How pleasant it must be to be Sally Beauman. Her weekend cottage is the prettiest house in the Cotswolds. She earns a blissful - and considerable - living writing novels. Her partner, the actor Alan Howard, is acclaimed and admired in his field. Even their teenage son seems amenable.
Indeed, life is so fulfilling that she seeks little distraction or entertainment: "I try to keep the weekends as quiet as possible because Alan works in a particularly pressurised way and my work is tiring, so the last thing we want is to embark on some elaborate social programme. It's nice to wear old clothes and be quiet."
Sally Beauman's star first rose when she left Girton College, Cambridge and battered her way into journalism, winning the Catherine Pakenham award for young women journalists, then worked for intelligent publications like The New Yorker and edited Queen Magazine at a ridiculously young age. She could have been a prototype Tina Brown (they do look alike), but Sally Beauman flouted literary circle credibility by writing Mills & Boon romances and Destiny, a women's blockbuster, the first to earn an unproven author a $1 million advance.
That was in the mid-80s. Now she is older (46), richer and completely unrepentant. Her second big novel, Dark Angel, lingered on the bestseller lists for many weeks, earning sums similar to those amassed by her first success. She is now hard at work on the third.
She comes across as a blue-stocking - an unexpected bodice-ripper authoress; she is an articulate woman with a crisp Oxbridge accent and a brain to match.
Various habits give the lie to her outward composure - smoking, for example. "I keep trying to give it up but I can't write if I don't smoke. For me, there's a kind of neurotic connection between the two activities." She tries to avoid writing at weekends. "You need a break from it. Driving down here on a Friday evening, cursing the other cars on the M40, is quite a good way of knocking the book right out of your head." She admits that a plot and its characters continue to murmur, on the boundary of consciousness, right through the weekend.
Sometimes, when she is trying to meet a deadline, she is forced to write. She has taken over a "hut in the garden that used to be a tool shed. It's rather primitive and cold." This turns out to be a delightful stone outbuilding, whitewashed and romantic - the archetypical writer's retreat.
Normally, however, the family collapses by the fire with a drink, has a light, hotch-potch meal, watches television and goes to bed, where Sally reads until midnight at least.
She gets up at 7am on Saturday. "When I was a teenager and a student I was good at staying in bed, but I can't do that now. It's because I have a child. I get up early because I'm used to him going off to school."
Sally Beauman and Alan Howard met in 1970 when she interviewed him for a profile. They hit it off so well that they remained talking for hours. This strikes you now as pretty much of a miracle. Alan, a fine actor, whose recent roles include "the lover" in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover, loathes doing interviews and photographs and was jollied into ours only by a coalition of Sally, me and the photographer.
The family's London house is reputed to be exquisitely furnished: the Cotswold stone house certainly is and in an unmannered way. They bought it at the height of the property boom, aided by the proceeds of Destiny. Within weeks of their moving in, a developer submitted a plan to close the village pub and convert it into flats; Beauman and Howard were recruited to the campaign opposing him. So they quickly met the 150 other villagers and soon felt themselves assimilated into the village.
They remain perhaps the only weekenders in the village, which these days must rate socially as a condition worse than leprosy. Did they feel suitably guilty? Did they hide their Marks & Spencer cook-chill food when they unloaded the hatchback? She flashed her most winning smile and offered a careful reply. "We're very lucky because, although the school is gone, we have a shop, a pub and a post office. So I shop locally on Saturday morning, and very good it is, too." They are "wicked weekenders" for the time being only, she stresses: James did not want to change schools in the run-up to his GCSEs, which he sits this year. Sally herself "would be delighted to move. I don't want to go on living in London at all."
Saturday lunch, like most lunches in their household, is a "scrappy affair": a salad, a sandwich or a trip to the newly redeemed pub. In the afternoon, they go for a walk, "sometimes together, sometimes James will go off to do something else with a friend. We take the dog [a huge, hairy Bernese Mountain dog called Lovell] and walk for several hours."
Sally knows the area well from her childhood. She was brought up in Bristol and her father would take her for drives and to visit extended family in the area. "When we came back here it did feel rather like coming home," she says.
Her childhood offers a clue to her attitude to wealth. She is the authorly equivalent of one of those football pools winners who are infuriating in their determination that money isn't going to change their lives at all. Indeed, she likens the experience of Destiny to winning the pools "in that it was freakish and unlikely and sudden.
"Alan and I were deeply worried. We sat there, 'How are we going to cope?' I didn't want to make radical changes in our lives because I was very happy with how we were living. Financially, I had been both insecure and secure in the past and it never seemed to make a great deal of difference either way."
According to Sally, an only child, her parents went through similar changes in fortune. She would seem to have chosen to emulate her father, who coped well with reversal. "It was very hard for my father. He had a whole succession of jobs but we didn't have much money. He was tremendously wise and he adapted very well. But my mother found it quite difficult. Politically, they were different. My mother was very right-wing and my father was a socialist."
A genteel, middle-class poverty affects the main characters in Dark Angel, a definite change from the more usual, expensive, brand-name lives of blockbuster characters. It is not the only way in which Beauman has edged away from the formula. The book's central theme, of child abuse and the corruption of innocence, is deeply disturbing, as are many of the sexual encounters. "The strange thing is that not one single person who has written to me about the book, nor one single reviewer, has dealt with that topic."
The other thing you notice about the book is that it is well written, particularly in the opening chapters, where the prose style is rhythmic and economical. "The strengths of popular fiction - good plotting, good characterisation, pace, all those things that pull a reader into a book - I don't see why you can't combine these with well-written prose."
Sally keeps old copies of Country Life, which cheer her because she finds advertisements for wonderful homes with 10-year-old asking prices. She reads in bed on Saturday night, after a dinner that she may well "have quite enjoyed cooking. I like it when I have the time."
She also prays every night when she has finished reading. "I think of myself as a Church of England Christian, though one can't say one is practising if one doesn't go regularly to church. I think almost everybody, even the most irreligious person, would pray in extremis. It's an instinctive and deep-rooted reaction. And it seems to me that if you would pray in extremis, you ought to do it on a more habitual basis. It's calming and helpful."
On Sunday she might actually stay in bed until 9am, "the latest I ever do", before collecting the Sunday newspapers. She likes to cook Sunday lunch but frequently doesn't, "because we're worried about getting back to London. And James sometimes has masses of homework to do. So if we're leaving quite early we'll have a huge bacon and egg, calorific breakfast and skip lunch."
As she returns to London and her current book, she discovers that a magical process has taken place. Characters have been transmogrified, problems unravelled. Sally Beauman approaches Monday morning ready to write.
Sunday Express Magazine, 31.3.1991.