'Mum made success look easy': Penny Vincenzi's daughter on writing in her shadow

Emily Gunnis and her late mother, novelist Penny Vincenzi
Emily Gunnis and her late mother, novelist Penny Vincenzi

It is just over a year since my mother, the novelist Penny Vincenzi, died – and although my grief is changing shape, my heart is still as heavy as it was.

She had been in and out of hospital for years, her vital organs weakened by a rare blood disorder. I had spent the day lunching with friends when I got the phone call: she had died peacefully at home while having a nap. I remember for weeks afterwards thinking: “Why didn’t you call me? Why didn’t you let me know how bad you’d been feeling?” I presume because she didn’t know, which is, in some ways, a comfort.

Tributes poured in from fellow writers and her wonderful readers, for whom she was the author of 17 novels which sold seven million copies worldwide. Yet to me, she was something else entirely. 

She was the mum who took us on family trips Wales, where we have a small cottage and would spend glorious summers having picnics and long lunches in the garden. Suffice to say, it was where she was – and still is – to me.

I will forever remember her standing at the window of the kitchen as it hacked down with rain, pointing out at a tiny speck of light grey among the thick, black clouds and saying: ‘“It’s brightening up, Em – look!” That is how she was, a sometimes infuriatingly eternal optimist with a boundless energy and love for life.

For months, the child in me was unable to comprehend how such a larger-than-life character who had shaped me so profoundly could just be gone. As a child, your mother dying is the stuff of nightmares. Then, because you are a grown-up with children of your own, you have to pretend to be slowly accepting it. But of course, behind closed doors, you can’t.

So I found myself in the strange position of my two children, Grace and Ellie, verbalising what the child in me was crying out to say. “But where is she?” my youngest daughter, aged five, would ask most days. “Where has granny gone? I don’t understand!”

I still can’t think about her without feeling upset. Who else but granny is going to marvel at your children doing rather unremarkable things, or tell you they are exceptionally beautiful?

My eight-year-old, Grace doesn’t really mention Granny for fear of upsetting me (I tell her she won’t), but Ellie gets it out: “I’m sorry that your mummy is dead.” Thank you, Ellie, I’m sorry, too. “When you die, I will always remember you.” Thank you, Ellie. “Did Granny die because she talked so much that she didn’t eat and then her heart stopped beating?” Um, sort of.

'My eight-year-old, Grace doesn’t really mention Granny for fear of upsetting me'

She did talk a lot, our mum. She was a fierce, insatiable socialiser, sometimes to my father’s dismay. As children, we fell asleep at least once a week to raucous dinner parties downstairs in our house in East Molesey, Surrey. Shrieking laughter, clinking glasses, cigarette smoke wafting up the stairs. During the sixties, she worked as a fashion journalist at the Daily Mirror, working her way up to Vogue and finally settling as deputy editor of Good Housekeeping magazine until, when I was 13, she became, almost overnight, the “doyenne of the modern blockbuster”.

I was 13 when, in 1988, she landed a six-figure advance for her debut novel, Old Sins, on the basis of the first three chapters and a synopsis conjured up over a long lunch at Fortnum & Mason. I remember coming home from school and her saying to me and my sisters: “Something amazing has happened, I’ve sold my book! Take my wallet and go to 7-Eleven and buy anything you like. You can even buy a slurpee!”

People loved her, because her greatest talent in life was making everyone she met feel special – and I was no exception, to the point where, growing up, I had a slight warped sense of my own talents. “What a clever idea, you are so good at this, you really should be an editor,” she’d say after we chatted over a stumbling block in her latest book. Or, “I really think you should be a party planner, you just have an incredible gift for it”, because I’d organised a slideshow and a few bottles of cava for a hen weekend.

Author Penny Vincenzi died over a year ago from a rare blood disorder Credit:  Andrew Crowley

My mother always made success look so easy, and I grew up thinking that if I worked hard enough, it would happen for me also – but it never did. She was larger than life, and largeness can cast a shadow. 

But when my second child was two, my husband, Steve, encouraged me to write the novel I’d been wanting to write for years. As JG Ballard put it: “The pram in the hall is the greatest motivator of all.” I wanted to be a writer, I needed to stop avoiding putting myself out there. And so, just published, is The Girl in the Letter, a thriller that flits between the 1950s and the modern. At my mother’s memorial, lots of her friends said they couldn’t wait to read it, but I cringed inside, thinking: “They’re nothing like my mother’s books – there’s no sex, and everybody dies.”

The last time I saw her, she told me: “I don’t know if I can write another book, Em – you can take the baton now.” Hers is the kind of legacy that’s hard to shake off.

The Girl in the Letter by Emily Gunnis (Headline Review, £7.99) is out now. Buy now for £6.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call  0844 871 1514