Santa Montefiore's lockdown in Hampshire inspired her latest novel
- Credit: Simon and Schuster
If loving what you do is the key to success then it’s a mantra which beloved bestselling Hampshire born author, Santa Montefiore, would swear by. Clocking up an impressive list of twenty novels, Santa has written and published a book every year since 2001, making a name for herself as the queen of romance across the globe. Sweeping sagas have crowned her a Sunday Times bestseller time and time again; her ability to connect with stories of love and family achieving instant blockbuster success.
A bucolic childhood on the family farm in Dummer, building camps and playing in the woods with brother James and sister Tara (Palmer-Tomkinson), has played a huge part in shaping Santa’s writing. Her vivid storytelling steeped in nostalgia and a sense of place resonating deeply with readers.
‘My childhood really formed me. My past was so powerful that a lot of my books seem to pull me back to it,’ Santa tells. ‘A lot of the houses, even though they might not be exactly the same, have the feel of my home, that sense of belonging which is so important to me. I suppose I look back on my past and try to make sense of where we’re going, what our purpose is. We live through ups, downs, grief, trauma, tragedy, bereavement, illness - as we get older these themes seem to run more deeply. You start thinking about what life is all about because you feel your own sense of mortality.’
Life and relationships have brought valuable experiences to inspire as have tales from those around her with Santa’s mother’s life notably ‘full of colourful stories’ but the truth is writing has always been her lifeblood. Telling stories came naturally from the very beginning.
‘I’ve always written for myself. My stories reflected the sort of things I was reading at the time. At school, I was reading Mills and Boon, Jilly Cooper and Jackie Collins. I would write tailormade stories for my friends about boys they fancied,’ she recalls.
Dreaming of becoming a budding novelist, Santa sent a children’s story to Harper Collins and was promptly rejected. Remarkably, she wasn’t put off.
‘I carried on because I suppose it was always about the writing for me, it wasn’t really about getting published because I never thought it would happen. I was never really very disappointed when I got a rejection because it was almost like writing a fan letter to Mick Jagger - you don’t expect him to write back,’ she laughs.
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With writing seemingly on the backburner, Santa left for Argentina, taking up a post as a tutor to three children on an estancia in the Argentine Pampa. Rather like one of her own characters, she was swept away by how ‘intoxicating’ the country was - a seminal moment in her life. Returning a year later, she found much had changed, friends had moved on and she felt lost. Those feelings of longing and nostalgia became the backbone of her first novel. Twelve years later she sent off her manuscript.
‘It was the first time I felt I’d written a really good story. My husband, my boyfriend at the time, encouraged me to send it out to agents and that was the first time that the rejections really hurt. I felt the book was a way out of my working life which wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. I just loved writing. You have to believe in yourself and keep going,’ she recalls.
Self-belief won out and Meet me under the Ombu Tree, which follows the story of the Solanas family in Argentina during a tumultuous time of political upheaval, became an instant hit.
Whilst Santa lives in London with husband and critically acclaimed writer Simon Sebag Montefiore and children Sasha and Lily, she still has a cottage at the bottom of her parents’ garden in Hampshire. Being in the county draws her back to a magnetic childhood affinity with nature and close connection with the supernatural world, themes Santa explored most recently in Here and Now, her touching bittersweet story of the power of memory, love and community.
‘I’ve always been really close to nature and felt the pull of the spirit world. The spiritual side of things is the side that I like the most - it’s what really feeds me.’
Writing from her Hampshire garden during lockdown last year, Santa found time to carve out a new voice. Released in March, Flappy Entertains sees Flappy Scott-Booth, from The Temptations of Gracie, take centre stage in a delightful novel sparkling with humour and heart. Self-appointed queen bee Flappy has long been the arbiter of taste and mistress of unforgettable events when it comes to the picturesque village of Badley Compton, villagers hanging on her every word.
That is until Hedda and Charles Harvey-Smith move into the village and take the front seat on the social scene. Determined to show Hedda how things are done, competitive Flappy finds herself starting to unravel as she’s captivated by charming and handsome Charles. Bubbling with wit, Flappy Entertains is a tale of losing control and finding oneself. ‘When lockdown came along, I thought I’m going to write it just for me. It was liberating. I wrote it in about six weeks. Sitting in the countryside writing, it all poured out,’ she laughs.
An unexpected gift of a few weeks off offered the chance to pen something different without publishing deadlines looming, providing total escapism for Santa.
‘I just want Flappy to make people feel good, have a laugh and forget the nastiness that’s going on right now,’ she says. ‘I wanted readers to love and hate her in the same way they might Hyacinth Bouquet. The lovely thing is we all know someone like that. They’re wonderful to write because they’re always on the brink of being discovered.’
With another romance novel based in 1930s Italy, due next summer, a few chapters away from the finishing line, Santa is not one to rest on her laurels. She has already penned a sequel, Flappy Investigates, to be published next year and for fans of the Deverill Chronicles, a fifth and last book in the series, The Distant Shores, is out this July.
There’s also a feature film in development with 20th Century Fox bringing to life The Royal Rabbits of London series, inspired by a bedtime story request from son Sasha and written with her husband Sebag about a secret society of rabbits living under Buckingham Palace, protecting the Royal family for centuries. One wonders if Santa ever takes a break. The last time she did, she found she missed the day job far too much.
‘I realised I need to be writing for my own pleasure and enjoyment. What else would I be doing if I didn’t have that? It’s all to do with enthusiasm and loving what you do,’ she answers. ‘If you can’t wait to get back to it and your day is propelled like a sailing boat with a wonderful wind of enthusiasm that drives you then it’s actually not that difficult to write a book a year. Writing novels is what I do and what I love doing.’
A glass half-full kind of girl, Santa’s boundless energy is infectious – it’s no wonder her readers adore her.