In this episode I had the pleasure of interviewing Romcom author Pernille Hughes. Pernille shares her creative journey and explains how keeping an open mind about writing styles can allow your creativity to evolve and grow with you. You can listen to the podcast here or via the player at the bottom of this page.
Welcome to the creative switch. I would very much like you to tell everybody a little bit about who you are and what you do.
I’m a romcom author. I write for Harper Collins. One of their imprints called One More Chapter. I have three books out. I am first and foremost a mum to four, but I started writing while they were at school. My youngest, my twins, turned 18 two days ago. So technically I am mother to adults now. But, yeah, I write happy kissing books because those are the kind of books that make me happy and that’s what I do.
Excellent. So, lots of people would love to be an author. I’m an author as well, and there’s a lot of people in the world who would dream of doing that. So maybe could you tell us a little bit about your journey getting to this point and becoming the author that you are?
I always wanted to be a writer. I thought I would be a journalist. In my teenage dream, I’d be a journalist in Manhattan by this point, but now I’m a mum in the Home Counties and it’s not quite the same. But my careers teacher told me that my writing wasn’t good enough and it just threw me completely and I didn’t write again for ten years. I went away and did film and literature at Uni. I read books and watched films for three years, which was fantastic. Then I went into advertising because I figured I could get freebies and who doesn’t love a freebie? I think the best I got was Status Quo tickets, so that thrill didn’t last long! Then I went into marketing natural history films for about 15 months. And then I got a job at Ragdoll, who made Teletubbies, which meant I lived in Teletubby Land for six months during the summer, which was fantastic. I then moved to the international Sales department. It was the loveliest of companies. From there I started thinking about the idea of writing something for kids, but obviously I didn’t do anything about it because I was busy. I’d had my first child and then I got pregnant with my second kid and then within four months of having that kid, I was pregnant with twins and it just meant I couldn’t go back to work. I couldn’t afford to go back to work, though when my boys were, I think, six months old, I felt my brain was shrinking and I thought, I’ve got to do something. And I thought, well, from my time working with the kids at Ragdoll, I thought, I think I have got a children’s book in me. I signed up for a course, an online course, just to have a go, really, but also just to keep my brain functioning, because lovely as little babies are, their conversation skills are rubbish.
And so, I just thought, do that. It was good fun. But in the process of that, I got two novelty books optioned because they very much encouraged you to have a go, and send out, and I think that was just to build your rejection skin. But I had two touchy feely books optioned by a company which was incredibly exciting and validating. Unfortunately, the 2008 recession hit and those books are really expensive to make so the company changed their direction, and those books got nixed. But on the other hand, I kept my option money. So, hurrah.
Meanwhile, I was starting to try other books like picture books, and I would send them in, I’d get lovely rejections, which were heartening actually, because I was getting nice comments but they weren’t picking the books up. Then I tried middle grade books and it was kind of as my eldest daughter got older and also, I was reading her books going ‘oh, maybe I could do this?’ And with each one it was a challenge to write something longer. I would send them in, I’d get more, even nicer, rejections. My parents got the Sunday Times and in there was a travel section, and within the travel section there was something called Confessions of a Tourist. A little 650 word, slightly smutty stories of people who had been abroad and had some clinch. I thought, I think I could do one of those. So, I tried one, wrote one, sent it in and they bought it for actual money and it just thrilled me. So, over the next two years I wrote 36 of those which they printed and they were all made up, all under different names. That really told me that I could write, which was great. But then I also saw on Twitter there was a competition for an anthology, a women’s fiction anthology of short stories. It had to be set anywhere on holiday. I wrote a short story, I sent it in and I came runner up, and my story was printed in this anthology. At that point, because I am so slow, I realized this was where my voice lay. The next step was to write something full length, so that’s what I embarked on.
It’s almost incremental stages that your writing developed. Alongside the age of your children in a way.
Very much so. I have to say there are quicker ways to find your voice. Other methods are available. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. I think the way I did it probably set me back a good five years. But I learned things along the way because your voice and your tone are the thing that are unique to you. Maybe dabbling with the children’s books meant I can still retain some of my childish tone, still seeing the fun in things which I think is crucial to writing Romcom.
A lot of the people who are coming onto the podcast, a lot of people who are listening to the podcast have done something else like you did. They started out in a sensible career and then switched. Do you have a moment in your timeline that you think of as that moment of switch, or was it much more gradual for you, do you think?
I didn’t have much choice. I think it was a point where you suddenly have four little children under the age of five, and you realize that childcare costs mean that you cannot go back to your job.
And then it’s, ‘right, what am I going to do?’ Although technically, I’m going to be busy enough for the next several years just keeping these little creatures alive. But at the same time, I knew I was going to need something for my own brain. Then it was really, well, what have I got? What can I do? My busking skills are really poor. I think I could only do that thing where I’d spray myself gold and stand really still. The only thing I really felt was, I want to have a go at writing a book, really. At that point, I just thought it was children’s books, because that was probably my world. I didn’t think I could write grown up stuff because I’d been told I couldn’t. It was a hobby, actually, at that point really, because I had this other job looking after the kids. But then gradually, with all the nice comments, with all the nice rejections, I was beginning to gain my confidence that I did have some skills. Then when it came to writing a full book, I got my agent. It wasn’t straightforward, but it didn’t take me that long. And then we did another rewrite on the book and then I got, after six months on submission, I got my publisher. So, I’d say it was a natural progression, but it was a forced situation in a way.
So, the initial point was not really a choice?
No, that was a life change. It was a life change where you look around and then see what you need, and see what you can do, and what do you fancy doing with that?
Was there a point when you were prepared to call yourself a writer, where you were confident enough to call yourself a writer? Did that take a little while as well for the confidence to kick in?
For ages I would just say it was a hobby. Just a hobby. So, people say, ‘what you doing?’ ‘Oh, I’m just writing some things, and it’s just a hobby.’ Then I kind of sat and thought, ‘well, hang on a sec, I write, therefore I am a writer.’ I divided it in my head that if you write, you’re a writer. If you have a publishing contract, you’re an author. And that’s how I split it in my head. The moment I had my contract, then I thought, and also, maybe once I had a published book, I’m definitely an author. There comes a point where you have to fill in some form and it says occupation. Normally, I would just write Mummy across it. The first time I wrote that, it was a conscious decision to write author. Put it down. You’re an author, own it. And that made a big mental change, I think. But I think anyone who writes is a writer. I think some might say that’s me being a media ****, but I think there’s a difference there. One is an actual role, a job, and one is a lovely creative joy. And you can be both or either.
Okay, so that’s a very good segue into my next question, really, which is, I want to know what you think creativity is. What is it to you? What do you think it means to society? Let’s have a chat about creativity.
Okay. Small one there, then. Creativity for me is, I think, is probably unleashing the things that make my heart sing. When my words are happening, it’s almost like a trance state. My books come from dialogue in my head. And so, to be able to really unleash those is just joy. I think I can’t sing. I’m such a poor singer. It’s like deflating bagpipes. Really poor. But I can see when other people sing, there must be this utter soul joy. And I covet that. I really do. For me, when the words are really flowing, that same state is just joy. The creativity is just putting out, bringing out the things, the thoughts that connect in my head for the world.
I would say if you have thousands of people sending into the world the things that make their heart sing, how can that not make the world a better place? How can that not garner conversation and bring happiness? And of course, there’s some creativity which is really showing a mirror to society and showing us bad parts, but at least it makes us converse and talk about it and maybe think about being better. I get irritated on Twitter when I see things about the arts being closed down at universities. I think you need the arts. You need the arts for the freer creative thinking that then technology can take further. It seems such a short-sighted view to just go, let’s have all the STEM. And I’m not kicking STEM.
Really, where would we be without people from way back in history not having these, what would have been, bonkers creative thoughts? These ideas came to pass because some fruitcake had the idea in the first place and didn’t have these boundaries to say, ‘oh, no, I won’t do that, because we don’t do that.’ It’s like, no, if you can think it, then maybe one day somebody can do it. And to use that to make solutions, to make people’s lives better or just to bring joy, I mean, I don’t think for a moment that my romcoms necessarily change lives, but I do know that people have read them at really dark times in their own lives and it’s just brought them a smidge of happiness. If my writing can do that, oh, my job’s done. If I can make them smile when their dad is dying, which has been the case, then I think, you know what, I’m done. I have done my thing. Not everybody can contribute to the world a massive, massive invention. There are little small inventions that can happen as well that definitely affect people. And I think that’s a fantastic thing.
Totally agree with you. And I think we ought to really look as a society at that balance between all the different disciplines. I think my schooling, I was very, very fortunate that both the schools, both the infant/junior and the senior school that I went to had that, not just because it was of that time when there was more freedom for the curriculum and not so tied to academic achievement. Not just because of that, but because they were just exceptionally good at exploring all those creative outlets for people. So, I think that if we could get that, even just slightly nudge the dial back the other way and stop withdrawing these services from the curriculum, or not even the curriculum, but just availability and access to them for everybody. I think that bothers me a little bit – people can still access them, but it’s slightly more privileged extra curricula that you have to pay extra for. You need money to give these children a chance to be exposed to these things. Because how will they know they’re interested or good at them unless somebody gives them the opportunity?
Yes absolutely. I’m sure there’s Olympic skills that I’ll never know I had. Actually, I’m not sporty at all but unless I’ve tried polo, then how would I know that I am the world’s best polo player? It’s ability and opportunity. And sometimes that is just luck or who you’re born to. I think it’s recognizing that everyone is different and that we should play to our strengths. There are kids who will never be able to do numbers, but they are incredibly talented at something very, very creative. Well, they should just be allowed to fly in those areas. I think that I’m filled with horror with the idea that we should all do maths until we’re 18 and why would you do that when actually some of those kids who will then be forced to do that actually could be incredibly useful in some other discipline. And so, if we take the view that we are all different and we all have different strengths, why, rather than make us a homogeneous being, (and I see for budgeting that makes more sense), why not see that actually, it makes no sense in the long run because we are all different and could work together as a much better team if we recognize that and play to our strengths.
Yeah. And I think giving people the chance to explore, the chance to have a go at lots of things and tap into perhaps the ones that they feel most joy from is the starting point. Because, as you say, you started as a hobby. I think a lot of people aren’t blessed with a vocation or some kind of epiphany at the age of seven where they realize they want to be an artist or an actor or whatever. And actually, even if they do, they then have to be a certain sort of personality with all the right environment around them to be able to say, well, I don’t really mind what anybody else thinks I should do. I’m going to do this anyway. People who are in that situation I think are blessed because you have to ignore everybody really and just go and do it.
How many parents turn around and say oh well, you can’t be an actor because really there are so few jobs and what are the chances? There’s a difference between being Harry Potter and someone who is the third ill person in the bed in Holby City every week? There are differences and not to belittle that role either, sorry. But you often get more adults or sensible people who really try to make it clear what the reality of the world is and they quash dreams. I think from the experience I had, it’s good to be able to say, right, that’s a great plan A. We’ll hold that one, that’s the one we’ll work towards. We are going to have a plan B as well, and we’ll carry that. Keep it on the back burner, but keep it bubbling, is just a much better way to bring kids through and say, strive for the idea that you maybe want to have. But actually, we’ll do this other thing as well, just to consider. And that’s okay too. Because sometimes you do need a plan B in life and to know that having plan B’s is fine, too.
Yeah, absolutely. So, from everything that you’ve learned about your journey, I wonder if you could answer this question for me because a lot of people are asking me, okay, so I have my hobby and I really love it and it feeds my soul and it makes me feel really great. And I worry that if I did that as a job, turned my writing into being a published author, that then the joy of the creation would disappear. How do you balance the two, so that there is commitment and deadlines, but also to still tap into that creativity for its own sake?
Yeah, it’s quite a hard one, actually. And I’m talking to you now at a point where I’m actually blocked, as in writers block and have had it for a bit. I think that’s a combination of various things going on in my life. But I also have to consider that maybe, I’ve written three books now, and I see that it’s pretty hard work. It’s not difficult. No, it’s not difficult. I’m not saving lives or anything, but at the same time, it is a lonely job. You’re sitting and writing 90,000 words, then editing them, and it can be quite tough mentally at times. So, I find myself at a point where I go, right, do I want to write another book? Because I’ve done it, in a way, proved that I could do it, but at the same time, have I taken all the joy out of it? I think my last book, Ten Years, I wrote during Lockdown, and that was a tough time to write a funny book because, it’s hard to find levity in anything when life is a bit of a shambles outside. So that was tough, and I think probably that took it out of me as well. So, I’m having to unpick at the moment what’s going on with me, why can’t I write? Is that because I haven’t had a good idea at the moment? Or is that because actually I’ve made it into work for myself and so taken the joy out of it? I kind of think I do know I want to still tell stories. So, what I’m doing is now surrounding myself. So, while I don’t write, I market my books. I do have a publisher, but I can promote my books better than anyone else could promote them. They have the mailing list and all the clout, but on the other hand, I talk about my books better than they can, but equally, I surround myself with bookish things to kind of rejuvenate the joy of storytelling.
So, yeah, I think it’s absolutely possible. And because I’ve seen it, you’ve turned your hobby into a job, and then actually there’s a risk, like you say, that now it’s just become a job. But then I think it’s down to you if you feel you want to carry on. You then have to make that exciting, just as if you’re in a job and you seek promotion because you want new challenges. Maybe it’s a case of I’ve got a couple of ideas which I think would lend themselves better to a screenplay. Well, maybe I park the novel writing just for a little bit. I’m out of contract at the moment so there’s nobody particularly that I have to hand anything over to. I could maybe try, just as in those early days when I was learning my craft or starting to learn my craft, I haven’t learned my craft by any means, but I was starting to learn my writing craft. I can now maybe think about, well, maybe why not write a screenplay for a bit and then see where that takes me? I think you have to keep things fresh for yourself or you find other avenues that suit you, seem challenging to you, or can reignite the interest for you. I think you still have a responsibility to your career joy, just as if you worked anywhere else.
I think the days of going into a job and then sitting there from 18 through to retirement, sitting there for all those years saying, ‘I’m so bored.’ Well, I’m sorry, but some of the responsibility is on you to either find a different job or do something within your job to make it appealing to you. I think maybe that’s a really privileged way to look at it. Possibly it is, but I just think that you still have a responsibility to your own self and brain to keep it stimulated in a way that can bring you some contentment, not necessarily happiness, but enough so you can still get up in the mornings and think, yeah, this is the job I do, I’m content with that.
Yeah, I totally agree with you. I think there are lots of things you can’t control in the world and the one thing you can control is how you feel about things. I think if you acknowledge, if you do a little bit of introspection, hopefully not too much, because I think it’s always better to try and look forwards and see what’s going to happen next. But if you do a little bit of introspection and you understand that maybe it’s just a timing thing, maybe there is too much else happening for you to do that job properly. But that doesn’t mean you can’t think about it in a different way or as you say, explore different ways of expressing that creativity to reignite your connection with it. And no one can say that you’re not an author because you’ve already done it and you don’t have to carry on doing it. I sense that there’s more there, it’s just that you’re not quite in the right place for it to come.
I think I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m actually just at this point in my life where I’ve got children in A levels which has my brain completely tied up. I’m menopausal meaning I can’t make any decisions, which, when you’re plotting, is really quite crucial. Just all different things. My kids are about to, if all goes well, go to university, at which point my role as a full-time mum, which was my job, has now gone. So now I need to really just reassess where I’m at with all those things going on.
I don’t want to be forcing out stories because then I wouldn’t find them true to me. I want to have joy in the writing. Maybe it’s just right. I need a little hiatus now to do these other things. I have three books which are technically passive income now because they’re working away for me. So now I need to just take stock, work out where I’m at, let the turbulent things just happen, and then when it settles, then come back at it. And I think we have to allow for that in our lives, if we possibly can, especially with creativity. I think forced creativity just becomes a bit of a horrific spiral as you try to force it. What you get, you don’t like, or if it doesn’t come, you then beat yourself up about the fact that it’s not coming. Then you’re watching Twitter and you’re seeing people put out eight books in the time that you haven’t put out anything, and that just becomes this horrible spiral. There comes a point you think, now I’ve just got to step away from that.
I think that reconnection, that spark will happen. I think it’s a bit like there’s a film, one of my favourite films, is a romcom as well. I don’t know, you might have heard of it. It’s based on a book, which is always the other way to do it, is to turn your current books into screenplays. But it’s called ‘Under The Tuscan Sun’ and it’s a really lovely film, funnily enough, it’s obviously got some American influence to it. And of course, when it’s filmed in Tuscany, it’s not just in Tuscany, it’s all over Italy, and they’re not in Tuscany at all. But it’s so funny.
But in that, there’s a character that’s talking to the main character, who’s feeling very down on herself because she can’t find the right person in her life. She’s on her own. She was divorced completely out of the blue. She wasn’t expecting that to happen. And this new friend that she’s met is a little bit eccentric, and she says to her, “Just go out and live and stop looking for it.” And she said, “There was a time when I was young and I loved ladybirds,”-they call them ladybugs- “and I wanted to collect them and I could never collect any. And then one day I fell asleep on the grass and when I woke up, I was covered in them. That’s what you got to go and do. Go and live life and it’ll come.”
I completely agree with that. In my younger days, when my friends were looking for a boyfriend, it was like, stop looking. The moment you say, oh, I hope I meet someone tonight, you might as well stay in, because it’s not going to happen. It’s when you are not looking and what you can do is just do your thing. And then while you’re doing your things that are of interest to you, someone who has a shared interest may cross your path because you’re just busy doing your own thing. Yeah, it is definitely, stop looking. Build it and they will come, isn’t it?
It is definitely, I think when you are in touch with that part of you and it is just for your own benefit, that soul enriching part, I think it shines out of you. And people are attracted to that because even though they don’t know what you do and they don’t even know who you are, it somehow shows on the outside, I think.
I think it does. It also shows an element of, not self-containment, but you’re happy to do a thing that’s just for you. It doesn’t say needy, it doesn’t say I’m looking for an attachment, it just says, I do this thing. And I think you have gradually a confidence within, I do this thing, it’s for me. And I think people are attracted to this. There’s an element of that. How do they do that? I think that is definitely a thing that people are interested in.
Yeah, for sure. So, you touched on it earlier and I guess what I’d like you to do now is explain in a little bit more detail, a moment that meant that you didn’t start writing, you didn’t choose that path until later on. And it fits in with a feature that I have got in both the Facebook group that is attached to this podcast, which anyone can join. We’ll put the link in later. The segment is called Who Is Your Doubting Doris? And you inspired this. You are the inspiration for this segment, because when we met and we were chatting, you talked about this moment in your life. Tell me about your Doubting Doris and what happened and how you feel about it now and maybe some advice you could give to people if they have a Doubting Doris in their lives.
Yeah, so I did touch on it earlier, but I couldn’t really tell you how I got to where I was without it, because it was so pivotal, really, in that way. I just always thought I’d be a journalist. I hadn’t really thought very much further about what kind of a journalist I would be, but I thought I’d write about stuff, and it’s probably as far as 15-year-old Pernille had really got into it. This woman was my English teacher, but she was also a careers teacher, and she just said, your English isn’t good enough to do that. And that was kind of where it got left. I just hope that nowadays she’s saying, okay, have that as a plan A, but let’s look at plan B. Or she could have said, Right, okay, interesting. What kind of journalist would you be? Are you looking to be a literary, high hitting, investigative journalist, or are you looking to write for More Magazine, or are you looking to do this? We could have examined all the different ways of being a journalist that one could be and see actually where my English and standard, as she saw it, could have fitted. Because I do write with a very certain tone, and that could possibly have really suited magazines way better, and could have really taken me off on a completely different path.
After that conversation I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was at a point where I was picking A levels and beginning to think about what to study, and I was in a flat spin and I had no idea. I really didn’t write for ten years because I took her word. At the same time, I know there are people who, my husband, we are chalk and cheese, he was told he’d never be a good high jumper. Well, he made it, but he took that and went, I’ll show you. He got to national level, in fact, but I’m not that person.
If people criticize me, if there’s a bad review, that is the review I’ll walk around with in my head for a day, as opposed to the lovely reviews. Maybe that’s very common to writers. We’re the ones who go home and go, oh, I should have said this instead. That’s what kind of feeds a lot of writing, is the things we should have said in response. I should probably have said, yeah, well, we’ll see. But I didn’t. I went, all right, then.
But I did a course which I loved, I read books, I watched my films, I met my husband there. Sometimes you’re not supposed to be doing what you think you’re doing. You’re supposed to be somewhere else. And I can track that throughout our lives, the things that at the time seemed like a bit of a disaster or didn’t seem to be what we wanted, actually turned out to take us to where we are now. And actually, that’s been to the good. I’m very keen for my kids to understand that sometimes just because we want things it doesn’t mean that they’re what we need in the long run. So, I think there’s an element of that.
Coming back to my Doubting Doris, I look at other writers who have been writing probably, in their careers, much longer, they’ve got more books out there, they’ve come at it with maybe more energy. (My book wasn’t published until I was over 40). But on the other hand, I’ve learned some things that I can put into my books and could I have fitted in writing books while my kids were really tiny? No, I don’t think I could have written full length novels when four of them were really small. I don’t think I could. That would have been horrific, looking back. Yeah, the time was fine. I have those little daydreams where the school asks me to come back and give a talk to the sixth form about careers, that would be an interesting one! I think people in those kinds of positions really need to know the influence and the impact they can have. My doubting Doris won’t even remember. I know she won’t, but they’re hugely impactful the things you say to young people. I think there are other ways you can do it and be supportive, even though you are maybe still pushing in a slightly different direction. I think there’s a different way you can do it to accommodate people’s dreams.
Yeah, totally agree with everything you said. You can’t know what would have happened differently. I mean, my first novel, it’s all about women in their 40s reviewing the decisions that have got them where they are, because they have to make another big decision. And the way they approach it is determined by all the things that happened before, because that’s what life is all about. So, you can’t really know. You might never have written any novels at all if you started to be a journalist, because you would have found that that was the thing and it would have satisfied that desire to write
Absolutely. And maybe those words would have been enough. Yeah. So, no, it does all take you in different directions, I think there’s less brutal ways of it happening, maybe. Yeah, exactly. But I think with every choice you make, there may be regrets and doubts that come tied to them. That’s the point of a choice, isn’t it? That you sometimes have to close the door on something else, but then maybe later it’s being then open to the change. I’m very bad at change on a small level, on things that I could be in control of, but in terms of life, I’m just quite open to change, things that I have no real control over. They happen, and then we roll with the punches and we see how we go. I think maybe from a stance now that I can look back in hindsight and say, yeah, that led to this, led to this, led to this, even though at the time, those things were not what I wanted. And so, with that benefit of hindsight, I think actually, going forward, I can say, well, okay, well, let’s see what comes, because sometimes it’s just out of my hands. I’m supposed to be somewhere else. I’m supposed to be doing something different. And like you say with your characters, they will then look back on their past experience and it will inform their way to handle this new change.
Yeah, exactly. Well, I think we’ve nearly run out of time, but I just wanted to ask you, do you have a website? What’s the best way of people finding your books if they want to connect with you? Where do you spend most of your time?
Oh, so I am just about everywhere. Complete media ****. I have a website of my own, Pernillehughes.com. But then I’m also on Instagram, Twitter. I’m on Facebook. I don’t do much there. Instagram is probably where I’m most or Twitter, if anyone would like then there is a free story on my website, which you can download if you join my newsletter. So, try before you buy.
Thank you so much for your time. Hopefully, in seasons to come, you can come back and tell me about your new creative adventures. Whether it’s a new screenplay or a screenplay of one of your books or a new book, I’m sure there’s more to come. Thank you so much for being here, Pernille, and speak to you soon, maybe.
Thank you for having me. It’s been absolute pleasure.
Thanks so much for listening to this episode of The Creative Switch. If you enjoyed it, please leave a review over on podchaser.com. And if you’ve got any questions, please let me know on Twitter @nikki_vallance. You can also head to nikkivallance.com to join the Creative Switch community.
I do hope you join me and my next guest, Paulomi Debnath, founder of Handmade by Tinni, a sustainable modern textile design brand that creates unique wearable art. Paulomi talks about how she didn’t want to choose between her two loves. And remember, Why Survive When You Can Thrive?