Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in Nottingham, as were my parents, but I grew up in Southern Nigeria. When we came back to the UK we moved around a bit before settling in Essex. I stayed there until I had my children.
What sorts of books were in your family home?
There was a real spread of genres. My sister read historical fiction, lots of it, we were always battling for space on our joint bookshelves. My Dad liked humour and detective fiction, the Father Brown Stories, Simenon’s Maigret, and Jeeves and Wooster. There were also quite a lot of autobiographies in the house, I’m not sure who brought them, probably mum, but we all read them.
I was lucky as a child, there was no limit on what we could read. If it was in the house anyone could read it. My dad believed that if it was too advanced for us we would lose interest in the book and put it back on the shelf. I think it probably worked. I never felt I had to finish a book that I wasn’t enjoying, but I never felt that any books were beyond me.
Who were early formative influences as a writer?
Well I remember liking to read books that were part of a series. All the Swallows and Amazons books, everything by Douglas Adams and Agatha Christie. So you’d think I would already have my next book about Jamal finished. Unfortunately, I haven’t, but I did end the book so that it is possible.
I am also drawn to books with a strong sense of place, Du Maurier’s coastlines, Jansson’s rural Finland or Höeg’s Greenland. I hope this is reflected in The Ghosts and Jamal. I wanted to use the landscape, the red soil and the overcrowded streets to make the readers feel that they were on the journey with Jamal.
Do you write every day?
At the moment I am researching for my next book, so I am doing less writing and more reading. But I still like to write a couple of days a week. Small pieces of writing that are finished in a single day. But I am beginning to miss getting my teeth into something longer, I think I’ll have to start writing the novel soon, even if I have to re-write it once I’ve interviewed a few more people. However, I can’t set a strict timetable for writing, I’m a carer so that always takes priority over anything else.
Do you do many drafts?
Definitely, I read once that “all writing is bad, it’s re-writing that makes it readable.” I like to get the whole story down as quickly as I can, writing two or three thousand words a day. Then I print out the manuscript and read it, scribbling corrections in the margins. I have to use a paper copy as I find editing on screen almost impossible.
As an author, what are you most proud (or embarrassed) of writing?
Last year I wrote a small piece of non-fiction about Chora in Greece for The Alpine Fellowship. It might not have been the best writing that I have ever produced, but I was quite proud of myself for writing it. It was a very personal piece and I have Asperger’s syndrome, so I am not very comfortable talking about how I feel. I think I deserve a pat on the back for doing it.
Of course, I’m also very pleased with The Ghosts and Jamal. It’s my first novel so it’s lovely to see it in print.
Your views on success?
It’s great fun and at the same time quite daunting. I am ridiculously happy every time someone tells me that they have enjoyed what I have written, then I wonder if they have got the right author. I’ve only been writing for a few years and sometimes I think that I’m going to be told that it has all been a mistake. However, I’m going to enjoy myself in the meantime, meeting my readers and writing more stories.
What are you working on now?
I’m halfway through a collection of short stories, but I’ve been told that short stories don’t sell so I’m also working on another Young Adult Novel. This time I wanted to write about strong female characters.
Your views on book publishing?
It’s an exciting time. There are so many independents presses in the UK now, and new, small agencies, so there are more opportunities for authors to find the right match for their work.
However, I might not be the best person to ask about this as The Ghosts and Jamal is my first book. What I can say is that getting that match is really important and potential authors need to look at how the fit with the rest of the work that a publisher (or agency) have in their catalogue. HopeRoad was the right publisher for a book like mine and a smaller, independent publisher was right for a person like me.
What are your favorite literary journals?
I subscribe to Granta and the Literary Review and the New Welsh Review. I use the library for other journals.
Your views on how new technology has (or has not) changed your writing life? Your views on social media?
Well I would hate to go back to using a typewriter, with the need for carbon paper and correction fluid, or even worse to writing a whole book in long hand. However, I do use note books to keep my ideas in, and I have pages of first lines that I’m keeping ready for the right story to fit them to. But in general word processing wins out every time. I even have a nice piece of software that reads what I’ve typed back to me – I catch a lot of typing mistakes that way.
Social media is another thing entirely. I’m learning slowly, but I’m not a child of the internet age. My sons are helpful, occasionally, and my publisher is nagging me to get better at it. So maybe I should say that social media is “work in progress”. I have a Facebook account for my book and I have a twitter account and I try to remember to post at least twice a week.
Maybe by my next book I’ll have caught up and be fully media savvy. At least I hope so!
Do you enjoy reading e-books?
I have an e-reader, but, if I’m honest I don’t use it very often. I find it very difficult to read on screen. Mostly I use it to sample books from Amazon, then, if I enjoy the book, I buy a paper copy.
I am amazed at people who take them on holiday, (are my kids listening to this?). If you lose your e-reader or drop it in the sea that’s an expensive mistake. Just take a couple of books with you, are read them, even if one gets soaked it’s not the end of the world.
If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
Somewhere cold and windy preferably on the North Sea coast; ideally Robin Hood’s Bay, I used to spend time there with my father.
Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
The first would be my maternal grandmother. She kept her family clothed and fed during The Depression. I guess she could teach me how to be better at managing my money.
Dame Caroline Haslett, who founded the Women’s Engineering Society. Her trust fund helped me to go to university. I’d like to thank her.
Shirley Williams, the politician. She was, as my gran would say, “a woman with bite.” She was intelligent, principled and a great debater. She was also a compelling writer – I’d recommend her autobiography, Climbing the Bookshelves, to anyone.
Philip Pullman would be an interesting guest, particularly as I’m reading his essays on storytelling at the moment, so maybe I could ask for some advice.
Finally, it would be Tove Jansson; maybe I could persuade her to draw a quick sketch of a Moomin or two on the napkins.
Your favourite prose authors?
This is tricky because it changes all the time. But here is my current list:
Anthony Marna (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is my all-time favourite book.)
Ama Ata Aidoo for her short stories; Nadifa Mohamed for her novel The Orchard of Lost Souls; Margaret Atwood; Jeanette Winterson, and for non-fiction maybe Judith Herrin.
This question is too difficult. I could fill pages of favourite authors.
Your heroes in fiction? And in real life?
In real life it would be above all my mother. She is a remarkable woman, but I guess most people think that don’t they, but my mother is remarkable. If for no other reason that she left school at fourteen, but still managed to home school my siblings and I. She was so determined we should get a good education that, after my father died, she went to work in a hospital kitchen so that I had the funds to become an engineer. That’s a pretty special thing to do.
When I was a young engineer I met John Coplin, he led the design team for the Rolls Royce RB211 engine and I’ve never got over that. Just imagine being the person who put their name to such an iconic piece of engineering. I still can’t get over it. What’s more he had the knack of explaining what is an extremely complex concept in simple terms – famously simple enough for children to understand. That’s something to aspire to.
As for literary heroes, that is a bit more difficult. Maybe Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace. I have and Amazing Grace doll that Mary gave me, and it says “be whatever you want to be” on the skirt. Grace was pretty feisty, so she wouldn’t be a bad heroine. If Grace isn’t an option them maybe I’d be Moomin Mama, as she seams to cope with whatever life throws at her, never getting stressed, always seeing the good side, and she doesn’t obsess over her weight!
What other authors are you friends with? How do they help you become a better writer?
I don’t know any other authors very well, but there have been quite a few who have generously helped me with my writing.
Mary Hoffman, who had been very generous with her time, especially when I was worried about releasing Jamal into the world.
Rebecca Smith, the author of The Jane Austin Writer’s Club has been amazingly supportive, although I think she would have been happier if I had given Jamal an easier life – she’s much nicer to her characters than I am. I’m sure my writing has become much sharper thanks to her suggestions.
Finally, I am currently talking to Suzannah Dunn about developing voices for my characters. I met Suzannah when she was giving a lecture in Oxford. She has written a lot of historical fiction, so she is an expert and balancing readability against and authentic sounding voice. I’m not sure I’d have been brave enough to think of writing my next book without her input.
Your five favourite feature films?
I don’t watch many films, not at the cinema anyway, partly because of the lights but mostly because of the logistics of going to the cinema. If I do watch a film I don’t want to work hard so I tend to avoid anything that makes me think too hard. Old black and white films like Ice Cold in Alex or The Lady Killers are my favourites.
Your chief characteristic?
I’m over-fond of cake and coffee, neither of which are very good for me.
Your bedside reading?
I’m taking a course on the History of Art at the moment so there are piles of books about Art Theory on my bedside cabinet.
If in doubt, go to the library.
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