Where were you born?
Southsea, which conjured exotic images of Pacific islands in my young mind. Then I discovered it was part of Portsmouth. I was born there because my father was in the navy.
Where did you grow up?
After my birth, my father went off to sea to the Antarctic and my mother took me and my elder brother to our grandmother in rural Ireland. I went to boarding school in the UK at the age of seven ‘til 18. Ireland was our one constant for many years, as well as my parents’ Edwardian-bohemian home on the seafront in Deal, Kent, then an old smugglers town with a raffish air.
What sorts of books were in your family home?
My parents read lots and widely, from biography and history to novels of all stripes. My father’s favourite book is Lampedusa’s The Leopard, and my mother loved Nancy Mitford. There were also plenty of humorous books, including P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh.
Who were early formative influences?
I loved As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, Down and Out In Paris and London and The Beano. Laurie Lee captured the enchantment of setting off into the world as a young person; George Orwell brought alive for me the seedy underbelly, the hidden side of cities; and The Beano provided mischief.
Why do you write?
I love words and stories and the thrill of trying to capture and conjure life in an entrancing way – and the sadomasochistic satisfaction in the process. And wouldn’t it be a nice way to earn a living?
How do you choose your subjects?
My book on Pakistan was something I had to write – the country gave me so many bizarre and rich experiences and it covers a part of my and my grandmother’s lives that I didn’t want to lose or waste – and I thought it would entertain.
How do you move from research to writing; is it difficult to begin?
My travels ended and then I began to trawl through dozens of my notebooks, writing up what I thought would be the material I used for my book. I massively over researched and over wrote the early drafts, mistakenly thinking that I had to cover every angle of Pakistan, including in depth historical background. In the end, I realised the most important thing to make it a readable and enjoyable book was to keep the narrative as tightly as possible to my own experience.
As an author, what are you most proud (or embarrassed) of writing?
I’m most proud of an article I wrote on kidney failure after my first transplant. It was used in hospitals, to inform young people with kidney disease of what they faced. I’m most embarrassed by an article I wrote about officers and their pets, which I actually quite like.
Your views on success?
I’m sure it’s not all bad.
Do you write every day? Do you do many drafts?
I did when I was writing my book and would like to get back to it. Robert Graves said the waste paper basket was his best friend. The delete button on my keyboard is the most worn.
What are you working on now?
I am working on ideas for another travel book and a novel.
Your views on book publishing?
Eland is a wonderful home for my book. I hope other small publishing houses flourish too because they are the guarantors of literary diversity.
Do you enjoy reading ebooks?
No. I spend too much time already looking at screens.
Your views on how new technology has (or has not) changed your writing life? Your views on social media?
I am delighted by the cheatiness of computers, but would like to try pen and ink for a first draft. Social media is a marvel and a monster.
What are your favourite literary journals?
The London review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement.
If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
I would return to my childhood to see all my dead family members. Or if that’s too parochial, I’d like to be with the Jesuit missionary Father Jerome Xavier when he was greeted at the gates of Lahore in 1595. To see the city and the Great Mughal’s court in its pomp.
Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
Bouddica, Admiral Cochrane, Alexandre Dumas and George Melly, or a female cannibal, who would eat my last guest, Donald Trump.
Your favourite prose authors?
Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen, James Joyce (for Dubliners only), Iris Murdoch, Molly Keane, Hunter S. Thompson.
Your heroes in fiction? And in real life?
I love Cyrano de Bergerac. In real life, Malala Yousafzai.
Your chief characteristic?
My long toes.
Your chief fault?
My love of purple prose.
Your bedside reading?
A stack of books, some read, others attempted, others waiting, but usually passed over for a P.G. Wodehouse, Eric Ambler, or Georges Simenon.
If you tie a knot in your wimple, you’ll never forget your vespers
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