Sophie Kinsella





Author

Born in 1969, in England; married Henry (a teacher), c. 1990; children: Freddy, Hugo. Education: Earned degree from Oxford University, c. 1991.

Addresses: Agent —c/o Author Mail, Transworld Publishers Ltd./Black Swan, 61-63 Uxbridge Rd., Ealing, London W5 5SA, England.

Career

Accompanied her vocalist husband on the piano in musical recitals, early 1990s; financial journalist in England until c. 1995; published first novel, The Tennis Party, under name Madeleine Wickham, 1995; wrote four others before The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic, published under pen name Sophie Kinsella, 2000, and in the United States as Confessions of a Shopaholic, 2001.

Sidelights

British author Sophie Kinsella is the pseudonymous creator of the immensely successful "Shopaholic" novels. The lighthearted tales center around one woman's struggle to rein in her madcap spending habits, find professional achievement, and snag the man of her dreams. The first book to feature Becky "Shopaholic" Bloomwood was published in the United Kingdom in 2000, and sold so well on both sides of the Atlantic that Kinsella created an entire mini-genre featuring her heroine, and some three million copies of the series were in print four years later. Kinsella believed that the financial woes chronicled in the books were part of their appeal.

Sophie Kinsella
"Money is an emotional subject, which affects people's lives, even though they think it shouldn't," she told Sunday Times journalist Samita Talati. "I find that interesting."

But few knew that the "Shopaholic" books were not actually Kinsella's literary debut. She had written several others under her real name, Madeleine Wickham, before deciding to try to write something new when she was nearing 30 years old. Like her heroine, Kinsella had worked as a financial journalist. She grew up in the Wimbledon area, the southwest London suburb, in a home where both parents were educators. A talented pianist as a teen, she attended the Sherbourne School for Girls in Dorset, and entered Oxford University to pursue a degree in music. She decided, however, that musical studies were not for her and switched instead to the politics, philosophy, and economics program at New College of Oxford.

In a real-life romantic twist, Kinsella met her future husband on her first night at Oxford. He was an aspiring musician, too, but eventually earned his degree in classics. They married when she was 21 years old, and for a time even toured together giving recitals. But by 1993 or so Kinsella had settled into a career as a financial journalist, which she found uninspiring. She confessed in an interview with CNN.com that she had a bad habit of "taking the longest lunch hours known to mankind." She began to write fiction on the side, and her first novel, published under her real name, was 1995's The Tennis Party. Its story centered around a group of well-to-do friends—with some veiled enmities against one another—who gather for a country-estate weekend. One tries to lure the others into a spurious investment scheme, and there is a hint of future "Shopaholic" themes when one of the husbands discovers that his wife is deeply in debt.

Kinsella had written her first novel during her lunch hours and in the evenings, and was stunned to land a large advance for three more books when an agent found a publisher for The Tennis Party. "I wasn't sure what I wanted to do as a career, but didn't have any expectations of becoming a full-time novelist," she recalled in the interview with the Sunday Times ' Talati. That first book, and Kinsella's subsequent novels under her Wickham name, fit neatly into what is sometimes dismissively referred to as the "Aga sagas" of contemporary British popular fiction. Named after the classic kitchen stove common to many middle-class households in Britain, their plots hinge upon some family- and-friends drama among well-educated suburbanites. Kinsella's second book, A Desirable Residence, was an interconnected tale of three suburban London families at personal and real-estate crossroads, which a Publishers Weekly reviewer found "entertainingly related, for Wickham has a clever eye that renders her characters' emotions and fears universal rather than stereotypical."

Kinsella's third novel under her Wickham name was Swimming Pool Sunday in 1997, in which tragedy befalls a little girl at a pool party. The ensuing drama complicates her mother's already-troubled relationships with both her husband and paramour. "In less brisk hands than Wickham's this could all descend into queasy sentimentality," noted a Times of London review from Sally Baker, "but instead rattles along at a good pace, assisted by subplots concerning other people's hopes and dreams."

Kinsella wrote The Gatecrasher and The Wedding Girl as Madeleine Wickham before deciding to try her hand at a lighter style of fiction. She settled on a new pen name, taken from her middle name and her mother's maiden name, and called herself Sophie Kinsella. "Writing under a different name meant that it didn't matter if the book was a disaster," she told Karyn Miller for a Mail on Sunday profile. "I could always go back to my other books."

The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic was published by the London company Corgi in 2000, and the following year in the United States as Confessions of a Shopaholic. Its heroine, Rebecca "Becky" Bloomwood, is a 25-year-old financial journalist with some terrible personal-finance habits of her own. She lives in a posh London neighborhood she can ill afford, overspends on clothes, and then buries her bank statements and credit-card bills in a drawer. Seeking an avenue out of her mounting crisis, she settles upon a plan to snag a successful advertising mogul as her future husband. A series of comic mishaps followed by a few revelatory moments bring the plot to a satisfying end.

Confessions of a Shopaholic caught on with readers via word-of-mouth, and sold extremely well. Critics were not always kind, however. "Rebecca is so unremittingly shallow and Luke is so wonderful that readers may find themselves rooting for the heroine not to get the man," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer, who conceded that some passages have "a certain degree of madcap fun." But Becky's real-life counterpart in the United States, Money magazine advisor and television personality Jean Sherman Chatzky called it "an entertaining read" and admitted the ultimate message of the plot seemed to be "it's not always about the money."

Kinsella said that the idea for Shopaholic came relatively easily to her. It was the initial "Visa bill scene" that spurred her, she told San Francisco Chronicle writer Laurel Wellman. "It came into my head, opening a Visa bill and being in total denial about the whole thing. And once that happened I could see the character, I could see where it was going, and I could see the potential for comedy." Setting Becky out on more adventures came easily after the success of the first. The sequel Shopaholic Abroad —changed to Shopaholic Takes Manhattan for its American publication in 2002—finds Becky with a better-paying television job and the ad-exec Luke as her steady boyfriend. When his career takes him to Manhattan and she follows, however, a whole new world of high-end shopping tempts her. Before long, she has been exposed in the press back in England as a questionable financial-advice giver, and Luke breaks up with her. The setbacks dissipate, however, before the conclusion, and Becky triumphs once again.

Kinsella continued to write soberer fare under her own name, and in 2000's Cocktails for Three she moved out of the Aga-saga realm and set her characters in the world of magazine publishing. She returned to Shopaholic Becky in 2002 with Shopaholic Ties the Knot, which begins with Becky in perhaps the ideal job, finally: as a personal shopper for Barneys, the upscale Manhattan retailer. Predictable chaos ensues as plans to wed Luke get underway.

"I think, what would be the most cringing, toe-curling thing that could happen to this person and will create ultimate tension in the story?" Kinsella told Talati in the Sunday Times about how she devises Becky's often-comical mishaps.

It was only with the 2004 publication of her first non-Shopaholic book under the Kinsella pseudonym that she finally revealed her identity as Madeleine Wickham. Can You Keep a Secret? features a Becky-like heroine named Emma Corrigan, who desperately hopes for a promotion in the marketing department of the beverage giant where she works. Coming back from a client meeting that went badly, Emma blurts out several secrets—including the fact that she doesn't really like her job all that much anyway—to the handsome stranger seated next to her on a bumpy business flight. On Monday morning, she sees the man again, but this time at the office: he is the company's American owner. A Publishers Weekly review termed the plot somewhat transparent, but conceded that "Kinsella's down-to-earth protagonist is sure to have readers sympathizing and doubled over in laughter." The title landed on the New York Times best-seller list and Kinsella even wrote the screenplay for the film version, in which Kate Hudson would star as Emma.

Shopaholic & Sister, published in 2004, features a now-married Becky still struggling with her personal-finance demons. But more complex problems arise when her parents reveal that a long-ago relationship her father had produced a long-lost sibling. Kinsella imagines the fun sisterly shopping trips she and Jessica will embark upon, but Jessica turns out to be a stodgy environmentalist with a distaste for frivolous consumerist pursuits.

Kinsella's Shopaholic series has been such a success that the titles have been translated into nearly three dozen languages, a testament to the universal themes she addressed about finance and romance. The story has even been optioned by Disney for a possible movie. Though she admits to being somewhat of a free-spender on clothes, Kinsella is a suburban mother of two boys who lives near where she herself grew up. Having left her journalism job behind many years ago, she writes novels full-time, and keeps to a regular schedule. She has been sidetracked from her writing only once when poor ergonomics brought on sudden, intense pain in her arms and an inability to write.

"The pain was bad enough," Kinsella recalled in an article she wrote about the experience for the Evening Standard. "But it was nothing compared to the panic I felt.... Writing is my livelihood." Diagnosed with repetitive strain injury from poor posture at her desk and long working hours, she began to manage the condition with a combination of Pilates, physiotherapy, and some new office furniture. "I still slouch, I still forget to stretch, and I constantly forget to take regular breaks," she admitted in the Evening Standard. "It's very hard to wrench myself away from the middle of a scene—especially if my fictional lovers are on the brink of kissing. But then, it would be harder still if my hands seized up and they never got to kiss at all."

Kinsella is thrilled that she hit upon a literary heroine who resonated with millions of readers. She had not planned to write the fourth in the series, Shopaholic & Sister, "but I kept getting letters from readers asking, 'Where's Becky?' 'What's she doing?' 'How's her honeymoon going?'" Kinsella said in the CNN.com interview. "It was like being asked about a mutual friend. So I started thinking, 'How is she? How's the honeymoon going? What did she buy?'" Though some critics have dismissed the books as frothy "chick-lit" in the vein of Bridget Jones' Diary, Kinsella noted that the sales speak for themselves. "If you look back at books of the '80s," she told CNN.com, "they were all about women in shoulder pads, often coming from a poverty-stricken background, forming a multinational company and taking over the world while having sex in lots of glamorous locations, sometimes with goldfish. You gobbled them up, but you didn't think, 'Oh, this is like me.' It was like reading about aliens."

Selected writings

Novels (as Madeleine Wickham)

The Tennis Party, Black Swan (London, England), 1995.

A Desirable Residence, Black Swan, 1996; St. Martin's, 1997.

Swimming Pool Sunday, Black Swan, 1997.

The Gatecrasher, Black Swan, 1998.

The Wedding Girl, Black Swan, 1999.

Sleeping Arrangements, Black Swan, 2001.

Cocktails for Three, Black Swan, 2000; St. Martin's/Dunne, 2001.

Novels (as Sophie Kinsella)

The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic, Corgi (London, England), 2000; published as Confessions of a Shopaholic, Bantam Dell/Delta (New York City), 2001.

Shopaholic Abroad, Black Swan (London, England), 2001; published as Shopaholic Takes Manhattan, Dell (New York City), 2002.

Shopaholic Ties the Knot, Black Swan, 2002; Bantam Dell/Delta, 2003.

Can You Keep a Secret?, Dial (New York City), 2004. Shopaholic & Sister, Dial, 2004.

Sources

Periodicals

Booklist, January 1, 2001, p. 918; February 15, 2004, p. 1037; April 5, 2004, p. 15.

Bookseller, June 18, 2004, p. 62.

Evening Standard (London, England), May 4, 2003, p. 18; June 17, 2003, p. 24.

Library Journal, March 1, 1998, p. 130.

Mail on Sunday (London, England), May 4, 2003, p. 18; June 20, 2004, p. 21.

Money, July 1, 2001, p. 121.

People, October 11, 2004, p. 56.

Publishers Weekly, February 26, 1996, p. 86; January 20, 1997, p. 394; December 18, 2000, p. 53; June 25, 2001, p. 46; December 10, 2001, p. 49; January 5, 2004, p. 37; April 5, 2004, p. 15; August 30, 2004, p. 32; October 11, 2004, p. 17.

Times (London, England), June 10, 1995, p. 15; May 3, 1997, p. 12.

WWD, October 7, 2004, p. 4.

Online

"Confessions of a 'Shopaholic' Enabler," CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2004/SHOWBIZ/books/10/13/books.shopaholic.ap/ (November 16, 2004).

"Sophie Kinsella," Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2004.

—Carol Brennan



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