JOANNA Trollope imagines a small Japanese woman in a kimono and a paper house reading her tale of a rebellious priest's wife. The thought astounds her. Yet the six contemporary novels of this oh so English woman have been bought by a Japanese publishing house and the first to be translated is her fourth, The Rector's Wife. Ms Trollope, who hails from a Cotswolds village and is the fifth-generation niece of Victorian writer Anthony Trollope, has risen from being a virtually unknown author of historical novels to one who topples Jeffrey Archer from the bestseller lists with her tales of middle-class lives and loves, And all in the space of 18 months. The popularity of her works have even spawned a nickname - the Aga sagas - because of her characters' propensity to own this type of cooker. Trying to spot her among the crowd, one looks for tweeds, twin-sets and pearls. The reality is more adventurous, yet, after reading her work and her publicity material, entirely expected. Not a well-coiffed hair is out of place. Not a spot mars the perfectly pressed white jeans and neat gold pumps. The jacket is a black and white tweed look, silver beads stand in for the pearls. Ms Trollope, 49, is unashamedly, proudly, emphatically upper middle class. Born in the Cotswolds rectory of her grandfather, she now lives the country life she has known and loved ever since, sharing a mill house with a stream at the bottom of the gardenwith her second husband, playwright Ian Cruteis, who is adapting her 1988 book The Choir for the BBC. She has been pictured standing reading in that trout stream: ''It's a ludicrous picture,'' she admits. ''It was taken eight or nine years ago before I knew how to say: Don't be perfectly ridiculous.''. ''At the beginning you are in such a state of gratitude about being published. Manners, as they should, prevail, and you tie yourself in knots. ''Aspiring writers should note, it has taken me nearly 20 years (she began writing in 1975, pregnant with her first daughter) to become an overnight success.'' That success has come because, in the ''sober 90s'', with all that nonsense of the last decade left behind, people want books that touch their lives in a way literary, Booker prize-type books or, at the other extreme, blockbusters, never can, she says. ''I want them to feel about the characters as you do about people in real life; that you feel fond of them and you also frequently wish to slap them, you get so exasperated,'' she says. That appeal, real life down to the dishes and the supermarket trips, combined with tales of family, relationships, parenthood and divorce, help explain her international success. In The Rector's Wife, for instance, the woman is in a relationship ''with someone who three-quarters of his time is looking away from her to someone else'' - and isn't that true of the wife of a doctor or accountant or any man with a career, she says. She discussed her Japanese success with her daughter, Antonia, 22 (there's also Louise, 24, and two stepsons who have asked her not to write about step-families yet). ''She said why shouldn't a Japanese woman whose husband is unfaithful feel much the same as a Dane or an Indian,'' she says. ''I think it might be just how difficult modern life is because we are juggling so many things, so I can only suppose that it is the universality of the dilemmas in the books,'' she says of her success. Ms Trollope, who also creates historical romances under the name Caroline Harvey, began writing on a rickety table in her bedroom at night as her young daughters slept. She hasn't let success inflict a computer on her: ''I think I'm one of the last people left on the face of the Earth who writes longhand,'' she says. She writes in blue - ''it must be blue'' - on the right-hand side of a thin-lined pad, corrects on the left, then sends the lot to a friend with a word processor. And she writes at the same speed as the man she calls ''the real Trollope'' - ''250 words every 15 minutes when it's going well''. She also says she's one of the few writers left who goes to church. In fact she's a stalwart of her local parish, even to helping run the Sunday School. That helps keep humour in her books and her life: ''A religious sense stops us taking ourselves too seriously, everything is in proportion,'' she says. Perhaps it also helps explain the absence of sex scenes from her novels, despite their themes: lesbianism, adultery, in short the sexual infidelity that lurks behind the curtains of the picturesque towns in which she sets her works. She says readers are sick of being treated as ''randy apes'' with every detail spelled out. Instead, it's more erotic to use your imagination. It's the same with her endings: ''I always leave them slightly in the air because I want the reader to finish them. It's part of what I hope you all feel - that you are included and being made to work a bit.'' Ms Trollope, who is working on a novel ''too much an infant to describe'' and has two more in her head, doesn't write sequels, but her books grow out of each other, she says. In The Men and the Girls (Transworld), her latest in paperback, about two men in relationships with younger women, the characters include young twin boys. ''I began to think, what happens when you grow up as twins and you really don't want to be joined at the hip any more. So I carried that over to The Spanish Lover (Bloomsbury - her latest in hardback) with two adult twin women, one of whom loves being a twin and one of whom longs to be separate.'' The twins are Lizzie, who has four children, a husband and not enough money, and Frances Shore. Frances, whose career as a travel agent is seen as a long second-best to family and children by most of the women in the novel - at first, at least - takes a Spanish lover, a married, middle-aged, lapsed Catholic lover. At its core, as with her other books including the historical romances, is the triumph of hope, she says. She moved from the historical to the contemporary at her husband's suggestion ''He suggested I come out of the historical cupboard and go into the supermarket''. These days, that's where her books are sold and she makes no apologies for being popular. In fact she enjoys it, writing to every reader who writes to her (good manners again) and accepting the pressures that come with a high profile. Ms Trollope, who speaks affectionately of her famous ancestor, thought her ''embarrassing surname'' would be a help when she sent her first novel to a publisher. It was published, then ''sank without trace''. Now her children are grown she has the time to take writing more seriously but she'll never have the time to match the prolific Anthony's output (47 novels and five volumes of short stories). But then she doesn't have a groom and a cook and a carriage driver and a wife: ''Anthony's life was totally serviced. Everybody now is juggling roles, it's difficult to be that single-minded''. And it's those juggled roles that are the stuff of her novels, and her success.