15 November 2018Last updated


Life lessons from Lit Fest

With the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on the horizon, we asked some of the authors and experts on the schedule to share some of their wisdom

Louisa Wilkins
10 Feb 2015 | 04:41 pm
  • The book of life.

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  • Heather McGregor.

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  • Adele Parks.

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  • Deborah Rodriguez.

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  • Charley Boorman.

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  • Bettany Hughes.

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Investing in yourself is key to career success

Heather McGregor is a British recruitment exec and writer who is best known for her hugely popular career and finance columns for the Financial Times, which she writes under the pen name Mrs Moneypenny.

“First of all, make sure you have all the right qualifications and experience. This is the ‘what you know’, which has definitely not been replaced by ‘who you know’. ‘What you know’ – things you can demonstrate on your CV – is the basic building block of any career. Get this right before you do anything else.

“For three years, until the end of 2013, I had my own TV show in the UK. Sound glamorous? I promise you it wasn’t, but it taught me a lot. One of the people who taught me the most was Julia Bowden, the girl assigned to do my make-up on the very first day of filming. In 2008 she made an important but risky decision. She left her job, remortgaged her house to borrow many thousands of pounds, and went back into full-time education. Julia already had an undergraduate degree and had graduated with excellent grades. She was 30 and had a well-paid job in which she could have advanced further without additional formal education. Why did she feel the need to study again?

“In returning to school, Julia was seeking to invest in – and thus increase – her stock of human capital. She gave up a job in real estate and retrained as a make-up artist. Accumulating human capital is the first, and most essential, part of any successful career. Your human capital is the resource that you make available to your employer, or to yourself if you are running your own business. Your skills, experience and, crucially, qualifications are all part of your human capital.

“And while ‘what you know’ may not have been replaced by ‘who you know’, neither can the importance of connections be ignored. As students of logic know, necessary does not always mean sufficient. To be really successful, you need to combine qualifications and experience with a strong social network. If you want to achieve your goals in life, you need both to be good at what you do and good at building relationships with people who matter.

“So get out and meet people! I am occasionally accused of being prepared to go to the opening of an envelope. (This is totally untrue – it depends on the size, shape and colour of the envelope!) What is true is that when I first changed careers and started my own business, I went to anything and everything, including things I was not invited to.

“When I quit working in an investment bank in 2000, I discovered that I became a non-entity overnight. Suddenly all the industry events I had been invited to as a matter of course previously and which I now realised were full of useful contacts, never seemed to include me. One in particular was an award ceremony, which was held in a swanky hotel on Park Lane. I decided to go anyway, totally uninvited. The trick I used was to turn up in an evening gown and evening bag with no coat, (it was early March, and freezing) and then enter looking as though I had just been outside for a cigarette. This worked a treat and so I joined the pre-dinner drinks easily, going up and chatting to people I already knew and getting them to introduce me to others. None of them knew I was there uninvited.

“Some of these ideas may seem extreme, but I hope the point is made. For career success, make sure both what you know and who you know are growing every year.”

For more from Heather, get yourself a copy of her book Mrs Moneypenny’s Careers Advice for Ambitious Women, visit or catch her at one of her three sessions at the Literature Festival – on business, finances and careers – or at her column-writing workshop.

Is there such a thing as The One?

We ask Adele Parks, author of 14 novels, for her views on romance…

“I cannot deny that I am an out-and-out romantic. I’m fascinated by the subject of love in its immeasurable variety. In this age of war, terror, global warming and cynicism I believe the only thing that really matters is love. It inspires all great acts of heroism and self-sacrifice. Yet, love is infinitely complex and has the capacity to be at once beautiful and terrible. Therefore, answering any question about love is never simple.

“I am married to a man who makes me feel more comfortable, complete, purposeful and valued than any other person I have ever met. He says I do the same for him, claiming I make him ‘a better man.’ He is my One in so much as I don’t want any other; it physically hurts to imagine my life without him. However, I do not believe that there is one and only one person that can make each of us happy; it’s simply not logical on a planet with seven billion people. What would have happened if I hadn’t gone to that particular party all those years ago and met my husband? Would I have been doomed to a life of misery and dissatisfaction, or would I have eventually found someone else? I believe I would have met someone else... I’d have worked
 hard at that relationship and, although I wouldn’t have been living the same life I live now, I would have found my way.

“I’m always concerned that my genre peddles the belief that one person will come along and fix everything in another’s life; it sets a false expectation of what a relationship is about. I think being in a relationship is absolutely wonderful, but I also think it requires a lot of effort, understanding and perseverance. If anything, in my novels I try to blow up the myth of ‘The One’ and take a serious look at how a couple can manage their way through horribly tough times and huge emotional dilemmas. From what I’ve seen and experienced, long-term relationships sometimes demand hard toil. They have to be carefully nurtured and fiercely defended. And there are enormous mundane stretches too; through those you just have to grit your teeth and muddle on.

“I spent years looking for the illusive thing we call happiness, including travelling abroad. I suppose I was looking for The One to fix everything for me. Finally I worked it out – happiness is internal. You have to decide to be happy and work hard at generating it yourself. No one can gift it to you. Life throws some miserable curve balls at us all and we can’t change that. All we can influence is how we react to misfortune and mayhem. You are your One. There are many people who you can be happy with if you both commit to each other and your relationship.”

Don’t miss Adele’s latest novel Spare Brides, which follows four women in the post-First World War era. Catch her at the Literature Festival, where she will be involved in multiple events. For more on Adele, visit or follow her on Twitter (@adeleparks).

Beauty comes from within

Deborah Rodriguez is a beautician and novelist who is most famous for her book about running a beauty academy in Afghanistan, titled The Kabul Beauty School. We asked her a few questions about women, freedom and beauty…

What does the word ‘freedom’ mean to you?

“Being from the United States, one would think I would have always felt that I had total freedom in my life, but that is not the case. I found that I denied myself freedom by not accepting myself for who I was. I now know that no matter where I live in the world, it’s the personal freedom of being happy and content, inside and out, that really counts.”

How can sharing women’s stories help promote sexual equality?

“My goal with my books is to entertain, but I always have an underlying agenda. I want to tell the stories of women who might have no voice of their own. I want to shine the light on the injustices that are going on in certain parts in the world – things that the average person would probably never see. I hope that my writing empowers women everywhere to stand up and make a difference. Women are so strong, and I want to encourage them to use their voices loudly.”

Does looking good on the outside help you feel good on the inside? Or vice versa? 
“This has been a long, hard lesson for me to learn. Dealing with weight issues all my life, I used to always put more value on myself when I managed to get down to the ‘ideal’ weight, and would beat myself up when I gained weight. It took a lot for me to realise that looking good actually starts on the inside. The most important thing is that you love yourself. It is true, real beauty comes from within. But some good highlights never hurt! (What can I say? I’m a hairdresser.)”

Should women always paint their nails? If so, why?

“Ha! Actually, no. I never do.”

For more on Deborah and her books, visit or follow her on Twitter (debb_rod). Also, catch her in action at this year’s Literature Festival where she will be talking about women-related topics and writing.

Dyslexia can be cool

Charley Boorman is a motorsports and action/adventure TV personality, as well as president of the British Dyslexia Action charity.

“Before I was diagnosed with dyslexia, I didn’t even know what it was. Now I’m the president of the British Dyslexia Action charity in the UK. And even though I can’t spell ‘president’, or ‘dyslexia’, I’ve co-written six books – some of which, like Long Way Round, were award-winning and highly acclaimed.

“I never realised how many really clever, inspiring and capable people are dyslexic. In my job in the entertainment industry, I’m always meeting famous people who are dyslexic. We all have to get it into our heads that dyslexia is like a disability. It doesn’t mean we’re stupid,
or dim – in fact we can excel in various fields. So it doesn’t have to stop your child being successful in whichever career option they choose.

“I also never realised how broad the spectrum of dyslexia is. It could be that your child is just not very good with left and right, north and south, etc. Or that he jumbles numbers up for no apparent reason, or that she loses concentration easily. They may have lots of symptoms, or just a few… a person can be mildly dyslexic, or severely dyslexic. Either way, your child can still get help so he can still have horizons and goals to achieve. Don’t let it get you, or your child, down. Look around and see all the incredible people with dyslexia who have achieved great things. Your child can too.

“The first thing to remember is that it’s normal for dyslexic children to be labelled as ‘just not very bright’. Therefore, parents need to be able to get their child assessed and diagnosed. Once you can understand that your child is dyslexic, you’re halfway to making progress and removing negative labels.

“Much of this is about understanding. It’s great if a parent can get on top of the problem, information-wise. This knowledge will open up avenues for you to support your child.

“It’s not unusual to find that dyslexia has a history in your family. Again, you may even find that you are dyslexic yourself. Discovering this may be a great weight off your own shoulders when you realise that all those years of not being able to ‘keep up’ with the rest of your peers, was not because you were stupid or dim, but because of dyslexia.

“Sometimes you may find you have to ‘fight’ for your child. Not out in the street as such, but with the authorities. You’ll need to be a bit pushy sometimes to ensure your child is supported. Again, knowledge is a great asset here.

“Use what support structures you can. A great resource is Dyslexia Action, in the UK. Our website has lots of great information and advice. Check it out – – to get you started in the right direction. For a list of famous dyslexics, visit and tell me you’re not gobsmacked. See, us dyslexics are really cool!”

For more from Charley, check out his most recent book, Extreme Frontiers: Racing Across Canada from Newfoundland to the Rockies, visit, or follow him on Twitter (@charleyboorman).
Also catch him at the Literature Festival where he will be talking about travel and adventure.

Why women need mentors

Bettany Hughes is a British historian, TV presenter and writer. We talk to her about mentoring and feminism…

“I’ve ended up doing what I’m doing only because I have an amazing mother, who was my first mentor. I also had a godmother who was a great example of someone who didn’t compromise what she wanted to do. So, growing up, I had two strong mentors to look up to, and examples of how powerful mentoring can be.

“When I was older and had a professional life, and an opportunity to reach out to hundreds and thousands, and possibly millions, of people through broadcasting, it seemed like an opportunity to share that. People will email me through my website, or through mentoring schemes, and ask me for advice.

“I met the author Kate Mosse a long while ago, when ‘feminism’ was still a dirty word. We had a frank conversation about how there was still such a long way to go in sexual equality. She said that the world will never change unless we women have an influence. Kate has always been a touchstone for me. She was 10 years ahead of me and had this great career and had set up the Orange Prize (now known as The Women’s Prize for Fiction). So what she said had an impact.

“I think that mentoring is a naturally female thing to do... We delight in passing information on to others – positive and negative information. And it develops into chatting and even gossip.

“One of the things that makes us different as a species is that we think it’s worthwhile sharing ideas. We’ll share not just useful things, but abstract thoughts too. We are physiologically wired to do that, whereas other primates are not.

“My big thing is that women have always been 50 per cent of the population. And yet we appear in only 0.5 per cent of recorded history because we were typically not in control of the written record. So there’s a lot of catching up to do and a lot of stories untold.

“I’ve always done this slightly controversial thing where I’ve highlighted to people that the word ‘manu’, which the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ stem from, actually means a thinking creature. As a society, we are a group of people that can think. So the word ‘feminism’ being about promoting and supporting women is limiting. Feminism for all mankind would be a better goal.

For more from Bettany, visit or get a copy of her most recent book, Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore. Also don’t miss her at the Literature Festival where she will be talking about Helen of Troy, history and feminism.

Louisa Wilkins

By Louisa Wilkins