Phillipa Ashley: How my passion for N&S led to a new career in romantic fiction
Picture the scene.
November 2004.Nine pm on a dark Sunday evening three people lolling about on sofas about to watch a new BBC drama series called North & South.
Half an hour in, that was it.
Reader, I hated it.

I especially hated him: that awful Thornton character.  After the scene where JT kicks the millworker I threw up my hands in disgust.
He’s a total thug,” I cried. “He’s horrible. I’m not bothering with the rest of this.”
Meanwhile my husband and daughter continued to watch while I leafed through the Sunday Times, with half an eye on the screen. At no point did I find JT attractive.
The family, however, really enjoyed the episode. My husband, an engineer, even went so far as to say he found the industrial setting a refreshing change (I presume from tea tables and haberdashery shops, bless him.)
Despite my indifference, we tuned in the following week something incomprehensible happened.
Many times since I’ve tried to pinpoint the exact moment when loathing turned to something entirely different. Unlike Elizabeth Bennet’s softening towards Darcy, my conversion hadn’t been coming on gradually; it just hit me like a rock from an angry millworker!

By the end of episode two, I was enthralled by the series and fighting an alarming and huge crush on a TDHCMO and unknown to me, my life had changed forever.
Cutting a very long story short, I took my passion to the BBC drama messageboard to find a growing band of likeminded fans. There I met and shared my obsession – sometimes into the night – with other Deranged Gentlewomen.
I also joined the Yahoo Richard Armitage group and decided to write a modern N&S fanfic. Another inexplicable first for me!

Although I’ve been a journalist and copywriter for 20 years, I’d never written any fiction. I had no idea how to construct a plot, develop character or any of the thousand other aspects of fiction writing craft.
It didn’t matter because all I really wanted was to share my characters’ story with other people. That, I’ve since discovered, is the fundamental reason why a writer... writes. I’d stumbled across the irresistible desire to escape into another world and share that world with a reader, hopefully lots of them!
I’m so grateful to the members of the BBC, C19 and Yahoo sites who were kind enough to engage with my story. Without them – perhaps without N&S – I might never have started writing at all.
I finished my N&S fanfic around March 2005 and immediate started an original romantic novel. I also joined the Romantic Novelists Association New Writers Scheme and set about seriously learning ‘the craft’.
After many revisions, I finished the novel – Decent Exposure - in March 2006. With the encouragement of other writers, notably Rosy Thornton, I sent it to a London literary agent and she sold it to Headline.

I was totally gobsmacked but more was to follow. Decent Exposure won the RNA New Writers Award 2007 and was picked up by a US TV producer from Fox. They made into a US TV movie which aired on Lifetime in 2009 and is out on DVD this month.
The novel has just been published in the USA as Dating Mr December – almost exactly five years to the day I tuned on the TV and watched the first episode of N&S.
Dating Mr December is not based on N&S, nor is the hero, Will, based on Thornton at all. In fact, I deliberately set out to make him different to my fanfic ' JT' as I needed to see if I could write my own original characters.
However, another of my novels, It Should Have Been Me is literally inspired by a pic of Richard in the Sunday Times. My US publisher, Sourcebooks, is publishing it in fall 2011.
The editorial design team always ask for detailed description of the hero and heroine and I gleefully sent off a photo to which they replied:
“Phillipa, you just made our day here. We love Richard Armitage.”
What more can I say?

Thank you, Maria, for letting me talk about my passion for N&S.
 Now, I’d love to know if anyone has any theories why N&S was the catalyst for so many fans’ creativity?

Thank you Phillipa! It's been so nice to have you here in my RA Friday.
It's your turn, now. GIVEAWAY!  Answer Phillipa's question or  leave your comment about North and South or Richard and your e-mail address. You have the chance to win a copy of DATING MR DECEMBER!!! The giveaway  is open INTERNATIONALLY and ends next Friday, 12th November. Please, I need an e-mail address to contact the winner. Remember to add it. If you don't want to give it publicly, e-mail me at learnonline.mgs@gmail.com or Phillipa Ashley at phillipa.ashley@googlemail.com.

And remember, her first novel won the Romantic Novelists Association New Writers Award. and it’s now been made into a Lifetime TV movie called 12 Men of Christmas starring Kristin Chenoweth and Josh Hopkins. Read more about it here.
You'll find Phillipa Ashley at www.phillipa-ashley.com/

See you next week to cry on ..ehm...discuss about Spooks 9 final episode. What about Strike Back? Have you heard the rumors? A new John Porter? No Strike Back for me, thanks. And what about the discussion about RA's casting for The Hobbit as a heartthrob? Have these people ever seen him in action? Grrrrr!!! Better I'll stop here. Have a great weekend and ... I'll wait for all of you here next week for a new RA Friday (12th November) and ... the name of the lucky winner of DATING MR DECEMBER!


Mystica said...

I wouldn't know why to answer the question but I am sure glad it is so.

Phillipa Ashley said...

Hello - I just got back from a trip away and it's lovely to see you.

If you don't want to answer the question, just leave a message about Richard!

Athena said...

The screen play is full of classic quotes (over bearing master, anyone?), and it drives you from thinking "the oaf!" as he beats up the worker smoking around the cotton, to positively melting in to a puddle of goo when he shows Margaret the rose...

Poeslief said...

I've no idea either but every time I've told someone about N&S/RA/C19 I've always mentioned my bewilderment at the amount of dverse creativity it seemed to unleash. Good to read about it first hand, though. And mighty impressive. Good on you!

Sarah Callejo said...

I agree with you, he is an acquired taste. I didn't find him attractive at the beginning, but he grows on you and then wham. I still haven't worked out what it is about him though.

Felicia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Felicia said...

As a person that doesn't have one creative bone in her body, I can't answer the question about N&S being a catalyst for creativity. But I can say N&S, and I know this may sound ridiculous but it is true, has changed my life. I took a chance and attended a weekend get-together with other fans. We've become great friends and meet several times a year. So, Richard Armitage and N&S are very dear to me. (I'm still waiting on the creativilty part....)



Phillipa said...

Not ridiculous at all, Felso - there are lots of groups of RA fans meeting up and sharing friendship. I have made so many friends in the Uk and worldwide because of N&S, not to mention my writer buddies.

Anonymous said...

Great interview!! Thanks Philippa for a lovely interview and thanks Maria for interviewing her!

I know I am one of those fans who has been inspired creatively by N&S and Richard. There is something about him that inspires me to makes graphics and videos of him. Not just his looks but there in an intensity and passion when he is on screen where he conveys so much emotion he draws me in and I feel inspired by that. I don't think I will ever get tired of making videos and graphics with RA in them. N&S certainly started it all for me too and I am currently trying to get a career going in video editing as a result. ;-)


C. Allyn Pierson said...

I confess that I have not seen N&S- but I have listened to several Georgette Heyer novels narrated by RA. I am a bit afraid to watch him as it might upset my passion for another thinking woman's man: Mr. Darcy! bligard@frontiernet.net

bccmee said...

I come from a technical, mathematical and scientific background. Just for fun I make RA-inspired videos, some of them with little surprises at the end. My first glimpse of RA came about 18 months ago when I watched The Handsome Stranger episode of the series The Vicar of Dibley on Netflix. As soon as Harry Kennedy opened the door of Sleepy Cottage, I said aloud, "Who is THAT?!" I immediately followed it up with North & South. Those two were my favorite RA programs until Strike Back came along. Then my baser instincts took over!

Christine Jensen said...

I think it is that fine line between love and hate that becomes fuzzy, end eventually crumbles that inspires so much creativity in others.

I LOVED North and South as well. I recently watched it for the first time and WOW! I too didn't like him at first but man I was rooting for him by the end!

kissyjensen at gmail dot com

Maria Grazia said...

Hello everybody!
I've just got up -it's early morning here in ITaly - and found all these comments! I was exhausted last night and fell aspleep when I had just posted this nice RA Friday by Philippa. First of all thanks to her and all of you for the contributions. Then , please, COULD YOU ADD YOUR E-MAIL ADDRESS if you want to be entered for the giveaway?
Now, I would also like to answer Philippa's answer.I didn't start writing but his talent and the talent of his fans made me wish to be ... more : I've started blogging (I've got 3 blogs now!), reading more, creating small videos and slides. Watching North and South ( I already knew about the novel, I studied and usually teach about it) or better discovering Richard has been the sparkle for many wonderful things to happen. Maybe his hardworking life style and his talent are ...contagious! Have a very good weekend! MG

Anonymous said...

Phillipa and Maria thanks for this.
I confess to a sense of deja vu as two years ago when Ibegan A Thousand Glass Flowers, I based the lead character, Finnian, on Richard Armitage's Guy of Gisborne. For me, it was all about mannerisms, depth and of course the anti-hero concept.

As an exercise in free writing this year, as MG knows, I have been writing a fan-fiction on my blog which is totally about Guy of Gisborne.

So thanks Phillipa for making me feel as if I am not silly after all. And I often wonder how much Richard Armitage could be making if he copyrighted his acting persona.

Phillipa Ashley said...

Good morning, I've got up to find all these fascinating posts about Richard and the ceative impulse that has resulted his performances - in writing, film making, art and just generally making positive connections with other fans.

Maria - if posters don't want to put their rmail on here publicly, they can always message me via my mail:


and I'll let you know who wants to be added to the giveaway.

Or visit me on Facebook and message me.

Do please enter as this is one of my author copies that was sent to me from the US - I wanted to give it as a thank you to all the fellow RA fans.

buddyt said...

To my mind it is that the characters seem real life people. And possibly many people watching could say to themselves " I know someone like that. Mr/Mrs X is just like that".

The next though would be that they could write about people they knew who would fit into a nove.

Just a guess

Carol T

buddytho {at} gmail DOT com

Phylly3 said...

Hello Phillipa and thanks for this interview MG!
I think it is so wonderful how so many people have been inspired by North and South and Richard's performance in it.
I didn't dislike Mr. Thornton so much as you did at the beginning. I suppose maybe I understood the dangerousness of the millworker's action of smoking in a cotton factory although I certainly feel that the beating was an overreaction, I must have been impressed with his passion. I can't say I remember. I do know that I admired the whole production, and everyone in it. It wasn't until I saw the show the third time that I was really struck with the need to find out more about Mr. Armitage. (I must be a slow learner! LOL)
It was Richard Armitage who inspired me to start reading blogs and join a forum to discuss his works, watch fanvids, etc. (in short become a fangurl as I had never felt the need to before). I read some interviews, and was so impressed with him as a real person. Then I saw his other performances (thanks to Youtube), most notably as John Standring and then Harry Kennedy. Once I got into Robin Hood and warmed up to Gisborne I was a complete goner! Lucas was the only character I had ever seen in real time and not after the fact. That is probably why I am identifying so strongly with him.
I would love to read your book, so please enter me in the draw!

Anonymous said...

My love for N&S (and inevitable crush on that TDHCMO) is one of those experiences in life that seem to come out of nowhere and somehow changes your life. It had happened to me before, when I discovered Jane Austen by way of the 2005 movie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. I credit P&P and N&S with my current (and, hopefully, lifelong) passion for C19 literature. I'm not an especially creative sort of person, so you will not see any fan fiction or fan videos made by me, but based on my experience I completely understand why someone with a more creative bent might have been compelled to look for a creative outlet to share her love and enthusiasm with other like-minded people.

I would love a copy of the book.


Mrs. Higgins said...

Another person here without a creative bone in her body. As far as Richard is concerned, he had me at "Stephens"! If it weren't for Richard and North & South I would never have discovered C19. I have had many hours of enjoyment there and met with some members at the various meet-ups. I don't have any friends or family who share my passion for N&S & RA so C19 is my lifeline to like-minded people. Thanks Philippa for telling your story about how Richard inspired you. Best Wishes for your continued success.

Traxy said...

Oh, so difficult to say why N&S has inspired such creativity ... Hmm ... Perhaps it's because the performances were so good that you never felt so much like you were watching a TV show, but rather watching real people going about their daily lives. N&S is touching and more "real" than P&P, because let's face it, can we ever really relate to Darcy? JT is a man who has worked his way up in life, and I think that's easier to relate to than to someone who was born with a silver spoon.

Well, it's a theory anyway. Lovely to read about how your career as a novelist came about, Phillipa. Very inspirational! All the best of luck for the future! :)

And count me in - dishmastah(at)traxy(dot)net :)

maribea said...

I am in love with Elizabeth Gaskell whom I met thanks to my English teacher. And now I'm reading North and South and watching the BBC miniserie and I can't wait until I finish them both and start seeing it again or reading the novel again. Elizabeth is such a sort of inspiration and the film adaptation, too because I found such a deep study of human souls and lives. It's striking how a woman and a woman of her age was able to depict different social classes so well.
I don't know if I answered your question, but I will be happy to discuss it again with you and to read your book, of course.
I'm Maria Beatrice from Italy and you can reach me at maribea@tiscali.it. Congratulations on your success.

Phoebe said...

Hi Phillipa,

I loved your story - copywriter to novelist is quite a leap and such success for a first effort it amazing.

North & South - well, it has changed my life in that it has created an ever increasing obsession in my dotage!

For those that still prefer Darcy - sorry, Ms Austen, but Mrs. Gaskill's Thornton wins hands down for me. Mrs. Gaskill really focused in on Mr. Thornton's thoughts and feelings as well as Margaret's...then put in the hands a gifted actor like RA & Mr. Thornton really came alive for me. He is the ideal man - not perfect, but working on it.

Phillipa, looking forward to your book and best wishes for tons of sales here in the US. I'll put it on our B&N book club list.

pattygee said...

Hi Phillipa

Thanks for your lovely interview.

Like many others here, N & S and especially Richard Armitage's interpretation of John Thornton, has changed my life for the better in all sorts of ways.

I came to it by a circuitous route too. I saw the programme when it was first out and liked it but had nobody to discuss it with - I live with my husband and sons so I don't have fellow costume drama watchers at home.

I love Jane Austen and had admired Colin Firth's Darcy from afar since 1995 - I thought that nothing could compete with that - how little did I know!

My N & S liking went on the back burner for a while and eventually my younger son bought me a copy of the DVD for my birthday. Can you believe that I still didn't watch it straight away!

When I did - WHAM! I've never been the same since! I did some research to find out who this amazing actor was and came across the Armitage Army and other fansites but eventually settled on C19 as my 'home from home' forum, otherwise I'd be on the PC all day.

I can't begin to describe how it's changed my life for the better. I am stuck at home with chronic illnesses and was rather limited in my options before. Now I have friends all over the world - quite a few of which I've met in real life.

I have two special friends in the US - one of whom I am planning to visit and she is to visit me in the not too distant future.

As for Richard Armitage and the effect he has on me and many other sensible, middle-aged women?

I've thought long and hard about this and it's not just down to good looks (although he certainly has those!) but I think that he gives each role his all and finds the 'essence' of that person. Unlike some actors he doesn't just trot out a version of himself. Each of the characters he portrays is totally different - John Thornton is totally different from John Standring (a shy, gentle farmhand in Sparkhouse - my favourite RA character, actually) who is different from Guy of Gisborne, who is different from Lucas North.

I like the fact that RA is a thinker and does research for his roles. I like the fact that he can do different genres; romance, action and comedy.

It's a bonus to discover from interviews etc that he seems such a nice, normal, down to earth person.

Much as I still like CF's Darcy - I'm afraid that has been surpassed, many times over, by John Thornton.

agenoria said...

It's great that Phillipa is now getting a US market for her books, as well as the TV movie. Well Done!!!

However, I don't want to enter the competition because I already have a signed copy of Decent Exposure. And Wish You Were Here. And It Should Have Been Me. And Just Say Yes. So it wouldn't be fair if I won the prize! :) ;)

I was a late-comer to N&S. I bought the DVD after seeing Robin Hood and vaguely remembering RA had been in a period drama.

My favourite work by RA includes his audio books, and his work on Radios 3 & 4. I think I'm in a minority, but I liked Moving On and Monet. I'd better not list RA's entire career here... I like the variety of his roles and there are some programmes I've enjoyed and would have missed if it weren't for the RA connection.

I wouldn't call myself a particularly creative person, and I'm very interested in science too (not that science isn't creative, far from it!). So I haven't been inspired to write by N&S. However, I agree with pattygee in that it brought together people with similar interests who previously didn't have anyone nearby who eg watched period drama, liked C19 novels etc. That's the case with me.

Phillipa Ashley said...

Have been away all weekend but now back and really thrilled and moved by the posts about RA and the RA fandom.

There's a great post on a similar theme on Jenny Haddon's Blog - do take a look, it's very thought provoking on RA's appeal. Jenny is an author and ex chair of the Romantic Novelists Association.

Thank you for entering and to those of you who already have the books. :)

LĂșthien84 said...

hi, i don't have the answer for philippa's question but here's my story.

i came to know N&S through online discussions of the 1995 P&P starring Colin Firth and was wondering why so many people compare those 2 miniseries. To satisfy my curiosity, i began to venture to watch N&S and was hook by the end of episode 2. Soon enough i began to dwell into C19 as I could not get enough of RA's performances and eventually it brought me to Maria's blog here.

Well, thanks for the wonderful interview and wish you, Philippa the best of luck in future publications.


Fanny/iz4blue said...

Hi Maria and Hi Philippa,

I was thrilled to discover that your book is being processed in my library system, I'll be the first reader!

Do I dare to answer the why?
I propose that a literary character with an excellent dramatic performance morphs both.
Mr.Darcy is not as romantic or melancholic of a character compaired to Gaskell's Thornton but Colin Firth certainly was able to bring a slight romantic edge to him.
I'm uncertain whether we would be as aware of Mr.Armitage without his performance as Mr.Thornton. That role was a turning point for him. And by that I don't mean to diminish what he did before.
I think Mr.Armitage as a dedicated performer brings out passion and passion feeds, ignites creativity. That is my little theory on the phenomenon.
I'm another not-creative fan but have since found myself passionately engaged with this community of fans sharing things we love!

whomels - at - gmail -dot- com

Phillipa Ashley said...

Luthien and izBlue - thanks for posting and for the theories.

Glad you can get the book in the library system.

I must go as it's time for the Spooks Finale ...

lunarossa said...

What a great story in itself, Phillipa. I've discovered N&S through Maria Grazia and I will always be thankful to her for this. N&S (and MG) inspired me to read Elizabeth Gaskell's novels and watch their screen adaptations and what a great pleasure that was (is)! Ciao. A.

RAFrenzy said...

Thank you so much for sharing your journey, Phillipa! I found my answer for why such impact, and I'm sharing it in my diary entries. You and others have also inspired me to take the plunge into writing. I mean serious writing and not so much my blog which is over half snark.

Suwaida said...

Wow! Philippa Ashley! And to think I almost missed this!

As far as your question goes (and I've scrupulously avoided reading other comments) it has a lot to do with the timing. Remember the hysteria over Firth's P&P? The problem then was that the internet was not such a massive presence in everyday life. Although it did pick up pace later. N&S's fans had an immediate outlet on the net forums and also, what I think is very important, is that unlike P&P, N&S was never very popular nor well-known, except for students of literature. People had no idea what hit them since there had been no recent screen adaptations of the work either. I can tell you I was just as gobsmacked by the second episode as you say you were! Plus, by the time the series ended, it wasn't just the marvelous JT that was intriguing us into wanting to explore what was going through his mind, but characters like Bessie, Nicholas, Mrs. Thornton etc. The urge to know more than what the adaptation and the novel gave us drove some to write and others of us, to read.

Thanks for the good news about the DVD of the 12 Men of Christmas!

Phillipa Ashley said...

I just dropped by to find some more posts on this topic. I'm glad that so many people have found N&S a catalyst or even ganed 'permission' somehow to write, draw, make vids or just network with other like minded people.

Arabella - I think that's a very good point about the dawn of Internet social networking meeting with the lack of popular forums devoted to Gaskell etc It was a 'perfect storm' of a moment for us all to start this cult, I guess.

mommbsta said...

hello Phillipa - congrats on your successes. i loved 12 Days of Christmas, watched it about 3xs. well obviously i'm not here for the book but thought i'd drop a note: my hunch on the many sprouting fields of creativity (spores from the love of JH/RA?) is that fans just cannot get enough of their hero. having the handicapp of inaccesibility we go on to creating our own door to our prize - stories, drawings etc. we create ways to keep that character chemistry alive. i figured from the beginning of the movie that JT was the hero - the love interest is normally the least interest in the beginning, the antagonist even - just like your 12 MoC.
i suspect that we are drawn so much to his character because we were allowed to acquaint with his background, his emotion...he is just so an admirable creature (he was not just a good catch) - he was deserving. of course all the characters contributed to this lovely story - like Downton Abby the cast was welll chosen.