How Melanie Blake wrote this summer's runaway blockbuster
Do you love Jackie Collins’ novels and Valley of the Dolls? Music manager turned author Melanie Blake’s debut novel The Thunder Girls is a steamy rollercoaster ride that starts with the reunion of one of the 1980s’ biggest girl bands.
How did you get started writing The Thunder Girls?
I wrote it 20 years ago. The very first draft. And I was signed to a massive agent and it went out to tender and in 1999 I was offered massive amounts of money – I was broke and living in a bedsit – on condition that the women were really young. And I said, if they were young, how could they have lived the life? They’ve got to be 50. Between 40 and 60. I was 20 and at the time it was very sad, women of that age were not seen as being commercial.
How much of The Thunder Girls is based on real life?
I put it in a cupboard. And accidentally became very famous as a music manager. And I got to realise that The Thunder Girls is what it’s really like. I went on the music group rollercoaster and I realised everything I’d written was true. It isn’t based on real life – it is a true block-busting story – but it’s been authenticated by what I saw. My publisher questioned scenes that they didn’t think were realistic but it’s just like that. It is that extreme and crazy. That’s what happens when you’re a pop star and the dream becomes a nightmare.
How much is larger than life?
Pop stars are not normal! They can’t be. Showbusiness women are not normal. The Nolan Sisters had to pose for photographs at Bernie’s funeral next to the hearse – that’s not normal. They’re not like us – they’re wired differently. That steely determination to be able to take on the onslaught of attacks. They get attacked, they get trolled, and they have to carry on. They’re gladiators in heels. The drama in The Thunder Girls is what these women’s lives are like.
How different is this version of The Thunder Girls from what you originally wrote?
50% of it is new. I spent two years rewriting it. But the characters were as I’d written them. I’ve changed the details, brought social media in. But it’s the same storylines – nothing changed.
Jackie Collins – what’s her influence in your writing career?
After giving up and putting The Thunder Girls away, I went on to be a famous music manager and made a lot of money. I was inspired by Rockstar that I was going to get into the music business. I went from a squat to a multi-million pound house but I wasn’t fulfilled. I’d had a broken heart and broken relationships. I’d been homeless so all your focus is making money. When I was 36, my mum, Bernie Nolan and Jackie Collins all died – and I looked in the mirror and thought, I’m going to die too, without having lived.
Jackie Collins’ jewellery came up for auction and I put a bid in and won five pieces. Three pendants and two rings. I was going to the set of a TV show about psychics the day they arrived, and I put on the necklace. I said to Jackie Collins, ‘If you can hear me, just send me a message.’ A psychic on the show touched the locket and said that it used to belong to a really powerful woman. And she said, ‘You’ve written something and she wants you to get it out and give it another go. It’s a bestseller.’ I came home, dug through all the cupboards, and started rewriting The Thunder Girls.
Why do we love books about celebrities, glamour, bad behaviour?
I read Linda LaPlante when I was little and I was very influenced by Widows – four women taking on men and doing it in their own way. When I read Shirley Conran’s Lace I found out things about goldfish a ten-year old shouldn’t know! For me it was, Lace, Scruples, Jackie Collins, Rockstar, Hollywood Wives. I didn’t want to read about someone in the backstreets struggling to survive – I’d lived it. I wanted to go on a rollercoaster. I want a book where I’m desperate to know what happens. I want to be transported into a world of glamour and mystery and murder and intrigue.
Why do people love these books?
They’re so different to our lives, which is why people slag them off. Most people don’t live their lives like this – I’m the exception, I’m authentic enough to write the particular story of The Thunder Girls. But if I hadn’t lived it, I’d have kept on reading it. People want to read about lives that are glamorous. We love the drama. We’ve missed those books. They’ve been snobbed out of history. Jilly Cooper – what a ride. When we read those books, although women can say no to sex, we might say yes! If we’ve got a fairly humdrum life, not that this book is very sexual, it’s the imagination. It’s about what it makes us feel. It’s wish-fulfilment, about the lives we’d love to live.
What do you want people to take away from reading The Thunder Girls?
The book is for anyone who wants to go on a rollercoaster ride. We older women don’t go out as much because it’s so youth-led – this story is for women to read about other women struggling with adversity, coming together and realising age doesn’t matter and we are stronger together. It’s never too late to go on your own adventure. In The Thunder Girls it happens to be a reunion, and a reinvention, and redefining themselves – it’s a story of redemption. Age doesn’t matter. So many strong women have difficult backgrounds and starts. Whatever it is, it’s never too late. The Thunder Girls’ motto is live for now, and if you don’t like it, change it.
What are the ingredients of a bestseller?
Revenge. We’ve all got something stored away in the cupboard – something we’d like to enact, someone who’s done us wrong. Injustice. Rage. A big journey. There has to be a big goal. And adversity. Fighting back. The fight has got to be on.
The characters have got to be larger than life. They have to want more than we want – but they have to come from where we’ve come from. I write older women, working class women. My Thunder Girls are alleycats – they may be polished but they’re still the alleycats by the bins.
What happens in the industry that goes towards making a bestseller?
It’s about reaching the audience. Being really specific. It’s aimed at women, middle-range age demographic. This is for women who are looking for a bit of an adventure and are not getting it. This is for someone who literally wants to escape. We set it for summer – sometimes that’s the only time when a woman has any time for herself, and it might be the only book she gets to read all year. The Thunder Girls hit the bestseller market at Me Time. It hit that demographic, and it’s responded.
Do you have to be famous/well-known/well-connected to write a bestseller?
I think you can be anything – you don’t even need a publisher, lots of people have self published and sold millions, and certainly not all highbrow writers – look at 50 Shades of Grey. But for something as big as The Thunder Girls, commercially, it wouldn’t have had the boost it would have got without my history. It’s serendipitous. The stars have aligned for The Thunder Girls.
The Thunder Girls is published by Pan this week.
Fired up by Melanie's inspiring story? Keep the inspiration going with these quotes about writing!