She hates her books being branded 'romantic fiction' and, indeed, there's a much darker side to the novels of best-selling author Josephine Cox, as Hannah Stephenson discovers.

By Hannah Stephenson

Her family sagas have made Josephine Cox one of the top 50 most successful writers since records began, generating £26.2 million in revenue via sales of more than 15 million books.

The covers may look romantic - her latest, The Broken Man, features the silhouette of a boy in a burnt orange sunset - but turn the pages and you soon realise that the tales are often much darker than they seem.

Her 50th novel, The Broken Man, is about a woman who has been beaten to within an inch of her life fleeing her violent husband, changing her name and going into hiding. But he continues to stalk her and there's an air of menace throughout the book.

Cox's novels are among the most borrowed books from libraries, ahead of John Grisham and Martina Cole, and they're more tales of survival than sugar-coated romantic yarns.

But then Cox, 71, knows what she's writing about. Born in a cotton-mill house in Blackburn, she was the sixth of 10 children and daughter of a road sweeper who spent much of his earnings in the pub on a Friday night.

She recalls her father's volatile nature when he'd had a drink, of living hand to mouth, six in a bed with rats running around their feet in the toilet.

"My dad was a wonderful man - funny, interesting, he worked very hard. But when he got his wages on a Friday, paid by the foreman in the pub, the money went over the counter," she says.

"He would get in a foul mood and want to lash out. Whether this was to do with all the pressure he lived under, I don't know. Those few drinks on a Friday night changed him, then on a Saturday he'd be fine."

She says her mother, a quiet, loyal woman, would bounce back after the drunken episodes.

"They adored each other. We had a fairly happy life although we had nothing. We had our clothes from the rag and bone shop, we rarely had a Sunday meal and when we did, the priest would come round and eat half of it."

Her parents split up when Cox was 14, and she moved with her mother to live with her aunt in Dunstable, Bedfordshire. She was devastated, she recalls.

"It was like a kick in the face. I was 14, 4ft 11in tall and I've never grown since. That must have been the trauma. We weren't just moving into the next street, we were moving 200 miles away."

Two of her older brothers stayed with her father and the rest moved with her mother, but Cox continued to see her father for many years, she recalls.

"Mum was eight months pregnant with my younger brother when she left, she had just enough money for the coach journey and we only had three weeks at my aunt's until we had to move into lodgings."

Cox was soon introduced to the landlady's son, Ken, and at 16 they got married. Her father didn't approve and refused to go to the wedding, so Cox was given away by a distant relative of Ken's family, who was a stranger to her.

They were married for 43 years until his death from cancer in 2002, a subject she still finds too upsetting to discuss.

With so much personal drama to draw on, it's understandable that she hates her books being labelled 'romantic fiction'.

"Life is not all about romance. Everyone has gone through difficult times, whether it's to do with money, heartache or a family splitting up or illness. I'm not a romance person. I have a very dark side in my books.

"Whenever I write a book it's always rooted in my experiences. The Broken Man was prompted by someone we knew as children, who we always knew as an uncle although he was just a friend of the family. He was a really bad man.

"I think he was a paedophile but at the time he just frightened me. A couple of times he came to the house and he'd be looking at me and gave me a bad feeling. I found out many years later that I wasn't the only one that was afraid of him, when I talked to people I grew up with. Luckily I escaped because I always ran away when he visited. He was a very menacing character. Very creepy."

The Broken Man also charts the friendship between two women, as the battered wife slowly reveals to her friend the reason behind her fears. A parallel story sees a boy, taken into care, who is also connected to the violent husband.

While Cox's own father had his drunken moments, she didn't grow up in an environment of fear, she reflects, despite her parents' volatile relationship.

After she married, she had two sons and looked after the family while her husband was building up his own business. She ended up going to night school for three years and then trained to be a teacher.

By day she taught, by night she would tend the family and then go to Open University night classes. Her first book, Her Father's Sins, was prompted by a long stay in hospital when she had what she calls 'women's problems' and was published when she was 40. It had to be reprinted 15 times in as many weeks.

"I was paid £2,000 for it. That was a massive amount of money in those days. The publishers wanted everything I'd written, but I hadn't written anything else.

"I never dreamed it would happen. I was just thrilled someone wanted to buy it. Something had touched people's psyche."

But another dark period in her life, when Ken's haulage business fell victim to the recession which resulted in their house being repossessed in the 1970s, fuelled a different kind of writing for Cox, who penned a series of dark, psychological thrillers under the pseudonym of Jane Brindle (her mother's name).

"All the dark things had smothered me. I wrote six of them and they sold really well. They've been out of print for about 10 years and I'm glad about that. I don't want them to be published again because they are so dark.

"I exorcised my demons in those books. But then Amazon noticed that people were looking for the Jane Brindle books, so I've given permission for them to be sold as ebooks for a year."

She's been a widow for a decade but sees her two sons every day as they live near her home in Buckinghamshire, and dotes on her two grand-daughters.

And there are no thoughts of retirement. "I'm always writing and I have notebooks full of storylines. I'm half way through the next book and have outlined a trilogy of stories for children from 10 to 15 - science fiction, supernatural, that sort of stuff."

These days, when Cox gives writing classes, she tells her pupils: "You must write from the heart. You must feel the emotions that the characters feel, good, bad or dangerous. And don't fabricate - dip into the real life you know."

It's worked for her...

:: The Broken Man by Josephine Cox is published by HarperCollins, priced £14.99. Available now.