'I was forced to take stock of my life' - bestselling author speaks to the SNJ
At the age of 30, Sophie Neville was living her childhood dream but after being diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (ME), she was forced to return home to live with her parents near Frampton Mansell, where she started writing a diary which has just been released as a book. Documenting her battle with the strength-sapping condition, and interspersed with funny anecdotes, Funnily Enough has became an online sensation, bursting into the Top 10 of Amazon’s free UK Kindle Store. In an exclusive interview, Sophie spoke to the SNJ’s Chris Warne.
BBC TELEVISION, London, 1991. "When I was breaking down in the office, I kept muttering, ‘Oh Jesus, help; give me strength.’ A prayer of desperation.
"I was trying hard not to cry but had fallen down under my desk and was grasping the edge of the filing cabinet, determinedly saying to myself, ‘I can cope, this is just a dizzy spell.’
"Only a huge pile of scripts slid on top of me. Then the manager’s assistant came in, discovered me groaning under this mound of pink paper, heaved me up and off to see the doctor. I was forced to take stock of my life."
So begins Sophie’s 10-month struggle with the debilitating disorder commonly known as ME.
Stricken with fatigue and beset by exhaustion, the television producer heeded the doctor’s advice and took her leave, departing London for the soothing serenity of the Cotswold countryside.
Once back in the surrounds of her childhood home, nestled below Frampton Mansell in the valley of the River Frome, she began to write.
Funnily Enough, a true-life memoir, is the fruit of her labours and although one might be forgiven for thinking it would be full of melancholy and despondency, nothing could be further from the truth.
"It is not a book of misery at all. There are lots of funny and humorous stories. Lots of amusing anecdotes and stories about my family life and all of our animals," she said.
And when Sophie says animals, she is not just referring to a couple of goldfish in a glass bowl but rather to a collection of creatures that would rival the contents of West Midlands Safari Park. Her character list for Funnily Enough includes Jake the dog, Henry the bald macaw, Josephine the parrot, Solomon the carthorse, Leonard the donkey, Snowy the goat, Albert and Terry the cockerels, a handful of sheep and last but not least Bee and Jims, the two tame otters.
In the presence of this veritable animal kingdom and living back at home with a family, who are perhaps best described as slightly unconventional, you start to acquire an understanding of why Sophie might have a tale or two to tell in her diary.
The tame otters, looked after by her mother Daphne, an accomplished actress who has starred in films such as Prime Suspect and The Feast of July, are a particular source of amusement.
Whilst unwell Sophie was visited regularly by her friends from the world of television including Alastair Fothergill, best known for his role as executive producer of the BBC’s Frozen Planet series.
"When I was ill, Alastair very kindly offered to help my mother when she took her tame otter to sign books at a shop in Burford," Sophie recalls.
"An American tourist walked in wearing a fur coat. You can only imagine what happened…"
Sophie, who in her early years actually followed her mother into the world of acting – appearing first in a BBC dramatisation of Cider with Rosie at the age of ten and then playing Titty in the 1974 big screen adaptation of Swallows and Amazons two years later – first decided to rework her diary into a book in 2000.
Compiled from her original entries and including the very illustrations which she sketched out on the pages of her diary, Funnily Enough records the activities of a somewhat eccentric family who have been involved in the British film and television industry for a number of years.
As well as detailing the enfeebling effects of ME, the diary moves through scenes which depict the idyllic rural life to the downright bizarre, shifting from the funny to the surreal.
Sophie describes, for example, returning home to find Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, then neighbours of the Nevilles, frantically trying to extinguish a fire in their house.
"I came back after a day out and found the house ablaze with the pair of them trying to put it out," she chuckles.
"My mother had put too much wood on the fire and so Prince Michael was running around with a metal bucket.
"I thought of calling the fire brigade but my mother was saying ‘no need to call them, they will only make a mess, Prince Michael can put it out’."
Returning home to find a royal desperately dousing flames might not be an everyday occurrence for most of us, but Funnily Enough has nevertheless struck a chord with readers.
Sophie’s determined battle with ME, and her frank and honest portrayal of family life has endeared her to large numbers who have downloaded her diary in droves.
Last month, Funnily Enough leapfrogged Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte and Jane Austen to climb into the Top 10 bestsellers chart on Amazon’s UK Kindle Store.
A couple of days later it spent all day at number two in the overall free UK Kindle Store, with downloads peaking at more than 240 an hour in the evening – that is one every four minutes.
"The levels of popularity on the Kindle Store were absolutely startling. I couldn’t believe how many people were downloading it," said Sophie.
"I don’t have a big PR machine to promote the book. I have only advertised it on Facebook and Twitter so it is phenomenal really.
"People have been downloading it all over the world. Hundreds have downloaded it in the States and I have had people from as far away as Australia reviewing it."
Notwithstanding its global appeal though, Sophie says the book will resonate even more with those who have grown up or still live in the Five Valleys.
"I think local people will enjoy it especially because it is about living in the Cotswolds and Gloucestershire," she said.
Sophie’s second book Ride the Wings of Morning, which recalls her experiences of time spent in South Africa, has also enjoyed considerable success in Amazon’s download charts, contributing to her burgeoning reputation as an up and coming author.
"I am very flattered that so many people are reading my books," she said.
"They are easy reading but I can assure you they are very hard to put together.
"I have worked on Dr Who and Eastenders but I have to say it is nothing like as exciting as having a bestsellers page."
Funnily Enough, published by Ashton House Publishing, is available for £12.60 from www.lulu.com or to download from the Amazon Kindle Store for £1.92.