Deborah Moggach | Best-selling Author
A warm, witty and wise novel about the unexpected twists that later life can bring, from the hugely popular author of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Tulip Fever.

Author Deborah Moggach talks to Saga Magazine: “When it comes to matters of the heart we’re all still 15.”

Deborah Moggach, who wrote the book that became the Marigold Hotel film, has done it again. This time her new book tackles love in later life head-on, something she knows quite a bit about…
Deborah Moggach. Portrait by Pal Hansen.
Deborah Moggach. Portrait by Pal Hansen.

Forget The Six Million Dollar Man, bestselling author Deborah Moggach is the Hundred and Thirty Six Million Dollar Woman. Worldwide box office takings for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, adapted from her novel These Foolish Things, wildly surpassed expectations, making it one of the biggest hits of last year. Now her new book, Heartbreak Hotel, looks set to garner more accolades for a prolific novelist and screenwriter at the top of her game.

Just as Marigold Hotel revolved around a wonderfully original idea – the outsourcing of elderly Brits to India – so Heartbreak Hotel breaks new ground with its portrayal of people coming to terms with lost love. The story unfolds in a Welsh B&B. But this is no ordinary guesthouse; it’s a school for the broken-hearted.

‘Our lives are changing,’ says Deborah, lighting a roll-up and perching on the sofa in her house overlooking Hampstead Heath, North London. ‘Most people used to have one marriage that lasted for life, but nowadays we’re living much longer so we often have serial relationships. Many of us have two or three big loves during the course of a lifetime and that means more endings. The challenge – and the theme of the book – is: how do we cope with those endings?’

As with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which offered a pragmatic (if delightfully romanticised) solution to the problem of retired folk eking out dwindling resources, Deborah’s new book also demonstrates a practical bent to her thinking.

‘Usually, in any relationship, one person assumes responsibility for one set of tasks – the cooking, say, or the car – while the other tackles the rest – the finances or the DIY. But when a couple splits up, or one partner dies, it can feel horribly disempowering to discover suddenly that you don’t actually know how to change a plug, or book a holiday, and that adds to the feeling of hopelessness.’

And that’s where a sojourn at Heartbreak Hotel could make all the difference. Run by retired actor Russell ‘Buffy’ Buffery, the B&B becomes an emotional pit-stop where bruised souls can swap practical skills while gathering the strength to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and start all over again. Among the ‘Courses for Divorces’ offered to male guests is thrice-divorced Buffy’s own tutorial: How to Talk to Women.

‘I think a lot of men still find it incredibly difficult to relate to women,’ says Deborah. ‘Blokes are inclined to talk about things, whereas women are much more interested in feelings. I remember a friend falling in love with a woman and whisking her off to the Black Mountains for a camping weekend (not the most romantic idea, but men can be funny that way). When he came back, all his friends were dying to know how it went and he told us at great length about how he’d slept in a wonderful triple-sewn, Arctic-weight sleeping bag, – no doubt very snug but way down the list of things any of us actually wanted to know. And that was such a male answer. No woman in the world – especially one who’s just got off with a new bloke – would tell you about the type of sleeping bag.’

It’s a typically acute observation from one of our sharpest-eyed chroniclers of the battle of the sexes, but it’s not meant as a dig at men.

‘I think it’s a ghastly time to be a man,’ says Deborah. ‘Women have become so demanding, so powerful, and often make blokes feel redundant. Men nowadays are constantly told they need to be “in touch with their female side” – gentle and considerate as well as manly and powerful. It’s almost impossible. And when they do their best to be nurturing and lovely, their wife or girlfriend rewards them by running off with the plumber or builder, someone who’s a dab hand around the house. No wonder so many men are dazed and confused.’

‘Dazed and confused’ is the perfect description of Marigold Hotel’s Douglas Ainslie, the long-suffering husband played in the film by Bill Nighy. Will we be seeing Douglas again, along with Dame Judi Dench’s merry widow, Evelyn, and Dame Maggie Smith’s waspish Muriel? There’s talk of a sequel but Deborah won’t be involved.

‘I’m all written out on that particular subject. But the film was such a success partly because it catered for a group of people often ignored by Hollywood executives. They don’t understand that there are masses of older, discerning cinema-goers who want films that speak to us about our own situation.’

Has exploring issues that crop up in later life made her think about her own ageing process? ‘Absolutely not,’ she laughs. ‘I don’t want to think about it at all. I’m 64, surrounded by people my own age, and my goodness, they moan! We’ve all got bits dropping off all over the place, but we don’t need to bang on about it all the time.

‘I was arranging to see friends recently and the woman said, “I’ll phone you before we meet and tell you all the things that are wrong with me and my husband – his cancer, my hip replacement, etc – so we can get the dull stuff out of the way and just have a jolly dinner”. I love that approach. We’re all facing difficult things, but there is so much interesting stuff in the world and I think we should focus on that.’ She laughs again, this time at herself. ‘In other words, I’m totally in denial.’

In 1985, Deborah’s mother, Charlotte Hough, also a writer, was imprisoned for helping a desperately ill friend commit suicide. ‘It’s still hard to believe it happened,’ says Deborah. ‘Parents occupy a certain place in our heads, so to visit her in prison and see her suddenly so vulnerable and being ordered about by a meaty, key-jangling prison officer was very upsetting.’ Is she tempted to write about the experience? ‘No,’ she says firmly. ‘It was my mother’s story, not mine.’

She has, however, written about another harrowing episode in her own life. In 1994, her partner of ten years, the celebrated cartoonist Mel Calman, died of a heart attack while they were watching Carlito’s Way at the Empire Leicester Square. ‘It was deeply traumatic. I spent weeks at home, drinking sweet tea and smoking roll-ups, incapable of doing anything. Grief is like childbirth: you have to concentrate on it very hard to get yourself through it.’

Three months later, she fell in love again, this time with a Hungarian artist 17 years her junior. ‘It was a period of extraordinarily heightened emotions – coruscating one minute, wonderful the next. But I didn’t feel I was betraying Mel at all. It was a completely different sort of love affair, and he would have wanted me to be happy.’

When the relationship finally ran its course, Deborah spent several years hacking her way through the dating jungle. ‘No matter how old we get, it’s the same old teenage heart beating inside. You’re wondering if he’ll phone. How many XXXs in his texts? But some aspects of being Out There as a singleton have definitely changed for the worse. I was once set up with a much older man. We went to the theatre and I paid £80 for the tickets. He reciprocated by taking me to a Chinese restaurant, which he said was his favourite because it was the cheapest place in town. So we sat in this grim, strip-lit, all-you-can-eat-for-£5.99 restaurant and he proceeded to take out his false teeth, then masticate his gummy way through a bowl of soup filled with tiny shiitake mushrooms.’

Undeterred, Deborah persevered with the dating merry-go-round and is now happily settled with a new partner her own age. ‘Falling in love is always full of turbulence, no matter how old you are. When it comes to matters of the heart we’re all still 15, but we now come with lots of extra baggage. When you get to this stage of life, being with a new partner of the same age somehow mirrors your own mortality, which can come as a bit of a shock; but it’s also very companionable to be a bit saggy together, and to share frames of reference with someone who knows who Alma Cogan was, or Cliff Michelmore.’

With a new romance, the new novel (a BBC One adaptation is in development) and two new grandchildren, it’s tempting to see everything in Deborah’s garden as rosy, but she’s anything but smug or complacent. ‘I’m lucky at the moment,’ she says, ‘but life is so rocky and fragile, everything could fall apart at any second.’

And in a parting shot, as if wary of tempting fate, she produces a clipping in which an agony aunt addresses the wife of a faithless husband. ‘As a mature adult, you’ll know that our emotional lives are lived out in a perilous playground, far removed from early fantasies of eternal love and ideals of right and wrong.’

‘Brilliant!’ she says, laughing again. ‘If you ask me, that says it all.’

(Interview taken from Saga Magazine online: http://www.saga.co.uk/saga-magazine/2013/february/deborah-moggach.aspx?pid=mn)

This book came about because I’d been thinking a lot about growing older, about what is going to happen to us all. The population is ageing – for the first time the over 50s outnumber the rest of us – and it’s getting older. Where are we all going to live? Care homes are closing, pensions are dwindling, and life expectancy is rising. Then I had a brainwave. We live in a global age – the internet, cheap travel, satellite TV…when it comes to goods and services it hardly matters where we live. “Geography is history.” Our healthcare is sourced from the developing countries; how about turning the tables and outsourcing the elderly? How about setting up retirement homes in developing countries where it’s sunny and labour is cheap? So I created an Indian whizz-kid called Sonny who sets up a retirement home in Bangalore and fills it with Brits.

I wanted to explore questions of race and mortality, but I also wanted it to be funny. I wanted to write a comedy of manners between east and west, and chose Bangalore because it’s both an old Raj cantonement town and Silicon City, home to gleaming skyscrapers and high-tech offices. .And call centres. In the novel Evelyn, one of my characters, wanders into a call centre because she thinks she can phone from there. And ends up befriending a young operative who has to pretend she comes from England. (“What’s Enfield like, aunty?”) Evelyn’s Enfield is a place of tea dances, a place that no longer exists – except in India. For in many ways India resembles the Britain of fifty years ago, the Britain of my characters’ youth, where children were polite and Morris Oxfords puttered along the streets. Or so it seems. But that, too, can be an illusion.

There are many characters in the book, each with a reason for going to India: escape, revenge, spiritual enlightenment, marriage to a rich maharaja. And India changes them profoundly, in ways they would never have expected.  Norman is a frightful old lech; Minoo and Mrs Cowasjee are the Parsi couple who run the hotel – a shabby, former guest house. Mrs Cowasjee is the resident nurse, though in truth she has only worked, a long time ago, as a chiropdist’s assistant. Evelyn is a gentle soul from Sussex. Muriel is a working class Londoner who has come out to India because she’s been mugged and robbed, back in Peckham.

Book Description

Enticed by advertisements for a newly restored palatial hotel and filled with visions of a life of leisure, good weather and mango juice in their gin, a group of very different people leave England to begin a new life in India. On arrival they are dismayed to find the palace is a shell of its former self, the staff more than a little eccentric, and the days of the Raj long gone. But, as they soon discover, life and love can begin again, even in the most unexpected circumstances.

 

This novel was prompted by a newspaper story I read, about a young woman who was charged with fraud. She worked at the British Telecom payments processing centre at Durham, and when cheques arrived written to “BT” (rather than the full name) she changed them to “B.Taylor” and her friend Barry and herself paid them into their own account. This struck me as a simple little scam, and rather brilliant.And there was something about it that stuck in my mind. I kept asking myself the novelist’s question “What if?” What if a payment doesn’t get processed? The customer gets a final demand and in the end their phone is cut off. And if a phone gets cut off, what then? All sorts of life-changing things can happen. So I developed this into a story that starts out as a simple little fraud and that suddenly gets darker when, as a result of a phone line being disconnected, a terrible tragedy happens. This novel is really about guilt and responsibility, how there is no such thing as a victimless crime. I also scripted it as a drama for the BBC, starring Tamsin Outhwaite. She brought a terrific minx-like ammorality to the part of Natalie, our anti-heroine; but she also brought a humanity to her, so we were on her side. For Natalie truly believed she was doing nothing wrong, until she was faced with the devastating result of her greed.

Book Description

Natalie is a girl who should be going somewhere. Beautiful, bright and ambitious, she’s stuck in a dead-end job in the accounts department of Nu-Line Telecommunications, living her life through wild weekends and yearning for something more.

When she sees a chance to change her life, she takes it.After all, it’s only a minor crime.Nobody’s going to get hurt. But other people do get hurt, because Natalie’s actions do have consequences – tragic consequences. Poignant and beautifully written, Final Demand is a cautionary tale about the battle between greed and love, about human hopes and our own frailty in the face of temptation.

Reviews

“Thank God for Deborah Moggach. Final Demand is strong on narrative, dashing the reader along but, though fast-paced and transparently written, nevertheless creates people of memorable complexity.”
(Independent)

“A cracker. Take the phone off the hook, curl up on the sofa and enjoy.”
(Womans Journal)

“An astonishing story of broken dreams, greed and human frailty…a tale of extraordinary power. Quite simply outstanding.”
(Daily Mail)

“Hugely entertaining…immensely thought-provoking.”
(Daily Express)

 

My parents instilled a Protestant work ethic in me Though it’s rather lapsed of late, I fear. I’ve written something like 17 novels, which isn’t bad, I suppose, but my father wrote 120 books, my mother 40. In comparison, I’m lazy.

I often feel like an imposter in the grown-up world I feel as if someone is going to come along, feel my collar and say: “Do you really think you can get people to read books you’ve made up about people that don’t exist?”

Writers shouldn’t whinge I’ve had two or three experiences in Hollywood, and each has been really unhappy and uncreative, a joyless process. But one can’t whinge, because everyone knows you are trousering vast amounts of money. Whining writers are a hideous sight; we should really shut up, because we are lucky if we can cobble together a living from all of this.

The pram in the hall never affected me Bringing my two children up while writing was just a part of life. I’d much rather have had their interruptions than been stuck in a sterile office. This way, I had welcome distractions. I had to load the washing machine, I had to go out and buy lemons.

I’m 65 and about to be married again I was married once, decades ago, then had long relationships with someone older, then someone younger. The man I’m about to marry is exactly my age, and this is important. In my new novel, one character discusses running off with a younger man. “Fancy going to bed with someone who has never heard of Cliff Michelmore,” she says. I know what she means. I’d much rather go to bed with someone that has heard of Cliff Michelmore.

My parents divorced late in life I was in my thirties, a proper grown-up, but it still had a destructive effect. One minute they were sitting side-by-side, soulmates as ever; the next everything had imploded. They both behaved badly, slagging each other off to their children. That’s a line you should never cross. And then my mother went to prison [for her part in assisting a terminally ill friend to die]. I think subconsciously she wanted to get my father’s attention, but he was appalled. They both remarried, but they never reconciled.

I’m a patron of dignity in dying probably as a result of my mother’s experiences. It was a courageous thing for her to do, I think, and the law is lagging way behind humane opinion. Everyone I speak to, and not just the chattering classes in north London, think it’s insane to artificially keep people alive when they are suffering. Who wants to be tied up to a squillion tubes at the end of their life? Not me.

Nothing gets easier with age Even love. Half the time, I still feel like a messed-up teenager, the other half like a wise old bird. But love remains just as complicated, just as tumultuous. People my age still wait for text messages and see how many x’s come at the end of them.

I love cycling in London I love looking into people’s windows at dusk, cycling down to Soho from Hampstead as the sun sets, and seeing waiters lay out tables, the evening beginning to hum.

I’d love to sing with a band in a concert hall Billie Holiday, Cole Porter… I really can sing. Probably very not well, but I don’t care. It’ll never happen, of course, so I content myself with singing in the car, loudly.

Deborah Moggach has been writing for the past 35 years; her novels include 2004’s ‘These Foolish Things’, which was adapted for the cinema as ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’. Her latest novel, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, is out now in paperback (£7.99, Vintage). For more on Dignity in Dying: dignityindying.org.uk

(Interview taken from the Independent online: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/credo-novelist-deborah-moggach-talks-whinging-biking-and-going-to-bed-with-cliff-michelmore-8812095.html)