Barbara Taylor Bradford is the epitome of class. From the moment she starts speaking you feel as if you're with royalty, which isn't a stretch since she was born in England and was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II for her contributions to literature. Not only is she one of Britain's wealthiest women, her collection of Hermes bags always commands attention and her first novel, A Woman of Substance, published in 1979, remains one of the best-selling novels of all time.
However, there are no pretentions.
"Hello, Ms. Bradford," I say when she picks up the phone. "Is this still a, but a good time?"
She replies with her delightful British accent, "Yes, it is and call me Barbara."
She's eager to discuss her recently released novel, Secrets from the Past. It's the story of Serena Stone, a war photographer, who has followed in her father's footsteps. When he dies, she decides to write his biography, but while doing the research, she uncovers truths about her father, her family and her own life.
"I hope readers take a way a sense of family and the importance of family relationships," Bradford says about her 28th novel.
Bradford certainly understands the value of relationships. In December she and her husband, television producer, Robert Bradford, will celebrate their 50th anniversary. The couple doesn't have any children -- Bradford had two miscarriages -- but she doesn't dwell on what might have been.
At 80, Bradford is still getting up with or before the sun to write and has no intentions of slowing down.
"What's good about me getting old is I don't feel any older than 49," Bradford says. "I look, maybe, late fifties or early sixties. I have a lot of energy."
You just turned 80. What's been the best part of getting older?
Barbara: I suppose it makes you wiser. It certainly made me wiser. I've experienced a lot of life. It's given me understanding and compassion, although I had that, I have more of it now.
What is your secret to looking and feeling young?
Barbara: I go to the hairdresser once or twice a week. I look after my skin. I don't sit in the sun. I don't smoke cigarettes. I don't eat the wrong foods. I walk a lot. I have a good marriage, and I also have a career I love. I've been very lucky.
What is the biggest misconception about you?
Barbara: I think sometimes people assume I'm very easy-going and weak, which I'm not. They mistake my kindness and good manners for weakness and lack of strength. The misconception is that my personality can disguise impatience -- if someone's late -- or annoyance for the same reason.
People being late is a big pet peeve of mine.
Barbara: People who are late are actually stealing your time. They are thieves.
You once said, "When you are a strong woman, you will attract trouble." How so?
Barbara: I think a woman who has strength of character and opinions and is able to articulate those opinions, I think you do attract trouble because you become a target.
What is your process? Do you plot your books in advance or do you just wait to see where the characters go as you write?
Barbara: Once I've had the idea and developed it and know why I'm writing about this main protagonist, I've got to sit down and think it through. I can't start until I know the whole story. Now, I don't know every detail because you never know who might pop up, but I really must know the beginning, the middle and the end. I really can't start a book until I know the end. I must know the end. I can't take that chance that I don't know where I'm going.
You credit your father for giving you the gift of storytelling. Secrets from the Past greatly focuses on the relationship Serena had with her father. Did your father help inspire this book?
Barbara: Not really. She and I come from different places. However, I do know where she's coming from emotionally. I've been there. But, she became a war photographer (like her father), and I didn't become an engineer (like my father).
Like the title of the book, you know about secrets. Your biographer in England discovered eight years ago the information that your mother was an illegitimate child. Did that play any role in the book?
Barbara: No. They say, "Oh, you must have known it because you wrote a book called A Woman of Substance. He [biographer] dug into my mother's background and discovered a whole different story than I knew. She never told me any of that. I really didn't know anything about my mother's childhood or my grandmother's love life. She died in 1918.
Finish the phrase: Barbara Taylor Bradford is the kind of woman who ...
Barbara: Loves to cook! You didn't expect that!
No, but I love it! What do you like to cook?
Barbara: My mother taught me to cook and for me it's relaxing. I don't do it every day. I did once have to cook a meal for 18 people at the last minute. That wasn't relaxing! I find it relaxing to go into the kitchen, put on an apron and cook after working at a desk plotting books, inventing characters and telling a lot of lies. I like making lamb stew. Chicken in the pot. I like to make dishes that I can prepare carefully and then put in the oven or on top of the stove. Then I just have to go in and stir. It cooks by itself, in other words. My lamb stew is a great favorite for everyone who comes to dinner -- especially men.
You have not only had a successful career, but a successful marriage. What has been the key to this lasting relationship?
Barbara: I think it is that initial reaction. We felt so at ease with each other. Then we fell in love. We liked each other, and we still like each other. Of course we have our disagreements -- everybody does -- but neither he or I hold a grudge. I think that's also a secret. If we do quarrel, we don't call each other names or use nasty language.
What do you argue about?
Barbara: We have stupid arguments about shall we go on a cruise or shall we go to that theater. Or, do we have to put that disc on tonight because I don't want to watch blah, blah. I get very squeamish with violence and stuff like that. I don't always want to watch a "man's" film. Just as he may not want to always watch "chick" films.
The story of how you met your husband is so sweet. You two were introduced at a lunch in 1961 and the rest is history.
Barbara: The lunch was set up especially for me to meet him. It was with another couple. It wasn't really a blind date where you meet somebody in a restaurant, but it was a blind date because this friend of mine in America wanted me to meet Bob. She had arranged this with a screenwriter in London to invite us both to the same lunch. In other words, she played matchmaker. Bob said he had to bring two people with him because he had an unbreakable lunch date with this married couple. So, there was me, this couple who was giving the lunch, Bob and this other couple.
What was your first impression of him when he walked in?
Barbara: He was very nice. Charming. And within in five or ten minutes, I felt like I had known this man all my life. We were just so compatible. By the end of the lunch we were sort of best friends. He said, "What are you doing later?" I said, "Nothing." Then the host looked at me and said, "Barbara, you told me you had a terrible deadline today!" I said, "I do, but I'll get up early tomorrow morning!"
Oh, how we rearrange our lives when it comes to love! There is an old expression that says: If I knew then what I know now. Is there anything you would've changed?
Barbara: I would have started writing novels earlier than I did, but you do it when the time is right. I tried to write five novels, and I got to page 50, 75 and even as far as 100 pages, and I would stop because I didn't actually like what I had written. I was smart to stop. Then one day I sat down and asked myself a lot of questions, such as, "What kind of novel do you want to write?" I came up with that I wanted to write an old-fashioned family saga, mostly set in Yorkshire about a woman who makes it in a man's world when women weren't doing that. That's what I did with A Woman of Substance.
And before I let you go, I must ask about the Hermes bags. Everyone knows you have quite a collection. How many do you own?
Barbara: 24. Somebody said, "Wow, Bob has given you 24 Hermes bags! Boy does he spoil you." I said, "He's missing some! He was supposed to have given me one for every year we've been married!"
"Secrets from the Past" is available now. For more information, visit http://www.barbarataylorbradford.com
**Photo credit: Larry Marano