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Jenny Eclair to feature at Cambridge Literary Festival: ‘I wanted to write a great big fruitcake of a book’

She’s been a Grumpy Old Woman on stage and shared hilarious advice on how to be a middle aged woman in her show of the same name, but stand up comedian Jenny Eclair has a completely unexpected parallel career - writing family sagas.

The comedian, who is about to turn 60, is on her fifth novel. Her last book was a bestseller chosen by Richard and Judy for their book club, and the new title - Inheritance - is set in a gothic mansion filled with family secrets.

Jenny Eclair (21703266)
Jenny Eclair (21703266)

Jenny says: “I wanted what I call a fruitcake of a book, that cosy reading experience where you just get stuck in and want another chapter and another chapter. I wanted it to be a page turner where you had plenty of story.”

“I do like a big modern Aga saga ,” she adds.

“I never feel that I need to put my stand up hat on when I’m writing a book at all it doesn't really come into it that hat waits outside in the hallway somewhere next year im hoping to do some stand up, but I had a year off I finished the grumpy tour and I toured a solo show so I was a bit toured out so I basically sat down for ten months wrote a book.”

Inheritance begins with a return to the large family home on the Cornish coast. The mansion Kittiwake has seen many pass through its doors since it was bought by American heiress Peggy Carmichael seventy years ago.

Over the decades, the keys have been handed down through the family, and now it belongs to Bel's adoptive brother, Lance. It's where he'll be celebrating his fiftieth birthday, and Bel is invited.

But Bel barely feels like she's holding it together as it is, and in going back to Kittiwake, she will be returning to the place where it all began - where, following the death of a child, a sequence of events was set in motion, the consequences of which are still rippling down through the generations.

Jenny explains: “The house is the backbone of the story and there are various ribs of stories that come off the backbone.

lt begins with a tragedy which has a knock on effect down the generations and we catch up at a 50th birthday party big preparations and we find out who is living there now and how it came to be.

“Part of it is set in Cornwall and part if it is set in a house in Clapham with our middle aged lady protagonist Bel who lives in one of those houses that have too many coats. She is one of those middle aged women who can’t let her children’s childhood go and they are in their late 20s now, still living at home, which is a very post Brexit London scenario. And the oldest son has moved his girlfriend in. The whole book is about blood and belonging class and loss. So there are various threads that come together at the end.”

Inheritance by Jenny Eclair (21703271)
Inheritance by Jenny Eclair (21703271)

Apparently she’s not much of a plotter, but has a rather unusual approach to starting her books: “It’s very odd,” says Jenny. “I usually start with a house and start moving people around in the house and then let them get on with telling the story . There were very vivid pictures that came to me of Kittiwake from the beginning where we join the house and find out who is living there. I could see them straight away.

“I often don’t know what is going to happen until the end. I haven't got any idea whatsoever, the thing has to start to take shape itself. It is like jelly and as soon as it finds its shape then I look at what could happen here. I very much surprised myself at the end with this book. There were things in this book that I didn't see coming at all.

“Luckily mine aren’t complicated crime stories, they are much more a slice of life book so although they have plots they are not intricate plots - nothing rides on someone being on platform three at 10.45pm. They are more about times when life takes a sudden left hand turn. I just try to keep a firm hand on a very vague idea.”

If a book starts in a large house on the Cornish coast, many readers’ minds will turn to Daphne Du Maurier. Was that deliberate and is Kittiwake Jenny’s Manderley?

“The Du Maurier references have been made to me rather than instigated by me,” says Jenny, “it's something that has come up in conversation at literary festivals where chairs have said this reminds me of a Du Maurier, which I take as an enormous compliment.”

The theme of the book revolves around motherhood and the different types of parenting carried out by the characters.

Jenny says: “There's a lot of toxic parenting in there, there’s some appalling mothering and some over mothering and then there is some abandon mothering - all kinds of mothering.”

Her own daughter is 30-year-old Phoebe Eclair-Powell. So what kind of mum is Jenny?

“I'm a terrible helicopter parent breathing down the back of her neck and wafting around like a bad smell. I’m always there,” she laughs.

“Fortunately, she lives not too far away, about three miles away in New Cross. She lives in a flat with her boyfriend and is a playwright. Actually she has just won an award the Bruntwood playwriting award so I can relax about her for the next three days.”

Jenny is coming to the Cambridge Literary Festival to talk about her book, as well as her career in stand up - and any other questions that get thrown at her. And after this she plans to write a comedy guide to the menopause, which has become a bit of a hot topic lately.

“I started it,” she says, referring to the trend for talking about the menopause.

“I was the first woman to have the menopause, I've decided, and everyone else is jumping on my menopause bandwagon. Now I’m nearly 60 and I will have to leave it behind and I don’t really know what to do. I’m on HRT so I have never really gone through it, it’s an ongoing thing for me. I will take HRT to my grave.”

Unless supplies run out during Brexit, of course. “Jesus! It's still available in Spain over the counter so I will just be going on menopause holidays.”

Watch Jenny Eclair at the Cambridge Literary Festival, December 1, 4pm. Tickets £12. Booking: cambridgeliteraryfestival.com.

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