Posted on October 10 2021
I was really delighted when novelist Adele Parks agreed to be interviewed for our Powerfully Petite Women Series. Adele started off her career working in advertising and then had her first novel Playing Away published in 2000. It became an instant best seller and since then she has gone on to publish a further 20 novels, all of which have been top 10 best sellers. With sales of over 4 million books, translated into 31 languages, Adele is clearly a hugely successful author. There was no shortage of topics for us to talk about, she was such a great interviewee for our Powerfully Petite Women Series!
J: I know that you said you wanted to be an author from a young girl. What was it about wanting to being an author then?
A: I think your size and shape really does define you, they are part of your definition from a very young age. As a little girl, I wasn’t really a little girl - I was taller than everybody else and definitely chubbier than anybody else. That also has its problems as girls, certainly back then, were perceived as cute if they were slim and little and I was the opposite on both ends. Then we get some of the reverse as adults because as adults if we stay tiny, people think of us as children. So, I’ve been at the wrong end of both scales but I don’t let it bother me!
As a young girl, I thought of myself as very ungainly and my shape and size mortified me. So I did take solace and refuge in books, my sister and I spent a lot of time in our local library. We would pick up books every day, read them that night and take them back to the library the next day. I’m not sure exactly at what age but somewhere between five and seven, the librarian once said to me ‘Adele, you read more than anybody else, any other little girl I know, do you think one day you might be an author?’ I was mortified as I didn't understand what an author meant. A very bold thing to do (whatever your size!) is to always ask if you don't know the answer to a question. So I did say to her 'I don't know what an author is'. She rushed off and brought back a book by Enid Blyton. In those days Enid Blyton had her signature on the cover. She told me 'This lady has sat at home writing these books for you'. I must have had quite a sense of self-entitlement as I honestly believed that Enid Blyton had been literally writing these books for me!
So that’s how it was first suggested to me. I think I loved the idea. It was something a little bit different and intellectual and actually it wouldn’t matter what I looked like, that was the other thing - I could be behind a closed door. All of those things appealed to me, so I just went on telling people ‘I’m going to be a writer, I’m going to be an author’.
J: So you did take that on board and start telling people?
A: Absolutely. I come from what I always describe as a very ordinary family in the north east of England, my dad worked for ICI and my mum had various little jobs around the kids. Bless my family, they always said ‘Yes of course, off you go’, and nobody laughed or said it was ridiculous. I don't think they thought I was going to do it but they didn't let me know that. As time went on though they did start asking me ‘What are you really going to do?’.
J: What’s the back up plan?
A: Yes, but they were very encouraging. So yes, I always wanted to be an author.
J: So, if your 18-year-old self could see what you have achieved now, would they be surprised then or would they just think actually that’s what I always wanted to do and that’s what I always thought I could do?
A: Do you know what, the demure thing I am supposed to say is, ‘look what I have achieved, I could never have imagined it’. Really honestly, I have always been massively ambitious. Not for financial gain necessarily or things but being respected and heard is important to me. I always knew I wanted a seat at the table so to speak – I do have beautiful things and I am very lucky that I have made a good financial career out of writing because not many people do.
J: And who are still working jolly hard to get their book out.
A: Yes and who are incredibly talented. But I think my 18-year-old self was very aware of what was possible. I had been brought up in the Thatcher years, but the wrong side of them, so in the north-east where I was, things were not buoyant or great. I was aware that everything seemed to be happening somewhere else and they didn’t seem to be happening to girls that were like me. I think by then I was quite aware that I was little. It didn’t really bother me at all because interestingly my sister is even smaller, so it’s only a matter of scale isn’t it!
I remember being very determined to think I wasn’t going to put limits on myself, whether they were geography, or gender or size. I thought it was all available for me. At about 18, I didn’t really have a clear path of how I would become a writer, (it did take place a lot later, I didn’t become a writer until I was about 30) but I knew I wanted it. I knew then, that I was prepared to work really hard for it, which is a key thing about me. I work hard
J: So, you didn’t think that becoming a writer would just plop onto your lap? You saw the real path.
A: I already knew by 18 that nothing just plopped into my lap, that I had to work particularly hard to achieve. I had gone to a local state comprehensive which was fine, it was a very good one actually. But you had to be pretty self-motivated.
J: Do you consider yourself as a female author or an author?
A: I consider myself as an author. I think everybody else looking at me, considers me as a female author….
J: Yes, that’s what I saw when I did my research, I kept seeing you described as a female author. I remember thinking would you say a male author when you mentioned a man who was an author or is it only when the author is female that you mention it?
A: Yes, that’s right. Luckily at least they don’t say authoress, which would be hilarious! They don’t only say I am a female author, they define who I write for as well which is even more irritating.
J: That’s right, they pigeonhole you….
A: Which is actually taking away the choice from the reader. The vast majority of my readers do happen to be women, the vast majority of any fiction readers are women. Women read more female authors and women read more male authors – women read more, fullstop.
J: I read your recent book Both of You, which I just loved (published by HQ Harper Collins). I am not surprised that it is a Sunday Times #1 Bestseller. You created such a fantastic mystery centred around two women from totally different backgrounds who vanished without trace on the very same day. Their disappearance was so intriguing - what could possibly have led these two women to walk away from their families, husbands and homes with no warning at all. The investigation into the complex web surrounding their disappearance heats up wonderfully before the dramatic climax. It is literally page turning and that would be page turning if you are a man or a woman.
A: I do get more male readers now
J: Clearly, you’ve been published in lots of countries now. I found the page on your website (adeleparks.com) showing different book covers from around the world fascinating. I was wondering whether you had any input into the book covers, as I have read before that authors are not normally allowed to.
A: Technically, contractually authors don’t have final say on their covers but in the UK I’ve always been consulted on covers, largely because my background before I became an author was in marketing. In those days Accenture was the largest management consultancy in the world and I managed their advertising campaigns in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and India – not a small job in itself. So I think, by the time I had my book published, I was quite a good free resource, quite sensibly my publishers recognised that! I have always been involved in my UK book covers but abroad less so until quite recently.
Now I will specify ‘have you included this quote?’, ‘have you mentioned I am a number one best seller?’.
J: You have been phenomenally successful, literally every book you have written has been a top 10 best seller. Did you, with your marketing hat on look at what sold or did you write what you wanted to - or was it a combination?
A: It was a combination but I was very aware of the market. I made a 10 word pitch to my [future] agent Jonny Geller. I didn’t know Jonny at all then but I had read an article about him; he seemed brilliant and very switched on. On the eve of my thirtieth birthday, I dropped off the first third of my manuscript that became my first book Playing Away. In one of the articles I had read about Jonny, he had mentioned that as someone short on time, he thought authors should be able to pitch their work to him concisely, so I remember clocking that at the time with my marketing hat on and thinking okay if I was doing a 10 word pitch on this book Playing Away, I would come back with ‘Anna Karenina meets Bridget Jones but heroine gets to live’.
Obviously I was not saying I am Tolstoy, but the thing we all know about Anna Karenina is that there is a big affair, a big fat affair. Bridget Jones was a phenomenal success at that time, it sold many millions of copies, absolutely off the scale, so that is how I pitched myself. I wrote the book I wanted to read. Bridget Jones came out when I was already married, and it's about a single woman. I remember thinking how funny it was but what would that single woman be like once she married, what would that book be?
So, I wrote about things that interested me, it wasn’t an out and out callous move of just focusing on what was in the market but it's true to say I have always been aware of my market and what readers want.
J: As I said, this interview is part of a series on powerfully petite women, how have you dealt with challenges in your life – have you had any?
A: So, the very first set of challenges I had and the reason I’m a writer, when I was between 27 and 28 (we came from quite a close extended family), we lost a number of members of my family and/or close friends, young and old, in a short succession of time.
J: That’s a lot to handle, a lot to take on.
A: It was devastating, absolutely horrific, so I actually went to a counsellor. She suggested to me that the way I could move forward in life would be to find something I could control, because obviously you can’t control death or tragedy. She suggested I could bake, garden, just concentrate on something very small that I could control. I eventually said ‘actually I scribble’. She asked what that meant, I could have been an artist. So I told her ‘I scribble down these thoughts I have, I have this notebook’ and pulled out a notebook which I had with me. It was full of jottings. She asked me if I had any more of these. I told her I had about 12 of them.
The counsellor said ‘I think you do more than scribble, maybe you should do more of that’. Because I am quite the girly swot and a very, very determined person, I didn’t really hear ‘Go home and do 20 minutes a day’, I went home and thought I will write a novel, I will write that novel I’ve been promising myself, I’ll just do it. Also, and this was why my first book was a comedy, I would take myself out of this quite tragic world and put myself in a better world. Actually, I think that is how I have dealt with every challenge. I put myself in a better place.
Not much later, I did get the book deal and I had a young son but before my son’s first birthday my husband left, which wasn't ideal.
J: Was that a surprise?
A: It was never in my plan to be a single mum but I made that decision that he would become my priority and I would again create another world, this time not by writing a book but a world that my son and I needed. I knew I needed to keep jolly, to keep a good heart, to keep positive and to give that child as much happiness as I had assumed he was going to have with two parents.
Actually, that all worked out brilliantly, because it meant I was open to meeting someone else and I did. I met Jim within six months and Jim became Conrad’s father and has brought him up and we married. I’ve definitely had other challenges and lots of professional challenges as well. Those in my private life I deal with the same as I do in my public life. I don’t dwell, I move on, I am very much ‘that’s bad luck’, or ‘that was unfortunate’ or even sometimes ‘that one was deserved’. Because sometimes bad luck is because you didn’t catch it, you didn’t write the right book at the right time, you didn’t market it in the proper way, you didn’t put enough energy behind it. Sometimes you think you could have done better. It’s not always helpful to think – ‘ oh this happened to me’ - it seems passive.
J: This is really interesting what you’re saying Adele. I told you that I interviewed Marin Alsop, the international conductor. She said that when she had setbacks (she was turned down when she applied to a conducting course about five times and when you think what she’s achieved now as a conductor, it’s amazing), she just said to herself, ‘They turned me down because I need to be better, I am going to improve myself’ . She never just sank. It sounds like you have a very similar way of thinking.
A: Absolutely, you can’t blame everyone else for misfortunes. The only person I can change is myself, so if something goes wrong I have to ask myself what more can I do? A very early setback happened when I was turned down by every university I applied for. At the time I remember being quite shocked. My O-levels I thought were pretty good. I had no idea, I applied for English with five different supplementaries. I thought that would be interesting won't it – English with music, English with art, English with French. I would get to these interviews, and they would ask me ‘What music have you got’ and I said ‘none, I thought you would teach me…’ so of course I got turned down – the naivete is so profound, it’s actually very interesting.
When I got to the end of the process, I knew I had to get those A Levels at A grades to be able to get through clearing and get something. My headmaster said ‘Don’t worry Adele, you will get your A grades and go through clearing and you’ll be snapped up, you will have your pick’.
J: So, he could see your potential?
A: Yes and I did get my A Grades but there were only two places I could go to - Royal Holloway or Leicester – I had expected there would be loads. It was a real shock.
J: Well, [knowing Adele went to Leicester University] Royal Holloway is lovely.
A: It is very lovely but my mum wouldn’t let me go that far! Do you see how arbitrary these decisions are?
J: And then they govern your life anyway, who you meet.
A: They do. I met some terrific people who I’m still close friends with now. Pot luck in the end is how I ended up in Leicester. So that’s one of the lessons in life I would love to pass on to people, don’t think things are ‘make or break’, you do get more than one chance, you get as many chances as you decide to create for yourself. It is only over when you decide it’s over.
J: I so agree, it’s important for kids to realise that if they don’t get that A grade or whatever it is, it is not a disaster, your life isn’t over, it makes you stronger and better – it is just a different path.
J: Clearly, as the founder of a fashion brand, I have to ask you about your thoughts on fashion and dress. What role would you say clothes play in your life?
A: Quite huge actually. I love clothes and I always have. I think they are part of my personality. When I was very young, I dressed quite differently to others. I wore hats a lot. I had a Saturday job at Chelsea Girl and would save up the money I earned and my allowance for 6 months, then blow it all on clothes and think that's fine, that's what I worked for. I am not, however, a designer brand person, I have a cut-off point beyond which I think it’s silly to spend on clothes, which again I think is part of my personality, as I have a cut-off point on spend generally.
I know I live a very luxurious life in comparison to 99% of the world, doing any more would make me feel uncomfortable. If I see a designer handbag for £4,000, I would immediately think how many children could you teach to read for £4,000?
I dress quite simply now, I do like block colours, I like clean silhouettes, I put comfort before anything else, I wouldn't like to go out wearing something that made me feel that I have to sit still. I am very enthusiastic, I use my arms and hands a lot and I lean forward a lot. I don’t want to be restricted.
Adele is wearing the Maurier Work Dress in Navy
J: That’s true, when you were trying on the clothes from our range in the photoshoot you often commented how they felt.
A: Yes, because they’re very comfortable. What’s lovely about your clothes is they are very elegant and very comfortable. That’s what I need. I need to go out and stand up in front of a crowd of people and talk about my books while they look at me and think hasn’t she done well in life but I need to know that I will feel comfortable so I’m not worrying my clothes. Yes, clothes are very important to me, I think they are fun.
J: When you are going to an event as Adele Parks the author, do you think about the image you are portraying?
A: Yes, very much so.
J: So, what is that image then?
A: Well, I would want to stand out, I would want to be wearing quite a notable outfit I think. I need to be practical though, so if I’m going to be walking up and down the stage, I would need to have flats on, I need to be able to move quickly. I need to be very smart, very professional. I don’t want my clothes to be distracting either, I don’t want my audience to be thinking about my clothes rather than what I have to say.
J: You have been much photographed over your 20 or so year career, do you think your style has evolved? Because for you, there is an amazing record in a way, more so than lots of people who have random photo albums of themselves with family and friends but you will have been documented over the years.
A: Yes, I think a couple of things have happened. I used to wear funkier clothes, well I was a lot younger. I am 52 now. I first published at 30, I had just had a young baby so actually I remember the first big TV event, looking at my wardrobe thinking, I literally only have maternity clothes what am I going to do? I haven’t got a thing to wear. The clothes I had worn before having a baby were office suits which weren't suitable. I then spent a few years experimenting with different looks, trying to work out what authors wear.
J: What a fun thing to experiment with!
A: Well, what authors tend to wear turned out to be not what I feel comfortable in. So, authors are perceived to wear, lots of layered baggy clothes, florals, scarves that sort of thing.
I tried all of that, it just isn’t me. I lose scarves. Florals are a bit girly for me. I prefer block colours, stripes or dots but definitely more monochrome. Because I’m tiny, I don’t want layer after layer that doesn’t photograph well. So, I have a period which I look back at and wonder what was I thinking of? It was fun at the time and it seemed to work.
Adele is wearing the Carla Blue Denim Jumpsuit
J: A last thing to finish with, I would love to talk to you about your work as a literacy ambassador. You are obviously passionate about reading; you grew up in an age when we were lucky to have libraries that were well stocked. Not everyone has that.
A: Also, we were lucky that we had parents who read, not everybody has that. The sweep of entertainment on offer is now huge, our phones entertain us, television has endless channels, there are video games. There are a lot of very exciting things to do with our time. When we were children, there were three TV channels that lasted a certain amount of time in the day and only a certain amount of those were for children anyway. Your parents probably told you what to watch and when they came in the news went on, certainly true in our house. So, books were our only form of entertainment. They were a little bit of a rebellion as well because they could be really private, just for you - no one else actually knew if you were reading Flowers in the Attic which was incredibly unsuitable.
Oddly that scarcity of choice was fabulous, it forced us to read. People don’t turn to books now in the same way and yet books are three incredible things as far as I am concerned: reading offers you entertainment, first and foremost. I write to entertain, I want to write page turners, I want you to get involved with the characters and I want you to gasp out loud.
The other thing is it empowers, reading increases your vocabulary, it allows you to be more nuanced and articulate and that is incredibly powerful.
The third point of reading is it makes you more empathetic. We each have one life, except if you read - then you can give yourself thousands of lives.
J: That’s so true because it's really in your head as well.
A: You might pick up a book and think, I really don’t like this character, you might even get to the end of the book and think okay I still don’t like them, but I understand them a bit better. I think we could all do with that, none of us are alike, we all have things in common and things that are dissimilar but it doesn’t mean that the other person is wrong just because they don’t think the way you think. Reading teaches us that, it teaches a level of empathy and understanding that makes us warmer human beings and we need a lot more of that. We need to stop talking about what our differences are and we need to talk about what we have in common and find that ground.
So, I think reading is so so important. The charities I work with, The National Literacy Trust and The Reading Agency both concentrate mostly on British reading projects (although obviously there are lots of literacy issues globally) . But in Britain alone, we have 6 million adults with a reading age of children of 12. That’s a devastating statistic for a very developed country because we are taking chances away from these adults.
The work I do is to encourage parents right from the get-go to read to their kids and not feel self-conscious about that because if they’re not self-conscious about it, their children will pick up the habit of reading and think it’s part of being an adult. They will become role models.
I also help people who are in what we call the danger zones, boys as 12-year-olds stop reading we don’t know why but statistically they do. Girls at about 16, stop reading. But if we can keep them interested or re-interest them when they’re adults, then that’s just amazing because we are improving their quality of life.
J: That’s fantastic. Well Adele, you have had many awards yourself including a doctorate amongst others, this might be the first time though that you have thought of yourself as a powerfully petite woman. How does that feel?
A: I love it, because people do comment on size a lot don’t they? At either extreme actually. Particularly with women, I think if we are tiny we are also expected to be nice.
J: And sweet. I hate sweet…
A: I hate sweet too. It’s a lovely thing putting size with power. There are a few phrases now “pocket rocket” but it’s still slightly....
A: Yes, as if someone can put you in their pocket. Although, that said, I remember as a child absolutely loving Mrs Pepperpot as a book and she was always being put in people's pockets. I think the reason I liked her character was that she was teeny tiny but so powerful and she made things happen. I also loved The Borrowers because they made things happen too and the shoemaker's tiny elves did as well.
J: Absolutely, they didn’t sit back.
A: Correct, they made their own magic and affected things.
I think the phrase Powerfully Petite makes you think okay I am powerful, I can make things happen. I can take charge here.
J: In a good way. Well Adele that’s absolutely fantastic, thank you so much for being interviewed in our Powerfully Petite Women Series.
If you want to stay in touch with Adele, you can follow or friend her at: