Interview: Barbara Taylor Bradford
The million-selling novelist explains why she is so fond of Jews.
Barbara Taylor Bradford: her latest novel has a Holocaust storyline
Three pm at the Dorchester. Outside, the afternoon sun burns flesh and metal the length and breadth of Park Lane. Inside, secretive businessmen and earnest tourists nibble pastries and crust-free sandwiches.
Seated at a table in the centre of the room is a comfortably elegant, blonde woman. Around her, a new kind of tea dance seems to be taking place, a waiter and a waitress performing co-ordinated, deferential steps. The woman- who looks middle-aged but is in fact in her late 70s - is clearly an important guest. A woman of substance, you might say.
Yes, this is Barbara Taylor Bradford, whose 1979 literary debut - called A Woman of Substance - is one of the biggest-selling novels of all time. It has so far sold around 30 million copies and, rather neatly, its author currently stands at around number 30 in the ranks of Britain's wealthiest women.
Since that explosive arrival three decades ago, Bradford has written 26 further novels, pushing her total sales past the 80 million mark. Every one of them sells to 90 countries and is translated into 40 languages. Ten have been turned into TV movies by Bradford's film-producer husband Bob. A Woman of Substance, with Deborah Kerr at the head of a starry cast, was a six-part blockbuster on both sides of the Atlantic, over here attracting Channel 4's highest ever audience of 13.8 million. She was awarded the OBE four years ago and, if further proof were needed of Bradford's status, she has been on Desert Island Discs three times.
She says that the increase in antisemitism drives her 'crazy'
No wonder the Dorchester staff dance attendance on her. Bradford is a phenomenon. Now living in America, she is in London to promote her latest book, Letter From a Stranger, a simply told story of love and hate within a family, to which she gives an increasingly Jewish flavour as the book progresses.
Bradford is not Jewish and explains that she was moved to write the novel "because my husband is a German Jew and he was taken out of Germany as a child", adding that: "I've been horrified and fascinated by Nazi Germany since before I met Bob, and we've been married 47 years". Bob Bradford eventually made it to America.
Letter From a Stranger is not the first of Barbara Taylor Bradford's books to contain Jewish material; there is a Jewish family in A Woman of Substance, she points out. "The book is set in Yorkshire and I come originally from Leeds, a very Jewish city. You couldn't write a book about Leeds at the turn of the century without including a family like the Kallinskis."
Commenting on what she sees as a disturbing increase in antisemitism - "it drives me crazy" - she approvingly recalls having once been described as "the greatest Jewish shiksah in the world". But her disgust at antisemitism is not experienced in a partial way. To make the point, she recalls another of her books with Jewish content, The Women in his Life, and being buttonholed by a reader at a signing for yet another of her titles in the 1990s:
"This woman came up to me and asked: 'Are you Jewish?' I said: 'No, why?' She told me she had tried to read The Women in his Life but could not get into it. Then, accompanying her husband on a long, rain-affected business trip to Zurich, she had decided to give it another try. Quite a back-handed compliment.
"She said she had become tremendously emotional when she got to the part where the character Maximilian West was taken out of Berlin with his mother's jewellery sewn into his clothes and she said: 'I began to weep, and I want you to know that I have not wept since I was taken out of Nazi Germany with my mother's jewellery stitched into my clothes'. It was cathartic, she said before asking: 'But if you're not Jewish, how did you understand their feelings?'
"What a question. I was gobsmacked. I replied: 'Because I am a human being!'"
Bradford had her sights set on being a writer from her early days as an only child in Leeds and became a great fan of the local literary heroes, the Brontës. In addition, "my mother force-fed me Dickens," she says. "And I was always scribbling in exercise books. When I was 10, my mother sent a story of mine to a children's magazine and one day we got a letter and a postal order for 10 shillings and sixpence and the story was published. Hemingway said that you can't call yourself a writer until you've been paid for what you write - so I've been a writer since I was 10! My destiny was sealed."
The young Barbara Taylor - Taylor is her maiden name, which she retained after she married- took her first steps towards fulfilling that destiny by joining the typing pool at the Yorkshire Evening Post when she left school at 15, quickly rising to reporter. Later, she became the fashion editor of Woman's Own - "in those days, fashion editing was how to make three dresses out of a tea-towel".
Citing her journalistic background, Bradford says she always researches her books thoroughly. Consequently, she is distressed by a small historical error in Letter From a Stranger, inserted after an adviser challenged something she had written about the Second World War.
Mutual friends introduced Barbara and Bob Bradford in 1963 and, ever since, they have formed a powerful team. They don't have children - "it's just him and a dog" - but do have energy. "Bob has always been in the movie business and represented me when I started to write books. He believes books should be sold like movies."
This formula has certainly been successful, boosted by his wife's prolific output. She has already moved on to the next book, Rendezvous in Venice, about war photographers. Even before A Woman of Substance, she had written books on interior design and published a number of biblical stories for children. And indeed, morals and manners still form an essential part of her storytelling. This is something of a mission. "I think we live in a very vulgar time," she says. "In Britain, we forget that the Elizabethans and Victorians made us what we are. Nowadays, people dismiss history."
While Bradford would not claim to be turning out great literature, she says she writes "for intelligent women - though a lot of men do read my books. My readers want something with a bit of meat on the bone." An appropriate closing image, perhaps, as the Dorchester staff begin to turn their attention from tea to dinner.
'Letter From a Stranger' is published by HarperCollins at £17.99