Georgette Heyer sold her first book at the age of 17 and wrote 55 more over the next 50 years. She was also fiercely opposed to letting her private life out into the public. In Jennifer Kloester's new biography, she describes the single time Heyer agreed to an interview.
It's more than ninety years since Georgette Heyer published her first novel, The Black Moth. She was nineteen and that book––made up to entertain her convalescing younger brother––was to be the first of more than fifty enduringly popular novels. Today Heyer is one of the great bestsellers, with sales in the tens of millions and an international readership that crosses four generations. Though she wrote detective fiction and historical novels set in different time periods, she is best known for her stylish, witty Regency romances and her love of ironic comedy. Heyer was unusual, both in her ability to produce consistently well-written books (an average of a book a year for more than fifty years) and in her refusal to engage in any kind of personal publicity to promote them.
Throughout her long and highly successful career Heyer adamantly refused to make her private life public. It was an attitude which, in today's world of celebrity news and a voracious public appetite for details of famous people's private lives, may seem antiquated––even risky. In the modern era, however, it is a rare author who can afford to turn her back on interviews, TV or radio broadcasts, book signings, literary festivals, Facebook, Twitter and blog tours if she wants her books to sell. Yet Georgette Heyer became a bestseller without the benefit of a single public appearance or interview about her writing. Between her first novel, published in 1921 and still in print, and her last, published posthumously in 1975, Heyer agreed to only one interview – and that on the proviso that the journalist ask her about anything except her work.
At first the journalist, Coral Craig, was skeptical, both about Miss Heyer's reported dislike of publicity and her publisher's assertion that 'she is never, never interviewed' and it was only on meeting Heyer at her home in central London that she was finally convinced of the author's genuine aversion to discussing her work. Heyer was very welcoming, made Ms. Craig a dry martini and spoke to her of many things, including poetry, films, architecture and history, but she steadfastly refused to talk about her books or writing.
Heyer had a strong dislike for what she considered vulgar pretension. Unlike most modern writers, she thought it ill-mannered for authors to talk at length about their books – especially if they were successful. Heyer considered writing to be a private and solitary occupation and not something to be discussed ad nauseum with friends and family and certainly not at a social function or in public. She took her work very seriously and did not believe her readers either wanted or needed to know about her personal life. As she, herself, said: 'My life isn't of interest – my books (I hope) are. I'm sick to death of chatty bits about authors, & LOATHE this form of advertisement.' There were numerous requests for details about her private life, her work habits, and her creative processes. Yet she spurned them all, holding firmly to the belief that what her readers most wanted from her was another entertaining novel.
Good writers immerse themselves in the writing process; they try out words and sentences, develop their characters, evolve their plots, consider, construct and create and then send their creations out into the world. It was this process which Heyer loved: she was a compulsive writer who, on finishing one novel, would immediately start work on the next. She was also intensely shy and emotionally constricted and this was another reason why she insisted on complete privacy. Her emotions frequently found an outlet in her writing and her novels reflect much of her deep inner life. To have made herself known to her readers through publicity would have been to put that emotional outlet at risk. It was one thing to write aspects of herself into her books and quite another to let her readers know that she had done so.
Heyer had an ambivalent relationship with her readers and did not always know how to deal with public praise. While she liked to know she was read and enjoyed, and appreciated the many positive reviews of her books (including those in Publishers Weekly), she often found it hard to respond appropriately to fans who gushed or liked her books for what she considered the wrong reasons (such as finding them 'sweetly pretty'). She appreciated letters from readers seeking clarification on a point of history or language, or who thanked her for making a difference or a contribution to their lives, but she could not abide gratuitous flattery or letters begging her to write sequels or yet another of the type of book she had written twenty or thirty years earlier. Despite becoming increasingly self-deprecating as she grew older, deep down Heyer sincerely valued her novels and even hoped that after her death 'one or two might continue selling for a while'. She was no narcissist, however, but a strong-minded realist with a clear understanding of fame's uncertain and all-too fickle nature.
As an eighteen-year-old girl she had gone out, found a publisher for her first novel and never looked back. With her Regency novels she created a genre and influenced several generations of readers and writers. She believed in good manners, good writing and restraint. Heyer saw no need to engage in publicity: if her books were good enough, they would sell themselves.
They did and they still do.