Chris Titley talks to writer Gill Hornby about her links to York, her famous family and why women invest too much energy on self-criticism to smash the glass ceiling
Yorkshire has produced some marvellous writers. Emily Brontë, Ted Hughes, Alan Bennett, Gill Hornby…
Wait a minute. Gill Hornby? The former Telegraph journalist who penned columns from the heart of the Home Counties? The same Gill Hornby who is sister to best-selling author Nick, and wife of Fatherland writer Robert Harris – neither of whom are known for their flat vowels or northern ways?
The very same. For although Gill is a card-carrying southerner, her roots are right here in York.
“I was born in Yorkshire. But I did leave it when I was 14 months old,” she says. “My dad was working in York in some builders’ merchant or something. I was asking my mum yesterday. I was born in Upper Poppleton and I was born at home.”
Her brother Nick, who wrote About A Boy, Fever Pitch and High Fidelity, is two and a half years older and clearly remembers the day, Gill said.
“I was born in the morning and he was just playing outside and he was called in to see me. He looked out of the bedroom window and said, ‘Oh look, there’s Duncan’ – who was his friend up the road – and just went out again.
“Quite often on my birthday he’ll write in my card, ‘Oh look, there’s Duncan’.”
Has she ever made a pilgrimage to her first home? “I did go once, when I was in my twenties. We were in York so I drove through Upper Poppleton then. I didn’t find the road.
“I know it’s my birth certificate because it says I was born in 14 Fairview Drive, Upper Poppleton. And then of course it’s great going through American passport control or something – [she puts on a New York accent] ‘Upper Poppleton?’ They love it.”
Does she feel an affinity with York? “No, I wish I did really. I thought it was fantastic but life changed. My dad was in a time of moving around – a job here and a job there – so we came away again.
“It would be much better to come from Yorkshire than to come from Maidenhead, Berkshire, which is where we ended up, I tell you. It’s much better I think to come from a distinctive place with a regional identity than something that is on the edge of the M4.”
Her first novel, The Hive, is set in this area, and centres on the mothers who go to the local primary school – and the playground politics that many a mum will recognise.
“I was very aware at school of this cliquing and grouping that girls go in for,” Gill said. “When I found myself in the playground when my first child started school, I thought ‘Blimey – here we are again: there’s a group of sporty ones, there’s a group of popular ones laughing in a popular way. And there’s a load of teacher’s pets, and there’s a load of people smoking behind the bike sheds. Oh heavens, here we are again.’”
She found herself in her own “clique of refuseniks”.
“There is something deep in the female psyche that we just bond together. It’s not just a bad thing, in so many ways it’s a positive thing. It’s so supportive and we are better together and we do move mountains. But blimey – there’s a carry on as well.”
The competition between mums can become a little bonkers. “When there’s a cake sale in school, everybody hands you a white paper plate from Tesco to put your cake on.
“And the real distinguishing feature is if the cake comes back on the white paper plate with cling film over it – or it’s on a silver platter with cellophane and a ribbon!”
An intense interest in relationships set women apart from men, Gill believes. “I have never read a word by a man, or heard a man speak, about the lifestyle of other men. I don’t think they give a s***.
“We spend huge amounts of time and energy positively, negatively, endless interactions. If there’s any reason why we’re not going through glass ceilings it’s probably because all our energy is going in the grass roots level with all of this constant analysis and self-criticism.”
With two such successful novelists in her family, Gill is inevitably going to be compared to them.
“Clearly it does p*** a lot of people off. I don’t know what I can do about it really.
I’ve only got two legally-held surnames, and one I share with a well-known novelist, and one I share with a well-known novelist.
“I think it’s not really fair to set me up as a Pippa Middleton person because I have done a lot of journalism over the years.”
One writer in The Times – who gave The Hive what Gill describes as “a stinker” of a review – pointedly mentioned the fact that the book’s flyleaf “explicitly tells us” she is married to Robert Harris.
“But he’s had on his jacket for 20 years that he’s married to me. It seems a bit rude for me not to put it – it’s a fact! We’ve been married 25 years this July. We didn’t go to Vegas in order to get the publicity…
“I’m feeling a bit bruised from the whole thing. It’s just natural I suppose. We look like a really jolly clique who’ve got everything stitched up and it’s making everybody feel excluded. But actually I think all we are is three individuals all doing our thing.”
Gill was sacked from her column at the Daily Telegraph after filing a report to the Guardian about being stranded by the Icelandic ash cloud – a report the Telegraph had turned down. This gave her the “kick up the bum” she needed to write the book.
Following a bidding war from publishers she has a two-book contract both here and in the States. The second one will be set in the same place but centre on mothers of older children going through their A levels.
The film rights to The Hive sold in August, which amazed Gill who wondered what an international audience would make of “all this about Malteser cake and Lewis on ITV3?”
In her own mind she already cast the character of Bea, the queen bee organiser of the school playground.
“My dream would be Gwyneth Paltrow as Bea. she does rather perform the function in real life of being utterly perfect and everyone adoring her and occasionally getting kicked to death. She gets a terrible time – and for what, really? She’s incredibly talented, she’s a brilliant actress.
“It is something you see played out in the media all the time: ‘We love Cheryl Cole! We hate Cheryl Cole! We love Kate Middleton! We hate Kate Middleton!’”
And perhaps this is something Gill must get used to now she has emerged as a writer of some considerable clout herself.