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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

An Interview with Author and Racing Fan Jilly Cooper

Jilly Cooper CBE began her writing career as a journalist before mixing the writing of non-fiction and fiction, but is most famous for her romantic novels. Riders was published in 1985 and was the first of the Rutshire Chronicles. Over the years, one of her most loved creations Rupert Campbell-Black has been a Tory minister, Olympic showjumper, racehorse trainer and always a notorious ladies’ man. Most recently, in Mount!, Rupert travelled the globe, chasing the Leading Sire title for his stallion, Love Rat. Racing fan Jilly lives near Stroud and, when researching Jump!, joined a syndicate called the Thoroughbred Ladies who had horses in training with Tom George.

Photo Credit: Ken MaKay/ITV/REX/Shuttershock

Was your childhood horsey and did you ride?

I’ve always adored horses and pestered my parents to buy me a pony. During our first holiday in Cornwall just after the War when I was eight, they bought me a beautiful bay called Rufus.

The day he arrived, I dragged all my classmates back from school to meet him. Rushing into the field, I flung my arms round his neck, crying “Rufus, Rufus”, where upon he bit me hard several times. My friends thought it hilarious.

Alas Rufus turned out to be uncut, or rather improperly gelded, so every time I rode him out, he would either fold up like a camel, or seeing another horse on the road, try and mount it. So sadly Rufus was sent back to Cornwall.

Afterwards, my parents bought me a heavenly bay mare called Willow, who was the sweetest, most affectionate pony in the world. When we moved to Yorkshire, she and I cleaned up at all the local gymkhanas – her brilliance, not mine.

It nearly broke my heart, when I went to boarding school and had to leave her in the term time. But when I smashed my arm up two years later and couldn’t ride anymore, she went to a truly lovely home and I still saw her.

Your compassion does not stop at humans but includes animals – can you explain where your love of animals came from?

Our family always had dogs and cats, which we adored. The only time I remember my sweet mother crying, when I was a little girl, was when Jamie our Scottish Terrier had to be put down.

Please explain the importance of reading to any writer.

Reading is crucial to any writer, because it extends their knowledge in every direction, captures their imagination, and shows them how it’s done.

What initially attracted you to racing?

I’ve always loved racing. My geography mistress once asked the class: “Now, Girls, what is the Gulf Stream?” and was horrified when my hand shot up.

“Gulf Stream,” I rattled off, “was a bay colt by Hyperion, out of Tideway. Second in the Derby to Airborne. Winner of the Gimcrack and the Eclipse Stakes.”

What gave you the ideas to write novels set in racing?

I wrote novels set in racing, because I think the racehorse is the most beautiful heroic animal in the world, particularly when it’s galloping. Plus, I love the excitement, and the competition, and the relationship between stable staff, trainers and owners. National Velvet was also my favourite novel when I was a child.

Do you have a preference for Flat or National Hunt?

I love both Flat and National Hunt.

Which racecourses, worldwide, have left the biggest impression?

Gosh – all of them have. Cheltenham is the jewel in the National Hunt crown. I adore Epsom on Derby Day, and I’m bats about York, Doncaster, Aintree and the Curragh and of course Newmarket. One of the best office parties I went to was at an evening meeting at Kempton. We had a wonderful dinner, and half the staff hadn’t been racing before and went wild about the horses, and were thoroughly overexcited having their first bets.

While I was writing Mount!, my novel about Flat racing, I was lucky enough to win a Racing Post competition to go to the World Cup out in the desert in Dubai. This must be the most dramatic climax to any racing story.

New novelist and musician David Essex said that “Writing a novel takes you to many places” – how do you relate to this?

I totally agree with David Essex. Writing fiction as well as my journalism, I have been lucky to go to almost everywhere in the world.

You are renowned for doing copious amounts of research – please explain the importance of speaking to everyone in racing (owners, trainers, grooms) for your novels.

Starting off as a journalist, who have to do research in order to write a true story, I’ve always enjoyed talking to people and going to their workplaces, and building up my characters and their settings.

My problem is that I always do far too much research, only use about a twentieth of the material I’ve accumulated. I think it was E.M Foster who rightly wrote “Research is the traffic policeman that holds up the novel.” Being intensely curious, I love an excuse to visit heavenly places like Jonjo O’Neill’s wonderful yard, with such a romantic name as Jackdaws Castle and Mark Johnston’s magical yard, which sprawls across several valleys in Yorkshire. Any excuse to go and take Polos to adorable horses.

What was Frankel like when you met him?

Frankel was epic. I’d had the wonderful privilege of sitting next to his trainer, the late Sir Henry Cecil at dinner and the next day he invited me to look around his yard. Sloping off, I went to admire Frankel and patted him and like Rufus, my first pony, he promptly bit me.

“What the eff are you doing?” yelled Sir Henry from down the row of boxes. Even worse, a mobile went off, playing Beethoven very loudly. Thinking it was mine, Sir Henry got even crosser and told me to switch that “effing thing off, Jilly”, which the guilty stable lad then did.

This however was in Frankel’s racing glory days. I met him again the following year by which time he was covering mares, seemed to thoroughly enjoying his career move, and let me pet him. He also had a lovely stable cat companion called George, who collected me from the Prince Khalid Abdullah’s stud office, and led me across the garden to meet him and his other stable mate: Oasis Dream.

Who were the most interesting people you met through racing?

It would be impossible to count all the lovely and entertaining people I met in racing. I particularly adore Tony McCoy, he’s so brave, yet modest and the most wonderful rider, and I’d adore to meet Ryan Moore, he’s so cool, again such a magical rider and the horses seem so happy to have him on their backs.

I’m also mad about Richard Phillips, he’s the funniest man in racing.

What makes your character Rupert Campbell-Black the most perfect man?!

I don’t think Rupert Campbell-Black is the most perfect man. He’s breathtakingly good looking and adores his dogs, but he’s incredibly arrogant, short fused and frightened of nobody. He’s lovely to write about but pretty taxing to be married to or to work for.

Rupert Campbell-Black is the hero of Mount! but who is your heroine and why?

My heroine is Rupert’s wife Taggie, who is the kindest gentlest person on earth. She’s also terrible at saying no, so gets landed with endless people taking advantage of her.

What is your next novel?

Oh dear, I’m still only at the beginning of a novel about football called TACKLE which has to be finished in time for The World Cup in 2022. Rupert Campbell-Black gets involved in managing a football team, and won’t put up with capricious histrionic players. Fireworks ahoy!

I initially contacted Jilly in 2012, simply asking for advice on becoming a writer. She very kindly replied and helped me to start up my former Groom’s Life column in the Gloucestershire Echo. I met her twice and I went at the publication party of Mount! in London.

Jilly has always shown me much encouragement and thoughtfulness and I was chuffed when she agreed to an interview for the Cheltenham and Three Counties Racing Club's newsletter. She has since kindly granted me permission to reuse the interview for my website.

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