"The 'power' to be witty, entertaining and sexually interesting to men is not that much of a power at all"

Plus One, the debut novel by Vanessa Raphaely
Plus One, the debut novel by Vanessa Raphaely

If ever there was anyone qualified to write a book about women in media, then it’s Vanessa Raphaely. 

The former Cosmopolitan editor has an impressive wealth of experience – from the launch of a health and beauty site during her years in London, to being content director of a group of magazine titles.

She has drawn on some of her experience to bring us a dark and dazzling novel that explores the darker nature of fame, tackles dismantling unequal power structures and touches on a movement that we’ve become all to familiar with: #MeToo

Here she chats to us about the timeliness of her novel in light of the movement as well as why it was important for her to expose what happens behind the doors when power and authority goes too far.

READ MORE: 5 books that explore the damaging effects of rape culture

The common refrain we often hear from authors giving advice on how to write is to “write what you know.” Plus One is a novel that explores women in media, the psychological effects of fame and the sleazier side of celebrity culture. 

1. It simply has to be asked: how much of the book is based on what you've seen?

I think the fact that I wrote what I knew, is the reason why I am finding it so hard to get a second novel off the starting blocks. I just might have exhausted my life experiences! 

But yes, in my twenties I did work in women’s media in London, have a couple of boyfriends who were and still are big shots in the movie industry and I did knock about with some very very rich and famous people. 

A lot of the background detail is authentic, if not exactly true. 

However, Hugh Grant, for example, did like to leap up on tables at parties and wave his genitals about, if given the slightest encouragement. And he was one of the very much nicer celebrities around back then.

2. When did you first get the idea for your book? And which came first - the story idea or the characters?

The story. I did once find myself on a yacht in a storm, in the Mediterranean, with a girlfriend and some very dodgy characters. 

It could have gone awfully wrong and I suppose the wanna-be novelist in me wondered, even then, “What if?” 

After years and years of trying various other plots, this one just (very gradually) unspooled in my imagination. 

And charming, nasty, shifty, unreliable, famous and beautiful people, harbouring secrets and perpetrating terrible deeds, made for a very page-turnery, twisty, can’t-put-it-down sort of plot. At least, that's what the reports from early readers have said!

3. Did you consciously set out to include the rampant misogynistic culture we as women see and experience on a daily basis in your novel from the start?

It seems to me that when there is an obvious discrepancy in power between people in a relationship, abuse of some sort is often not far behind. 

So, young, accomplished and beautiful women (as my two main characters are,) hold a particular power. One which has, for millennia, helped women like them, get a "foot through the door.” 

But the “power" to be witty, amusing, entertaining, sexually interesting to men, is, in the end, not much of a power at all. 

The real power - that of ownership, wealth, connections, the top spot at the table, in other words -  true independence - is still, in the world of the book, very much in the hands of men. 

Powerful men remain the gatekeepers to those doors through which all the things that these women need and want, lie. 

But what happens when those doors are closed behind the woman, is usually what the man decides will happen. 

As one of my characters, Claudia, says at one point in the novel “You show me a skirmish where a woman gets off better than a man.” 

Her friend, Lisa, who initially works in an industry which is meant to celebrate, “empower” and support young women, but which, in reality, is mostly concerned with selling them over-priced products they don’t need, is keenly aware of this hypocrisy too.

I think women are better off now, than we were 20 years ago. But nowhere near better off enough. It's hard to say what I hope my readers will take away from the book. 

I set out to tell a story - which, while it is set against a very glamorous, glossy backdrop - is still concerned with quite grim realities, which I hope readers will appreciate as authentic. 

Mostly I want people to enjoy the book, be swept away by it, unable to put it down. It's been the best thrill being told that is exactly how people are experiencing it.

READ MORE: How one woman’s book caught a killer who evaded the law for more than 40 years

4. Reading about rape is hard, but writing about it can be even harder. How did you prepare yourself for writing the scenes that dealt with sexual assault?

My editor, the very marvelous Alison Lowry, said the book was "dark material with a light touch.” I loved that compliment. 

But it is not at all easy to write the moments of sexual abuse. 

I think most conscious women will understand that a rape is not an isolated atrocity, but part of a pervasive culture which very successfully objectifies and hurts its victims. 

So, while it is extremely heartsore to write a rape scene, that kind of abuse was an essential part of the underlying darkness in the book, the rotten underbelly of the glittering surface. 

It was actually quite easy to imagine the type of men who succeed in that world, behaving like that. 

WATCH: Book trailer - Plus One

5. How have the testimonies of Cheryl Zondi and Dr Christine Blasey Ford changed the way you view your book?

I think #PlusOne is just surreally timely. I started to write it three years ago and I wrote all the #MeToo scenes, way before the movement started. 

Some of the feedback from publishers along the way, has been that those scenes read like a cut and paste of victims’ statements. But my manuscript pre-dates the cases that have become public, by years. 

They weren’t stolen from women’s evidence. I imagined all of them. #MeToo rams home the message that too many of us have had to experience forms of sexual abuse. 

The script of the abuser, the attitudes, the careless misogyny is just familiar because its prevalent. This behaviour is everywhere.   

6. How would you describe your book to someone who may assume your novel to be, say, a chicklit novel?

Chick Lit sells a lot, doesn’t it? I’d be okay with that! I’m not quite sure what makes a book chick lit? Could this one be called Chick Lit Noir?

Because I hope that readers won’t be put off by the harshness of some of the material. The book is not an unrelenting, gruelling read. 

Even my husband said it rattled along, was fast-paced and filled with wicked observations and asides. I’m also told it's fun and funny too in parts, that it paints quite a satisfyingly nasty picture of Hollywood and fashionable, glamorous London. 

Plus it has a shocking slap-in-the-face / didn’t-see-that-coming ending. That’s not so chick lit, is it?

7. With which character do you identify the most with?

I wrote a children’s book once, about a royal warthog who has excellent self-esteem and certainty that she has brains and beauty (no matter what anyone else thinks). I think I identify more with her than anyone in #PlusOne. 

Obviously, as Lisa is a South African journalist working in women’s media, in London, as I did, there are elements of my lived experience in her, but I didn’t identify with her. 

I’m much less able to tolerate abusiveness around me! Lisa says one day she’ll morph from bush baby into a mountain lioness, but like I said, I’m happy to be a warthog, already.

8. Finally, what are some of the biggest lessons learned during your novel-writing journey?

I have learned an enormous lesson in terms of persistence. I wrote, rewrote and rewrote #PlusOne. 

My first ever writing mentor said of the first draft, “It is terrible. I can’t get through the first chapters, I don’t care what happens to your tedious characters, it reads like a breathless column dashed off in your lunch break for airhead coke fiends.” 

It was rejected initially and then picked up again, by Pan MacMillan. 

It was only because of people I really respect (Andrea Nattrass from Pan MacMillan. my friend the journalist Mandy Weiner, who showed it to Andrea and most notably my agent Nadine Rubin Nathan,) who all believed in it, but knew it needed help, that I kept on coming back to it. 

But getting a book from idea, to published, is really very, very hard. Until the very end, the process felt challenging. I love writing when I’m in the flow, but there’s a galaxy of difference between dashing off an “airhead column,” and writing a fully actualised, satisfying novel. 

9. Are you working on anything new?

I guess I need to apply the lesson of hard work and persistence to the second novel, which is languishing up a dead end, in my brain, at the moment! 

Plus One is available from all leading stores. Purchase a copy from Raru.co.za

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