One month before lockdown, the author known as Sophie Kinsella was speaking at a luncheon for fans at an Italian restaurant. During the question-answer portion, one participant raised her hand and asked if Kinsella would ever consider trying a genre other than romantic comedy.
“I said, sort of as a flip remark, ‘Maybe one day I should have a sad ending,’” Kinsella, whose real name is Madeleine Wickham, told Glamour. “And this lady went ‘NO!’ in complete panic. And then the whole audience started going ‘WE WON’T BUY IT!” Kinsella laughs, imitating a crazed mob of readers. “WE’RE NOT HERE FOR IT!”
Kinsella—Oxford graduate, mother of five, one-time beleaguered financial journalist—has been writing romantic comedies for over two decades. She’s written 28 novels, including the celebrated Confessions of a Shopaholic books. A young adult novel and a children’s series number among her accomplishments. Her books have twice been adapted into sparkling, high budget Hollywood movies. A third movie is in development at Amazon, set to star Dakota Fanning, with a screenplay by one of the writers of Legally Blonde.
Over 45 million copies of Sophie Kinsella novels have been sold. And every one of them has a happy ending. For every person who stood up at the fan luncheon, ready to throw profiteroles and prosecco at the mention of tragedy, Kinsella is right there with them. “I root for my characters, I love them, I’m probably too close to them, and I do want life to work out for them,” she says.
Kinsella is not her characters, but they share some commonalities. One is this kind of comment—she’s speaking brightly about love, and then all of a sudden there’s a flash of determination, like a pair of designer boots peeking out of a nondescript carrier bag. “I think: You know what? Let’s just have a slice of life in which it works out,” she says. “Nothing too perfect, just a bit of hope. What’s wrong with that?”
What is wrong with that? These are the kind of books people call “guilty pleasures,” but I never feel guilty reading a Sophie Kinsella novel any more than I would feel guilty having coffee with a dear friend. They’re not formulaic so much as consistent—a source of dependable cheer, summer-y and Christmas-y at the same time. Kinsella’s new book, The Party Crasher, out this week, takes place over the course of a single party at a sprawling country estate. Kinsella intended it as a “supreme piece of escapism” to help readers get through lockdown. The protagonist spends several very funny scenes hiding from her family in a closet and under a table. “I realized that I had written a book about a claustrophobic family stuck in a house,” Kinsella laughs.
Kinsella’s huge breakthrough was Confessions of Shopaholic—the novel in 2000, the movie in 2009, and nine succeeding books in the series. Like that character, Becky Bloomwood, Kinsella worked as a financial journalist in her early 20s despite a lack of interest, and even less confidence. At 25, she left office life behind to write novels. Now she’s in her fifties. She and her husband have five children. Her career is gigantic, and growing. Most of her protagonists are still single, childless women in their 20s or 30s, early in their careers.
“A friend of mine asked me just the other day—she said, how do you put yourself back?” says Kinsella. “I feel like I have a channel in my brain that just transports me back to that state of life where everything is still on the horizon. I think there’s something so magical about the glimmering horizon.”
Kinsella and her husband, Henry Wickham, are long past that—they met on her first night at Oxford and have been together for the majority of their lives. Their children range in age from preteen to 20-something. Theirs is a significant love story, too. “My husband is such a teammate, both in parenting and in my writing,” Kinsella says. He recently left his job as headmaster of a school to work with her full time, essentially as her manager. It’s work he has been doing unofficially for years. “He completely gets my sense of humor and really enjoys talking plot,” she says. When their children are finally in bed and they’re falling asleep, they talk through book ideas. “Maybe that’s the reason we’ve been married so long,” she laughs. “I’m constantly writing books as though I’m in the throes of an early romance.
Kinsella’s protagonists are women on the edge of that horizon. They are not the most beautiful or the most successful. Instead, they’re fiercely protective of their friendships, ever-hopeful, and slightly bumbling. Unlike on screen romantic comedies, these women do not have the occasional tumble or spinach-y incisor as a replacement for a personality. They are truly flawed, and genuinely endearing.
It’s very similar to the way Kinsella describes her own fans. “I can’t really define them in terms of age or demographic or anything except they have a sense of humor, they have a kind of positive outlook on life,” she says. They want to laugh, and they are people who can laugh at themselves.” More than racing hearts and glossy carrier bags, laugh-out-loud moments are signature Kinsella. She spends hours tinkering with certain scenes until they make her laugh. “I love to laugh,” she says. Every storyline in Kinsella’s children’s series, Mummy Fairy, is workshopped with her youngest children. “They were quite brutal in their assessment,” says Kinsella. “They’re like ‘That story is not as funny as the one before, is it mummy?’ and I’m like ‘Ah okay yes, better punch it up.’”
Kinsella grew up with sisters. “We all wrote letters to each other, little notes to each other, we expressed ourselves in words all the time.” But she didn’t dream of being a novelist—she was a talented musician. She played piano, she played violin, she joined teen orchestras, she went to university to study music. She often thought about stories, but she never thought of herself as funny. “I remember when I was a student I would say things and people would laugh, and I would be quite surprised because I was just really giving my take on life,” she says. (This is also true of many Sophie Kinsella characters.) “It’s all creating in one way or another,” she says of music and writing “But there’s just something about words and something about comedy which I just am addicted to, I just am.”
Kinsella’s adult books are often described as Chick Lit. Though she prefers “Wit Lit,” it’s an accurate label in the sense that they are intentionally happy stories aimed at a female audience. And it can be belittling, sometimes implying that both text and reader are insignificant. What’s insignificant about falling in love? What’s insignificant about laughter? For her part, Kinsella doesn’t care. “What am I going to do, go around banging a drum and trying to correct people? No, I’m going to keep writing my books for my readers, that’s what I do.”
So she keeps going. She tries to write a thousand words a day. Every so often, she writes through the night. “Sometimes you’re just in the story and the night feels like this magical luxury where no ones gonna bother you, you’ve got these hours ahead of you and you can just power through till morning,” she says. She never, ever sits down to write a new novel and thinks, “I know how to do this.” She never even knows if she’ll have another idea for a new story.
“I think that’s what keeps me so grateful for what I do,” she says. “I don’t think anything is guaranteed. So I’m just jolly thankful if I have a few little notions floating around.”
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.