Lesley Pearce’s life reads like one of her novels. Left motherless at three, she ended up in a Victorian style orphanage, to be rescued, three years later, by a stepmother who was then cold towards her. Leaving school at 15, she worked for a while, married at 20, but left after she’d suffered a miscarriage at six months.
Wild years followed. Living at the centre of sixties swinging London, Lesley and her rock star second husband had a baby, Lucy, but later, living in a village, he had a psychotic episode, and she had to have him committed.
“He jumped out of an upstairs window and ran through the village without his trousers, foaming at the mouth. It was scary,” says Lesley.
Taking the baby, she left, and scraped by, before meeting husband number three whilst hitching on the way to a job.
“Nigel picked me up in a big red truck,” she tells me, as we chat through her career in Dublin. “He was gorgeous! He was a David Essex lookalike with black curly hair and naughty eyes, and he accepted Lucy and I as a package.”
She also attributes him with giving her the impetus to start writing. And that began with funny letters of complaint.
“We’d get vouchers,” she says. Next came letters to magazines – the first paid her £25. Encouraged, she signed up for an online writing course, and earned her money back with her first story in Woman’s Weekly magazine.
She had ten published, but then her stories became grittier, and they were turned down.
“So, I wrote a book.”
Her first two books failed to find a publisher, but the second got a response from agent Darley Anderson.
“Darley said, ‘this is rubbish, but you can write. Write about what you know!’”
Taking the advice on board, Lesley wrote Georgia, based in the rock world of the sixties. It was turned down by every major publishing house, but after many rewrites found a home.
This was the mid to late eighties, when Thatcher’s Britain boomed. Working as a party planner, Lesley then opened a gift shop selling, mainly ceramics. But when the nineties recession started to bite, the business failed, rather spectacularly.
Afraid to burden Nigel, Lesley left him. They’d been married for 20 years, had two daughters, and he treated Lucy as his own. Lesley says he was a good husband, so wasn’t walking out a rather dramatic step?
“I don’t know if I made the right decision,” she says. “I was still very fond of him.” And life without him was tricky. “I’d got to 50. My business had failed, and my book wasn’t going to set the world alight, so I still had a mountain of debt. I kept applying for jobs, but no one would employ me.
“I left Nigel on New Year’s Day, and on the second January my second book, Tara, came out. I couldn’t get social security because I had my advance, but the insolvency people had taken that against the debt.
“I didn’t owe anything to the bank, so I went in there with copies of Georgia and Tara, put them down, and said, ‘Would you give me an unlimited overdraft until I get the money for my third book.’ And the manager said, ‘Yes!’”
Tara was shortlisted for the Romantic Novelist’s Association Book of the Year, and since then, Lesley’s sales have soared. She’s been with her publishers, Penguin, for 25 years, has published 26 books, and has sold 10 million books worldwide.
I’m talking to the 73-year old about The House Across the Street – a tale of battered wives and the lengths their husbands will go to to exert control. It starts with a fire at a house where there is a stream of mysterious callers. The glamorous Gloria lives there – a woman who fascinates young Katy Speed, but causes dissention between her parents.
Gloria dies in the fire, along with her daughter. And when Katy’s father is arrested, accused of arson and murder, the 23-year old, who works for a solicitor, starts making investigations of her own. But can she find out the truth, and is she putting her own life in danger?
Set in the suburbs in the sixties, it’s a nostalgic holiday read with a still current issue at its heart. It’s not the first time the author has written about domestic violence, but what propelled her into writing this sixteenth book?
“I began with that road. At the end of the road was this old oak panelled house which was a school for delicate children. I worked there when I was doing my nursery nurse training at 17. Like Katy, I was nosy. I spent a lot of time looking out of the window waiting and wishing something would happen.
“All through my life I’ve known women who have been abused. When I was expecting Lucy, Erin Pizzey used to come into the fabric shop I ran. She told me where the first battered wife refuge was, and I went there with her one day; I was making curtains for one of the rooms.
“I thought she was wonderful! People were packed in like sardines, but it was their only place of safety. She never turned anyone away.”
She saw the story from the other side when she worked for a solicitor in London.
“I used to read everything that came in. A yeoman of the guard in the tower of London was being sued for divorce. He had battered his wife. He’d flung her down the stairs. She had nine children. I remember thinking, gosh, this would make a good story, but this was true stuff. It got me interested.”
Lesley is a relaxed, yet feisty interviewee. Her life story might seem fantastical at times, but she’s honest when it comes to her failings. She regrets being, ‘not very nice to men,’ yet rather likes the idea that she’s ‘A bolter.’
“I’m better off on my own,” she says. “I’ve got a lot of gay friends, and they are perfect! They waft in and out of my house and come shopping. They love coming round for dinner, and laying the table, perfectly! As for the other stuff, that ship has sailed.”
She’s become more accepting with age. For years she denigrated her step mother, who was cold, and never gave the children cuddles, but now she realises she was the best thing that happened in her childhood.
“She was intolerant but multi-talented. She developed in me a love of the English language. She lived until she was 96 and could still do the Times crossword in 10 minutes. I wrote her a letter one day telling her how grateful I was. I didn’t send her a copy of Georgia because of all the rude bits, but she rang the publisher and said, ‘I’m Lesley Pearce’s mother, send me the book!’ She said it was very good. ‘But it was a shame you had to exercise the coarser bits of your mind.’
“She found Dad in a marriage bureau. She went along there and said, ‘I want a man who is in the forces, preferably officer class, but I’d settle for an NCO. He must have at least two children, own his house and be artistic.’ Dad ticked all the boxes. It wasn’t a love match, but they were great friends. We used to hear them laughing.”
What is the secret of her success?
“I read a lot and I write the kind of books I like to read,” she says. “I told fibs as a child, and lived in imaginative worlds, always making things up.” She laughs. “And I still am, to an extent. I thought everybody did that.”
The House Across the Street by Lesley Pearse. Michael Joseph: €16.99 Kindle: €11.94
Published in The Irish Examiner, 5th January, 2019.
© Sue Leonard. 2019