

Fabulous. All of the aunties and uncles I remembered so well had passed on, but it was good to catch up with cousins and meet their families. There’s an awful lot more I’d like to know about each of them, but there’s time. I do feel some sadness though that there is no one left who knew my mother well, it would’ve been wonderful to hear a few stories, and imagine the young Marie before she left Ireland.

Your reunion with your Irish relatives triggered another family reconnection with your son. What did that mean to you?

I felt blessed. It was something I’d dreamed of all my life, but in truth after 57 years I’d given up hope. So to get the news he had connected with a cousin in the US through DNA and wanted to find me, that was magical.

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What connection do you feel with your Irish background now?

Much closer as I learned more about them, and they me. Also to find out how life in Ireland has changed in the 60 years since I was last there in 1962.

Many of your novels have been number one best-sellers and you’ve sold more than 10 million copies. Which is your favourite and what is your secret?

I change my mind often about this. Never Look Back was the favourite, but I think Gypsy and Belle have captured my heart now. The secret? I don’t think there is one, unless you count the Irish storytelling gene.

Which projects are you working on?

The latest is set in Ireland during the second World War. The working title is The Impostor, but only nine chapters in so far.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?

No, but I was born in Rochester, with the influence of Charles Dickens everywhere. My stepmum used to take me to Gadds Hill where he lived. And I like to think of him as my spirit guide.

What is the best writing advice you have heard?

A publisher who turned down a very early book, which eventually went in the dustbin, said “But you can write, so stick at it.” That was all the advice and praise I needed.

Who do you admire the most?

Writers? Daphne du Maurier, CJ Sanson and Edna O’Brian.

You are supreme ruler for a day. Which law do you pass or abolish?

I’d bring in castration for child molesters.

Which current book, film and podcast would you recommend?

I loved the book Child of the Ruins by Kate Furnival, also A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Most films I’ve watched lately bored me, and I’ve no time to listen to podcasts.

Which public event affected you most?

In recent times the queen’s funeral. While not a royalist, the pageantry was very moving.

The most remarkable place you have visited?

A toss-up between St Petersburg in Russia and the Klondike in Canada.

Your most treasured possession?

A small china Rabbit tucked into bed, he’s called Snuggles. It was given to me on my 21st birthday by an older woman I worked with who helped me deal with past sadness.

What is the most beautiful book that you own?

The Prophet by Kahil Gibran. I never tire of dipping into it.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

JP Donleavy, Stephen Fry, Enid Blyton, Charles Dickens and Tom Sharpe.

The best and worst things about where you live?

The best is the sea, and the proximity to so much beautiful countryside. The worst is our local council who never get anything right.

What is your favourite quotation?

“I have net curtains to keep out the vulgar gaze.” Said by my stepmother.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Flora Poste in Cold Comfort Farm. I think I have similar bossy ways.

A book to make you laugh?

As above, Cold Comfort Farm. I’ve reread it dozens of times. It’s hilarious. It is a bit of a pop at dour country folk, but cleverly written and insightful.

A book that might move you to tears?

I cry at many books, but The Bridges of Madison County is the most memorable weepy. But I cry a lot as I write my own books. Particularly The Long and Winding Road.

The Long and Winding Road by Lesley Pearse is published by Michael Joseph