‘Chick lit’ is a bit dated now
Fashion journalist Plum Sykes on her first murder mystery after two society comedies
Party Girls Die In Pearls, a murder mystery set in the 1980s in Oxford University, is Plum Sykes’ latest novel. Sykes, 48, a contributing editor at the American Vogue, got her big break when she was offered a job by Anna Wintour, the magazine’s editor-in-chief. As a fashion journalist, Sykes has swirled amongst New York’s 1%, and written two society comedies on the swish set. Gloucestershire-based Sykes was in Mumbai to speak at the Times LitFest last weekend. Edited excerpts from a conversation:
Why did you decide to write about crime after the first two novels and how did you settle on this light tone?
I didn’t want to write another romantic comedy. I thought I’d done that and there’s only one ending, let’s face it. Basically, I wanted to write a book set in Oxford. I somehow wanted to write a social comedy with a murder mystery. It sounds like a contradiction in terms but isn’t really. When I was interviewing policemen for the book, they were cracking jokes all the time. Comedy is a way of getting through life. Agatha Christie’s books are really funny and they’re really dark in parts too.
Was it an obvious decision to set it in the 1980s?
It was a conscious decision for many reasons. I was there in the 1980s. I thought if I set it in 1985, at the height of Lady Diana and Margaret Thatcher—that was a very funny, extreme time in England, particularly somewhere like Oxford. Also, when you’re dealing with a high-society story and characters that are rich and privileged, if they’re set in the present, people tend not to like them very much, whereas if they seem nostalgic, from another time, it’s much easier to get away with them.
In the book, there is tremendous attention to what people are wearing.
When I did my first drafts, my editors said, where’s all the fashion? Because I hadn’t put that much. I hadn’t described the clothes enough. So I went back and did more research. I used the clothes to set the decade. I just said, she looks like Ivana Trump, and we all know where we are. The clothes set the tone, the time, they’re a much more fun way of being slightly historical.
What did you do when you were writing for ‘Vogue’?
My initial job was to be a fashion writer. But I carved out a niche for myself very quickly that was not just about the dress but the girl in the dress. So I ended up writing as much about the girls as the clothes. There were definitely other fashion journalists at the time who were more like fashion critics who wrote about shows. I’ve never been able to report from runway shows. But I also did a lot of houses, gardens, covered actors, actresses.
Sounds like a glamorous life.
It was very glamorous but it wasn’t my life, it was their life. I was drinking Perrier (sparkling water) because I was working. It was an incredibly fun job, much more fun than most people’s jobs. But it’s really important to remember that is not your life. And to try and keep your distance from it, otherwise you can’t report on it.
Your books have been described as chick lit. How do you feel about that category?
I think it’s a bit dated now. It was very 1990s, 2000s. I never liked it because I thought it was very derogatory. I think it was a marketing tool. When Bridget Jones’s Diary and Sex And The City came out, those were the first books people gave that label to. And then it seemed that any book after that written by a woman got labelled that. People would say to me, I wasn’t going to read it because I thought it was going to be chick lit, and then someone told me to read it and I realized it was a social comedy. Because that’s what those books are really. Because I’m a woman and they’ve got fashion in them, they’re suddenly downgraded somehow.
So ‘Pride And Prejudice’ could be chick lit.
That would be chick lit now, because Jane Austen wrote it. Or Middlemarch (by George Eliot). I think a lot of the labels are silly, but having said that, they do help people market them. But I think now the idea of a chick lit book with a pink cover is so irrelevant, is so not what people want. They’ve got to find a different way to market women’s fiction.
Do you have a readership in mind when you write?
My readers probably like reading Bridget Jones, Agatha Christie, P.G. Wodehouse, Pride And Prejudice, Edith Wharton, Georgette Heyer. You have to think of the reader as someone who likes a tone of voice. You’re just thinking, I really want to entertain them.
Was it a challenge to write about crime?
Not really. The hard thing is, how am I going to plot it without anyone guessing who it is, but putting all the clues in? There’s a whole technical side to mystery writing that I hadn’t had to deal with. You have to try and keep it light but at the same time not take away from the seriousness that someone has just been killed. It’s not meant to be a Scandi noir. The murder is just a way in to look at a set of people that are fun to read about.
Are you concerned that your rich and posh characters won’t be relatable?
I think I have to see my books, or the people who like them see them, as escapism. They’re not trying to find them relatable because the whole point is its escapist fun.
Do you feel your kind of journalism or writing isn’t taken seriously?
I think very few people are taken really, really seriously. Maybe people take (Barack) Obama seriously but they still make jokes about him. Everyone gets their bubble popped by the media. And if you’re sitting there waiting to be taken seriously, you’ll just wait all your life. But in my small part of the media, I feel very respected. And my readers respect me. I don’t want them to take me too seriously because I want them to have a laugh. And I think anyone who knows how hard it is to write something that is really light, they will take you seriously. But most people don’t know how hard that is.
What’s the hardest part?
To make jokes on a continual basis. Because you want to have that levity all the time but also be intelligent. It’s much easier to write a tragedy.
What she’s reading now
Tina Brown’s The Vanity Fair Diaries and Edward St Aubyn’s Dunbar. Books and writers she enjoys: Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Evelyn Waugh, Nora Ephron, Craig Brown, Jay McInerney, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Breakfast At Tiffany’s.