Yes. As I child I tried to write ‘books’ and have many attempts in a drawer at home – mostly beginnings of stories and no endings, and lots of blank pages. One of the stories involves a cat and a snake going to the dentist. At eight years old I wrote in a school exercise book that I was going to be a writer when I grew up, but after that I think I felt shy about the ambition and hid it for a long time, though I still wrote bits and pieces and occasionally showed them to friends and family.
Q&AQuestions & Answers
Did you always want to be a writer?
How did you become a writer?
I began with a correspondence course with the Open College of the Arts as I wanted to try out creative writing in secret. Then I attended a few short courses with Vicky Grut (London Writing Workshops) and Anne Aylor. Anne’s classes led to a workshop group that I was part of for a year – meeting every week to read and edit each other’s writing. And finally I applied for an MA in Creative Writing at University of East Anglia. I’d already written about 40,000 words by the time I started the MA, but that year of intense study helped me to improve and finish the project.
How did you get published?
At the end of the MA year our dissertations (15,000 words of fiction) were sent to Curtis Brown to be considered for the Curtis Brown Award. My dissertation was part of Elizabeth is Missing. I didn’t win, but one of the agents judging the prize was Karolina Sutton. She got in touch and said she’d like to read the rest of the novel when it was finished. Once I had a final draft I sent it to her. She signed me and asked for some edits on the manuscript before taking it to the London Book Fair, where several publishers bid on the book in an auction. It was published by Viking in the UK, HarperCollins in the US, and Knopf Canada.
What is being a writer like?
It’s like having two completely different jobs. One involves being alone, being quiet, relying on my imagination. The other demands that I am surrounded by people and do a lot of public speaking. It’s strange to go from one to the other, but I enjoy both aspects now.
Which writers have influenced you?
I loved Ann Radcliffe as a teenager, she was writing at the end of the eighteenth century and her books brilliantly use uncanny, seemingly supernatural, elements (disembodied voices, strange lights in disused buildings, ghostly music in the forest) that are then cleverly explained later.
Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time was published while I was trying to work out how to write Elizabeth is Missing and reading the story of that impaired amateur detective gave me the licence I needed to attempt one of my own. The structure of Whistle in the Dark was heavily influenced by Evan S Connell’s Mrs Bridge. It is a very cleverly layered book, made up of glimpses of a life.
Another influence was The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield, this also uses vignettes or significant moments to build up the plot. The voice is absolutely brilliant too, funny, passionate, sometimes on the edge of hysteria, and it made me really think about the voice of Jen.
What is your writing routine?
I don’t really have one. I’ve tried getting up at 6 o’clock in the morning, but I never produce anything worthwhile when I’m tired. Mostly I write later in the day never more than about 500 words (occasionally on a brilliant day 1,000). Sometimes I write in my office – a little room at the back of the house – sometimes in the garden, or at the dinner table, or in a café, or on the sofa, or in bed.
Do you ‘write what you know’?
I feel I do keep quite closely to what I know. I’m not interested in writing straightforward autobiography, instead I try to change perspective. In Elizabeth is Missing I began to imagine a story from the grandmother’s point of view, rather than the granddaughter’s. In Whistle in the Dark I explored what it would be like to be the mother of a depressed teenage girl, having known what it was like to be that depressed girl.
Do you plan your novels in advance?
I don’t plan in advance, but I do keep a sort of plan while I’m writing because I don’t write in chronological order. For Elizabeth is Missing the plan was very detailed, split into chapters, and scenes. The scenes set in the present were in plain text, the scenes in the past were in italics, every character who appeared in the scene was highlighted in bold, etc, etc. The plan for Whistle in the Dark was much looser, and I just kept a list of the titled sections.
Do you have any other hobbies?
Apart from reading, I love gardening. My garden is tiny, but I have crammed it full of plants and am always trying to squeeze in another one. I also love video games and have to ration them because I find them so addictive.
Do you have any writing tips?
- Read widely
- Recognise excuses
- Save your will power
- Make yourself visual aids
- Write what you want when you want
- Read your work out loud (because writing sounds different in your head)
- Print your work out (because writing looks different on paper)
- Edit and edit and edit and edit and edit
- Remember why you're doing this (also known as ‘read a really great book now and then’)
- Make sure at least one other person has read your work
Are there any books you'd recommend to aspiring writers?
These are some of the best writing guides:
- The Joy of Writing Sex ~ Elizabeth Benedict
- The Art of Writing Fiction ~ Andrew Cowan
- A Novel in a Year ~ Louise Doughty
- 100 Ways to Improve your Writing ~ Gary Provost
And these are some of the best books about fiction:
- Six Memos for the Next Millennium ~ Italo Calvino
- The Art of Writing Fiction ~ Andrew Cowan (This is on both lists because it is about fiction as well as how to write fiction.)
- Aspects of the Novel ~ E M Forster
- How Novels Work ~ John Mullan
- How Fiction Works ~ James Wood