The cheek of it

WHY, sighs Mavis Cheek, with an ironic heave of her bosom, does she not have a nice man in her life? "Because, darling, your heels are too high," her friend, the artist Patrick Caulfield, who died last year, once responded when she put this vexed question to him. "I had to laugh - because it's probably true," says Cheek, whose right foot is currently encased in plaster and propped up on a wee stool, while a pair of crutches leans against the sofa on which she reclines.

Although, she adds thoughtfully, Caulfield might also have told her a truth that is universally acknowledged: Men are often afraid of successful women, despite their being - like Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing - worth the whistle. Cheek is indeed a successful woman. The best-selling, prize-winning author of a dozen novels, she has, however, kicked off the shoes for the time being. She underwent surgery for a bunion late last year and is therefore under doctor's orders to keep her weight off her foot. Needless to say, you can't keep a good woman down.

She refuses to let me run upstairs to switch on the heating in the sitting room of her cottage in the wilds of Wiltshire, where she has lived alone for about ten years. So, off she goes up the stairs and down again on her bottom. She has to be physically restrained from putting the kettle on for tea and finally agrees with good grace that our photographer should do it.

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"The supreme chronicler of women's mid-life angst" and "the godmother of chick-lit," as the aptly-named Cheek has been described, is about to publish her twelfth novel, Yesterday's Houses. She'll be hobbling into her London launch party minus the stilettos. Which is a bit of a bind for a woman who has matured from an archetypal dolly bird of the 1960s into a sophisticated 57-year-old.

Each page-turning chapter of Yesterday's Houses is devoted to one of the eight houses in which the book's heroine, Marianne Flowers, lives while journeying - as Cheek's publishers put it - "to freedom, independence and good quality plumbing". It's a voyage that the author herself has made and indeed Marianne is very much a portrait of the artist as a young woman. "Marianne, c'est moi!" confesses Cheek. "Yes, I suppose I've done a Flaubert."

The book, arguably the most autobiographical of Cheek's fictions since her tenth novel, The Sex Life of My Aunt, to which we shall return later, begins in the 1960s with the 17-year-old Marianne discovering how the other half lives when she is invited to a party in a very big house in a quiet London suburb, and which clearly belongs to someone her mum would call A Better Class of Person.

Like her creator, our heroine suffers pain and heartache, while living in a series of crumbling houses with grotty bathrooms - hence Cheek's publisher's crack about plumbing. All the houses and flats she writes about are the ones in which Cheek herself once lived, due to parlous economic circumstances, and where she was sometimes happy and sometimes not.

And although her fiction may be cherished for its satiric edge, Cheek admits it was born out of a lot of pain and some very hard times indeed.

The younger of two girls, she was raised in a household of women and is the granddaughter of an Islington cleaning woman and mother of ten. Her own parents' marriage was violent and actually bigamous. Her father, John Wilson, a Scotsman from the Royal Army Medical Corps, had a second family hidden away in another part of London, whom Cheek has never met. He was a drinker, a gambler and a wife-beater to boot.

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Her parents married during the war. They were delighted when they had their first daughter, Cheek's sister, Mag, but their happiness was short-lived. A second baby was meant to heal the rifts in the marriage, but her father abandoned them when Cheek was two. She has few memories of him and recalls seeing him only once when she was seven and he knocked on their door.

"My sister hid. I opened the door and this man said, 'I'm your daddy'. I knew he couldn't come in. It was a terrible shock to see the fear he caused my mother and sister. He told me he had been sending half-crown postal orders and was sorry that it was not much but that it was all he had to give us. Then he left. Later, my mother said, 'Don't believe a word of it. He'll be down the Raynes Park Hotel, drinking'. Sure enough, when I went to the shops later, there he was outside the pub."

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For a long time Cheek resented her mother, who died 14 years ago, for never cuddling her or her sister, for always being tired from her work in a factory. They lived with her grandmother, a severe woman. This bleak childhood - "a wasteland", she once called it - obviously led to Cheek's cool detachment, her ability to observe. Now, though, she has revised her feelings about her defeated mother, who did a lot for her two girls. "And there were happy times," she recalls, pointing out that since bringing up her own daughter, Bella (25), she knows how tough it is as a single parent to have little money and a child to raise.

Six years ago she set out to trace her father. The Army refused to let her see any records, but a yellowing newspaper cutting revealed that he had been jailed for embezzlement. Only in 2001 did she establish that he was dead. Of course she felt disappointed, but it was the disappointment of the thwarted sleuth rather than the bereaved daughter. "I certainly didn't feel it was a great tragedy; I didn't know the man."

A fat, dreamy 11-plus failure, Cheek left her secondary modern school at the age of 16 with one GCE and the ability to type badly. "I was a complete dork," she says sipping tea. She was, though, exceedingly comely, with false eyelashes, kohl-rimmed eyes, and a curtain of glossy hair. "The perfect dolly bird!" she exclaims. "I knew bugger all, though!"

In 1965, she got a job as a receptionist with Kensington-based contemporary-art publishers, Editions Alecto, where her education in modern art began, which explains the Andy Warhol silk-screen in her sitting-room and the many works by Basil Beattie - Bella's father, with whom she remains good friends - which decorate the walls of her home.

Her job, in which she stayed for 12 years, introduced her to an exciting world of parties and private views. There was lots of chatting people up and nights of wine and poses. It was, she says, "all terribly innocent".

At the age of 21, she married her teenage sweetheart, the physicist Chris Cheek, whose parents were both teachers "and already eating wholemeal bread". They met at the Young Communist League in New Malden, of which his parents were stalwart party members. The marriage ended when she was 24, but she kept her husband's name, as does her heroine Janice Gentle, the fat romantic novelist heroine of Janice Gentle Gets Sexy.

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Although the marriage fell apart, Cheek stayed in touch with her late, much-loved ex-mother-in-law, whose letters she cherishes, and who helped to throw open the casements of Cheek's mind, encouraging her to read, which she had always done voraciously, "although I was completely unfocused".

When she was 28, Cheek left Editions Alecto and enrolled at Hillcroft College, which ran two-year courses for mature women students with no qualifications. Here, she found "the other half" of her brain. After her marriage break-up, she had started seeing, then living with Basil Beattie. They were together for ten years. At the end of her time at Hillcroft, she was about to go on to Goldsmiths College to read for a degree when she discovered that she was pregnant, although she had thought she couldn't have children, after undergoing a series of tests performed by a doctor in pinstripes at a fertility clinic, who groped her most private parts and then never told her what was in the tests.

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"Like Marianne in Yesterday's Houses, I grew up in a time when every single area of power was run by men and every single area of servitude was staffed by women, so no wonder I was amenable," she says.

Stuck at home - a collapsing five-bedroomed Edwardian house - with a baby, she decided she would write while Bella slept. She still has her first novel, a turgid stream-of-consciousness effort intended to prove that she was the Virginia Woolf of her day. She sent it to Carmen Callil at Virago, pointing out that it needed editing. Callil replied that she clearly didn't know how much editing it would need and asked for postage. But she also sent it to the then-agent, now a novelist, Imogen Parker.

"She said she wasn't interested in publishing it but if I was passing her door she would give me five minutes. The following day I was passing her door - of course! - and we got on so well, talked for an hour and she told me I was very funny. 'Why don't your write more like you speak?' she said." Cheek responded by writing Between the Acts (1988), based on her dismay at discovering that Ian McKellen (for whom she nursed a secret passion) was gay. It won the She/John Menzies first novel prize.

After writing nine best-sellers, Cheek decided to write her autobiography. She began with her childhood but soon it had declined into a saga of mordant self-pity. "I had to find another way of getting at the material," she says, so she turned to fiction. The result was The Sex Life of My Aunt (2002), a story about sibling rivalry and the bitter feud between two sisters.

Art mirrored life, of course. Cheek's sister, Mag - who she's refused even to name in previous interviews - had not spoken to her for years. She never knew why, but thinks a lot was to do with the past. Years ago Cheek suggested they might meet. Her sister didn't reply. Cheek's niece even wrote to a newspaper saying both women were at fault and that "this ridiculous feud" had set "an extremely destructive cycle" in the family.

"Yes, I've had family members writing to newspapers about me and I've also been on the receiving end of poison pen letters," reveals Cheek. "I think it's not because I've fictionalised things that happened in my family, but because when I was a teenager I appeared to be rather uneducated, rather docile. Therefore a lot of people are envious of what I've achieved. You know, 'I knew her when and how dare she...' All that stuff. Remember, I really did come from the wrong side of the tracks."

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So is she reconciled with her sister? "When the last of our six aunts - a very dear one - died last year, I got in touch with Mag and said that this was too big a funeral for us to be on non-speakers. I sent her my phone number. She rang me and we talked; then we went to the funeral, a celebration of my 94-year-old aunt's life. We all had a meal together and it was sort of healing, but we haven't spoken since. I think that's just the way it is now. There's a huge mythology anyway about the closeness of sisters. But I don't think either of us feels bitter anymore. Families are odd, aren't they?

"I've only just discovered my cousin lives nearby. I rang her up and talked but I haven't heard another word since. It's a pity. I really love the idea of family and I do feel deprived of one." She's no longer deprived of a beautiful bathroom, though. She has the loveliest she's ever owned: primrose yellow with honey-coloured wood and gleaming white fittings. "It's beautifully simple, isn't it?" she calls when I go upstairs to inspect the plumbing. It is indeed.

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• Yesterday's Houses, by Mavis Cheek, is published by Faber and Faber, priced 10.99.