Kathy Lette's penchant for puns earned her the nickname Miss Quiplash. But more than material for her comic novels, her spiky humour is an effective defence mechanism against anyone who annoys her...
COME INTO the kitchen, invites Kathy Lette, the saucy satirist and godmother of chick lit, darting ahead of me to perk fresh coffee and apologising for the Monday morning mess, the lingering aroma of her teenage daughter's bacon sandwiches and the pile of rubbish awaiting recycling in this large, light-drenched room overlooking a beautifully groomed garden.
I'm a domestic slut, announces the outspoken woman whose Australian husband ditched his girlfriend Nigella Lawson for her.
He could have married a domestic goddess and he got me! exclaims Lette, a best-selling novelist, who speaks in exclamation marks and who is married to human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, who she points out frequently returns home from saving the world only to be faced with cold baked beans out of the tin.
This glamorous power couple they are darlings of the New Labour establishment and have a 17-year-old son, Julius, and one daughter, Georgie (15) are just back from weekending in Scotland with their great friends Billy Connolly, his wife Pamela Stephenson and family at Candacraig, the Connollys 13-acre, Aberdeenshire fishing lodge. Lette produces a packet of upmarket shortbread biscuits she bought at the Lonach Highland Games at Strathdon for us to scoff.
"I long to live in Scotland, we had such a ball with the Connollys," she says.
Honestly, I feel so at home in Scotland, much more at home than I am in England, where the upper classes have a first-class degree in Further Condescension these are people who graduated from Oxford in Advanced Smugness and who have been there for so long that they have ivy growing up the backs of their legs.
(Another of her best chums is the Prince of Wales, with whom she shares a passion for the Goons. Growing up in Oz, she was a wild child and as a teenager became obsessed with Spike Milligan, following him around Australia. He became fond of her and put her up in hotels. He was my mentor. He encouraged me to write, my sugar daddy without the sex. A saccharine daddy, perhaps?)
Lette has a relentless line in repartee. If you put your foot in your mouth as often as I do, it's simply got to be well shod, she says, when I admire her high-heeled, strappy gold sandals, as she segues into her annoyance at the way we women are judged on how we look instead of what we think a case of facial prejudice. As for women's rights, it infuriates her that women in Britain dont have equal pay and that we are still getting concussion hitting our heads on the glass ceiling. We're also expected to Windex it while we're up there.
We are here to talk about her latest novel, To Love, Honour and Betray, subtitled Till Divorce Us Do Part, but I have to keep turning off my recorder as she imparts juicy gobbets of gossip about her literary connections.
I am sworn to secrecy over the name of the woman on whom she based the character of the man-eating bitch from hell, Ruthless Renee, who steals our heroines husband, in her new novel. The fact that she is also the narrator Lucy's best friend only rubs salt into the wound for a woman who has been married for so long that her wedding certificate should be in hieroglyphics. Sitting cross-legged on a vast sofa, Lette tells me how her real friend's alleged best friend wheedled classified information and the most intimate details out of her about her marriage and then made off with her secrets and the rich and famous husband.
It happened to me, too, confides Lette, who will be 50 in November, but who at the age of 25 married her first husband, Kim Williams, then CEO of the Australian Film Commission. I lost my first husband to my best friend. We've stayed good pals, though. He married her and they've been very happy together - he's such a great guy. But I did that classic thing of confiding in her and giving her far too much ammunition. Women do that to each other, I'm afraid. Then you lose two people, the people you trusted the most, in one fatal blow.
But her books, which have been translated into 17 languages and won her a reputation for being rude and raunchy, brash and ballsy, also deal with heartache and profound unhappiness. Her themes are serious ones. In Nip & Tuck, for instance, she wrote a savage indictment of the search for plastic-surgery enhanced perfection. (A woman should never pick her nose - especially from a catalogue, she declares.)
Her second book, Girls' Night Out, is a collection of stories about a group of young women seeking love and fulfilment in a bewildering variety of situations, and is as moving as it is funny, while in The Llama Parlour, she has a go at the stellar bitchery of Hollywood. In Foetal Attraction, the horrors of pregnancy and childbirth and the English class system get the Lette treatment. And in Mad Cows, gloomily filmed with Anna Friel, Joanna Lumley and Greg Wise, she tackles the lonely misery and discomforts of new motherhood.
Her last book, How to Kill Your Husband and Other Handy Household Hints, is currently being made into a TV series by the Inverness-born, Bafta-award-winning film producer Andy Harries, whose credits include Prime Suspect and the Oscar-winning The Queen.
Once a month, Lette and various other women writers hold a salon in a pub in north London to talk about their work over a glass of wine or three. The group includes Jilly Cooper, Lynda La Plante and Joanne Harris. Then theres her book group, whose members include Jo Brand, Ruby Wax and Maureen Lipman.
One of her dearest friends, though, is the venerable novelist Sir John Mortimer. They met in Antonia Frasers living room when Mortimer noticed that Lette, who had just arrived from Australia with Robertson, was being quite snippily treated by the Eng Lit lot. He remembers Harold Pinter saying to her: 'I haven't got you on my list. Who are you anyway?'
They rapidly became friends and Lette tells me: 'You need only one soulmate to survive in a place like England and Johns mine. I love his wit. For women, wordplay is foreplay. How else does Woody Allen still get laid?' On Mortimer's 80th birthday she took him to Stringfellows for an evening of lapdancing.
All the girls loved him, claims Lette. He asked them about the books they were reading and it turned out most of them were students and schoolteachers, so they told him, 'Proust and other highbrow stuff. He got these women to do a psychological striptease, baring their souls, which is far more erotic than flashing your bits. It was fascinating.'
Now 86, Mortimer is extremely unwell and Lette can't bear to think of losing her old friend. 'He's the Charles Dickens of his day, my toy boy. He's a radical, the most mischievous, anarchic, passionate radical I know.'
When Lette became writer in residence for three months at the Savoy Hotel four years ago, one of her duties was to organise three literary dinners. 'I rang some mates,' she explains. They all said 'yes', so I had four because I couldn't choose between them. How could you choose between Richard E Grant, Stephen Fry, John (Mortimer] and Salman Rushdie?
The news that I had got the job went down in the London literary world like Pavarotti over a pole vault. Fellow writers wore the kind of facial expressions associated with a probe of the prostate. The Conan the Grammarians were of the opinion that the position should have gone to a more highbrow type.'
She had fun at the Savoy, although she didn't write a line. She is, however, saving her crazier experiences there for a future novel. They created a Kathy Omelette - 'a spicy little number, of course' - in her honour and a champagne cocktail named after her, the Kathy Cassis.
LETTE GREW UP in Sydney with her parents and three sisters. Her father had been a famous Aussie Rules footballer, 'then he got four feisty daughters'. She left school at 15 and claims that the only examination she's ever passed is her smear test. I'm an autodidact, obviously a word I taught myself, but I have still managed to write ten books.'
She says the only time she feels inadequate is when she listens to her daughter discussing the morals and mores of ancient Greece, say, with her brain-box dad, or searching for the square root of the hypotenuse. I didn't know it was lost she quips (she's known as Ms Quiplash in some quarters for her punning way with words).
At 18, she became famous overnight when a novel she co-wrote, Puberty Blues, about the promiscuous foam-filled life of a surfie babe, came out; it's still a cult book in Australia. Girls were just sperm spitoons, human handbags. I wrote it for my girlfriends, she says. It created a sensation and her parents refused to speak to her for five years after it came out.
In 1980, she won Best Legs at Bondi Beach. She's been a singer, with an Aussie punk band, The Salami Sisters, a playwright, columnist and television presenter. Then someone in Los Angeles read her collection of short stories, Girls Night Out, and she was offered a place on a sitcom writing team.
One night someone from the cast of the programme, a young bloke, asked her out on a date. Lette replied: 'God, no. You're an actor. I don't go out with people who are paid to say my words.' Years later, watching an episode of ER, she realised that the actor was George Clooney.
She returned to Australia and met Robertson, who is 13 years her senior. They fell for each other at first sight. He dumped Nigella and they moved to England, where everyone was spectacularly rude to her. I thought, 'I either go mad or have my revenge.' So she wrote Foetal Attraction, which everyone from Jilly Cooper to Glenys Kinnock and Ian Hislop loved. That's when I got quiplash,' grins Lette. 'It was the survival of the wittiest.'
Doubtless all the A-listers will be at Lette's launch party later this month, even Salman Rushdie, who once said that her book Mad Cows cheered him up - and God knows he needed it at the time. She's having a pool party, with blonde, bronzed, testosterone-fuelled Aussie life guards wearing only garments Australians call budgie smugglers - to you and me, minuscule Speedos. Expect no budgies, she warns, issuing an invitation to attend this bash. 'There will be only eagles.' sm
n To Love, Honour and Betray (Till Divorce Us Do Part) by Kathy Lette is published by Bantam Press, priced 14.99.