Interview: Freya North

Freyanorth_mediumThe one in which fmk and Pigeons interview chick-lit author and cycling fan Freya North.

After three successful novels - Sally, Chloë and Polly - Freya North turned to a sport she loved, cycling, and wrote Cat, which tells the story of Catriona McCabe (Cat to her friends), who's getting over an ex and trying to get on with her career as a cycling journaliste.

To get a handle on the world of cycling, North decided to experience it from inside the Tour de France's press corps. What she didn't realise was that the Tour she'd chosen to follow would be the most explosive one in the race's long and distinguished history: 1998, the year the Tour started in Dublin and ended in turmoil; 1998, the year of the Festina affaire.

Cat has become something of a chick-lit classic and a guilty pleasure of a lot of cycling fans (especially, if William Fotheringham is to be believed, journos and riders who may or may not have provided elements of some of the novel's characters). Now, only a dozen years on from its publication, Podium Café has finally caught up with Freya North (we're nothing if not current around here) and got her take on cycling then and cycling now.

Note: Seeing as it was Pigeons' idea that I review the book, I roped her into helping come up with the questions (that'll learn her). I've only credited two questions to either of us specifically, the rest are a mix of things we both wanted to ask.

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Cat-freya-north_mediumPdC: You came up with the idea for the book because you were a fan of the sport, turned on to it by tuning in to Channel 4 during Miguel Induráin's first victory in the Tour de France. How easy was it to sell your publisher on the idea of a novel set in the world of cycling? Did you meet much resistance from them?

Freya North: I actually announced that I'd be writing that book before they'd even bought the first three.

I'd gone in to meet two potential publishers and told each: 'My first novel is about hanky panky in Highgate, my second is about love and lust in the UK, my third is about sex and sin in New England and England England...and my fourth will be a feisty romp set around the Tour de France.'

They all looked at me rather blankly. So I just said 'lashings of lycra, anyone?' and that seemed to seal the deal.

PdC: Presumably you'd already put a lot of work into the book, researching the sport, before you came over to Dublin for the start of the 1998 Tour. Then everything went tits up and you found yourself in the middle of the biggest doping story of the century. Did you ever feel like just chucking the idea in the bin and making Cat write about something less controversial, like maybe crown green bowls instead?

FN: Ha! I felt so torn - for a while, I did toy with the idea of writing a very different type of novel - much darker. But then I thought of my readers and how my long-held aim was to write a colourful romp to publicize and popularise this amazing sport for my home market.

Ultimately, I wrote the book I wanted to write - which was a novel to capture the theatre of the Tour, the scandal and skulduggery, the colour, the toil, the joy, the pain and yes, the thighs.

PdC: What was the atmosphere on the Tour like? The Irish leg of it was great fun but by the time it got back to France the doping scandal was really blown open and you get the impression it was all doping, all the time. The riders must have loved you - at least you wanted to know more than about the drugs story.

FN: The mood of the salle de presse swung from frantic to downright despondent. I was lucky to be travelling with UK journalists whom I'd met a few times so there was some let-up in the evenings.

It was odd for me - the sport I loved was letting me down and yet I had the golden opportunity of my access-all-areas pass.

I was/am a fan - not an investigative journalist. Because I'm a novelist, what makes me tick is the human interest of riding the Tour - what the riders are like on and off the bike, how they cope with the extreme demands of three weeks on the bike, how the support team work, how it is for their families.

This was the point I made to the riders - all I really wanted to know was how they felt. I wasn't interested in scoops or exposés, just gossip on the domestic scale.

PdC (fmk): Loads of people were obviously important when you were researching the book, but one particularly important source was Emma O'Reilly - who later went on to be an important source for another cycling book. She's kind of been vilified by a lot of people since 2004, but she's always struck me as being really down to earth and friendly and likable. You must have got on quite well with her: Rachel McEwen, the soigneur character in the book, she isn't exactly based on Emma, but does seem to draw from her. Was Emma your real key to the female experience of the testosterone-fuelled cycling world?

FN: In '98 and '99, there were very few women on the Tour. Emma was the only female soigneur. I was one of only six female journalists and the only English speaker.

Emma and I hung out a lot. She is an amazing woman - highly skilled, extremely responsible and morally upright.

PdC: As well as covering the 1998 Tour, you also followed the British version of the Tour de France, the PruTour. Bradley Wiggins has written how that could be a pretty er, liquid race. Which had the better night stages when you experienced them - the Pru or the Tour?

FN: I'm afraid that a few pints in Derbyshire just don't rate alongside Cipollini's birthday toga party in the Alps...!

The PruTour was fun - not least because the hotels were nice - my oh my did I stay in some dives in France... Also, the pressure on the Pru didn't come close to that on the Tour. It was home turf for many of the riders so yes, evenings were more relaxed.

The cyclists who came to my launch party for Cat were first to arrive and last to leave. It was such a good night that I remember little. Luckily I have photographic evidence. And no, you can't see them...!

PdC: One of the great things about the book is the mix of real and fake, you have real cyclists like Jonathan Vaughters and David Millar and Stu O'Grady and loads more sitting side by side with your own creations like Stefano Sassetta and Hunter Dean and Jesper Lomers. Did you get much response from any of the real people in the book after it came out?

FN: I hate criticism and never read reviews - I wait for people to tell me whether or not they liked it.

John Lelangue wrote to me to tell me he absolutely loved it. Will Fotheringham too. I don't know which of the riders read it and who liked it - or didn't! I think a lot of the copies were passed on to wives and sisters.

It's a novelist's prerogative to blend fact and fiction in pursuit of capturing the true spirit. I hope I've done that.

I noted how many of the riders have their ‘TV persona' but to chat to them or even interview them behind the scenes as a novelist allowed their personalities to come through.

They didn't have to wear their sponsors' baseball caps with me. Jonathan Vaughters didn't wear anything but a towel - he was having a massage at the time.

PdC (Pigeons): Something that comes across really well in the novel is your own love for the sport and your desire to turn others on to it. Reading Cat is partly how I got into this side of the sport. I read it liking track, but you gave me enough info to be able to get into the Tour and when I came to watch the TdF after I read the novel, I understood it enough to follow it, and get into the wider world of road cycling. I'll always have a soft spot for the book because of that. Have you had many other readers tell you that you turned them on to the Tour de France and road cycling?

FN: Thanks so much - that was my goal and I'm chuffed to think I've achieved it.

It wasn't about ‘converting' people to the sport, it was just my personal wish to publicize a sport that gave me so much pleasure but which seemed to go unnoticed at home.

Every July since Cat was published, loads of my readers contact me to say 'hey! the Tour's starting!' I know of three who regularly holiday in France so as to catch a glimpse - one girl takes her husband camping on Alpe d'Huez!

PdC: You included a note about Lance Armstrong at the end of the book, about his cancer comeback. That whole era is going through a major rewrite at the moment, with the FDA inquiry in the States. Would it bother you at this stage if it was proved he doped?

FN: I've wondered about that and yes it would - a hero is one thing, a cheat quite another.

But again, for the purposes of my novel, I was in awe of a cancer survivor who battled and triumphed on the bike and off. My Mum's just beaten cancer - she is proud and grateful just to be able to walk to the shops and back. Lance did something truly great.

I hope for the sake of the millions of people he's inspired and for whom cancer plays a part in their lives, he won't let them down.

Freya_north_home_truths_mediumPdC: There's two other books about Cat's sisters, Pip and Fen, and you revisited the three of them together a few years on in Home Truths, so we know what decision Cat made at the end of the book and how that worked out. You've said you might revisit the McCabes one more time - is that still on the table?

FN: My readers are desperate for another McCabe book.

When I finished writing Home Truths I said out loud ‘now bugger off, the lot of you.'

However, I am toying with the idea of writing a prequel, set in the 1970s, when the girls are very young.

PdC: Podium Cafe's a cycling site, so rather than wondering about what's going on in the McCabe family we're more interested in will Cat ever revisit the Tour, or maybe even the Giro (better looking riders - she'd love it). It's high time Cat passed on that pencil sharpener Rachel gave her. Maybe Cat could take on a fresh-faced young writer and the book could be about mentoring her, sort of the way Paul Newman takes Tom Cruise under his wing in The Color Of Money. Any hope of that ever happening?

FN: I love it! My family have a place in Spain and we were in Marbella when the Vuelta came by.

I may not do it as a novel in the conventional sense - but you've really fired me up perhaps to do an on-line fictitious blog by Cat or her underling! Thank you!

PdC: You're still a fan of the sport - do you take any interest in the social networking side of it today, all that Twitface stuff and interweb sites like this one? Some of the riders and journalists and directeurs can be quite good fun online. We even had that Jonathan Vaughters on here recently. Nice man. Pity about those side-burns.

FN: I have three problems (none of them to do with facial hair on riders).

Firstly, I'm not particularly savvy when it comes to cyberspace.

Secondly, I'm quite a hard task-master on myself and if I've time to lark around on the web, then really I have time to write another chapter, plus I find just keeping up to date with my Facebook page and website is time-consuming enough.

Thirdly, I live up a country lane with no broadband and this dingle-dongle thing I use to go on-line is only a tad faster than dial-up.

PdC: You're a fan of Cuddles, yes? The 2010 Tour was a race for shattered dreams, what with Armstrong's Tour sans and Wiggins' failure to live up to the hype, but Cuddles really tugged at the heart-strings the most, the day he lost the maillot jaune.

FN: It was very moving.

To me, he's a real sportsman - compelling to watch and to listen to. He's honest about how he feels - and you can see just how hard he works. He's consistent - his persona does not change on and off the bike or on camera and behind the scenes.

To me, he hasn't had the success he deserves - because he couldn't have worked harder.

PdC: What's your take on cycling in the UK today? All those Olympian gold-diggers and Team Sky and a cycling PM and Boris bikes and MAMILs and the like. All you had back when you were writing Cat was Chris Boardman and David Millar, now you're spoiled for choice.

FN: It's a difficult question - because DavCam and BoJo and MAMILs and RIBOMEBs (just made that up - rich idiot blokes on mega expensive bikes) are cyclists but not riders... and they're just all on the pull, whether it's for votes or, er, the other!

I love the role that Chris and David still play within the sport, one off the bike, one on.

I first met Chris on the PruTour - though I'd had two books already published and a third soon to come out, it was the first time my success really struck me as it was enabling me to meet one of my heroes and write the book I'd long wanted to write.

First time I met David he was a young whippersnapper - he's a wise man now, hey.

PdC: Your pen portraits of your main characters are class. Jules le Grand is easily the best named - and best dressed - directeur sportif in the history of cycling. Your description of Fabian Ducasse really stands out though: 'Swarthy, handsome, smelling of Calvin Klein scent and looking very much like someone who might advertise their wares if he weren't a professional cyclist.' Any chance we could get you to tell us how you'd describe some of today's crop of heroes? Cuddles and the Schlecklet and maybe Cav?

FN: Oh God, I wouldn't dare - not in the libellous world in which we now live!

Also, I insist on thorough research before I feel equipped to put pen to paper...and I haven't had the pleasure of meeting Mr Evans or Mr Schleck.

I think Cav came to my launch party - but as I've shamefully admitted earlier in this interview, I can't remember much!

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Freya-north-chances_medium Freya North has published ten novels to date: Sally, Chloë, Polly, CatFen, Pip, Love Rules, Home Truths, Pillow Talk and Secrets. Her eleventh novel, Chances, will be released in March.

You'll find Freya North online at her website, freyanorth.com, and through Fracebook.

You'll find a review of Cat on the Café Bookshelf.

Our thanks to Freya North for talking the time to participate in this interview.

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