Lynda La Plante can spin a tale out of just about anything – from Harry and Meghan’s megabucks Netflix deal (“I’m very envious: I had to pitch to Netflix last summer and can’t tell you how difficult it is. Most of the people there look about 12 years old…”) to the time she auditioned as a young actress and had an unpleasant encounter with a well-known British director.
“There was a lot of nudity in the play,” she says, “and I told him I didn’t want to do it because the front row would have been virtually sitting on my crotch. He replied: ‘I think you don’t want to be naked because you don’t like your body’, and I said: ‘That’s not it at all’, and pulled up my T-shirt as if I was going to strip off. I’ve never been moved out of an office so fast,” she laughs. “I got the part, too. I think he was terrified.”
La Plante’s storytelling ability has informed a career that includes 38 international bestsellers and sales of well over five million in the UK alone. And with numerous TV dramas under her belt – including the 1980s series Widows, Trial & Retribution and Prime Suspect, starring Helen Mirren as police detective Jane Tennison – she’s one of the country’s most respected writers.
Not that that seemed to matter three years ago, when ITV was making Prime Suspect 1973, an ill-fated prequel, during which La Plante was barred from the set. Despite five decades of acting, writing and producing experience (her work gave A-list stars such as Idris Elba and Ralph Fiennes their big breaks), “to then be shown such total disrespect in every avenue, with every actor that I suggested being refused, I really lost confidence in myself. And to lose it at that point in my career was appalling,” she admits.
“But a friend of mine said: ‘Don’t waste your time thinking about it – the best revenge is to be more successful’. Two days later, I got [Oscar-winning British director] Steve McQueen wanting to make Widows into a massive movie.” The film, about an all-female gang that plans an audacious robbery, subsequently took almost £60 million at the box office. “So I was back!” she says, with some relish.
In truth, La Plante, 77, has never been away, even if the past few years have been distinctly trying. An eye operation she had two years ago left her “blinded, totally, for about five months”, she says. “All I wanted was laser surgery, because I was always losing glasses around the house. But the surgeon said: ‘I’m afraid you’re too old for laser surgery, but you do have slight cataracts in both eyes. It’s best if you have them removed and then I can insert lenses. You’ll never need to find a pair of glasses again.’”
Instead, she endured months of agony. “I went through such an awful time with weeping eyes. I couldn’t see and kept falling down stairs,” she explains. “And when I had to go to LA for meetings, it was so bad, I needed a wheelchair to take me to the airport to get on the plane. One of the doctors said my retina came loose. It was terrifying.”
Only afterwards did she realise that she should only have had the operation done on one eye at a time. Now, she says, “I’m back wearing awful, thick-lens glasses and I look so ridiculous, but at least I can read and work on the computer a bit.”
Months of blindness meant that she had to improvise a whole new way of writing. Falling back on her former career of acting (La Plante had trained at RADA), she would enact the lines of every character, as secretaries frantically took down her dictated prose. “Those poor secretaries had never come across such a lunatic,” she laughs. “I’d say: ‘Are you keeping up?’ and they’d ask: ‘Is that part of the script?’ and I’d say: ‘No, I meant that for you!’”
It was a method she employed for her latest novel, Blunt Force – another in the young Jane Tennison series, which follows Jane as a detective, having been booted off the Flying Squad and sent to investigate the brutal murder of theatrical agent Charles Foxley. It’s a typically gripping read featuring a colourful array of characters. “The kickstart to the story was a detective telling me how he was investigating a very famous movie star murder and said it was so difficult because everyone he spoke to in that world put on such an act. I thought: wouldn’t it be great for Jane to be out of her depth with these outrageous people?”
It’s her second book this year; her first, Buried, featuring young DC Jack Warr, has already attracted interest from TV companies keen to adapt it for a mini-series. In fact, La Plante has been “incredibly productive” during lockdown, which she spent at her home in Surrey with her 17-year-old son, Lorcan. She adopted him when she was 59, after her marriage to American musician Richard La Plante ended. “He was the most precious thing I’ve ever held in my arms, and still is, albeit at times exceedingly annoying, as teenage boys can be. But I love him to death.”
When she adopted Lorcan, people were “judgmental about my age. I mean, men can be 82 and still have a child, but God forbid a woman having one. So people could be very cruel. But when a soul needs you, they need you and my son has given me everything I had hoped for.” She admits, though, that “the fear is always there, because I ain’t going to be here forever. I don’t want to leave him when he’s not going to be able to be fully capable of everything, and I just want to make sure he learns as much as possible about life. I want to make him as financially secure and as strong-minded as possible, because I’m the oldest person on two feet!”
She and her former husband Richard had tried for years to have a baby and endured several miscarriages and years of unsuccessful fertility treatments. After 18 years of marriage, they divorced in 1996.
Did she manage to stay friends with him? “No,” she says firmly. “Once the divorce papers were signed, there was nothing. The only thing he ever gave me was his name.”
It’s a name that’s now synonymous with crime fiction – the enduring appeal of which, says La Plante, lies in resolution. “People love reading crime novels because, at the end of the book, there’s closure. But there’s no closure in real life.”
It was a lesson she learned before she was even born, when her six-year-old sister Dale was killed in a road accident. “My sister remains six years of age and beautiful and the love of my parents’ life. And that never changed. The tragedy marked all of us, and this is why I do not glorify the criminal in my novels,” she says. “And I feel very strongly when I talk to victims of crime that I must always make it right.”
Blunt Force by Lynda La Plante (Zaffre, £18.99) is out now. Buy yours for £16.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514. Buried (Zaffre, £14.99), her first book in the Detective Jack Warr series, is also available for £12.99