20 Questions

Photo by Lisa Abbott

20 Questions

1. Have you always wanted to be a writer?
As a child, I dreamed of being a writer but I never thought it was an option that was open to me. I didn’t come from a literary family (although books and reading were very important) and so it seemed like an impossible dream for many years. It wasn’t until I’d turned 40 that I started to think, hey, maybe I can do this.

2. How did you get started as a writer?
I loved English at school and I always enjoyed writing stories. As an adult, though, I stopped writing for a long time, partly because I was so busy with young children but also because I was in an unhappy marriage where even reading was frowned upon, so writing would have been unthinkable. But after the marriage ended, I started a new life. I did a degree in English and quite enjoyed writing essays. I started dabbling in fiction again and also tried other types of writing. After my degree, I joined a few creative writing classes, and took a postal writing course that included a module on feature writing. I began to get features published in magazines and also had a few small successes with short stories. I began to realise just how important writing was to me and so I decided to take it more seriously and apply for a place on an MA. In 2005, I moved from London to Sheffield to do the MA in Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. That’s where I wrote the first draft of my debut novel, The Things We Never Said.

3. What other jobs have you done?
I’ve been a civil servant, a cleaner, a market researcher, a shop assistant, a cake decorator, a pub cook, a childminder, a restaurant chef, a companion/driver/assistant to a woman who was partially sighted, a cook/kitchen manager in a pre-school nursery, an outside caterer, an adult education tutor ... and probably a few more things besides. The jobs were often part-time and I'd be doing two or three at the same time. I think people who know me have always despaired of me ever having a ‘proper job’.

4. What sort of thing did you read as a child?
The first book I remember was called (I think) Tabitha and her Kittens, but it was probably read to me, because I think I’d have been too young to read it myself. I loved the Narnia Chronicles, especially The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I was a big fan of The Nancy Drew Mysteries, and I also read things from my parents’ bookshelves when I was quite young – I remember being very into HG Wells – The Time Machine, The History of Mr Polly, and The Invisible Man.

5. What are your top 20 favourite books?
That changes slightly from time to time, but here’s the current top 20, in no particular order:
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, by Tom Franklin
After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer
The Diviners by Margaret Laurence
Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
We Are Called to Rise by Laura Mc Bride
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
Archipelago by Monique Roffey
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Any Human Heart by William Boyd
On Chesil Beach by Ian Mc Ewan
Honour Thy Father by Lesley Glaister
Disgrace by J M Coezee
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
We Need to Talk about Kevin Lionel Shriver
The Road Home by Rose Tremain
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Also, I did a sort of 'desert island reads' thing recently, where I picked books that were significant to me at particular times in my life. You can read it here: My Life in Books

6. Is there a particular book that made you want to be a writer?
Yes, The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, published in 1899. I found it a challenging read the first time round because it’s so densely written, but it’s one of those books that reveals more and more each time you read it. It’s fairly short, and the writing is lyrical – exquisitely beautiful –  and it’s packed with symbolism and thought-provoking imagery. The story is about a young woman, Edna Pontellier, who wants more out of life than her role as wife and mother offers her, and so she does something unforgivable: she puts self-fulfilment above her domestic duties. The novel was considered terribly shocking at the time, both for its sexual content and for what was considered the ‘un-womanly’ behaviour of its heroine. Its publication heralded the end of the author’s career – she never wrote another novel and had difficulty publishing her previously popular short stories. The Awakening is now regarded as a landmark feminist novel.

7. Do you find writing easy?
God, no! I find it painful, agonising, torturous!! Well, at least, that’s how I experience the first draft. Once I get to the end of the first draft, then I find it much easier and I really start to enjoy the process. Only when I start the second draft do I feel I can write the story properly, because it’s only at that point that I feel I know the characters well enough, and I know (more or less) what’s going to happen in the novel. So that’s the point at which I flesh out the scenes, deepen the characters, strengthen the connections, try to ensure that I’m telling the story in the best possible order, and make sure I’m really exploring the characters’ emotions. The second draft (and third, fourth etc) can still throw up tricky problems, but there’s almost always a way through once you get to that stage, so even if I’m finding it difficult, it doesn’t fill me with terror in the same way as the first draft does.

8. Where do you get your ideas?
Ideas for novels and stories can come from anywhere – someone you meet, something you read, something you see on TV, something you overhear, a memory, a painting, a photograph, Wikipedia, other books, magazines, films, plays – the list is endless. But ideas tend not to come fully formed, or at least, not in my case. So it’s a question of putting two or three ideas or bits of ideas together and then making decisions about how a story might develop, who the characters will be, how to tell the story, where and when to set it, and so on and so forth.

9. How much research do you do?
It depends on the book.  Every book will need some research, particularly in terms of the setting – it’s important to me to create a good sense of place, so I make a point of trying to get the details right. Also, I like setting my novels in two different time frames so I have to do a little research into the period – what people wore, what music they listened to, what they ate, how they spoke – that sort of thing. Just enough to make it feel authentic. Some of the ‘research’ is simply me delving into my own memory, but I go to lots of other sources as well to back it up. Sometimes, there will be a particular storyline that needs more research. For example, in my first novel, one of the plotlines touched on mental illness, and so I had to research psychiatric hospitals and treatment in the 1960s. I did lots of reading around the subject and found it both fascinating and upsetting.

10. Who are your books aimed at?
I suppose the easy answer is ‘people like me’. In other words, people who like reading about family relationships, mother/child relationships, dysfunctional families, families with hidden secrets, and characters who strive to find out who they really are. My books are marketed as upmarket women’s fiction. I suppose they’re more likely to be bought by women, and given that more women than men read fiction anyway, that’s not surprising. But I’m pleased to say that men do read my novels, and around 20 to 25 per cent of readers who contact me to say they’ve enjoyed my work are men.

11. How did you get published?
I worked very hard on my novel to get it into the best shape I possibly could and then I looked up literary agents who I thought might like the sort of novel I'd written. I made a list and then wrote to them, asking if they'd like to see the first three chapters. I approached more than 15 agents in total, all agreed to look at the first three chapters and five or six requested the whole novel. I ended up with three offers of representation, although one of those agents was about to go on maternity leave, so the timing was all wrong. I chose from the other two, and made the right decision! Kate Shaw of the Viney Agency made some insightful editorial suggestions and guided me through the rewrites before sending the novel out to publishers. It didn't get picked up first time round, and I put it aside for a year before re-drafting yet again. But this time, I was lucky – Simon & Schuster liked it and offered me a two book deal. I'm thrilled to say they liked the second book too and I've now signed a contract with them for books three and four.

12. Tell us about your writing routine
It takes me a long time to settle to work when I'm writing a first draft. I'm usually at my desk by 10 having had breakfast, walked the dog (if it's my turn), and read whichever book I have on the go for at least half an hour. I deal with emails first, then I go on Facebook and Twitter (I'm being honest here) and may well be distracted by a conversation, by an interesting link someone has posted or by a video of animals or babies being hilarious. Then I check my Amazon ratings (still being honest) and if no other emails have come in, I open up the document I'm working on and read over the last thing I wrote. It's at this point that I cry, or swear, or both. By now it'll be time for coffee...

You see where I'm going with this? I spend a long, long time procrastinating! Once I make a start, it'll go well for a few days, then I'll grind to a halt and the whole process will start again. Eventually, believe it or not, a first draft emerges. And once that's done, my routine changes, too. When I'm writing a second draft, I become much more focused, settling to work very quickly most days, often staying in my pyjamas and working right through to the evening until my husband drags me away for food and wine. At this stage, I tend to neglect everything else – the house, shopping, emails etc until I can't ignore those things any more, then I take a day away from writing to deal with them before getting back to the novel the following day.

13. Are any of your characters based on real people?
Not directly, although I do occasionally use certain aspects of real people – a physical characteristic, a character trait, or maybe even just a habit or a particular way of speaking. I don’t think it’s a good idea to base characters entirely on real people for a number of reasons, but mainly because it can be difficult to move away from fact and fictionalise them enough to suit the purposes of your story. The nearest I’ve come to basing a character on a real person is Estelle in The Secrets We Left Behind. She's a lovely character and has a great deal in common with my late grandma-in-law, whom I adored.

14.  Writers are often told ‘write what you know’; do you agree?
No – not in the literal sense, anyway. If writers only wrote about things they had first-hand experience of, the world of fiction would be pretty limited. But when writers are given this advice I think it's more about knowing your subject as intimately as possible. If it's something you know nothing about to begin with, you just need to research the topic thoroughly so that you're knowledgeable enough to make what you say convincing and authentic. Even if you're writing about a completely imaginary world – maybe your story is set fifty years in the future, for example, or on another planet – you need to 'know' that world inside out in order to make it believable. So your world may have a different social system or currency to our own, or it may be peopled by different beings, but as long as you know how it all works and you're consistent, your reader will go along with it. Maybe the advice should be, 'know what you write'! 

15.  Do you show your work to anyone else before it’s finished?
I  have done in the past, but now I prefer to get to the end of the first draft before to showing it to anyone, although I may show a small extract to a trusted writing friend. Then my agent and my editor see it, then my husband. I think keeping it to myself in the early stages works better for me. It's what I did with the second book, and what I'm now doing with the third. I talk about it, but no one else has read a word of it yet.

16.  What’s the best thing about being a writer?
So many things! Knowing that I'm getting paid to do the thing I love most; the moment when I know that's what I'm working on has come to life; meeting and talking to other writers; reading nice reviews; receiving lovely emails from readers; feeling justified in going out for coffee and cake (as long as I take my laptop!) I could go on...

17.  What’s the worst thing about being a writer?
The self-doubt, the fear that you can't do it anymore. The feeling that everything you write is rubbish, that your imagination had deserted you and that you can no longer string a coherent sentence together, never mind one that is elegant and meaningful. 

18.   What advice would you give a beginner writer? 
Writing is a craft, and like any other craft the more you do it, the more skilled you'll become. Read a lot, write a lot. Listen to advice and take note of what chimes with you but ignore the rest. Do not give up, even when it's going badly. And you might want to type out this quote, which I have pinned above my computer: "Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and Determination alone are omnipotent." Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933)

19.   Do you enjoy meeting and talking to readers?
Yes, I love events where I can meet readers, particularly when there's a Q&A session involved because these often turn into conversations with lots of people telling their own stories. I often get asked about my writing routines and how the whole thing works, and I could talk about that endlessly because I still don't quite understand it myself and I find the whole process fascinating. 

20.   How do you like to spend your time when you’re not writing?
I'm sure it'll come as no surprise that I spend a lot of time reading – there isn't enough time left for me to read everything I'd like to read. I also enjoy cooking, socialising, eating and drinking red wine. I like walking, too, and we have a big black dog called Henry who keeps me company.