Best-selling author Rosamunde Pilcher has been back in her native Cornwall to talk about her childhood at Lelant and her early inspiration as a writer. Living Cornwall Editor Simon Parker spoke to her over dinner in Newquay.
When Rosamunde Pilcher was just seven years old and living near St Ives, she was given a small notebook by her father to amuse her during a long car journey. The play she wrote in it marked the start of a career that would span several decades and lead to some 30 books and more than 100 films.
Celebrating her 89th birthday in Cornwall this week, the popular author was guest of honour for a dinner at Newquay's Headland Hotel. In an exclusive interview with the Western Morning News, she said that no matter where she goes in the world, Cornwall remains her home and her inspiration.
"I get withdrawal symptoms when I'm not in Cornwall," she said. "So I try to come back as often as possible. I find I need to walk on Lelant beach and recharge my batteries.
"All my success can be traced back to Cornwall because I was born here and Cornwall is always with me."
In a wide-ranging discussion, the award-winning author, who received the OBE in 2002, spoke of her wartime work, her long-held ambition to become a writer and the day she realised she'd "made it".
Born at Lelant in September 1924, Rosamunde said her mother actually chose to settle in Cornwall on a whim.
"My father was working in the Far East and my mother, who was from Orkney and already had my older sister to look after, simply wanted to find somewhere pleasant to live," she said. "So, quite out of the blue, heavily pregnant and without any pre-thought, she moved to Lelant and took lodgings. I was born in the lodging house and then she rented a very nice house and that was where my sister and I grew up, on the Hayle Estuary."
Rosamunde enjoyed a charmed childhood, playing around the village, taking the train to St Ives, swimming at Porthminster beach, climbing out of a friend's net loft to go bellyboarding at Porthmeor, and mixing with the port's emerging artistic community.
"A lot of my mother's friends were artists and St Ives was very, very creative in those days. It has a tremendously creative atmosphere and it had a great influence on me. There was always something always going on. There were the painters, of course, the Nance family who made wonderful wood carvings, Bernard Leach making his pots, a whole procession of interesting and amusing characters."
When Rosamunde was in her early teens, she went to stay with a school friend's family in Penzance while her mother and sister travelled to Burma to be with her father.
"I stayed with them for quite some time and they showed me a completely different part of Cornwall. I got to know all the coves around Mount's Bay and all the lovely places I had not seen before."
However, the future author's love affair with her native land was rudely interrupted when war was declared in 1939 and her family had to move.
"My father was back from Burma. He was immediately recalled to the Royal Navy and we all had to decamp to Cardiff. I had to change schools and sadly leave all my friends and Cornwall behind. However, it was while I was at school in Wales that I seriously began to have ambitions of being a writer. It was rather a secret thing but I began to know this was what I wanted to do."
Leaving school at 16 she spent a brief spell learning shorthand and typing before joining the war effort, initially with the Foreign Office and later joining the Wrens.
"All of us were keen to make munitions or be a Land Girl or do something else for the war effort. I spent two years at Portsmouth in the Royal Navy Gunnery. And when D-Day came they wanted girls to go to France and, because I thought it would make a nice change, I applied. However, the next thing I knew I was on a troop ship on my way to the Far East."
It was in the former Sri Lanka that she took her first tentative steps towards a writing career, drawing on the experiences of her many friends and acquaintances serving in the armed forces there.
"While in Ceylon I wrote a short story and my father submitted it to Woman and Home magazine. The day he sent me a cable to say it had been published for 15 guineas really was the best moment of my life. It was the moment I knew that I could do it."
Returning to Cornwall, the course of Rosamunde's life was to change yet again.
"I arrived home from Ceylon in September, met Graham, and we got married in December. Rosamunde Scott had become Rosamunde Pilcher."
Married and with little money, she was determined to contribute financially to the family's coffers, starting work immediately on a discarded typewriter she had found in the family home.
"It was brand new and the first I had ever owned. I dusted it off and began writing short stories. And because I had spent a long time meeting with and living with so many young people in Portsmouth and Ceylon, I'd seen countless love affairs starting, blossoming, crashing and ending. So off I went. There were dozens of different characters stored in my memory and these formed the basis of these stories."
Serialised in Woman and Home, My Weekly and Woman's Weekly, the stories were soon picked up by Mills & Boon. She went on to write several titles for the firm – including Half-Way To The Moon, The Brown Fields and Dangerous Intruder – under the pen-name of Jane Fraser. With the first of four children to look after, she realised writing was something she could do at home, the stories didn't take her long to complete, and Mills and Boon paid well.
"More important than all of that, however, was that writing gave me a wonderful feeling of independence. I was able to go out and buy presents for my children and my husband and my mother and knew I'd done it all myself. Even today, I can't get over that feeling of satisfaction and independence – it is one of the best feelings in the world."
However, while the titles ticked along nicely for three decades, she would have to wait until the late-1980s to get what she describes as her big break. By then she had signed to an American publisher.
"I spent years ploughing on with the work and by the time I was 60 I was earning an honourable yearly salary. Then Tom Dunn, my publisher, came over from America and my children were joshing him and asking when their mother would become a best-selling author. Tom was very blunt and told them their mother hadn't yet produced the goods. So I asked him what I should do and he told me he wanted a big, fat family saga for women.
"By then I had actually been looking forward to my old age pension and putting my feet up. Instead I found myself landed with writing an enormous tome. But the more I thought about it the more I reckoned I could do it and if somebody believes you can do something, which Tom did, you can very often persuade yourself that you can."
The result was The Shell Seekers, a complex tale of family inheritance incorporating a time-shifting trio of plots set in Cornwall, Gloucestershire and London.
Within three weeks of its publication, The Shell Seekers had hit The New York Times best-seller list, going on to sell more than five million copies worldwide and being translated into 21 languages.
The huge success of The Shell Seekers sparked renewed interest in the entire Pilcher oeuvre, which has since helped to elevate Cornwall's international profile, particularly in Germany, where television adaptations of her books have become essential family viewing. The impact of her novels on Cornwall's tourism industry continues to grow.
"The Shell Seekers was the breakthrough. Finally I had a name. It was the most wonderful feeling, but I never forget that it all started here in Cornwall, on the beaches, sitting on the rocks and making up little stories in my head, a long time ago..."