When the Great British Bake Off returns to our screens Prue Leith CBE, will replace Mary berry as one of the judges, bringing with her 50 years of culinary experience.
Prue has been the Grande Dame of British Cookery for several decades and is familiar to many as a judge in the hit TV series Great British Menu. Her illustrious career began with her first, award-winning restaurant in London and continued with a series of successful ventures – Leith’s School of Food & Wine, Leith’s Management and Leith’s Events & Parties. She has been a multiple board-director including British Rail, Safeway, Halifax, Whitbread, Woolworths and Orient Express and worked tirelessly to improve school meals. Prue wrote her first novel at 55, published her fifth at 70 and now has seven under her belt. She has also written a memoir.
Prue is a full-time novelist and I spoke to her about her writing career.
One of the first cookery books I owned was Leith’s Cookery Bible; it never left my side in the 80s and I was in awe of your all round talent in the industry. What made you sell your businesses and try your hand at writing novels?
P: I realised that I’d never get the novel banging away in my head out onto paper if I didn’t stop writing cookbooks and running a demanding business.
Have you always wanted to write novels?
P: I only started to want to write a novel at about 40. However, I had written a play when I was at university and short stories for children when my own children were little.
Many characters in your books reflect aspects of your own business life. Do you find it difficult to get away from your past career?
P: No, I loved my career and I am basically lazy, so I write about the stuff I already know about.
Your personal life has been described as colourful and you detail this in your memoir, Relish, My Life on a Plate. It is very frank and shows a side of Prue Leith previously unknown to the public. One critic said it was ‘salacious’. Did you deliberately set out to shock?
P: I figured if you were writing an autobiography at all, it should be true. Otherwise write fiction. And frankly I think the press reaction was more about selling newspapers than genuine outrage. Who lived through the sixties without smoking a joint? How many women can put their hands on their hearts and say they have never had an affair?
Do you think writing a memoir/autobiography is a good thing to do?
P: Yes, partly as a record for your grandchildren, but also because it is interesting and informative to dig into your family history and your own character and motivation. But it’s not for everyone.
When did you start writing creatively and have you had many rejections?
I did have some rejections for children’s stories and film/TV ideas, but since I was busy with my catering business I didn’t dwell on them. I am pretty up-beat anyway. And I was lucky because I already had a great agent handling my cookbooks, the famous Pat Kavanagh, and she could hardly refuse to represent me as a novelist. My first novel did get some rejections but they went to Pat and not to me, so the blows were softened. But then Penguin liked it and since then, touch wood, no rejections.
You were married to a writer, Rayne Kruger. Did he influence your novel writing?
P: Rayne refused to read anything of my first novel for fear of wanting to influence or discourage me. He said he would read it in print, and if I failed to get it published then he’d read it in MSS and try to help me.
You had a thirteen-year affair with Rayne before he asked you to marry him. Is this story veiled in your novel Sisters and was it cathartic to write about the affair?
P: Yes, I suppose it was cathartic when writing Relish, but the connection did not occur to me when writing Sisters. The truth is I use a lot of my own experience in my novels, but I think all novelists do. How do you write about sadness, or fear, or elation, if you have never felt them?
Five years after Rayne’s death, you found late romance with Sir Ernest Hall. Did you ever expect to fall in love again?
P: Absolutely not. I would get really grumpy when people said things like, “You’ll find someone else, don’t worry.”
At the end of that relationship did you have any regrets?
P: No regrets. I had a very up and down time with Ernest, on account of his manic depression, but I adored him and him me. We had a wonderful time together and I learnt a lot about music since he was a pianist and we went to a lot of concerts. We still talk on the telephone.
Have you always wanted to write novels?
P: No, but I’ve always had to write something. Writing is a disease, at least for me. I don’t feel happy unless I do it regularly but it could be anything: cookery, fiction, journalism, even business reports or long emails.
Do you find the process of writing difficult or easy?
P: I write fast and easily, but then tinker forever. Lots of rewrites, edits, changes.
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
P: No, I sometimes find excuses to do other stuff, fiddling about, reluctant for some reason to plunge in. But once I’m into it, I like it and don’t want to stop.
How do you react to reviews, good and bad?
P: Unsurprisingly, I’m thrilled by the good and upset by the bad. But what really annoys me, is the patronising pat on the head: “Quite good for a cook,” sort of review or foodie references like, “Prue Leith has cooked up a delicious soufflé,” etc. And I think most women novelists suffer from the labels, “romantic fiction” or “women’s novels” or “beach read” or “Aga saga”… But if a man writes about family and love it is, “An insightful study of family relations” or, “An in-depth understanding of the channels of loss and love,” etc.
Are any of the characters in your novels based on yourself?
P: Often they have something of me in them. In Choral Society Joanna is an organising businesswoman. She can’t sing, and she’s frightened that all her friends are from work and they’ll vanish when she retires. Lucy is a food writer and grieving widow. Rebecca is nothing like me, but she’s what I’d quite like to be: irresponsible, fun loving, always up for anything.
Would you say you are a romantic at heart?
P: Aren’t we all?
What’s the most romantic thing you’ve ever done?
P: One winter weekend in St Petersburg with Rayne, he’d arranged a troika for a ride in the snow through the forest for my birthday. It was a sunny day and we swerved through the trees like Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago.
You’ve been quoted as saying: “Writing is an incurable disease.” Why do you feel that?
P: Because I can’t stop – it’s an addiction. I don’t need to work anymore, so it’s not the money. I love travel, my garden and my grandchildren. But I keep doing it.
You’ve been writing novels for fifteen years. Do you have a favourite and why?
P: Yes, The Gardener, which is about a woman gardener restoring an historic garden. It’s a sort of reverse Lady Chatterley with a twist in the tale. I’d LOVE to see it as a Merchant Ivory movie.
You started your first business from a bed-sit in Earl’s Court. Where do you write from today? Do you have a special place for novel writing?
P: No I write in the kitchen, at my desk, in bed, on trains and planes, anywhere. Have been known to sneak out of a boring party and pull out my laptop in the ladies loo.
What’s the best bit of writing advice you’ve been given?
P: Cut out the adjectives, the exclamation marks and the first paragraph.
Have you any advice for an aspiring writer of women’s fiction?
P: Do a four-day Arvon writing course and use The Literacy Consultancy (TLC) who will read your manuscript and tell you what’s wrong with it.
What’s your proudest moment?
P: When Penguin bought my first novel: Leaving Patrick.
P: No, I’ve had a great varied, interesting, lucky life.
At a talk you gave I was transfixed by your wonderful red suede boots (and immediately purchased a pair). Is there a story behind them?
P: One day when Ernest was giving a concert and his ex-wife (much younger than me) and I were both there, I noticed that she was wearing those boots. I tried them on and they were amazingly comfortable and made me feel about twenty. So I bought a pair and am still wearing them.
Do you still cook and do you have a favourite meal?
P: I could not stop cooking any more than I could stop writing. I like self-catering on holidays because you get to see the local markets. If I am worried or unhappy I cook, even if it’s just to make jam. My mother used to say, if I was grumpy, not “What you need is a sleep” or “What you need is a walk in the fresh air,” but “What you need is an hour in the kitchen.” My favourite meal changes all the time. At the moment it is Haggis and Neeps with lumps of butternut squash added to the mash, and a fresh tomato and onion sauce with chilli.
Prue, it has been a joy to talk to you. Thank you so much.