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On fiction

My Dad rang yesterday to ask, in a very serious and concerned voice, if any of ‘The Dating Detox’ was true, “because if so…” – if so what, I never got to find out. I assume a team of vigilantes would be flying in from Hong Kong to wreak havoc on a handful of unsuspecting bastards in South-West London.

I assured him that it’s fiction. And I thought it was worth saying again here.

It’s fiction.

It’s totally made up. The characters are made up, the events, all of it. Fiction, innit.

My own single life was, of course, marked by various dreadful relationshits, all a bit less dramatic than the ones in the book but no less painful nonetheless, and a couple of very nice ones that simply Weren’t Quite Right. I went on a Dating Sabbatical once, after a series of seriously bad dates, and stayed on it mostly because I thought it was a funny thing to say and I didn’t meet anyone particularly tempting. It lasted about six weeks before I gave in and went out with a guy who turned out to be a complete ass-hat.

It’s worth adding that in those six weeks, life got better in a hundred tiny ways, just because I was looking at it differently. So after the ass-hat dumped me, I took stock of everything, remembered my change in perspective, and started again. (Lessons in real life are never as linear as they are in books.) And that changed the way I approached work and love and everything else, for years. And then I met a ricockulously funny and lovely guy who I’m getting married to in April and wrote a book and well, became the happy little bunny that you see before you today.

All my friends wanted to know ‘who is who’. Who is Rick, and if Kate is so-and-so, and if Jake is (my young man) Foxy, etc. One friend is so convinced that one character in my second book is Foxy’s brother that she rang me, during the reading of an early draft, shocked that one particular thing actually happened. But I made it all up, guys. I really did. I promise. I know those characters a thousand times better than I know my friends, in a weird way, because I invented them. They do as I say and come to my whistle. If it sounds real, then high five me, as that’s what I’m aiming for… but it’s fiction.

I should caveat that my sister read The Dating Detox and said ‘it’s like talking to you but I can’t talk back’. But then she read the second book recently, which has a totally different main character, and said ‘this just sounds like you too, in a different way, but still you’. I hope it’s just the way I write. I try to be chatty and confiding and real.

Having said all that, I need to be honest and say there are similar details: I’m a copywriter in advertising, I always have a yellow clutch, I lived in Pimlico for years and spent my 20s trying not to get dumped, drunk, broke or lost – and frequently failed, but still had fun. And I’m the same combination of show-off-and-shy, confident-and-worried – but then, I think a lot of us are like that. Right?

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Books to make you laugh

So, I saw copies of The Dating Detox in all the bookshops in T1 on my way to Ireland yesterday, and didn’t have the thrill I thought I would. Odd, huh?

I’ve only had two book-related thrills, actually. One was when Laura, my now-agent, rang to say she liked my first three chapters and could I send the rest. (“Of course!” I trilled, mentally calculating how long it would take me to actually write ‘the rest’.) At the time, I was in a conference room at the ad agency I was freelancing at (I copywrite to keep myself in lipgloss and ankleboots), and when we hung up, I did a little leapy dance around the table, yelping for joy. I then turned around to find the head of client services staring at me, with a gaggle of suits in tow.

The second time I felt a proper book thrill was when Laura rang to say that HC had made an offer. I hung up the phone and smiled so hard that I felt like I should have rays of light beaming from my body, like that nuclear dude in Heroes. It was late Friday afternoon and everyone else was still at work, so I went to the Botanist by myself, ordered a glass of champagne and smoked a celebratory cigarette, and texted everyone I know to tell them. (One reply – ‘That’s great, but who is this?’ – sort of put things in perspective. Thanks Greg.) Then I went out for dinner with Foxy and some friends, and drank so much champagne that the next day that when I met a girlfriend for coffee, I was forced to lie down on a park bench for a little while because walking was quite frankly out of the question. Champagne is a vengeful little bitch sometimes.

I think it would be highly exciting if I ever saw someone reading it, but I think that’s unlikely. Martin Amis wrote in Experience that he saw someone reading The Rachel Papers on the tube once, but he’d never seen anyone reading anything of his since.

And now, to my point.

Have you read any David Sedaris?

I was reading Me Talk Pretty Some Day a few weeks ago on the tube and found it so hilarious that I accidentally cackled aloud and slapped my thigh in delight. Note: try not to do this within Zone 1 or 2, as people will think you’re nuts. As you get into Zones 3 and 4, you can act more crazy without drawing too much attention to yourself, and once you’re in Zone 5 and 6, you could duct-tape a stuffed owl to your shoulder whilst playing the spoons on your nipples and no one would look twice.

I’d love any and all suggestions for funny reads. I’ll need them for the minute I send the puppy we call Book Deux to Laura and find myself with lots of free time. And not just the isn’t-Mrs-Bennett-annoying and doesn’t-Hardy-have-the-horn-for-Tess type literary chuckles. I’m talking about out-and-out close-your-eyes-throw-your-head-back-and-guffaw laughter. Lucky Jim and Heartburn also make me laugh, by the way, but I’ve already listed them in the books-for-comfort post, so does Philip Roth and Joshua Ferris and a book called Making Love by a righteous dude called Marius Brill. But I need something new.

So come on. Let’s have it. Email me at

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Les jeux sont fait

My first book, The Dating Detox, is in shops ahead of schedule.

This fills me with pride (the clever little thing, it was always advanced for its age) and nausea (you mean people are actually READING it?).

I realised yesterday that I hadn’t prepared for this bit. Everything has been geared towards publication. Typos and inconsistencies and PR, oh my. And now it’s all done, and I’m mildly surprised every time I look at the book. I’m like one of those mothers-to-be who obsesses about the gestation and birth and then goes home with a tiny baby and thinks ‘what the hell am I supposed to do with THIS, then?’. All I did was have sex, I mean, all I did was start writing something that I thought was amusing and suddenly it’s a book.

So, perhaps I’ll just say this. If you’ve read it: I hope you liked it. And if you didn’t like it, please don’t tell me. I’m allergic to criticism. It brings me out in cigarettes.

In fact the whole thing makes me knotty-tongued. So instead of focusing on The Dating Detox, I shall talk about the second book.

As I keep saying, it’s called The Late Starter, or perhaps, The Dating Virgin. I have even more trouble with titles than I do with names (see: for details on the trouble I have with names).

It’s not about the same characters, though I do love The Dating Detox characters and hope to revisit them in another book soon. (I have some extremely fun plans for them, the little scamps.)

The plot: after the demise of a long-term relationship, our heroine, Abigail, must learn how to be single. I went through this, so did an awful lot of my friends, and the truth is that readjusting to single life is strange and hard and funny and sometimes horrible. You have to learn how to socialise as a singleton, to flirt, to spend time alone, to (hopefully) pick up, deal with a one night stand, survive a bad date, enjoy a good date… It’s a skill.

No, it’s an art.

So. Abigail navigates the tarry bogs of single life in London with the help of her flatmate, a notorious bastard and lothario called Robert. He teaches her how to date like a man, or more specifically, like a bastard. And that’s when things get interesting.

I’m going to knuckle down over Christmas and really nail this puppy, so the first draft will be done in the next two or three weeks. If you have any thoughts on what makes adjusting to single life surreal or difficult, please get in touch, I’d love to hear from you. My email address is

Exeunt, stage left, bowing deeply.

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On drinking

Where was I?

Oh yes.

On drinking.

I like pubs. I also like bars. I like everything in between.

And so, here are my five favourite places to drink in London this December.

(I say ‘December’ because I’m feeling festive and wintry, and the places I’d go in April or August are obviously, totally different, and I say ‘this December’ because I’ve slaked my thirst in lots of different, equally Christmassy places over the years, and I’m sick of some of them. So, in other words, this is a whim-based list about where I’d drink tonight if I could.)

1. The Windsor Castle, Notting Hil
Yes, it’s a tourist trap, and yes, the service is verging on a joke and yes, it’s frequented by thieves so your bag has a fighting chance of disappearing if you don’t keep your hand on it at all times. But it’s cosy as fuck. Much of the pub is divided into little snugs (room-lets with just a table and benches built in), with tiny doorways cut for Ye Shortarses Of Ye Olden Days connecting them. Plus it has fireplaces and mulled wine. There’s also a garden with fairy lights strewn all around, and at nighttime, after several glasses of well, anything, it’s magic. Recently I got inappropriately drunk here with my friend Alida on a Thursday afternoon when I was meant to be writing my second book. Whoops.

2. The Antelope, Chelsea
This tiny pub is tucked into Eaton Terrace like a happy little Christmas elf flanked by leggy supermodels. There’s a fireplace and bookshelves at the back, and if you’re there early enough, you can take over said area and settle in for the night. I have not been here since last winter and intend to rectify this at the earliest opportunity. Bags the seat next to the fireplace.

3. The Portobello Star, Notting Hill
I could throw a stone and break a window of this bar from my house, if a) all the houses in between us weren’t in the way, b) I could throw and c) I wasn’t a bit of a sissy when it came to doing naughty things like that. The point is: it’s close, and the cocktails here are unbefuckinglievable. The Tommy margarita is, I like to think, named thus because the English tommies used to make it in the trenches. It seems like the kind of drink that would cure trenchfoot. The decor is somehow welcoming and shabby and cool and clever, all at once.

4. The Only Running Footman, Mayfair
Whenever I think of Mayfair, I picture the word in green and red, with snow on top of the letters and holly hanging off the ‘M’ and the ‘r’. What I mean is that the whole area could have been designed for Christmas, and this is the most Christmassy pub of all. It’s like some of my other favourite eating pubs in London (the Thomas Cubitt, The Pantechnicon Rooms): there’s warm, welcoming ground floor bar with totally rad burger and chips and a slightly posher 1st floor restaurant where everything is perfect. This pub is a sure thing. (The Sure Thing is an awesome and underappreciated film, by the way.)

5. Bumpkin, Notting Hill
This pub had a starring role in The Dating Detox, and then, because of tedious geographic issues, I had to change it. Which is a tragedy, as I love the warm slightly-ironic-but-not-too-much-farmhouse-chic of Bumpkin (the Notting Hill one, not the South Kensington one, which is perfectly fine but, well, you know, I met the NH one first). I eat there so often, particularly in winter, that it’s slightly embarrassing. Now this is very firmly a restaurant pub, though there’s a bar where cocktails are made (very, very good ones, especially the winter mulled cider cocktail, it’s like a hot water bottle of joy in your tummy). The burger is exceptional and the chips are outstanding, but it’s the pies that’ll keep you coming back time after time. The big square corner table was perfectly designed for 12 to 16 people to enjoy a long, loud, boozy meal together. And if that doesn’t scream Christmas, then I don’t know what does. I just like everything about this place. There’s also a specials blackboard, and one Sunday, the manager Rupert wrote ‘You’re a special’ on it. See what I mean?

PS Honourary mentions because I hate leaving them out when they’re so damn cosy, but five is a nice even number:
The Pig’s Ear, Chelsea
The Churchill Arms, Kensington
The Colton Arms, Barons Court

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My day so far

5.50am Alarm goes off to wake Foxy to go to the airport. Roll over and go back to sleep.
5.58am Foxy’s phone rings as he’s in the shower. It’s the taxi.
6am Listen to Foxy splashing about the bathroom like a tall Irish duck.
6.05am Enquire loudly if I might get a coffee brought to me in bed considering the early hour.
6.10am Enquire again, louder.
6.11am Enquire if he has any intention of ever making me a coffee, ever, in our relationship, since in three years he’s never made me a coffee and has cooked one meal which consisted of cold-yet-over-microwaved baked beans and some anorexic burnt toast.
6.15am Kiss Foxy goodbye. Make suggestive remarks as he is heading down the stairs so he has something nice to think about on his way to the airport.
6.25am Get myself a coffee. Go back to bed.
6.30am Turn on laptop, check email and Twitter, open manuscript to second book, read last two pages. Try to write. Ponder happily about how lovely it is to not have to work at an ad agency this week so I can really make some progress on second book.
6.40am Email parents and sister about Christmas presents.
6.45am Decide should just get Christmas shopping over and done with online right now so that I can write all day without distractions. Go to and as usual open 11 new tab windows for interesting things.
7.20am Realise that now is not the time to Christmas shop and I should use my fresh brain to write.
7.23am Father rings to discuss Christmas.
7.30am Get another coffee, go back to bed, think about Christmas. Feel intensely distracted.
7.40am Start writing now properly, seriously, that’s enough Gemma.
8.30am Get another coffee and porridge. Start reading India Knight’s blog as I eat as you can’t type and eat, can you? Immediately identify nine shops/blogs/sites to look at. Damn.
8.50am Start writing properly again. Wonder if new book sucks arse. Wonder if book that’s out in a few weeks sucks arse too. Stare into space for a few minutes pondering failure.
9.30am Email arrives from best friend in Australia. Am overcome with happiness and immediately start composing my email back to her in my head. This is hard to do when you’re also writing a book but somehow I am doing it. Wonder if perhaps have a Siamese-twin-style brain.
9.40am Accidentally type name of friend into manuscript. Do not have Siamese-twin-style brain.
9.43am Instruct self to write all social emails this evening and not before.
9.45am Fuck it, I’m having a shower.
9.50am Decide to exfoliate entire body and face as just because Foxy is away doesn’t mean I should let standards drop.
9.53am Ditto deep conditioner.
10am In jeans and very comfy grey jumper with my hair in a towel-turban, get onto (not into – huge difference) bed with laptop again. Start writing.
10.01am Remember that I haven’t posted a blog in a week and really ought to.
10.03am Skin very dry. Must moisturise. Don’t think this moisturiser is working for me. I wonder what they say about it on
10.04am Close the minute I open it as will lose an hour if I don’t.
10.05am Should brush hair as otherwise will dry knotty. Hair is looking like shit I must say.
10.06am Really should write that blog.
10.19am Have spent last 13 minutes writing blog. Decide to save blog so I can come back to it later.
10.20am Decide to post blog right this second so it’s not another excuse for not writing.

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On Name That Bastard

Here’s the thing.

I have huge trouble with names. Even minor characters can prompt a 20-minute slack-jawed space-staring spell. Baby name sites don’t help, and if I start looking through other books for inspiration, I just read them. If I think of a friend’s name – Marcus! Jackie! – then I think, holy shit, I haven’t spoken to that friend in ages, I should really send him/her an email, then I start an email in my head, then I go and write it properly and then I come back to the story and I read the name again and think, Marcus isn’t the right name for this character at all, goddamnit.

Now, this won’t mean anything before you’ve read the book, but: Mitch was originally John. And Rick was Cain (and before that Leo and Mitch and originally, JJ). Minor characters changed names with every draft. There were good reasons for every change, too. Note: a ‘good reason’ can sometimes mean ‘my whim’. (By the way, Jake was always, always Jake. After Jake Ryan in Sixteen Candles. Of course.)

The girl herself – the protagonist – had no name at all, as it was impossible to think of one when I started so I thought ah well, this story’s never going to be published anyway, I just won’t worry about it. And then the story turned into a book and I thought, hey ho, perhaps the reader can pretend to be her. Yes. (Lazy me.) So she was nameless until well after the book deal with Harper Collins, when we realised it was very hard to talk about the book without a name for the protagonist. (“There’s this girl, right?” etc.) I made lists of names I liked, like Nina and Amy. None of them were right. Everyone thought the girl needed an unusual name, and I thought of my friend Sass, short for Sarah. Which is both unusual and awesome. Problem solved. (I didn’t get a chance to thank her in the thanks page of the book, as I’d already written that by the time the naming thing happened, so thank you Sass. You rock.)

God! That paragraph was exhausting, wasn’t it? The point is: naming is hard.

I was so fed up with naming that towards the end of The Dating Detox, when I decided that I had to change the name of one character for long and boring reasons I’ll explain some other time, I decided to see what name was statistically the most bastardy of all names.

So I emailed my friends asking for help to ‘Name That Bastard’.

Brilliant, angry emails poured in from them and their friends and sisters and colleagues. “Use Ted, please, I would be ecstatic”, or, “Dick. Normally refer to him as Poison Dwarf”. There was also lots of Phils, several Ryans and a Nigel. (A Nigel! Who would have thought he had it in him?) And that’s how I ended up with Rick. (Best said through clenched teeth.)

And now, the point of this blog post. For the second book, I need another bad guy’s name, and I’m throwing it out to you. Skip on over to where I’m compiling the results of my totally unscientific study. The most popular name – or most awesome story, I’m not sure which – will be the anti-hero in my next book. So check out the blog or just email

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On comfort

I read an interview once with someone who said he read Bleak House every year, at Christmas. The sophistication! Kind-of-but-not like how I used to read Polo by Jilly Cooper every time I was dumped.

Now these days, I’m with a nice young man and we’re getting hitched, but I still read Polo about once a year. All the Jilly Cooper books are dear friends by now, and I have to be careful when I’m writing, because I’ve read them so often that entire sentences from them can appear in my fingers and on the page.

Not quite Bleak House, but then again, I sometimes find reading Dickens like talking to someone extremely quick and self-consciously clever. It’s brilliant, but I feel a bit tired afterwards, like I’ve been holding my breath till the end of each sentence. Jilly Cooper, on the other hand, is equally fast and smart and amusing, but also kind and observant and bitchy-in-the-good-way and a bit naughty. Someone with whom you could play hooky from work and drink a bottle of wine. Someone who, no matter how bad the thing is that’s happened to you, will make you laugh by the end of the first drink.

And so, because there is no new book news on my front (other than, The Dating Detox is coming in January, and when it does, please buy it), I think I’ll list other books I read for comfort. Books that will be your best friend and sit with you for hours and make you laugh and sigh when you’ve just broken up with some asshat, had a shit day at work, fought with your sister, made a fool of yourself or anything else that results in a blue soul. These are books with wit and warmth and smarts and optimism that I find easy to get into – even when most of my brain won’t let go of my problems.

1 Heartburn by Nora Ephron
Like a heart-to-heart with a warm, confiding, wise, self-deprecating, sarcastic and absolutely stomach-achingly witty friend. After you read this, read I Feel Bad About My Neck, which has only one fault: it isn’t four times as long. I wish Nora Ephron would start a GOOP.

2 Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
When you’re feeling stuck and bored and worried about your future, this is the book to read. Oh, or if you have a hangover.
My sister did this cover, by the way, when she was working at Penguin Classics. No, she wasn’t allowed to do my cover. I wish she had.

3 Mariana by Monica Dickens
Makes you wish you grew up posh in the 20s.

4 The Pursuit Of Love by Nancy Mitford
Makes you wish you grew up posh in the 20s in a family of sharp, bored eccentrics.
This cartoon cover is about as good as cartoon covers get.

5 Persuasion by Jane Austen
In the mood for spine-tingling confessions of love? Forget Mr Darcy. It’s all about Mr Wentworth.

6 The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy
She’s an American living in Paris in the 50s, she wears ball gowns all day and she gets drunk and has inappropriate affairs all night. What’s not to love?
Fab cover, too.

7 Nightingale Woods by Stella Gibbons
Yes, Cold Comfort Farm by the same author is sharper and funnier – but can the uber-sensible Flora ever really console when you’re feeling down? She never makes a mistake. The heroines of Nightingale Woods, however, start out lonely messes and end droolingly happy. The perfect book if you feel like a lonely mess.

8 The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Rip-roaring adventure: sex and swashbuckling and intrigue and D’Artagnan. My crush on him is severe. Corset-ripper with balls.

9 Polo by Jilly Cooper
If you’ve never read them, start with Riders, then Rivals, Polo, The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous. Then see if you can stop. And go back and read Prudence and Harriet and oh, just trust me. Makes you wish you were rich, bored and libidinous in Gloucestershire in the 70s.
Such brilliant covers, too. For the reprint, some fool photoshopped out half the original covers so they look all uneven and odd – just a bit of his knee remains.

10 Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
I heart Bridget.

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