What books did you read when you were a child?
Lots of books that people scoff at now, eg Noddy and Malory Towers and Billy Bunter…. If you got a prize at my school it was always a book token and I used to love going to the bookshop and buying one of Enid Blyton’s Adventure books, my favourite was The Island of Adventure. Later on I started reading the Narnia series – I especially loved The Silver Chair. Then I progressed to Dickens and the Brontes. There wasn’t much in between in those days. Young people are lucky today – there’s so much to choose from.
If you could be a storybook character who would you be?
I always fancied myself as Edmund from the Narnia books, ie the one that sins but comes good in the end. And yes, I know Edmund’s a boy and I’m a girl. I addressed this when I called my second son Edmund. Funnily enough I had this conversation with another writer recently (William Nicholson who wrote The Wind Singer) because he also named a son Edmund for C S Lewis reasons.
What is the best thing about reading?
Everything. Being lost in a world that isn’t yours. How the words fall over you like you’re a rock and they’re a waterfall.
What is your all time favourite book?
I can’t answer this question because it changes as I change. But the book I read – and re-read – most as a young person was Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. Heathcliff being, of course, the ultimate romantic hero. That Twilight guy, he’s just some watered down version. Sorry, but it’s true.
How important is reading in life?
Very. It’s a passport to a wider world. It allows you to travel from the back of a Cornflake packet to the inside of someone else’s head. Name me something else that can do that.
How did you get your first break?
Winning a bar of chocolate for a story I wrote about a giraffe when I was six. This made me think I was a writer. I’ve been metaphorically looking for chocolate ever since.
How does an idea become a novel?
With blood sweat and tears.
Which book do you wish you’d written?
I try not to be jealous.
As a reader, do you always finish a book you’ve started?
No. It’s the writer’s job to propel me through his or her story, if that’s not happening I lay the book aside. Always a huge pile of books by my bed to choose from….
If you weren’t a writer, what job would you like to have done?
What keeps you awake at night?
Why did you choose to live in Brighton and Hove and what keeps you here?
Love the sea, the culture, the people.
How does living here inspire your work?
Feather Boy was only written because I stumbled into a real derelict house in Hove one day. The sea always inspires me and washes into many of my books. The availability of events here (especially theatre) constantly replenishes me.
Other work besides writing; ie Editing, dramaturgy, tutoring, and how it works for/against your own writing
I try not to do it. Tutoring is a giving out, an emptying out. I feel I should do it (to give something back) and I sometimes do, but I try to limit it to the times I’m researching rather than writing. Writing empties you out enough anyway. On the other hand, I love the feeling I get when I work with other creative people – which is why I love making plays. And I get a buzz from young people too, I see the spark lit and think, yes, this is important, could change a life. So, yes I visit schools, quite often actually…. And I sometimes work in prisons and sit on literature committees…. And I co-founded and, for ten years, co-directed a charity dedicated to training writers for screen, opera and theatre…. Hmm. What was that I wasn’t doing?
Tell us what kind of responses you get from audiences\ readers.
I’ve had incredible letters from readers around the world telling me what stories or characters they resonate with and why. The letters are often deeply felt – sometimes sharing intimate and difficult things – and it’s a privilege to know you have touched someone in that way. It’s a lonely job being a novelist – you spend about 18 months with a book in pretty much total radio silence, so any letter is special. It’s very different in the theatre of course, where the feedback is so much more immediate. I always listen to how the lines play and often change things according to where e.g. the laughs/tears do (or don’t…) come. But I never think about the audience in advance. I just write the story as it burns me.
What inspires you to write?
It’s like breathing. If you don’t do it, you die a little.
Do you have a writing routine? A place that’s special?
My first work hour is walking the dog. There is something about the rhythm of walking which is like the rhythm of creating. I never take a notebook with me, but often I solve really deep problems when I walk. At my desk it’s a different thing. I’m very anally retentive there. I only use a particular type of notebook, a red, spiral-bound A4 book made by a company called Silvine. I’ve used them for over 20 years. If this company ever goes bankrupt, I’m scuppered.
Do you address particular themes or issues in your writing?
Someone once told me I always write about loss. I was very indignant – I write about lots of different subjects, don’t I? Then I looked at my work. It’s all about loss. Even the happy bits are about loss. Probably because I lost my father when I was 14 and my mother just before my first child was born, when I was thirty.
Where do you get your ideas from?
I look and I listen. Occasionally I see and I hear (which is different). Then I write. If you’re an aspiring writer and want to know where you can get ideas from try Writing Tips.
When you start to write a book, do you know how it will end?
Absolutely. I never begin a book until I know what the last line will be.
Do you base your characters on real people?
No. It’s quite impossible to do that because then they won’t behave the way the plot demands. But I do ‘jack-daw’ certain traits I’ve observed from friends and family….
Do you follow the same process each time you write?
Yes. Though the process is different for novels/opera/plays etc. Basically I wrestle with a notebook and an idea for about 6 months, then when I can write the structure of story out one line per chapter, I actually begin the book.
At what stage in your writing process do you use a computer?
After the six months – ie when I begin to do the writing rather than the planning.
How much do you edit your work?
Always and ever. I try to write 1000 words a day. The following day the first thing I do is re-read and edit those words, so that 1000 might become 300 or (on a lucky day..) 2000. I keep editing right until the book is sent to print.
How much does your editor change what you write?
Not a lot.
Do you ever get writer’s block? What do you do about it?
Touch wood – no. Touch lots of wood.
What is the hardest thing about being a writer?
The self-belief when it isn’t going well.
What is the best thing about being a writer?
You can do it in the bath. Which means that some of your best ideas come when you are not actually looking for them. How lucky is that?
Do you have input into the cover of your books?
Slightly more now than when I started – but generally no. Which is probably a good thing because my visual sense leaves a bit to be desired.
What is your attitude to eBooks?
Personally – having worked all day at a screen, I long for the printed page. And I don’t think anything will change that for me. But I can see that eBooks will change not just the face (or interface..) of reading but also of publishing.