'SANTA MONTEFIORE is a superb storyteller of love and death in romantic places in fascinating times - her passionate novels are
already bestsellers across Europe and I can see why. Her plots are sensual, sensitive and complex, her characters are unforgettable
life forces, her love stories are desperate yet uplifting - and one laughs as much as one cries.'
Plum Sykes, Author, Bergdorf Blondes
'This is quite simply a beautiful read and will make you believe again in love that conquers all'
News of The World
'Now is the perfect time to read this gripping romance...It is as believable as the writing is beautiful'
'Santa Montefiore is the new Rosamunde Pilcher.'
'A gripping romance….it is as believable as the writing is beautiful'
'Anyone who likes Joanne Harris or Mary Wesley will love Montefiore'
Mail on Sunday
'One of our personal favourites and bestselling authors, sweeping stories of love and families spanning continents and decades'
'The novel displays all Montefiore’s hallmarks; glamorous scene-setting, memorable characters, and as always deliciously large helpings of yearning love and surging passion'
Wendy Holden, Sunday Express
'Engaging and charming'
'Santa Montefiore really knows these people inside and out. I couldn’t put this book down'
Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey
I'm not a Tolstoy, I write a good yarn
Posted: Saturday, March 22, 2008
I'm not a Tolstoy, I write a good yarn.
The novelist Santa Montefiore can claim stratospheric social connections but Julian Flanagan finds her spiritual side is more important to her.
According to the veteran publisher and party-giver Lord Weidenfeld, "There is really no one else in London now who is at the nexus of so many worlds" as Santa Montefiore is.
The worlds connected by the novelist are literary, intellectual, social and royal. She is a romantic novelist with sales of 3m books, her sister is the socialite Tara Palmer-Tomkinson; her father, Charles, a former Olympic skier, owns and farms the Dummer Grange estate in Hampshire; and Prince Charles is a good family friend.
And then there's her husband Simon Sebag-Montefiore, the award winning author of such historical biographies as Stalin: The Court of The Red Tsar and Young Stalin. A noted foreign correspondent during the unravelling of the Soviet empire, his ancestors were bankers and diplomats.
It is just after 11am in a chic Kensington hotel near the couple's home. Water slips down a glass fountain. Through the window, daffodils bob in the Kensington Gardens. She arrives suddenly, striding across the lounge, her back catwalk straight, nearly 6ft tall in low, clicking heels, a strikingly attractive 38 year old in light jacket and jeans. Though her image is glamorous, her style is unpompous and she greets me with a cheery "hi!"
In conversation, her voice booms, she waves her hand, laughs and jokes, long legs stretched out. Exuberant rather than domineering, she looks at you uncertainly, searching for confirmation. Her voice is slightly husky, her accent more "Yeah" than "Yah".
She explains that March is a particularly busy month for her. Each year, on the first of the month, she delivers the first draft of a new novel to her publisher to appear the following March.
She has just delivered her ninth novel, while this week sees the publication of her eighth, The French Gardener. Like its predecessor, it is an entertaining look at love in its many guises – romantic, familial, platonic.
Fans of her novels have compared them to those of Joanne Harris and Mary Wesley, and she, at least, doesn't classify them as romances. "When I think of romance I think about national days of compulsion like Valentine's Day. I hate that. They (the books) are more 'sentimental'. I'm not writing Tolstoy, I write a good yarn."
Her first "yarn", Meet Me Under The Ombu Tree, was published in 2001. She had previously turned down an agent who had asked "can't you write about book about a yacht of skiing?" and wanted her to exploit her sister's fame. But, anxious to be published on merit, she sent the manuscript to agents under the name Miss X. The day the novel was accepted, she resigned from her events position at Ralph Lauren to write full time. These days she writes during term-time: holidays are reserved for her children, Lily, seven, and Sasha, five.
Does this mean, I wonder, that the two writers are working under one roof? "I've just moved my office to the top floor," she says. "Sebag writes in the conservatory below me. But I can still hear (from his CD player), "Grown control tuh Mayjuh Tom!" It's a bore when the doorbell goes and I've got to run down five flights. Anyway, firm buttocks – that's what I'm hoping for."
It's a cheerily self-effacing imagine somewhat at odds with the picture conjured up by Lord Weidenfeld's "nexus of so many worlds" comment. What does she make of quotes like this? "Well, that's very sweet of him," she hesitates, laughs and draws a deep breath. "I wouldn't look at myself in that light. I mean, what worlds?"
Her writing world, I suggest; his intellectual world. "Yeah, Sebag has brought into the marriage a lot of interesting worlds. When I was growing up, my world was very Sloany, and I still have that side, but I'd never met anyone who'd written a book and suddenly we're friends with Antonia Fraser. How wonderful is that? If we wanted to social climb, we'd be out every night and we're not. I'm in the world that I live in and I don't analyse it."
The couple met and started going out in 1995. She was then working in marketing for the gentlemen's outfitters Swaine Adeney in Bond Street; he was a journalist who loved his freedom. After two years, Sebag-Montefiore proposed. They married in the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John's Wood, north London, in October 1998, with Conrad Black, Stephen Fry, Sir David Frost, Prince Charles and the then Camilla Parker-Bowles among the 400 guests.
I had been struck by a comment in a Vanity Fair article earlier this year which quoted Montefiore as saying through she only has eyes for her husband, he can't help eyeing other women. Is that worrying?
"No, not at all. If he turned up and said, 'I've got a mistress,' I'd definitely say that's a no-go area. But, in terms of flirting, we don't own each other. I know when he sits next to two beautiful women at a dinner he is going to fancy the pants off them. I can't change the beast and I don't want to."
He said in an interview last year that without the discipline she gave him he wouldn't have written his biographies. What did he give her? "A huge sense of fun. We laugh all the time, our children laugh all the time. There are people who meet and diminish each other and people who meet and bring the best out of each other, and that's us."
Before they married, she underwent a year-long conversion to Judaism. "I suggested I do it because I knew it was important to them (his family). I'm more spiritual than religious in that I grew up in the Church of England but never deified Christ. Judaism is a very pure religion; you don't have to pray through a priest to get to God." She likes the domesticity rituals it involves too.
She believes firmly, she says, in "the spirit world…As a child I used to see spirits at night. I'd wake up in this sort of half sleep and see people walking around my room. It would always terrify me. I'd turn on the light and then they'd go. And my grandmother I saw about three times. The last time I saw a spirit at night was probably about three years ago. It was a man in my cottage staring in my face. In meditation I see spirits and that's when I do it wilfully."
A little sceptical I ask if that is with her eyes open. "Eyes closed. It sounds a bit hocus pocus but I love the spirit world." She believes we originate in that world, are incarnated here to learn and, on death, "We shed our bodies like an old coat. We go on to spirit, from where we can come and visit the people we love. I think there are (spirit) people around us all the time."
What does she think might be her own incarnations? In Sea of lost love (2007) Pamela, the heroine's mother, categorises people as different animals. What are she and her husband? "That's Sebag's idea. He always categorises people on the food chain. I would see myself as a big cat or something. But he says I'm like a deer or Great Dane. Charming. He's definitely a wolf."
She was born in Winchester, Hampshire, in February 1970 to Charles and Patricia Palmer-Tomkinson, the second of three children (James is the oldest, Tara the youngest). "We had an Enid Blyton upbringing: watching the combine harvester, riding a tractor. When I was 18 I was building camps (on the farm) while girls in my boarding school, who lived in London, were drinking cappuccinos and smoking Marlboro Lights in Sloane Square. All three of us shared this innocent, wonderful childhood."
She was deputy head girl at Sherborne Girls, a Dorset public school. "I was good at school, conscientious. I've always been 38." By contrast, her younger sister, Tara, with whom she was at school, "hated" it. "Looking back at the times when she was sobbing and I was putting my arms around her, the relationship was always me looking after her." She has stayed close to her siblings. "It's a lot to do with my mother. She's Anglo-Argentine, she's very much "Blood is thicker than water."
In March 1988 her mother, Patty, was severely injured in a skiing accident. Prince Charles was in the party and the story made headlines. "I was 18," recalls Montefiore. "Having grown up in this Enid Blyton setting. It was a place where people close to you didn't die, didn't get hurt. It made me appreciate her much more and taught me life is fragile."
After writing and family, what about the third part of her world – friends, including royal ones? Much has been made of the family's friendship with Prince Charles. Montefiore is eager to stress that Charles is not her godfather – "I've said so countless times but they still print it." Neither is he Tara's. And nor was her father Charles's ski instructor. Do they see the prince though?
Her answer is characteristically deft but diffident. "Yes, we do. That's a dodgy subject. It's a great privilege because they are part of British history. To have a window on to that is fascinating. After that I crawl into a ball (of no comment)."
Trying to coax her out, I ask how she would justify a hereditary monarchy in 2008? Initially thrown, she rallies, suggesting the prospect of President Gordon Brown ("How ghastly is that!) before praising the Queen's "dedication and consistency" and the royals' charity work.
Clearly loyal and likeable Santa Montefiore surely knows that her image as a well-connected beauty and successfully writer – however much she may demur at the characterisation – is likely to provoke jealousy. Does that bother her? "There is always jealousy, there's nothing you can do. Some person does an interview and writes horrid things. That's awful but I just throw it in the bin."
While she knows her position is privileged, her novels adhere to the notion that social class is no barrier in love. "It shouldn't matter," she says. "Certainly, in the Santa Montefiore novel world, I don't feel it should matter where you have been to school."
And in Santa Montefiore's real world – the one regarded as connecting so many others? "Absolutely not. Whether you are incarnated as a dustman or prince, you are still a human being, you are still a human being who is learning. I don't think it makes one person better than the other."
Financial Times, March 22 2008