Self-styled “author returning to escapism” Melanie Blake was a go-nowhere schoolgirl – but the stars aligned, she put the hours in, and now she’s writing randy romps that shoot to the top of the bestseller lists. What’s the story? Adam England found out.
“Every single thing in that book, and every way they behave, is exactly what it’s like with the real celebrities, the real actresses, and the real executives.”
I’m speaking to agent-turned-author Melanie Blake about her upcoming novel Guilty Women, the second in a trilogy, out on Thurs 28 Apr. Last year’s Ruthless Women was a runaway hit, becoming a Sunday Times Bestseller, and giving Blake the moniker “new queen of the bonkbuster”.
She describes her aim as an author as returning to escapism. “We live in such miserable times these days,” she says, “Everything is so awful, isn’t it? What my books do is take you away from it for a few days.”
Her books aren’t all sunshine and happiness. In her own words, “some of it’s pretty scary, some of it’s shocking – a bit sexy – but it’s certainly not boring.
“Ruthless Women was a surprise to everyone – nobody saw it coming, including me!” Blake admits. She describes her previous book, The Thunder Girls, as having done “OK”, but while it was an Amazon number one bestseller, it wasn’t a Sunday Times Bestseller. “I hadn’t realised, there’s a lot of snobbery. Still, in literature, if you don’t make the Sunday Times Bestsellers list, people just do not register you.”
While it would be frivolous to dismiss the very real effects of the pandemic, in some ways it was perhaps a blessing in disguise for the former agent: she turned The Thunder Girls into a play, but it had to close due to the pandemic.
“So I had nothing to do”, Blake explains. “I wrote Ruthless Women in the first lockdown. I didn’t think anything of it – 29 publishers turned it down. The 30th publisher took it, and it sold a quarter of a million copies, it was translated into nine languages, and it was a humungous bestseller.
“Going straight in at number four behind Richard Osman – I mean, as you will know, you can’t beat Richard Osman. The top four were huge. Danielle Steele, who’s sold something like 300 million books, went in at number six and I went in at number four. It was just unbelievable.”
This time around, there’s probably a greater air of expectation, and the early reviews for Guilty Women have been overwhelmingly positive – to Blake’s considerable surprise. “It’s been quite hard for me as an author across the board,” she says; “I didn’t get published until I was 40, and I’ve had a lot of resistance to my book generally. So to suddenly be on the other side of the wheel, where everyone’s going ‘oh, we love it’ – it’s a bit surreal, to be honest.”
Discover how our brand new learning experience is giving young people in Wales the skills they need to get ahead.
A tweet of Blake’s gained plenty of traction a little over a year ago: recalling the words of a former teacher who told her all she’d be writing would be labels on boxes in a factory. It’s incredibly satisfying. Growing up working-class and attending an average secondary school, she’d always wanted to be an author, but was put down by teachers growing up due to her dyslexia. “I was told at school that I was stupid; that my writing was terrible, my spelling was terrible, and my handwriting was terrible. Nobody wanted to help me.”
On the computer, she has no such issues, and developed the confidence to write in her late thirties, “very, very late”: she was 38 when she landed the role of Sunday People TV columnist. Ageism, particularly when combined with misogyny, is something Blake, now 46, feels “massively” passionate about. It’s something she took a stand against while working as an agent, and it shows through in her writing.
“The leading lady of [the trilogy] is 70 – and she has sex, she has an amazing life … I know some amazing women in their sixties and seventies who are having better lives than I am, and I’m in my forties!” she says. “No-one would publish The Thunder Girls years ago because it was four women in their fifties getting back together. The publisher said, ‘If you make them twentysomethings, we’ll do it.’ But they have to have not seen each other for 30 years – it wouldn’t work!”
Blake says that things have changed in showbiz to some degree – and because of her own work. When she came into the industry 40 was the cut-off point, she explains, whereas now it’s in the 50s. However, she admits that it’s still “massively ageist” and hasn’t changed hugely.
She herself has been working in showbiz for 25 years – she did a couple of weeks of work experience at a record shop, and at the start of her twenties got her break with Top Of The Pops before becoming an agent.
“My school didn’t want to encourage me, and I thought – well, I like music, pop stars… I’m going to discover what makes people buy their records. In that two weeks at the record shop I learned more about music than I could have done in six months at a record label.”
Last year saw rumours of a new soap based on Ruthless Women, though not from Blake herself. There are plans, she says, to turn the trilogy into an on-demand miniseries, if it gets snapped up by a platform. “Everyone’s waiting to see how the second book does – they want to see that there’s longevity. It’ll definitely make its way onto our screens.”
Of course, being a trilogy, we’ve also got another book to look forward to. Vengeful Women will be out next year (“if I don’t lose my marbles before”), and the final book in the trilogy will almost cap off what has been a remarkable rise, in no small part down to her own determination and drive.
“When I made it, it was almost a million to one – I’m a story that you didn’t hear about,” she says; “if I’d been born 20 years later, my career would have been so much easier.”
She has a few words for people who want to break through now, in the social media age: “Now, there is no reason to stop you. If you want to write, you don’t need anyone’s permission … there is no reason that you cannot get your work out there in this day and age.
“If you’ve got a passion, put your passion out there. And if you want to write, the best advice is just to actually do it. Stop thinking about it, stop talking about it, stop worrying about it, stop planning it, and just do it. It doesn’t have to be perfect. If you never do it, you’ll never finish it.
“I mean, if I can make it – my God – anyone else these days can.”
Guilty Women is published by HarperCollins on Thurs 28 Apr. Price: £12.99/£5.99 Ebook.
words ADAM ENGLAND