Barbara Taylor Bradford Q&A

27 May 2016

Barbara Taylor Bradford has sold over 32 million copies of her novel, A Woman of Substance. The 83-year-old author takes our Grown-up Test.

What did turning 80 mean for you?

Nothing! I’m still working nine hours a day writing on my typewriter or researching my novels. I’m very active and don’t have any health issues; in fact, I feel 49. I believe retirement kills people. I looked in the mirror on my 80th birthday and thought I don’t look it, I don’t feel it, so I’m going to ignore it.

School prefect or school terror?

I loved school - and found out as an adult that Alan Bennett and I were both at Christ Church primary in Upper Armley at the same time. I always tried hard but I don’t think I was a particularly high-achiever. I left at 15 for the Yorkshire Evening Post.

If your 16-year-old self could see you now, what would she say?

‘Wow! She has succeeded in ways she never believed she would!’ I always wrote: when I was 10 I was paid 10s 6d for a story my mother sent to a magazine. When I saw my byline – Barbara Taylor – I was thrilled. I was a reporter in Leeds by 16, progressing to Fleet Street. I always knew I wanted to write a novel but there were a number of false starts and I was in my mid 40s when my first, A Woman of Substance, was published in 1979.

Your greatest love?

My husband Bob Bradford. We met at a lunch at my neighbour’s house in London in 1961. He was very attractive and when he asked me what I was doing later I said ‘nothing’, but my neighbour said: ‘you told me you had a magazine deadline!’ I said I’d get up at 4am to finish it. Bob and I both knew very quickly that this was it, and we married on Christmas Eve 1963. People say we are joined at the hip: he is my biggest critic and my biggest promoter. I dedicate all my novels to him.

How often do you check your email?

One of the assistants in my husband’s office prints out every email I get and faxes it to me and I reply immediately by dictating. It’s through lack of knowledge rather than laziness: I do have an iPad - I just need someone to show me how to use it.

Related: 10 handy iPad tips and tricks

Town or country? 

I’m a big city girl. We recently downsized from our 12-room apartment overlooking the East River in New York (which we sold to Uma Thurman). Since our two beloved dogs went to doggy heaven we were rattling around in a couple of rooms. We’re now in an eight-room apartment right in the middle of Park Avenue, which I love.

What did your parents teach you?

I had a wonderful childhood growing up in Armley, Leeds, and as an only child I was spoiled although not precocious. My mother [Freda] always taught me to be well-mannered and treat people nicely whether they were the binman or chimney sweep. She encouraged me and always told me I could achieve anything. My father [Winston, an engineer] always said keep your eyes wide open and watch your step.

Your favourite decade?

I loved the 1980s: it was a happier, calmer time. I believe I have lived in the best of times and they are not coming back.

What two things do you do to conceal your age?

I often have Botox on my forehead as I’ve had frown lines ever since I was a young journalist. I also use a number of creams for wrinkles: hyaluronic acid is the thing, and products by Eucerin are my favourite. I’ve always had my hair done once or twice a week, ever since I was a reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post at 18: thinning hair looks very ageing.

Related: How to add more volume to thinning hair

What makes you really grumpy?

I don’t really get grumpy as I have a rather optimistic personality, although I sometimes get irritable if people I’m working with aren’t efficient or punctual. I’m very efficient and return all phone calls and emails and I expect it of other people.

What is your greatest regret?

I had two miscarriages, and we never had children – although if I had really yearned for a child I would have adopted. It just wasn’t meant to be and I moved on. I married the right man, and I have been blessed. Perhaps if I’d had children I wouldn’t have written quite so many books.

What would you prefer: your youth back or what you have now?

I am happy with what I have now. To long to be young again is silly because it’s filling yourself with things you can’t have.

How do you relax?

When I’ve finished a book I like to read at night (I’m too tired to do that when I’m writing). We also love entertaining, and go out two or three times a week although we reject a lot of invitations: half an hour is my maximum standing up at cocktail parties.

What’s the bad habit you can’t break?

Fish and chips. We stay at the Dorchester when we’re in London and I order battered fish and French fries – not those big, fat chips. Batter in the US is always somehow limp.

Object you’ve kept from childhood?

In the 1930s lots of children had one white and one black china doll. My white one got broken, but I’ve still got the black one, which I brought back from England after my mother died and she’s still in the same bag. I could get her restored, but who would I leave it to?

Exercise? Good diet? Or both?

I lead a sedentary life so I try to do a 20-minute walk every day. I don’t drink much – a glass of Champagne when we go out - and I try not to eat too many carbs. Luckily I’m not a big dessert eater.

When did you last drink too much?

Probably in my twenties in Fleet Street, when we used to go to the pubs, but I was never a big drinker. When I was 18 my night news editor in Leeds said to me: ‘can I give you a bit of advice Barbara? I know you go out at lunch with the chaps, and that’s fine. Buy one round, but don’t stay too long. I don’t want you to become one of the boys.’ That has stayed with me.

What do you wear around the house?

I get up at 5.45am, make coffee and get dressed in trousers and a T-shirt so I can get to my desk quickly. I don’t put on make-up and jewellery because there’s only the help to see me. If I’m at home in the evening I wear a kaftan, and I’ll dress up to go out: earrings are my weakness.

High heels or flats?

I have a cupboard full of high heels that I keep giving away because two inches is my limit now, sadly. I’ve never worn flats and can’t now – I tried once and they give me tendonitis.

Biggest fashion mistake?

I am sure shops have trick mirrors because when I try something on I always look wonderful, but when I get home I think, ‘this dress makes me look heavy’. My biggest mistakes have been full-skirted, fancy evening gowns. I’m better in a straight skirt or trousers.

What is your most prized possession?

A painting of our Bichon Frise dogs, Beaji and Chammi. I commissioned the animal artist Christine Merrill to paint them from photos for Bob’s birthday last year - she does these wonderful English country backgrounds like a Gainsborough, and she captured the girls perfectly. It hangs in an antique frame in our drawing room.

Your favourite dinner guests from history?

Sir Winston Churchill and Elizabeth I. I am drawn to powerful women and love writing about strong women like Emma Harte in A Woman of Substance.

What are the two main lessons life has taught you?

I have learned to compromise and not be rigid, and to be compassionate. To be a novelist you have to step into your character’s shoes, and in life you also have to see others’ points of view.

What would be your preferred epitaph?

She tried to be a good woman.

Verdict: OK, so she hasn’t mastered technology but the illustrious Barbara is still working at 83 and says she feels 49. Who are we to argue?

Barbara Taylor Bradford’s latest book is The Cavendon Luck, the third in the Cavendon Hall series, published by Harper Collins on June 16, £16.99

A version of this article was first published in the June 2016 issue of Saga Magazine. For great articles like this, subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition today.

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