Sudbury: Chiclit author Victoria Connelly, author of Flights of Angels, reveals how she gave up the day job after years of clock watching to live her dream

'If you didnt have any ambition, I think life would be very dull. But as long as its achievable,' says author Victoria Connelly. 'If you didnt have any ambition, I think life would be very dull. But as long as its achievable,' says author Victoria Connelly.

Sunday, June 1, 2014
10:00 AM

Ever wanted to jack in a dead-end job? Victoria Connelly felt that way – and did something about it.

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Victoria and Roy Connelly have a collection of rehoused ex-battery hens, their names lifted from the pages of fiction, such as Nancy and Peggy from Arthur Ransome.Victoria and Roy Connelly have a collection of rehoused ex-battery hens, their names lifted from the pages of fiction, such as Nancy and Peggy from Arthur Ransome.

No longer Queen of the Photocopier, the Suffolk based author tells Steven Russell how we all really can strive for our own happy endings.

Victoria Connelly, luxuriating in the bath, had been married less than two months when panic shot through her body like a bolt of lightning. Memories of that gorgeous autumn day with her husband, their romantic wedding in a 14th Century castle reputedly haunted by Mary Queen of Scots, were still fresh. But then came word that newsman Roy was being dispatched to a war zone, to cover a Palestinian uprising for TV.

Reality dawned as she soaked in the tub.

“My initial thought was ‘Oh my god. I’m going to be married six weeks and then widowed!’” she recalls. “As soon as I had that thought, I realised it would make a great idea for a book. Isn’t that awful! Writers do have that ability to stand back and think ‘I’m going to use that’.”

Victoria Connelly's A Summer to RememberVictoria Connelly's A Summer to Remember

Her fertile imagination conjured a band of little angels, dancing on desks and trying to find ways of helping a widow pick up the pieces.

It led to a story called Flights of Angels, which netted Victoria a three-book deal in Germany.

A film company bought the rights, too. The author and Roy (back, unscathed) enjoyed a visit to Berlin to see the cameras turning, and even appeared as extras.

For Victoria, it marked the start of a “proper” writing career that had been bubbling since childhood. She now has to her name a clutch of full-length stories, novellas, and even e-books that chronicle her escape from London to the bucolic sanity of East Anglia.

Feature on author Victoria Connelly.Feature on author Victoria Connelly.

Home for the couple, arthritic springer spaniel Molly and a clutch of rehoused ex-battery hens (their names lifted from the pages of fiction, such as Nancy and Peggy from Arthur Ransome) is a 19th Century white-washed cottage near Sudbury. (The railway is within easy reach – handy for whenever cockney Roy, now an artistic painter, needs to get to the capital, on business or for a fix of city life.)

You can’t escape the feeling that Victoria has lived out the template of many of her stories: heroine in a job that’s going nowhere, often with an annoying boss; summons the courage to throw it in; finds success and love, and all ends happily ever after.

She grins. “The perfect heroine is a girl in a bad job, with a dream. Some of my favourite books are like that too, like The Darling Buds of May, which has Mr Charlton turning up, working in the tax office, and then falling under the spell of the Larkins, gives up his job and goes strawberry-picking.”

Victoria knows what it’s like to be the square peg in the round hole. “All the jobs I’ve done that haven’t been writing, I’ve been clock-watching – ‘wishing my life away’. I begrudged every minute.”

She’s also had some pretty awful bosses. There’s been swearing, and one even spat on an invoice! With one job, she spent a lunchtime wandering around, mulling over the chance of extending her contract, and said “No thanks”.

“They were so shocked. It was brilliant! They just assumed a dogsbody would want to stay.”

Apologies for raining on the parade, but isn’t there a danger that lusting after the faultless hero – yearning for wall-to-wall happiness – will only breed dissatisfaction? For most of us, reality is a pile of ironing in the corner.

Victoria argues the world she weaves is simply a construct enjoyed harmlessly by a lot of people.

“I was once on the Vanessa Feltz show and she accused me of adding to that idea of happy ever afters, and she said we can’t all have the perfect man and the perfect life. But you can, in the space of a few hours.

“It’s escapism. We’re never going to achieve perfection. Human beings are far from perfect, and in life you get mess thrown at you that’s outside your control; but fiction, films, dramas on TV – that’s something you can control.”

She believes a desire for something better is universal.

“I think it’s a good life force to have – to have an ambition – even if it is to have a holiday in the Seychelles or to buy that car. If you didn’t have any ambition, I think life would be very dull. But as long as it’s achievable. Don’t say ‘I want to win the lottery’, because that’s out of your control. If you can say ‘I’d like X’ and start saving up for it, and have got a goal that’s achievable, that’s sane.”

So: having a realistic dream and keeping things in perspective is the key.

“Fiction can often inspire you to do better – and give you the guts to do that. Hopefully my characters are inspiring.”

Stories and dreams are in Victoria Connelly’s DNA.

The village library was just outside the high school and in her early teens she’d slip away from the classroom to consume Mills & Boon romances.

Toddler years were spent in Beck Row, near Mildenhall – dad a TV cameraman. After that came homes in rural Norfolk.

“I kind of brought myself up on Doris Day films. I like it all to be neat at the end – and a happy ending, definitely. Love and laughter – you can’t beat it.”

School was hit and miss, and she failed maths three times. Nevertheless, on to university at Worcester, reading English and graduating in 1992.

Victoria started her first novel there. She sent it out to the publishing industry… and was brought back down to earth by the rejection letters that arrived from 1994. “Byronic hero and simpering heroine. It was probably quite bad…”

Time for a plan: get temporary jobs to pay the way; write in free time. And move north. There had long been a dream of a remote Scottish cottage with no electricity but an otter for company. “The furthest I got was Carlisle” – with the Ministry of Agriculture.

Victoria had moved on to Yorkshire by the time she realised she was on-hold. “I was working in admin, personnel, and nobody cared that I could quote virtually the whole of Hamlet.”

Maybe she ought to make the most of her degree. Teaching English? Leeds offered a place, conditional on her finally getting GCSE maths.

Victoria, then about 24 and working in a building society, found herself sweating blood over the books at night. It was worth it: a grade B and a passport to Leeds.

Teaching was also a challenge. Massively. Her first full day was at a school in Bradford that had a crèche for pupils’ children.

Victoria did several months of supply teaching – almost willing the clock to edge past 8am and thus make it likely she’d get a day at home, to write, rather than being called to plug a hole in a classroom. Later she got work at Skipton Girls’ High.

She’d met Roy years earlier, in the Peak District. They conducted a long-distance courtship, Roy sending bouquets to her office and travelling to Skipton to visit during Victoria’s six years there.

One of them would have to move, eventually. Roy was part of a reporter-and-cameraman team covering the northern hemisphere for Australia’s Channel Seven. It made sense for his intended to fly south.

It was the summer holidays, 2000, and Victoria put a notice in a newsagent’s window, offering private tuition in English GCSE and A-level. “I was inundated.”

That September they married at Bolton Castle in the Yorkshire Dales. London, though, she… well, hated. They lived at Ruislip.

“I was used to hilltop Skipton, looking at allotments, canals and hills. A two-minute walk and you’re in the middle of buttercup meadows. I got myself so worked up one day; I counted how many houses I could see. It was like 60 from the back and 50-odd at the front.”

Moving would take a while; she’d have to endure the suburbs for 11 years.

It helped that the writing career took off. Flights of Angels was bought in a bidding war between five publishers and printed as Unter deinem Stern. Then came the film, and two more novels.

Victoria herself managed to sell a story called Molly’s Millions. The tale, about a florist who wins a fortune on the lottery, came out in 2009 and was her first UK title.

Not that it brought riches. “You’d be shocked at what publishers pay.”

Victoria also had the idea of a trilogy about Jane Austen addicts, including Christmas with Mr Darcy. America wanted a trilogy and HarperCollins took two on this side of the Atlantic.

She’d been a fan ever since she and a school friend devoured the 1940 MGM film of Pride and Prejudice, starring Laurence Olivier.

The romance and wit were irresistible. “But I think, most of all, it’s that the characters make the biggest mistakes but get a second chance at love; a second chance at a happy ending. I think that’s why women love Mr Darcy: he changes for the woman he loves.”

The new novel is A Summer to Remember, featuring the latest office worker to finally declare “That’s it!”

Nina takes a job in the East Anglian countryside, as a researcher for a would-be author, but summer is interrupted when the handsome Milton boys return home…

On a personal level, Victoria is sure her own days of searching are over.

She looks out of the window, at the cottage garden and across to the fields. “I’ve said to Roy that I don’t think we could be happier anywhere else.”

A Summer to Remember is published by Avon/HarperCollins at: £6.99.



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