LIFE as a Teessider can be hard. Working in Newcastle I’m repeatedly ribbed about being a ‘smog monster’ and the like.
But, for once, I have back-up.
And it comes in the shape of the lovely Freya North who loves my home town of Middlesbrough with a passion.
She is delighted when I tell her I’m working from home in Marton, just around the corner from her children’s grandparents’ house.
“You know how much I love Middlesbrough,” says 44-year-old Freya who has written 12 novels.
“I call it my spiritual home.”
Her former partner is from the area and Freya still often visits with her children Felix, 11, and Georgia, nine, who live with her in Hertfordshire.
The love affair with the area has spilled over into her work, becoming the setting for her 10th novel, the best-selling Secrets.
“My 10th novel Secrets was based in Saltburn and one of my characters became the Transporter Bridge in Middlesbrough.
“Now in Saltburn there’s a whole kind of Secrets trail going on.”
“I wrote a travel article for Grazia magazine and a lot of B&Bs let me know that they were fully booked!”
Her ninth novel Pillow Talk, which won the Romantic Novel of the Year award, was also set in the area around the nearby Stokesley and Great Ayton. And her links with the North East don’t end there.
Her great-aunt Ruth Jacobson lived in Newcastle from 1939 until her death in 2009.
Ruth ran several Newcastle charities, including the North East School for the Blind, before becoming lady mayoress of the city and in 1989 she was awarded the MBE for her contribution to charitable services in the North East.
At the age of 70 she became the first female board member of Metro Radio.
Despite dubbing herself as ‘Southern totty’ Freya was delighted when in 2009 she was asked to become an official ambassador for the North East thanks to her promotion of the area in her books, which have collectively sold more than two million copies in the UK.
It’s a far cry from her days on the dole, struggling to support herself as a writer.
“I started writing in 1991 – but it took four years to get my novel published,” says Freya.
“I always loved writing but when I was at school creative writing stopped after what was then your O-levels.”
Freya gave up a PhD scholarship to start and write her first novel Sally in 1991 when she was just 24.
“Mum was always telling me ‘very nice dear but get a proper job!,” says Freya.
“Friends would ask how War and Peace was getting on.
“I was on the dole for a bit and then to make ends meet I did some temping as a receptionist which was good as I was able to take my novel in with me.
“Just because the first one wasn’t published straight away that didn’t stop me from writing the second – I write because I want to write stories.
“So when I finished my first book Sally I went on to write Chloe.”
For Freya it wasn’t the fairytale of instant success you sometimes hear about from other authors.
“I just started sending it out really – first to publishers and then to agents.
“It was quite demoralising and you have to have quite thick skin.
“It’s almost like people not liking your friend.
“I learned not to send it direct to publishers as you need to find an agent first – that’s an awkward process too.
“I think the time was right for me in terms of fiction in ’96.”
In 1996 she approached one of the UK’s top literary agents, Jonathan Lloyd at Curtis Brown.
Throwing caution to the wind, Freya sent him three chapters and a page of completely fabricated reviews, which she wrote on behalf of the Sunday Times, Jilly Cooper and Germaine Greer. Lloyd took her on and put her work up for auction.
Five publishers entered a bidding war for Freya’s books. A three-book deal for a six figure sum is the result.
“What I had started to do in ’91 was writing the sort of book that I would have quite liked to read but I couldn’t find published – the classic girl meets boy story told in my generation’s language,” explains Freya.
Along with contemporaries such as Fiona Walker and Adele Parks, Freya’s work heralded the era of ‘chick lit’.
“All of our work was published at a similar time and that spawned a whole new genre of ‘chick lit’ – a term that I find demeaning,” says Freya.
“If anyone called me a chick I’d belt them.
“We write really good commercial fiction.
“If it wasn’t then the publishers wouldn’t be interested and the readers would get fed up and wouldn’t buy it.
“It’s such a popular genre. People love reading about romance and other people’s ‘happy ever after’.”
And ‘happy ever after’ is what Fiona aims for in her books.
“The characters very much come to life whilst I’m writing and I don’t feel like I have very much control over them which is fun.
“It’s the wrong turnings that they make that then make the story. They mess up and make good. And it’s always a happy ever after.
“Although I like my books to mirror people’s lives – I like my readers to identify and think ‘that’s the way I feel’ or ‘that happened to my best friend’ – a lot of readers buy fiction as escapism.
“It’s hard out there – so I like to end in an upbeat way, to give people a sense of a modern fairytale,” says Freya who loves wholesome romance which is quite at odds the current Fifty Shades phenomenon.
“When I was a teenager, we furtively passed around Sidney Sheldon and Harold Robbins – well-thumbed copies which fell open at certain pages, fulfilling our curiosity, fascinated and titillated by the sex scenes,” says Freya.
“But these were mainstream novels falling into the hands of sniggering teenagers.
“What we have with Fifty Shades is hardcore porn of the type traditionally secured by the top shelf, out of reach of those for whom it is not intended.
“Do we want teenagers aspiring not just to this kind of sex, but this kind of sadistic-masochistic relationship?”
She added: “As many of you know, my novels are fabulously raunchy – but the sex is never gratuitous, never a canny marketing ploy.
“What happens between the sheets of my characters’ beds and the sheets of my books benefits the story – and, at heart, my stories are wholesome.”
“I write feisty romps – essentially they’re girl-meets-boy tales complete with all the realistically squelchy rude bits that should be a part of all good relationships.
“I’d rather write – and read – about colourful sex which enhances life and love, than destructive sex in dull shades of grey.”
Freya’s current book Rumours, released in June, features a heartthrob to rival anything Christian Grey has to offer, with readers writing to Freya asking where to find him.
“They say ‘I want him’ but I write back and say ‘hands off, if he’s out there he’s mine,” says Freya.
She added: “At the moment I’m free and single.”
“And I have a free reign to have fun inventing my ideal guy.”
For more information about Freya visit www.freyanorth.com