My mother, Jackie Collins, published her first book in 1968, the year before I was born, and she published her thirty first and last book in 2015, the year she died. The years in between were spent juggling the magnitude of motherhood with the life of a highly successful writer, and my sisters and I had front row seats to her creative process.
Our mother was a born storyteller. After she died, we discovered a stack of notebooks written at the tender age of thirteen entitled “These Things Called Teenagers”. We were mesmerized flicking through these beautiful artifacts, lovingly illustrated by our aunt Joan. There was Jackie Collins on the page, her gorgeous cursive handwriting, her confident and feisty tone, her vivid characters. It was both reassuring and exciting to see that her voice had always been present.
In every house we lived in, our mother always had a room of her own. She called it her “study,” conjuring up visions of stuffy professors, wood paneling and book lined walls. Eternally a rebel, our mother’s study was quite the opposite. The walls were lined with her extensive and diverse record collection, shiny stereo equipment, and framed family photographs.
I remember when we moved from London to Los Angeles, my sister’s best friend painted a beach mural behind the shelves in our mother’s study, so her menagerie of porcelain “bathing beauties” could feel right at home. She was an obsessive collector of objects and art that inspired her. Art deco statuettes, sleek carvings of black panthers, ceramic leopards and tigers, carved wooden Buddhas, paintings that told a story and vintage movie posters. This passion for collecting was an extension of her creative spirit and fed her wild imagination.
I could almost imagine a crowd gathered around her desk when our mother sat down to write.
While writing is of course at the end of the day a solo mission, I could almost imagine a crowd gathered around her desk when our mother sat down to write. Firstly, there were her characters, who she often brought to life with only a few deft brushstrokes of her pen. She always said they wrote the story for her and all she had to do was follow their lead. Then there were her parents, her father who had been dismissive of her writing dream and her mother who didn’t live long enough to see her youngest daughter’s success. I think there was always a part of her that wanted to make them proud, to prove herself.
And of course, she wrote also for her readers, who were devoted from the very first novel and often cited her books not only as an escape, but also as a lifeline, providing a glimmer of glamour, possibility, and empowerment. And then there was us—her family. Every desk over the years had a chair on the other side, where she welcomed visitors, offering us a chance to listen in as she animatedly read a passage before the ink had even dried. While our father was alive, he was not only her greatest advocate but also her first editor, and read her manuscripts cover to cover before the publisher ever had a look in.
As for the tools off her trade, she was definitely old school—spiraled notebooks, black felt tipped pens and a well-loved thesaurus. She set herself a schedule, writing during the hours of the day when we were at school. She never made an outline for her books, but she did love to make character lists that helped her keep track of the many plotlines she so deftly wove together. And many details for her early novels were researched in our collection of Encyclopedia Britannicas!
That is until we moved to Los Angeles in 1981, when she started writing Hollywood Wives and research turned into ensuring she was at all the Hollywood parties and talked about restaurants, making friends, and taking notes, albeit without the insiders realizing! My mother could open anyone up a like a book. She used to say people treated her like a bartender or a psychiatrist and she had no issues with that. She also always carried an instamatic camera, documenting every occasion with an observant eye that transferred easily from the lens to the page.
I always think of our mother’s life in seasons. There was her writing season and her promoting season. During her promoting season she transformed into a magical vision in diamonds and leopard print blazers. She’d certainly put in the hours before her ninth novel Hollywood Wives was published, and she had become an assured businesswomen who had seen the benefits of marketing her work.
She was involved in every aspect of the publishing process from cover design to the promotional campaign and she was highly respected in the industry, despite often being derided by critics. Hollywood Wives propelled her to another level. Not only was she paid an unprecedented advance for a female writer, but it also sold in the millions and kept tongues wagging wondering who were these outrageous characters based upon? Of course, our mother would never reveal her secrets or her sources. Forty years on as the anniversary edition is released, I imagine the guessing game will continue.
Amidst all the heady swirl of success, she kept her feet on the ground and made certain ours were also. Thankfully, there were no private planes or designer purses for her three girls. Personally, I always preferred when the promotion came to end and there was a short break in proceedings before the next book began. It always started with a flash of an idea, sparked by a newspaper article or an overheard conversation. And then a title would emerge, and I could see that sparkle in her eyes, a radiant light beckoning her back to her desk, into the creative sanctuary of her study, promising a rapturous, page turning adventure, not only for her, but also for everyone else who was along for the ride.
Hollywood Wives (40th Anniversary Edition) by Jackie Collins is available from Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.