I had a friend tell me about her erotic novel recently, a heavily horse-themed saga she’s been writing on and off for years and, running as it currently does to some 80,000 words, is nigh-on ready to reach the audience it deserves. I’m surprised when she says fervently that no living soul will ever clap eyes on the thing, and that it’ll lie on her hard drive as innocently as a copy of the Racing Post for time immemorial. She’s not embarrassed by it: far from, but it’s personal. My meeting with Jodi Ellen Malpas in a Soho hotel reminded me of this, if only because the New York Times-bestselling author began her career doing just the same thing: writing in secret, without expecting that her work would one day be read by millions. “I got tipsy one night with my best friend, and we were talking about bucket lists. She wanted to go to India. I told her I wanted to write a book; she told me to go for it, and then I said, well actually, I’ve already written one.”
That novel was actually almost three, a vast document of over half a million words, and became the This Man trilogy that launched Malpas’ writing career. “The story was so vivid in my head,” she says. She wrote the book she’d want to read herself, I say. She nods enthusiastically. “Yes, I wrote what I wanted to write, because I didn’t think anyone else would read it. I put everything into that story that I would want in a story myself. The passion, the angst, the drama, the laughs, everything. It was quite refreshing. I suddenly felt very brave.”
And brave she was. Having started the novel in the summer of 2011 – “whenever I could snatch a few hours to myself” – and following encouragement from the same, wily friend who begged to read it following their bucket-list conversation, Malpas self-published the first novel in October 2012. “I did it all myself. The cover was basically a mock-up; it’s the same cover that’s now become very iconic.” In the days that followed, Malpas noticed more and more women connecting with her through her personal Facebook page, and by the beginning of November she was selling over a thousand books a day in the States. Suddenly, agents were bidding for the rights to the third in the trilogy, and she flew to New York. “It all happened within six months,” she says, still looking fairly baffled at the idea.
Having previously worked for her dad in Northampton, “conforming to what was expected of me as a wife, as a mother and as a daughter,” her initial trepidation is understandable. Malpas grew up reading Enid Blyton, moving onto horror novels in her teens bought with pocket money from WHSmiths. She tells me she wasn’t particularly good at English at school, but she read a lot. “My only me time before I started writing was running, which I really miss now,” she says ruefully. And how did her home life change? What were her initial fears? “I worried about what people might think… What my imagination was capable of. But it was my escape, and writing was what I did.”
Malpas’s life had changed drastically within a few short months, but readers continued to respond to her characters, particularly Jesse Ward, the handsome Lord of the Manor and the title’s eponymous leading lad. “I went all out with Jesse,” she says. “I found myself wondering why I was creating a man who was so intense, so unreasonable, almost unlovable. I thought, who else could love him like I love him? It liberated me in a sense, as it made me realise I wasn’t alone in what I wanted from a man.” Not unlike a certain other anti-hero from the same year, then, I note. “He’s so controlling and arrogant and so conceited,” Malpas agrees. “But the dynamics between Christian and Anna and Jesse and Ava are very different, and they’re different stories.”
Malpas’ latest work, published next week, will be her first standalone novel, following two sets of trilogies. Her previous work has been “too huge and the story too complex for a standalone. I love that anticipation for the next instalment. And as soon as you’re published you don’t get a say in when those books come. I self-published the first two, and was able to tell my readers when the second was coming. Readers loved the turnaround.” She also comments that books in sets of three allow her the space to flesh her characters out, “to build them up for my readers to champion them.” The Protector, a departure for Malpas then, contains a dual narrative, one she wrote in a linear sequence alternating between the viewpoints of a rich society woman, Camille, and Jake, the traumatised ex-SAS soldier hired to be her bodyguard. She comments on the process of researching PTSD and “what men and women go through when they come back from war. I love writing about forbidden love. All my couples shouldn’t really be together, in one way or another. The Protector happened really naturally; the story came very quickly to me. It made sense to have both the characters’ thoughts in one book.” And how she’s feeling about it? “I’m a lot more anxious about this one. I’ve changed the goalposts so much from the single points of view, the trilogies, the inanimate objects on the cover. But I love that so many people are saying ‘it’s still you’. I strive to pack a punch in one way or another.”
And a punch she does indeed pack. I ask her about writing sex: something many writers find tricky. If you’re prepared to follow your characters in every other aspect of their lives, it seems downright lazy to avoid the most intimate aspect of most people’s lives. “No matter how much sex there is in my books, it’s all relevant,” she says. “My characters don’t just bonk for bonking’s sake. I did consciously as part of the story want there to be lots of sex, because when you meet someone new, and you’re that attracted to them you want to have lots of sex.” She leans forward: “For the first sex scenes I ever wrote, I went all out. The second one was actually anal. And I wouldn’t change it for the world, although a part of me does think ‘I can’t believe I’ve written this. Somebody once emailed me and told me how many orgasms Ava had in This Man. Loads.”
Do men read her books? Malpas thinks, says her main demographic is certainly women, but “it’s always nice to receive a message from a man. And so many readers’ husbands love that their partners are fans of the books. Men have come into signings with their wives and say thank you, they email me.” And she has a large gay following as well: “Yeah, maybe they want a Jesse Ward too,” she muses.
The overwhelming majority of the comments relating to Malpas’ two sets of trilogies are positive, but she acknowledges some initial backlash. “I’ve had some really outlandish comments with regards to Jesse… Apparently I must be depraved if that’s my ideal man.” Are her female characters feminists, then, I wonder? “I think there’s a little bit of a feminist in every woman. I personally want my independence and I want to do my own thing. But I’m still a woman. I still want to be looked after by a man. I want it both ways.” I say some women might agree. So how much of herself does she pour into Ava, Olivia, Camille? “Any author’s heroine will have a little bit of that writer in them. It hurts when people say they just wanted to slap her.”
Writer’s block is the worst part of the process, she concedes. “I’ve not suffered with it drastically, usually it’s just when I’m trying to get from one scene to another, and I don’t want to lose readers’ attention. Keeping the focus is hard. I just have to admit defeat in the end and take the dog for a walk!”
And the best part? “For me it’s the result, the readers’ reactions, knowing that you’ve done it right, you’ve done it justice, you’ve not disappointed them.”
Jodi Ellen Malpas’ latest novel, The Protector, is published by Orion this week. For more information visit www.jodiellenmalpas.co.uk.