Interview: Alexandra Shulman on writing a novel and juggling the day job

WHAT does an extremely busy woman do to wind down? Writing a novel seems counterintuitive, but Alexandra Shulman, editor of British Vogue since 1992, and a contributor to many newspapers, says she found it almost therapeutic.

WHAT does an extremely busy woman do to wind down? Writing a novel seems counterintuitive, but Alexandra Shulman, editor of British Vogue since 1992, and a contributor to many newspapers, says she found it almost therapeutic.

“What you really want to do, you do, and my desire was so great that I didn’t find it a time conflict. I positively liked the idea of going into a different part of me. I even found it quite restorative in some ways. Because if you do my job you spend all day talking to people and thinking one minute about the new office kitchen, and then I’ll be thinking about a new supplement and then about a fashion shoot, and the Vogue Festival, or hiring somebody – every 15 minutes thinking about something totally different. To be able to sit there, and just think about one thing, that was quite nice.”

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Can We Still Be Friends is out now in paperback. Set in the 1980s, and commencing not long after the main characters have left university, it introduces readers to Annie, Sal and Kendra. Their bond is strong, but as the decade progresses, differences in their personalities – and career paths – create tensions. How they cope with the hectic work of establishing themselves as independent adults, while reconciling their varying approaches to love, commerce, sexuality, and family, forms the substance of a novel whose attention to period detail was praised by some reviewers.

Sitting in her pink and white office at Vogue House, Shulman, 55, looks very much the wiser older sister of her characters, though realistically she could be their mum, at least at the novel’s start. What inspired her to write about that age, and not about women who are her peers?

“The starting point wasn’t their age or the 1980s, the starting point was three young women who were friends. I realised that it would probably be better if I used a time when I was young, instead of now, when social networking would be so much part of their lives. As I wrote, I made it much more about the period than I had ever had any intention of doing. Once I started to get my head into that time, things like the Harrods bombing, or about Mrs Thatcher, or the World Cup just became absolutely part of it. I quite liked it, in the end, but that’s not what I meant.”

Many an author has told me that the book they have written is not the book they set out to write, which is why they do it all over again. This seems to cheer her up, not least because Shulman is in the early stages of her next novel, though ruefully she admits she’s now having all the problems juggling her schedule that people had predicted would derail her first book.

I’ve read that Shulman’s a great hostess who values her friends highly. I’ve also read reports that say it’s getting harder to make new connections as we age. Does that resonate with her? “I love making new friends. I’m very lucky, I have a big life so I come into contact with people. When you stop wanting to make new friends it’s over, really. When you start to shrink your life down to only be interested in the people that you already know you’ve got a problem.”

I’d wager, on the basis of our brief encounter, that it takes a while to become Shulman’s friend and that the process involves winning her trust, something I can’t say I managed during a conversation she seemed less than keen to have. Maybe it’s because she is so busy, not only running Condé Nast’s flagship publication – so important they named the building after it – but also taking on the title of Editor in Chief of Vogue Digital. This, on top of her life outside journalism, and all that’s involved in bringing up her 17-year-old son, Sam, and maintaining a relationship with her partner David Jenkins.

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What’s most extraordinary is her body language. Initially direct – I felt well scrutinized – over the hour she wriggles and turns away. When we talk appearances, she insists that she’s never understood the media’s preoccupation with her looks, but suddenly sits up, and smoothes down her cardigan, even though I’ve agreed that I don’t get it, either. And later still, she covers her face with her hand, speaking through her fingers. Despite my best efforts at friendliness, I feel I’m torturing her.

Seeing how she runs one of the most influential women’s magazines in existence, I wonder does she share my concerns about the way feminism has gone retrograde, compared with the momentum it had during the 1960s when we were schoolgirls? “I was brought up with a background of the idea of Women’s Lib, but I was too young to be a part of that in any way. By the time I came to being in the workplace – which is the time of Can We Still Be Friends – it had moved on to another thing, whereby everyone thought women are going to be exactly the same as men, that they were going to be able to do everything. And you were young enough – in my case I was young enough – not to have children and not to know about the kind of potential conflicts that would get in the way.”

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She reckons that today’s young women see their elders’ exhaustion and then reject the sacrifices required to make it to the top of the career ladder. “I think now you have the choice to be what you want to be, but you have to make a choice what that is. I see it with my office here. You can’t have four children and a huge social life and the very top job where you have to work all the time and a fantastic figure and be on a macrobiotic diet and go to the gym every day. You just can’t do it!”

Is Vogue there to show them the way? “No. We’re not a guidance magazine in any way, we’re about celebrating a kind of aspirational – if that’s the kind of thing you aspire to – world of fashion, style and lifestyle, but we don’t give advice. But I do do my very best within the magazine, and increasingly so, to try and show the huge raft of things that women can be. There is a danger that young women, maybe because of this huge surge of celebrity culture, have narrowed their aspirations.”

Surely those who dismiss Vogue and its rivals as “merely” fashion magazines are failing to understand fashion’s effect on the world economy. It’s a vast international industry, employing everyone from thread spinners and button makers to teenagers with Saturday jobs.

Nodding, she says, “It’s a huge employer and a very big British employer. But as well as being an employer, it’s a huge source of pleasure to people. People don’t say food is a frivolous industry. They all have to wear clothes. Fashion is just a way of showing what you can do with clothes. I love fashion. Deciding what you’re going to wear and how you’re going to look and how you’ll wear your hair, that’s fashion. Well, it’s style, anyway.”

It’s also art, especially at the couture level. “[We] went up to Edinburgh to see the show Chanel did there, at Linlithgow Palace, and it was unbelievable. Chanel is a hugely prosperous company and they put a lot of money into making the most incredible fashion show, using all of the ideas of Scottish heritage, like the knitwear and the tartan and the tweeds and furs. The girls looked great. They brought this whole Medieval baronial Scotland to life, with burning braziers and a huge tented candlelit city by a loch, and all of that. That’s an amazing thing that fashion can do.”

Via the internet, Shulman’s able to extend Vogue’s reach, providing for readers in entirely new ways, and Shulman seems really excited about this new aspect of her job. “Some people only use the website, some only buy the magazine, and some engage with both, so there are no rules, but they use them for very different things. The magazine is regarded as something very luxurious, something people do for themselves in a ‘me time’ – I hate that phrase – way. And it demands a certain investment, so you will savour it. Whereas the website is people using it in their offices, often during their lunch hour. It’s a news breaker, which we can’t be, which is the thing that I find most exciting about it. And it’s a way of getting catwalk information really quickly.

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“I have only really got into it in the last few months. I spent last Friday sitting with the team, watching how they do it. I’ve got a lot to learn. Things I may think are wrong for the magazine are not wrong for a website. But there is also space to include some of the more conventionally Vogue-y material as well, so I’d like to add in more of that. But my God! Watching them respond to a news feed!” She laughs, admitting that the alacrity of the online team’s reflexes stands in stark contrast to the pace of a printed monthly. “News comes in and they’re already on to the picture desk while we’re still picking up our coffee!”

But, she stresses, despite industry-wide pressure to figure out how to make digital media profitable, she’s not about to put Vogue’s magazine content online. “Over my dead body are we going to do that. In the end, things evolve and I believe evolution is a healthy thing. We’re pretty lucky because people do still buy the magazine and are prepared to pay for it, and we’ve found enough content to put online that’s different, so all we’re doing is expanding the brand, we’re not cannibalising it. That’s not true for a lot of publications.”

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One of the oft-repeated, and to me, endearing, things said of Shulman is that she’s always got a book in her hand. What were some of the formative titles of her childhood? “I really loved reading as a child. I think you should never complain about what your child reads, as long as they’re reading. Like Enid Blyton. My friends weren’t allowed to read her because it was thought to be so bad, but we had every single one, and my dad used to buy us every single comic, every Saturday.

“My younger sister Nicky and I always read, but we weren’t bookish, particularly. I don’t have books that I think are – I mean, I have lots of books that I love but not books that made me do anything.” Right, what are some of the books she loves, then? “A lot of the republished Virago books that came out in the Eighties, so I loved people like Elizabeth Jenkins, and Rosamond Lehmann I think is a fantastic writer. I adore Joan Didion’s writing. I always loved murder stories like Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie, and I regard myself as one of the really early adopters of Scandinavian crime. I knew who Henning Mankell was, I reckon, before anybody else in this country, because I was on holiday in a villa in Italy where a wonderful publisher called Christopher MacLehose had been staying the week before, and he’d left behind a Henning Mankell book. Mankell is a brilliant writer, though I can’t pin down why he’s so good.

“I’m really bad on most classic English literature. I mean Jane Austen, I don’t enjoy reading her. I read Pride and Prejudice for A-level and I almost think anything you read for A-level you don’t want to go near again. I read a lot of American fiction, mainly women, like Alison Lurie whom I loved. And I used to eat up everything Ellen Gilchrist wrote.”

I pull a forthccoming biography out of my bag, about former editor of American Vogue, Diana Vreeland. Reading about this great eccentric has made me very attuned to the fact that part of what makes a great editor is – Shulman finishes my thought: “A way of seeing…”

Yes, so how does the world come to her? More words? More pictures? “Um, I’m pretty good on observation; I notice what’s going on. I notice the detail more than I notice the big thing. I’m interested in the detail more. I reckon it’s probably more words than visual. Golly, I don’t know the answer to that. I think as an editor you have to make choices all the time but what that’s based on… obviously there is a kind of aesthetic you have, there’s got to be something that defines those choices, but I would find it quite hard to analyse what that is in my case.”

Ultimately, is it Vogue’s job to reflect what’s happening in society, or drive things forward? “A bit of both really. What I love about Vogue is that I think it’s the magazine of record. Because it’s got its history, you can go back and see, for example, how wars have been chronicled, or in America, the depression. It’s really interesting to see how it’s reflected the times, but at the same time, visually, it can help create the aesthetic of the time.”

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There’s nothing the least bit arrogant or overbearing about Shulman, yet it takes a lot of confidence to run a magazine so successfully for so long. Where does hers come from? With a laugh and a shrug, she says, “I never thought, ‘Well, I’ve got to find an identity for myself which works.’ I never thought about it. I just am. Somewhere, God knows how, I have a kind of confidence.”

So I won’t find it hanging on the fashion rails lining the narrow corridors outside her office? Laughing again she says, “No, and they don’t sell it on eBay.”

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• Can We Still Be Friends is out in paperback from Penguin, £8.99.