The Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, has written children's books and two memoirs, and has also made documentaries. Now she has dived into historical fiction with her first novel, Her Heart for a Compass (out August 3). She talks about the book, parallels between her and her heroine, and 'grandmotherhood'.
The novel is based on my great-great-aunt, Lady Margaret Montagu Douglas-Scott, and I discovered her after I was asked to do the BBC TV programme Who Do You Think You Are? which looks at people's ancestry. We didn't end up doing the programme, but it got me researching my own history. I found a long line of strong Scottish and Irish women, including Lady Margaret. But when it came to the specifics of her life, I could find out very little about her. What had she done with her life? Why had she married so relatively late? I decided to use her life as a blank canvas to give her a voice – and to weave a fictional story around her.
I'm sure people will spot parallels between me and Margaret: she's a redhead, she's led by her heart, she attracts the attention of the press, she forges a career in writing and cares about children's charitable causes. I think all writers draw on real life to some degree, but this is fiction, not an autobiography.
My grandmother used to say to me "when you feel bad about yourself, go out and help others" and I've always tried to live by that motto. I've always felt that if I can bring a smile to just one child's face, then it will have been worthwhile. Lady Margaret adopts the same approach in the book.
From a very early age, I would escape into my imagination and tell stories to my friends and family. I think writing is in my blood. I've wanted to write a novel for 15 years and I'm so proud to be a first-time novelist at 61.
Though I've had the idea for 15 years, it was about assembling the right team around me to make it happen. Then the pandemic, when I was locked down with my family, gave me the time and space to buckle down and write the book. I got on brilliantly straight away with my co-author Marguerite Kaye, who is a great Scottish novelist. She opened my eyes to the real history of Victorian Scotland and we did an enormous amount of historical research together before we started writing.
My overwhelming feeling is excitement about the book coming out; at people finally being introduced to these characters and this world that we have been working on for so long. I'm really proud of this work and I can't wait to see what people make of it. At the same time, the days when I tried to please all the people all of the time are long gone, and I've accepted that 50 per cent of people may like something you do, 50 per cent may not, and that's just fine.
The novel is romantic but not risque. My literary agent Lacy Lynch of Dupree Miller [a global literary agency] thought the publisher HarperCollins was the right fit and got the idea in front of the legendary editor Rachel Kahan of William Morrow publishers. Her Heart for a Compass is a sweeping, historical romance that seemed tailor-made for the sort of work that Mills & Boon, an imprint of HarperCollins, wants to promote in the 21st century.
I couldn't be prouder of my own daughters. Being a mum is the best job I've ever had. I adore Eugenie's husband Jack [Brooksbank] and Beatrice's husband Edoardo [Mapelli Mozzi] and it's given me such joy to see the girls creating their own families and standing up for what they believe in.
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Grandmotherhood is full of joy. Eugenie's son August is 5 months and already he seems to love my energy. The best thing about it is seeing Eugenie and Jack become such terrific parents, and now Beatrice is expecting a baby we couldn't be happier. How lucky are we as a family to have all this good news?
If I think about my legacy, I just want lots of laughter, joy and kindness at my funeral. If that's a legacy, then that's what I want.
As told to Sarah Lang
Her Heart fro a Compass, in-store 3 August $33, HarperCollins.
Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, is interviewed live from Windsor, at WORD Christchurch wordchristchurch.co.nz