Our first TarryLife interview is with a super cool GenXer – writer, Alexandra Potter.
I met Alex as a Pilates client in Santa Monica back in 2008. I loved her sarcastic wit, charming British accent and gorgeous, effortless style. We were fast friends. I’ve done several teaching stints in London so we’ve kept our friendship going on both continents.
Alex grew up in Yorkshire, England and now lives in London with her American husband. She has written eleven Romantic comedies novels including Calling Romeo, Going La-La, What’s New, Pussycat? Her latest novel is titled Love from Paris. You can find them on iTunes or in the Kindle store on Amazon.
We sit down to chat during her L.A. visit at her rented house in the Valley…
Q: What did you want to be when you grew up?
A: I wanted to be a writer from being really little. I used to have a little Toy Town thing, you call it Fisher-Price and I used to sit upstairs in the attic and make up stories, just by myself, all day long. I found a book I wrote called The Tenth Step! from 1979. I always wanted to be a writer.
Q: Who or what inspired your idea? How did you start?
A: I had a real imagination. One of the reasons I was into writing is that I had terrible allergies as a child and I couldn’t play outside, so whereas my sister used to always be outside, I would have to stay inside.
Mum used to put on afternoon movies, you know, the old black and white films, the Doris Day, Rock Hudson, Diana Durbin ones with synchronized swimming. I watched all those movies as a kid and they inspired me. I loved the stories so when I got older and wanted to write a book it was always those romantic comedies that I really liked.
Q: Did you have any key mentors or people who deeply influenced who you are, what you believe in and what you’re committed to in your work and life?
A: A great teacher. I came from a real working class family. Nobody in my family had ever gone on to college or university. Mum and Dad left school at 15. My sister left school at 16. So I went to a school where the most you could hope for was to go work in a factory or something.
But I had a couple of teachers who saw that I was bright and loved learning. One said to me, you know you could go on to university. My parents wanted me to go get a job. They thought I should be a radiographer because there’d always be a need for X-Rays.
Q: What is the most challenging about what you do?
A: Sitting down and doing it. Procrastination. See, you work for yourself, by yourself. You have to sit down in a chair and allot the time to work. Set your own deadlines. Having the confidence in your ideas, that they’re good enough. The other challenge is the loneliness. You need to go out in the day, walk the dog, go to the gym. You need to have a structure. You can’t just be willy nilly. When I’m writing a book I do 500 words a day.
Q: What are you reading now? What’s on your night stand? Be honest!
A: I am trying to read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte. I love the Bronte sisters. You know Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. She was the lesser known sister, the quieter one. And you know, I grew up where they grew up – 3 miles away. Yorkshire Moors.
Q: What’s your favorite time of day? Why?
A: When I go to bed at night. I love it. I love sleeping. I love being in my bed. I love being horizontal. I love the time of day when the house is quiet, nobody’s calling, nobody’s emailing. I feel like everybody’s safe and tucked in their bed. I love it. That’s when I read.
Q: Book or Kindle?
A: You know, since I do a lot of traveling I thought a Kindle would be a really good idea but I can’t get into it. Even with Paperwhite. I like a book. I like to turn the page. I like to see the cover and know how far I am. Am I halfway through? I don’t like to look at a screen so much. And I like to pass on a book.
Q: What’s the greatest risk you ever took?
A: Ooh that’s a good one. Probably the biggest risk I ever took was quitting my job to write a book. I was freelancing as an editor at a magazine and I had an idea for a book. I sent it off to a few agents and a couple liked it. One signed me and said “okay, go write the book” but I had no time because I was working.
So I quit my job, sold my car and I had enough money for about six months and I thought if I don’t make this work I’m going to run out of money. That was the biggest risk – and it paid off.
Q: What was THE moment that made you say ‘I’m going to go for it!’?
A: Well I found my old journals from that time. I was 28, 29. I had been offered a good job and for me, a lot more money than I’d ever made. I remember saying to my sister “I really don’t want this job because I know I’ll never write if I take it.”
She said “just don’t take it then.” So I turned it down. I was like it’s now or never. It was scary. I can’t believe I did that! And my first book came out right before my 30th birthday.
Q: So you just sent the chapters out and agents wanted it right away?
A: I wrote three chapters. I got this book that told me to do that – It was before email so I printed them out and sent them off, then came to L.A. on holiday. My boyfriend at the time said I had some messages on my answering machine, remember those?
I thought he was joking so I made him play them. And they were from agents from William Morris! When I finished it there was an auction – a bidding war for it.
Q: That must’ve been exciting. So since then you’ve been a full time writer?
A: Yes, it was. You don’t believe it’s real at first. Like I don’t have to go back to my job? And nobody else can believe it either – like your parents.
Q: How do you stay healthy?
A: Mentally, it’s friends, isn’t it? Really good girlfriends. It’s not so healthy to spend too much time by yourself. Having a laugh, talking to your friends. Being in the moment.
I started swimming. When I moved back to London I joined a gym that has an outdoor heated pool so even when it’s freezing, it’s warm. You see the steam coming off the pool. It’s really nice. A little bit of Pilates. A little bit of lifting weights. I walk – hiking.
We live really near a big open park where all of the stag and deer are so I walk there every day. That’s why I’m thinking of getting a dog, rescuing a dog.
Q: How Do You Tarry?
A: I like the idea of moments in time. People say, ‘Are you happy?’ Well, it’s moments strung together. You’re not happy all the time. It’s trying to be in that moment.
Definitely putting your phone down. That’s a big one. Go out for a walk and leave your phone at home. It makes you more aware of what’s around you. Going to the supermarket, standing in a line and not looking at your phone. Smiling at someone. I did it today. It was just a brief moment, a human connection.
When my dad was in hospital dying, you get laser focus. All that stuff you think is important, you know, career, money, the big house, don’t matter. It’s not the big moments like when the book is published or the wedding. It’s those little moments that matter in life when you boil it down. The rest just don’t matter. It’s the laugh you had with friends over a drink.
Q: And social media can make you feel even worse, right?
A: Yeah, but you know that’s all bullshit, right? A friend of mine just wrote a book called My Not So Perfect Life. She had an Instagram feed where she’s all perfect but it’s fake. I actually wanted to start an Instagram page called “This is How It Really Is.”
I took a picture in Ojai of my laptop in the sun on a little table. It looked so perfect. Then we went inside and the house is a mess and we’re on the couch and I was like this is how it actually is, should I post this? So don’t compare and despair. There’s always someone doing more, who has more. Photographs are airbrushed. It’s not real life.
Q: What was your favorite band, movie, song in your teenage/twenties?
A: I was a complete rom-com fan – it started with When Harry Met Sally when I was 19 and progressed to every other Meg Ryan film and all the Richard Curtis ones too – Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, etc.
Harry Met Sally is still one of my all time faves. Such a clever film and wonderful dialogue from Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner.
Q: What do you miss about the old days before all the technology of internet, smart phones, DVR’s, etc? Do you remember getting in touch with people before email/mobile phones and making plans?
A: I miss the simplicity of life. I miss walking down the street and being free – no one could contact you. I remember coming home and the excitement and anticipation of pressing my answering machine button and seeing if anyone had called. I liked the feeling of being uncontactable – of being alone.
Now you are never alone – someone can always get a hold of you – sometimes that’s great, but there’s lot of time when it’s just nice to walk out of the house and leave it all behind.
And yes, I remember making plans, choosing a time and a date and sticking to it. Plans couldn’t be changed. You couldn’t run late. You had to be there. I think being able to text and call has allowed people to be lazier – flakier – fussier. Remember when you chose a restaurant or a film without constantly googling to read the reviews??
Q: You seem to have effortless style. How has it changed as you’ve gotten older? More of a uniform?
A: Ha. I’m not sure about the effortless style but thank you for saying that anyway.
I’ve always very much been a jeans and T-shirt kind of girl. I like a relaxed style – wearing hair loose, little make-up, a light tan. I’ve always loved traveling, so I love wearing a few pieces of jewelry that I’ve found on my travels – maybe a string of beads from Bali- and a nice pashmina I bought from a trip to India.
I’ve never followed fashion or bought designer clothes. I used to work for Vogue in both London and Sydney, Australia in my 20s and I saw very quickly that fashion was led by advertisers and there to make women feel bad about how they look – the message being ‘spend lots of money on these expensive clothes, cosmetics and skin care and you will feel better about yourself.’ It’s all a game, and one I never bought into. I like people who have a unique style, and who wear the kind of clothes that they like and make them feel comfortable.
As I’ve got older my hemlines have lengthened (gone are the cut off denim shirts and mini skirts that I used to love in my 20s) and I reveal less flesh, but I pretty much wear the same clothes as I always did. I live in London and walk around a lot, so I love wearing flat sandals in summer and trainers (sneakers) in the fall. There’s nothing nicer than a pair of old faded jeans, cotton shirt and flips flops. Oh – and a hat – I always wear a hat! My sister has a hat company – Capelo – and I love their wide brimmed hats to protect me from the sun (and hide my hair when I haven’t washed it!)
Q: What’s your cause that you’re most passionate about?
A: http://pushkar-children-trust.org is a charity in Pushkar, India which was set up to help the poorest children gain an education.
I came across this charity when I visited India after my father died. It was a time of terrible sadness and I traveled across Rajasthan – spending a few days in Pushkar where I met several children who lived with their families in the gypsy camps and beg for food. These families are some of the poorest in India, yet they had the most grace.
Their smiles would lift your soul. I remember sitting on the side of a dusty street playing with some children and feeling joy for the first time since my father died. Later, when I returned to London, I discovered a young trainee doctor from Denmark had set up a charity to help these children – to give them an education so they would no longer have to beg on the streets.
It costs 150 euros a year to educate a child in the private school – this pays for their uniform, books and all their meals. I sponsor three children and it’s amazing what a difference it is making to their lives.
You can follow Alex on Instagram at alexpotterbooks