Oxford Times
December 1999


Patron Saint of Temps
Serena Mackesy's unwillingness to get a full-time job is the reason she's now so successful. Amanda Castleman finds out why

Serena fought against
Oxbridge expectations.
She didn't want to
settle down with a
nice blue-chip
company.


Serena Mackesy is a drifter. She wanders through life with no particular plan, dabbling at jobs, following her whims. Her only ambition? To be a writer. Somehow her erratic approach accomplished just that. The Oxford native's first novel, The Temp, raced onto the bestseller list and has been reprinted four times since October.

She also churns out a weekly column for a national paper. Her story is the stuff of dreams and fantasies. If she weren't so charming, Serena would inspire fits of jealousy.

The 36-year-old knows her subject all too well. Graduating from Manchester College, Serena fought against Oxbridge expectations. She didn't want to settle down with a nice blue-chip company.

She temped on and off for ten years, in between proof-reading the Oxford English Dictionary and "teaching the spoiled children of the rich in a crammer". When a secretary went on maternity leave at The Independent, Serena leapt into the gap.

"Journalism is brilliant," she says. "There's all these hugely intelligent – rather eccentric – people taking in information and spitting it out. I love the essay-crisis atmosphere."

She began wandering up the career ladder: casual sub-editing, deputy crossword whiz, restaurant reviews, TV page snippets, features. "I just sort of fell into journalism," she confesses, seemingly ignorant of the hordes of media studies graduates battling for a beginning. "I try things and see where they lead. You know, I've never really had a proper job application with an interview."

Then the axe fell. "There was a whole round of redundancies. I was given a nice pay-off of 12,000, then rehired as a columnist the next week."

In this fluid manner, her column – on the perils of temping – morphed into a novel. "I suddenly realised that I had 30,000-odd words and was tired of producing fish and chip wrappings. Then I got chatting to a friend of a friend - who happened to be an agent. She swung a very quick deal with Arrow Books, an imprint of Randomn House."

On the surface , the novel is glib and punchy, bemoaning the tragedy of middle-class ambition gone awry. Just when the office anecdotes and giggles start to wear thin, Serena introduces the plot.

Now, some writer might have relented far earlier, but she holds out until page 248. Strangely the book doesn't suffer for this delay, and the contrast between fluff and pathos richens the story. After all, that reflects the way of the world: we are often consumed by trivia – the sour milk, unpaid bills, stolen paperclips – until some event slaps us in the face.

She was careful to add depth and gravity to The Temp "I didn't want it to be another 'chick lite' book," Serena admits. And it isn't. The giddiness descends into trauma, followed by an intricate revenge, like a Greek drama.

Although most of the "office anthropology" was drawn from personal experiences, the revenge was made up. However, Serena hopes it will empower nameless typists and tea-makers everywhere: "Most temps get to feel so invisible and of little worth. Their self-esteem plummets. They don't know how much damage they could do," the author explains with a sly laugh.

Her humour has won much praise, and Serena's mailbag is usually bulging with temps' tales and thanks. A postcard from Oxford even hailed her as the patron saint of temping. "I'm really pleased that grim experience wasn't wasted," she says.

Not that it was all nightmarish: "I did find out what I wanted to do, kept the wolf from the door and a roof over my head. The rootlessness can be nice.

"Everyone should be forced to do a few years in menial jobs before University. I see so much arrogance, so many bosses with no idea what it's like to be in the worker's shoes."

The secretary's advocate plans to climb off her temping soapbox soon, however, before she is hopelessly pigeon-holed. Her next book, Virtue is due out in spring 2001. Serena is coy about its topic, only revealing it is about "everything that's bad about being good, and good about being bad."

Not bad for a drifter. Not bad at all.

Reprinted with permission of the Oxford Times

She was careful to
add depth and gravity
to The Temp "I didn't
want it to be another
'chick lite' book,"
Serena admits.

And it isn't. The
giddiness descends into
trauma, followed by an
intricate revenge, like
a Greek drama.

A postcard from
Oxford even hailed
her as the patron saint
of temping. "I'm really
pleased that grim
experience wasn't
wasted," she says.


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