Interview with British publishers, Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Who’s your favourite author? I don’t have a favourite as such. For me ranking doesn’t work with writing. It’s too slippery. I don’t like it when people say things like ‘W.H. Auden is the third greatest poet of all time’. So I don’t have top rankers. I’m fickle. But there are writers I especially love reading at particular times. Right now it’s Iris Murdoch, a new discovery for me, and Henry James (an old love). Oh and poetry, I read a lot of poetry: Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden (the third greatest poet of all time…) and Ted Hughes and the peerless Anne Ridler.
What’s the first book you remember reading? The Bible. I learned to read before I went to school with the Bible. My parents were very religious (we belonged to a kind of fundamentalist sect) and we had morning prayers every morning before breakfast kneeling on my parents’ bedroom floor during which my brothers and I had to take it in turns to read a chapter of the Bible each. And I loved reading it aloud, the sound and rhythm of the words. I’m sure I was supposed to be thinking about other things…
Where do you live? And why? In Cambridge. Why? Because I work there and teach but also because it’s very beautiful and terribly old, of course, and full of stories. It’s also full of libraries and people with their heads in books. You can cycle to work. I do – through snickets, narrow back alleys and over tiny bridges. There’s an urban myth about Cambridge told by someone once who remembers walking through the market and overheard some students talking animatedly about philosophy, and one said to the other: ‘And a seventh thing…’ It’s that kind of place.
Where do you write? I write in libraries mostly – on my laptop surrounded by books and notebooks. Sometimes I write at home in my study which looks down over the garden. It depends on the light and on my mood. I can’t write in cafes, though several of my friends do. I like quiet. I can’t work near the internet or near phones so I like the libraries because the walls are thick and they keep the world out and the silence in.
Typewriter, Word Processor, or pen? Word processor and notebook. I can’t go anywhere without my notebook, but sometimes I just ignore it too. You can’t turn everything into words all the time.
Where were you born and raised? In Brighton during the sixties and seventies. It was a great place to grow up, though, because I was raised in a religious community which my family left when I was about 10, I then discovered a different Brighton in my teenage years. One I liked a whole lot better – bonfire parties on the beach, swimming by moonlight, boys with guitars, poets, friends who were in bands, live music, buskers.
Did you always want to be an author? If not, what did you originally want to be and when and why did you change your mind? Yes, I always wanted to write, though I’m not sure it mattered if I was a writer.
Name your top 5 pieces of music. They change all the time. I am fickle (aren’t we all?). But right now it would probably be Leonard Cohen’s Take This Longing, Thea Gilmore’s I Dreamed I saw St Augustine, Little Feet’s Still Willin, Mozart’s Requiem, Muse’s version of Feeling Good.
What were the first pieces of writing that you produced? e.g. short stories, school magazine etc. I wrote my first real short story during a mock physics exam in the physics lab. One of the girls in my class had a bet with me to see which of us could get the lowest mark. So I answered one question only and then decided to spend the rest of the hour writing a short story about my physics teacher. It was very funny and it made me laugh out loud as I wrote it whilst everyone else was trying to remember formulas. So I won the bet (I got the lowest mark) and then the story was passed around the class and it made other people laugh. I remember noticing that people looked at me differently after that, that I’d acquired some new status as someone who could write good stories. I liked it.
What jobs did you have before you started writing? I had a Saturday job in a newspaper shop every Sunday from when I was 13. I worked as a barmaid in a biker’s pub in York whilst I was a student which had live music twice a week and occasional brawl. I always smelled of Taylor’s Landlord beer and all my shoes rotted eventually because there was so much beer slopping around on the floor behind the bar. Since then I have been (and still am) a tutor in a university and now my shoes don’t rot (often).
How do you write each novel i.e. do you block out the narrative first, take each page at a time, create the central character, build a cast of characters? I do my research first without really knowing quite what I am looking for and then make a plan and then watch it collapse and remake itself incessantly. The characters come and go. Some are there, occupying the central ground from the start, others just pitch up on the road. It’s a very messy business right up to the final draft. The mess often makes me anxious though I am getting used to it.
What is a typical writing day? The mornings are always a fight – a kind of wrestling match. I pace up and down a good deal and procrastinate and do other things – I guess something is happening during that time but it beats me why it has to happen. This seems to happen to other people too. I think it’s still a mystery to me. Then sometime around midday something arrives and then I’m lost to the world for up to four hours and I fall off the edge of the day and cycle home around 5.
What do you do when you are not writing? How do you relax? What are your hobbies? I row on the river once or twice a week in a crew of eight on the River Cam. I am a bow-sider (which means I hold my oar on the left side). I don’t do it to keep fit (though that’s a bonus) but because it’s so different from everything else I do. We row early in the morning when the sun is coming up and the thing about rowing is that you have to forget yourself and just absolutely stay in rhythm with the person in front. When she leans back you do, when she tilts forward ready for the next stroke, you have to be there, absolutely synchronised. And then the sun comes up over the river and occasionally there’s a flash of a kingfisher which you catch out of the corner of your eye.
Have you started your next book? Can you tell us a little bit about it? Yes. It’s called The Coral Thief and its set in France in 1815. A bunch of philosophical thieves are trying to break into a museum. It’s kind of Ocean’s Eleven meets Rousseau’s Confessions.