In retrospect, it sounds simple. Alone at the Beverly Hills Hotel on her 47th birthday, in the middle of a promotional tour for her nonfiction book Superwoman and in the grip of depression, Shirley Conran gave herself a gift. She started scribbling notes for the novel she’d always wanted to write about “the truth of growing up” and “physical love from a woman’s point of view.”
The 600-page result, Lace, opens with a zinger—”Which one of you bitches is my mother?”—and proceeds to track five glamorous women from Parisian fashion showrooms to the boudoirs of an Arabian prince who likes to introduce goldfish into his love-making. Sold to Simon and Schuster for $750,000, a record for a British author’s first novel, Lace was released in the U.S. in August and hopped onto the New York Times best-seller list. It has been purchased for $1 million by Hollywood’s Lorimar Productions, which is planning a six-hour TV mini-series.
Conran, now 50, seems genuinely surprised by the magnitude of her success. “You can hope it’s a best-seller,” she admits, “but you have no control over events.” A former fashion editor of the London Observer, she does not, however, lack confidence in her writing. “Of course I’m a good writer—I don’t think they employ people for 10 years if they’re not.” Though some critics have written off Lace as escapist trash, Conran argues that one of the book’s major subjects, reflected in the title, is a serious one—”the delicacy and strength and complicated patterns of relationships.” Beneath the romantic icing, she says, lies a pragmatic message: “The women in Lace get nowhere until they get off their butts and do some work.”
That, says Conran, is the lesson of her own roller-coaster life. The daughter of a wealthy London dry-cleaning entrepreneur, she remembers “maids and gardeners and Rolls-Royces—my clothes were bought from Balenciaga.” The product of St. Paul’s Girls’ School and a Swiss finishing school she calls “an utter waste of time,” she attended an arts college in England and trotted about Paris, Cairo and London until, at 23, she married Terence Conran, who was about to start up a now-international furnishings empire. Shirley became director of Conran Fabrics. When they divorced eight years later, however, she claims she received only four weeks’ pay. “Women in my day were not taught to look after themselves financially,” says Conran, who nevertheless snared a job as home editor at the Daily Mail on the strength of a series of articles on design. “I like to think now that every woman who’s going into business with her husband wouldn’t unless she had a share.” Son Sebastian, 26, works with his father; Jasper Conran, 22, is a clothes designer whose creations have adorned Princess Di.
Conran, who had moved to the London Observer, left that job in 1970 and, after a severe bout of pneumonia, found herself at the nadir of her life. Short of cash, she went to an unemployment insurance office and found she was ineligible, she recalls, “because I hadn’t been making contributions. That’s when I got off my cloud and started to find out more about the mechanics of daily life. I had never had to do a stroke of housework until I was nearly 40.” One result was Superwoman, a 1975 British best-seller about housework and how to avoid it, which established her reputation and reestablished her bank account.
Her extensive preparations for Lace included a five-week tour of the U.S. by bus. “It seems to me the most sensible way to see America,” she explains. The graphic sex scenes, she says, were inspired by “interviews with friends,” and character motivation was checked out with a psychiatrist. She wrote the book, in longhand, in 12 months at her studio apartment in Monte Carlo. (She also owns a house in London and a farmhouse in France.)
Despite what should be a multimillion-dollar Lace windfall, Conran says she is less interested in acquiring than divesting herself of possessions—though she plans to keep her collection of David Hockney paintings and a “very good” relationship with a London businessman. Winding up her book tour, she notes, “There’s nothing like traveling around the world for five months in two suitcases to teach you how little you can get along on.”
She plans no sequel to Lace. “Of course I will write more novels now that I know how to do it, but I’m interested in inventing new characters,” says Conran, who is currently trekking in India. One trauma, at least, is past. “My agent once told me,” she recalls, ” ‘Whatever horrible things life throws at you, you will never, ever, ever again have to write your first novel.’ ”