Pearse de­fines that one should write what one knows about

Irish Examiner - Weekend - - Books -

matic step?

“I don’t know if I made the right de­ci­sion,” she says. “I was still very fond of him.” And life with­out him was tricky. “I’d got to 50. My busi­ness had failed, and my book wasn’t go­ing to set the world alight, so I still had a moun­tain of debt. I kept ap­ply­ing for jobs, but no one would em­ploy me.

“I left Nigel on New Year’s Day, and on the sec­ond of Jan­uary my sec­ond book, Tara, came out. I couldn’t get so­cial se­cu­rity be­cause I had my ad­vance, but the in­sol­vency peo­ple had taken that against the debt.

“I didn’t owe any­thing to the bank, so I went in there with copies of Ge­or­gia and Tara, put them down, and said, ‘Would you give me an un­lim­ited over­draft un­til I get the money for my third book.’ And the man­ager said, ‘Yes’.”

Tara was short­listed for the Ro­man­tic Nov­el­ist’s As­so­ci­a­tion Book of the Year, and since then, Les­ley’s sales have soared. She’s been with her pub­lish­ers, Pen­guin, for 25 years, has pub­lished 26 books, and has sold 10 mil­lion books world­wide.

I’m talk­ing to the 73-year old about The House Across the Street — a tale of bat­tered wives and the lengths their hus­bands will go to to ex­ert con­trol. It starts with a fire at a house where there is a stream of mys­te­ri­ous call­ers. The glam­orous Glo­ria lives there — a woman who fas­ci­nates young Katy Speed, but causes dis­sention be­tween her par­ents.

Glo­ria dies in the fire, along with her daugh­ter. And when Katy’s fa­ther is ar­rested, ac­cused of ar­son and mur­der, the 23-year old, who works for a so­lic­i­tor, starts mak­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions of her own. But can she find out the truth, and is she putting her own life in dan­ger?

Set in the sub­urbs in the six­ties, it’s a nostal­gic hol­i­day read with a still cur­rent is­sue at its heart. It’s not the first time the au­thor has writ­ten about do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, but what pro­pelled her into writ­ing this six­teenth book?

“I be­gan with that road. At the end of the road was this old oak pan­elled house which was a school for del­i­cate chil­dren. I worked there when I was do­ing my nurs­ery nurse train­ing at 17. Like Katy, I was nosy. I spent a lot of time look­ing out of the win­dow wait­ing and wish­ing some­thing would hap­pen.

“All through my life I’ve known women who have been abused. When I was ex­pect­ing Lucy, Erin Pizzey used to come into the fab­ric shop I ran. She told me where the first bat­tered wife refuge was, and I went there with her one day; I was mak­ing cur­tains for one of the rooms.

“I thought she was won­der­ful! Peo­ple were packed in like sar­dines, but it was their only place of safety. She never turned any­one away.”

She saw the story from the other side when she worked for a so­lic­i­tor in London.

“I used to read ev­ery­thing that came in. A yeoman of the guard in the tower of London was be­ing sued for di­vorce. He had bat­tered his wife. He’d flung her down the stairs. She had nine chil­dren. I re­mem­ber think­ing, gosh, this would make a good story, but this was true stuff. It got me in­ter­ested.”

Les­ley is a re­laxed, yet feisty in­ter­vie­wee. Her life story might seem fan­tas­ti­cal at times, but she’s hon­est when it comes to her fail­ings. She re­grets be­ing, ‘not very nice to men,’ yet rather likes the idea that she’s a ‘bolter.’

“I’m bet­ter off on my own,” she says. “I’ve got a lot of gay friends, and they are per­fect. They waft in and out of my house and come shop­ping. They love com­ing round for din­ner, and lay­ing the ta­ble, per­fectly! As for the other stuff, that ship has sailed.”

She’s be­come more ac­cept­ing with age. For years she den­i­grated her step­mother, who was cold, and never gave the chil­dren cud­dles, but now she re­alises she was the best thing that hap­pened in her child­hood.

“She was in­tol­er­ant but mul­ti­tal­ented. She de­vel­oped in me a love of the English lan­guage. She lived un­til she was 96 and could still do The Times cross­word in 10 min­utes. I wrote her a let­ter one day telling her how grate­ful I was. I didn’t send her a copy of Ge­or­gia be­cause of all the rude bits, but she rang the pub­lisher and said, ‘I’m Les­ley Pearce’s mother, send me the book!’ She said it was very good. ‘But it was a shame you had to ex­er­cise the coarser bits of your mind.’

“She found Dad in a mar­riage bureau. She went along there and said, ‘I want a man who is in the forces, prefer­ably of­fi­cer class, but I’d set­tle for an NCO. He must have at least two chil­dren, own his house and be artis­tic.’ Dad ticked all the boxes. It wasn’t a love match, but they were great friends. We used to hear them laugh­ing.”

What is the se­cret of her suc­cess?

“I read a lot and I write the kind of books I like to read,” she says. “I told fibs as a child, and lived in imag­i­na­tive worlds, al­ways mak­ing things up.” She laughs. “And I still am, to an ex­tent. I thought ev­ery­body did that.”

The House Across the Street

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