‘In my old job I feared the worst, so I hated saying “no”’: Fearne Cotton on finding her voice and writing her first novel

To mark the release of her first novel, we spoke to Fearne Cotton about writing fiction, being a reformed people-pleaser, and the fear that dominated her early career.

Katie Russell
Photography credit: Alexandra Cameron. Image credit: Victoria Ford/Penguin

Have you ever sat in a freezing taxi, unsure how to ask the driver to turn off the air con? Or agreed to meet up with friends when you were tired and could think of nothing worse? If so, you might be a people pleaser – but fear not, you’re in great company.

Fearne Cotton – mental health advocate, bestselling author, long-standing broadcaster and founder and creator of the Happy Place brand – admits that she has been a people-pleaser for most of her adult life; it’s only since turning 40 a couple of years ago that she has learned the power of saying “no”. This lesson is at the heart of her latest book, Scripted, which is her first novel and the reason we are chatting over Zoom.

Scripted is a wise, poignant story that follows Jade, a 32-year-old who finds it hard to stand up to her boyfriend and family members. One day, she comes across a script detailing a (one-sided, manipulative) argument with her boyfriend – that later happens just as it was written. As more scripts turn up, Jade is forced to re-evaluate her relationships with others and learn to speak up for herself.

To mark the book’s release, we spoke to Fearne about writing fiction for the first time, the downsides of people-pleasing, and why she felt she couldn’t say “no” in her career as a TV presenter.

You’ve written a lot of books but Scripted is your first novel. How did you find that process of writing a novel, compared to non-fiction?

Usually when I was writing non-fiction, I had a publishing deal and I would sit and brainstorm what the idea might be. With this one, I had this idea land in my head and I started privately writing it. I didn’t really know what I was doing or if it was any good. And I didn’t show anyone, including my literary agent and team, until I was about 30,000 words in, which I thought was probably a good time to show someone in case it was totally shite.

The learning curve that I went on was immense. I’ve never edited a book to this extent; I’ve never been so pernickety and pedantic about anything in my entire life.

What is the central message of Scripted?

For me it’s all about bursting through that fear that people are going to hate you or judge you or something awful is going to happen if you just simply speak your mind. It’s about finding your voice.

Did you feel like you were writing from experience with Jade finding it hard to say no?

One hundred percent. I’ve had multiple moments where I feel like I can’t say what I want. I started off in TV at 15. I didn’t feel like I could say anything because I was just some random kid from the suburbs who got lucky. As if I’m going to stand up to someone and say, “I don’t want to do that.” Of course I’m not. I wanted to keep my job. So, I had decades of going “yes” but meaning “no”. Decades of it. And nothing particularly traumatic, but things that I just didn’t really want to do.

'I didn't feel like I could say anything because I was just some random kid from the suburbs who got lucky'

When I was in mainstream media, there [was] so much fear involved in that career. And it’s almost cultivated, that you will stay in fear because there’s always someone coming up in the wings, waiting to take your place, or you’re pitted against friends or your peers.

In my old job there was so much fear that it would all go [away] and then I would go back to, I don’t know, living with my parents or something. I really did fear the worst, so I hated saying “no”.

It felt like I could exorcise some of those past demons in Jade’s actions. For me, [being able to say no] has come late, and in my 40s I’m learning to flex that muscle and find that confidence.

In the past when you were people-pleasing, would it just be at work that you felt like you were doing things you didn’t really want to do?

No, I’d say pretty much in all areas of my life. Not all the time, because there have been times where I’ve had really huge, impulsive moments of autonomous stepping out of things – like, “I’m leaving Radio One”, “I’m leaving kids’ TV”, “I’m leaving Celebrity Juice” – and I’ve known when the expiry date has hit.

In my personal life, I’m a bit of a doer, I’m a bit of a helper, and I love to do that. But there are times where I’ve [been] stretched – and that’s where the resentment comes in, where I know I can’t fulfil that commitment, but I’ve said yes because I want to be helpful. I think all of us stretch, we’re all trying to do too much.

Some of the moments where I’ve found finding my voice the hardest – and this is almost pathetic – but in a cab, when the air con is so cold and you’re like, well I’m just going to freeze my tits off because I’m not going to say, “Can you turn it off?” It’s those little things that can feel equally as hard as, “I don’t want to be with you anymore” or whatever it might be.

How does being a writer compare to other jobs you’ve done? Writing is very solitary so I imagine it can be quite lonely…

I’ve really, really loved writing this book – more than anything I’ve ever done. I very rarely experience loneliness, if ever. I love being on my own more than anything, and I need it. My job is so social, and my house is so busy, and I love being around people and I obviously adore my family more than anything on the planet, but if I don’t counter that with solitude, I am not in a good place mentally.

'I think all of us stretch, we're all trying to do too much'

I read in an interview that you don’t go out that much in the evening anymore and you prefer to stay at home with a good book. Is that still the case?

Oh yeah. If anything, I have to be really mindful because I could sink into total hermit vibes so easily and never go out again. I have to really push myself to go out at night. I’m a morning person, I get up super early. By 7pm I’m so tired I don’t know what to do with myself, so the thought of going somewhere is a lot.

And, you know, I went out every day from 14 to 29. I was literally out at every gig, at every party. I’ve been there, done that, got every band T-shirt, and I just don’t have the need. The desire is dead. I want to be in bed with a book. I can’t think of anything more luxurious.

Who are the authors you most admire?

God, there are loads. I love Taylor Jenkins Reid; I’ve read all her books. I love that she takes you into a sun-drenched fantasy world that gives us grey Brits great escapism and there’s glamour and drama and everything I want in a book.

I love Elizabeth Gilbert because I think her writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, gives you such a great idea of who she is as a person and how she is changing over the years. I think it’s quite rare that you get that in real time. She’s one of my heroes.

I love an Agatha Christie, and I spent a lot of my twenties reading Agatha Christie books, so I’m always grateful to Agatha for giving me great escapism.

And also, do you know who I adore? Lemn Sissay. I’ve been loving dipping in and out of his poetry recently and I loved his memoir, My Name is Y. His poetry is beautiful and how he can make you feel something in four lines is bizarre to me. He’s so clever.

Do you think you’ll write another novel?

I’m writing it, babe. I’ve already started. It’s got a weird concept again. I’m about 12,000 words deep and I’m loving it.

I’m now at a place where all the characters are sort of there, I’ve just got to keep building them and working out what happens next. But I know how it ends. I’m really excited about it.

This Q&A has been condensed for clarity.

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