Having made her debut as a novelist last year, Daily Mail agony aunt Janet Ellis talks fiction, family (she’s very close to her daughter, Sophie Ellis-Bextor) and the future
Love is in the air this month, and it’s clear from the moment that I sit down for coffee with Janet Ellis that passion and lust for life are things she has in abundance. So it’s perhaps not surprising that 2016 saw her first debut as a novelist, plenty of TV appearances, a continuation of a successful Daily Mail column and a final award of an MBE for her services to charity and theatre to round off her year.
Her novel, The Butcher’s Hook, is set in London in the 18th century and tells the story of Anne Jaccob, the eldest daughter of comfortably-off parents who is stifled by their narrow-mindedness. It has been likened to Fanny Burney’s Evelina and was shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize of 2016.
As Ellis talks through her long-awaited entrance into writing fiction, it seems that her ability to grab opportunity by the horns is the main message to take from such a talented woman. As agony aunt for the Daily Mail, her main piece of advice for the year would be for people to get out there and do what they truly want to do, something that Ellis struggled with herself with the writing career she so wanted.
‘I’ve wanted to write for as long as I can remember, but equally I’ve been scared to commit to it. A lot of my life has been about reasons or excuses for not doing it – meanwhile I was doing a lot of what I really wanted to do in acting though too, of course,’ says Ellis.
‘I wanted to be an actress and every decision I made was about that. My dad was in the army, so we travelled a lot throughout my childhood and acting and books were the two real constants in my life.
I ended up going to drama school at Central with my friend, the late Carrie Fisher
‘I ended up going to drama school at Central with my friend, the late Carrie Fisher, in fact. I had little forays into writing with bits of journalism, but not fiction. I took writing very seriously and the more it mattered to me, the greater distance I put between myself and doing it.’
Eventually, mainly because her family got sick of hearing about it, Ellis applied for the Curtis Brown three-month novel writing course. She had this odd chapter in her mind for a long time, which got her accepted onto the course, and it developed from there.
‘I learnt so much, I would hugely recommend it,’ she says. ‘When I left, one of the agents at Curtis Brown offered representation and that was the start of the adventure. It came to this sharp point where I just thought, “There are no more excuses now,” and got on with it. Then there was a grudging dawning on me that actually I could have done it all along!’
One of her biggest pieces of advice for budding authors is that you have to learn to take criticism, something Ellis learned of only too well when her acclaimed debut novel was also shortlisted for a Bad Sex in Fiction award.
‘I say this having not taken criticism for approximately 60 years,’ she laughs. ‘I put my good sport hat on and screwed it firmly in place with that one! I was trying to make the sex scene a bit different, but also resonant as it’s something that everyone experiences a lot in life.
The funny thing is that when I handed my first draft over to my editor, I actually joked that it would be nominated for the award and she said: “It absolutely won’t!’
‘I put my good sport hat on and screwed it firmly in place with that one!’ Janet Ellis on her debut novel being shortlisted for a Bad Sex in Fiction award
Fast forward and it absolutely was! My youngest daughter rang me from work to tell me and it just made me laugh a lot in honesty. There’s some more sex in book two so there you go – bad sex actually!’
While on the theme of sex and love, what are the most important things to Ellis? ‘I love my home in Hammersmith,’ she smiles. ‘When I first moved there I just thought of it as a place where you changed trains! But now I realise, we have practical at one end of the road and a rather delicious high street at the other.
‘I get to walk everywhere and beyond everything I love the river – especially our part of the river at Hammersmith and Barnes Bridge. It’s always there, it’s consistent and there’s just something about it.’
She’s close to her family and children too and counts herself very lucky that they all reside in the nearby neighbourhoods.
‘I’m just so glad that I love them so much, but actually really like them as people too, and that we have something in common,’ she says. ‘I hope they like each other as siblings as well!’
Her extended family include many charities and theatres that are close to her heart, such as Doorstep Library, the Hammersmith Lyric and the National Youth Theatre.
Of course, Ellis is not slowing down anytime soon and her next novel is due to be released next year. In the meantime, she will continue giving advice via the Daily Mail, while spending time with her family.
‘Find that space in your head for what you want to do that was there all along,’ says Ellis. ‘Be kind to yourself.’