Ladies and gentlemen, let's compare and contrast. In her blockbuster first novel, "A Woman of Substance," Barbara Taylor Bradford pitted her fiercely determined heroine against almost insurmountable obstacles: grinding poverty, physical abuse, sexual assault, romantic betrayal, and the machinations of a powerful and pitiless nemesis. In her latest book, "Letter from A Stranger," Bradford's sweet and accommodating heroine lives a charmed life, her manners flawless, her profession glamorous, her predicament such that she is forced -- just forced! -- to jet off to sunny Istanbul, where she eats delicious meals, sleeps in elegant accommodations and discovers a riveting memoir of life in Nazi Germany. Is it possible, based on the aforementioned evidence, that Bradford, the author of 27 international bestsellers, has, well, mellowed?
Immaculate in oversized pearls, a flowing scarf and a pale pink pantsuit, Bradford considers the question. Above her the white marble fountain in the lounge of Chicago's Four Seasons Hotel radiates a dull gleam in the dim light. Across from her, her husband, TV and film producer Bob Bradford, sips a cappuccino.
"No," she says, "I don't think I have. I think every book is different. Whilst they're all about strong women, they're all very different. Wouldn't you say so, Bob?"
Her husband of 48 years nods but does not interrupt.
"Maybe you're right," she continues, "but it's not anything conscious. It's not that I've said 'Oh! I'm going to do this.' I didn't really have any bad guys in this book because I didn't really need any. I had a whole battalion or two of Nazis — Gestapo — and I think when you're writing about history, one of the most evil and horrendous events in history, you don't really need to have a lot of side heavies who are everyday people. I think it almost takes away from the murder of six million people."
She only had one true bad guy in "A Woman of Substance," she points out, the dastardly Gerald Fairley. Gerald's brother Edwin was merely "weak," she adds, her voice hardening as she dismisses poor Edwin utterly and irrevocably with a single word.
But then Bradford's ice-green gaze softens, and she begins to laugh.
"I do know one newspaper, years ago, said 27 people died in this book — and none of them in a war," she says.
"They listed them! One fell down the stairs and broke her neck. Another person died in a fire. Another one had a stroke. And I laughed because I have a very good sense of humor. As I said [earlier], I don't like to write about real people, in case I want to kill them off. You know, when you're writing a book you play God."
Mellowed or not, Bradford, at age 79, bears a striking resemblance to Emma Harte, the steely heroine of "A Woman of Substance," and it's not just those piercing green eyes and that easy charm. Both are self-made millionaires from Yorkshire who went to work at an early age — Bradford as a typist for a newspaper. Both thrived professionally without benefit of a college education. Both possess great energy and a tremendous capacity for hard work.
Even today, Bradford rises early, sometimes at 4:30 a.m. She has coffee and toast in her New York apartment, reads the British newspapers and edits the previous day's writing. When Bob, a TV and movie producer to whom she has dedicated all of her novels, gets up at about 7 a.m., she makes him two boiled eggs and then retreats to her study, where she works until 4 p.m.
"All my girlfriends know not to call before 4," she says.
That schedule has allowed her to publish 27 bestsellers in 33 years; she's currently criss-crossing the country to promote "Letter to a Stranger" while approaching a June 10 deadline for her next book. Slowing down, she says, isn't on her agenda.
"I have no children. My husband goes to an office every day; he's a very busy man. What would I do? I went to work when I was 15 and a half, for God's sake, as a typist on a newspaper. What would I do?"
Travel, swim, garden, perhaps?
"Well, I live in the middle of a city that's called Manhattan, you know."
Yes, but there's a lovely park. And theater, movies and ballet ....
"When I finish a book, I actually don't know what to do with myself."
"No, I don't know what to do. I clean a closet. I have lunch with a girlfriend. I go do some shopping. But that lasts all of about a week and then I start a new book because I'm bored."
Bradford was born the only child of a former children's nurse and a British Royal Navy veteran who struggled to find work during the Depression, according to "The Woman of Substance," a biography by Piers Dudgeon. She started writing as a child and was first paid for a piece of writing when she was 10. She wanted to write novels, she says, but journalism was a more practical choice. She rapidly rose from the typing pool at the Yorkshire Evening Post to cub reporter and then woman's page editor, before moving on to Fleet Street.
She married Bradford in December of 1963 and moved to New York, where he had been living.
"I worked as a journalist here until one day I said, 'If I don't write a novel I'll grow old and regret it,'" she says.
She wrote four unfinished novels before she started "A Woman of Substance," which has sold more than 32 million copies worldwide and was made into a TV miniseries with Deborah Kerr and Liam Neeson.
"You must want to [write a novel] so much that you can't not do it, Bradford says. "You've gotta sit down, as Hemingway said, put your backside in a chair and start writing."
Bradford's books have now been made into 10 TV movies and miniseries. In 2007 she went to Buckingham Palace to receive an Order of the British Empire medal from Queen Elizabeth II. Her reviews tend to be positive with a reservation or two: "Bradford marshals a storm of coincidences to advance her complicated story, which pushes the limits of believability. However, every novel from this acclaimed and beloved author is avidly read, and its engrossing historical dimension, family traumas, romance and vivid setting will prove irresistible," Aleksandra Walker of Booklist wrote of "Letter from a Stranger."
Bradford brings up the "coincidence" issue herself during the interview and addresses it head-on.
"Life," she says, "is made up of coincidences. Nothing is ever the way we think it is."
Case in point: She and Bob were once on a trip to London and Switzerland, and Bob was having a terrible time tracking down the director Tony Wharmby, who was filming in Hungary or Romania. Wharmby would call the Bradfords' hotel, and they'd be out. Bob would call Wharmby, and he'd be shooting a scene in the mountains and unavailable. This went on for 10 days.
Finally, the Bradfords were sitting in the airport in Geneva, waiting for a flight home to New York, when Barbara spotted Wharmby.
"Bob, you're not going to believe this, but Tony Wharmby's over there!" she said to her husband, whose nose was buried in a newspaper. The two men hammered out a deal on the spot.
Bradford's inspiration for "Letter" came, in part, from her husband, who is Jewish and escaped Nazi Germany as a young boy with his mother's jewelry stitched inside his clothes, but the more immediate influence was a friend whose ex-husband abducted their sons.
She began to think about missing children and to notice all the newspaper stories about missing women: the young mother, say, who went off to the gym and never came back.
"One day, I'd finished working and things come into my head, and I was thinking, what must it be like? What would it be like if I went out and I never came back? How would Bob feel? And the help? And the people that care about me? I kept thinking, what must it be like?"
She found herself imagining a child coming home from school to find that her mother had vanished.
"And then I thought, Nazi Germany: the Holocaust. More people went missing and were never found than in any other time in history — and I'm actually feeling it now. I got a cold chill. I was sitting on the sofa in my office and I got up and I went to the desk and I wrote down: 'Missing Grandmother. Nazi Germany. What is the link?'"
In the finished book, the blond, blue-eyed American heroine who discovers that the grandmother she assumed was dead is in fact alive, living halfway across the world and harboring family secrets that date back to World War II. Her grandmother's gripping memoir — effectively a story within the story — takes readers back to Nazi-era Germany..
Bradford winds up the interview and photo session after more than two hours, having ordered only water ("tap water is fine"), posed cheerfully and offered to answer additional questions. She returns, several times, to the question of whether she's mellowed, her tone amused and skeptical. After this, she says, she'll speak at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie, then return to New York to write for a few days before flying to Dallas to promote "Letter." She'll go home again, finish her next book, and then return to Chicago where she'll be the headlining author at the Tribune's Printers Row Lit Fest on June 9.
"I don't know that I've mellowed," she says, returning to her argument that a Nazi-era memoir is not exactly a project for the faint-hearted.
She's smiling sweetly as she says this, but that green-eyed gaze is firm and unwavering.
Nara Schoenberg is a Tribune feature writer.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email.
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