The Booker Prize-winner and Regeneration Trilogy author on writing rituals, time-travelling and what fictional character she'd like to share a bottle or two with
Where did you grow up, and what was it like?
Partly on Teesside, but mainly in Yorkshire. It was a remarkably free childhood – on winter evenings we would be playing outside until long after dark, and we would set off for whole days away from home, sometimes with a neighbour’s small child in tow. In that respect, it was totally unlike the lives of modern children. The other aspect for which I’m continually grateful is the public library – plenty of books to read and time to lie around, be lazy, read and dream.
What was your childhood ambition?
To be a writer.
What is your earliest reading memory?
Aged four, teaching myself to read from a girls’ annual. I remember the page I selected – entirely at random – was about a lacrosse match. I had no idea what lacrosse was. In fact, I’m still a bit vague on the subject even now. I pursued every adult in the house demanding to be told words and marking in green pencil where I’d got to. That lacrosse match seemed to go on forever!
Where do you live now?
I live in a Victorian terraced house in Durham, alone, since my husband died. It’s a short walk to shops, theatre and restaurants. And my daughter and granddaughter live 15 minutes away. I have an extremely antiquated cat, who will not be with me much longer, and two fish tanks.
What kind of books do you write?
I write fiction. The most recent books have been historical, though I have written contemporary fiction as well.
What did you do before you were a writer, and when did you start to consider yourself a writer?
I was a teacher. I started to consider myself a writer when I started to write. The description ‘writer’ ought not to depend on being published. Many writers in these troubled times have lost their publishers or failed to find one. I think anybody who regularly shows up at the page and wrestles with words deserves to be called a writer.
What are your inspirations?
Connecting with the natural world seems to work. Certainly, when I’ve been feeling too tired to go on, a day at the beach throwing sticks for my daughter’s dog and thinking about nothing in particular gets me started again.
Books and authors you’ve loved include:
George Herbert’s poetry for that immensely gentle and intimate tone of voice. John Donne’s poetry – a totally different tone, but the same startling directness and, in his case, passion. I love crime fiction – PD James, Ian Rankin, CJ Sansom, SJ Parris, Antonia Hodgson.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m re-reading The Iliad and Christopher Logue’s War Music with its shocking – but, I think, convincing – deliberate anachronisms. Helicopters at Troy? Well, why not! I’m reading, for the first time, The Fish Ladder by Katharine Norbury. It’s part memoir, part nature writing – the account of a young woman grieving for the loss of a much-wanted pregnancy, taking her nine-year-old daughter up a river to find its source. Beautifully written and very moving. And I’m reading Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane. Brilliant – like all his books.
Who is your favourite fictional character – one you didn’t write – and why?
Achilles (see above). Though Pip in Great Expectations runs him a very close second.
Which fictional character would you like to go out drinking with, and why?
Jane Eyre – because half-way down the second bottle we would both get in touch with our own personal madwoman in the attic and learn an enormous amount.
Which fictional location would you most like to visit, and why?
The London of Charles Dickens, to find out how much was strictly accurate and how much (I suspect a great deal) was a city of the mind.
What would be your desert island…
Music: Keep Your Feet Still, Geordie Hinny and Hallelujah.
Books: The Assassin’s Cloak – an anthology of extracts from diaries that supplies a number of voices from different historical periods for each day of the year. Fascinating for those who love, as I do, the diary form.
Film: Stand By Me.
Artwork: Elisabeth Frink’s Running and Spinning Men. Tom McGuinness’s Miners.
Food and drink: A glass of red wine with a salmon salad and fresh fruit to follow. Disgustingly healthy.
Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party, and what would you serve?
The Prophet Mohammed, Buddha, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry. I wouldn’t waste time worrying about the food – nobody would be able to eat anything.
What are you like on social media?
I don’t do social media. I think about it now and then, but so far second thoughts have prevailed.
Not many people know this, but I’m very good at…
After a lifetime of rescuing small, furry creatures I can now catch a mouse faster than any cat.
What is your guilty pleasure?
Do you seriously expect me to share that???
What do you always carry with you when you travel?
Notebook and pen/pencils. And, these days, Kindle.
What moment in history would you have wanted to be present at, and why?
The first performance of Hamlet with Shakespeare playing, as he is reputed to have done, the Gravedigger and the Ghost. Because it would be fascinating to see Shakespeare the actor/director rather than being confined, as we are now, to Shakespeare the playwright.
How do you prefer to write – by hand, typing? What do you write on?
I write straight onto a Toshiba laptop – the kind with a 17-inch screen. Preparatory work – it doesn’t usually amount to a draft – is done on yellow legal pads.
Can you tell us about a problem you hit with one of your works and how you got around it?
The final chapter of The Ghost Road – the problem was how to get a sense of completion not merely of that book but of the two previous books as well. I got round it by putting the chapter into the wastepaper basket. (It doesn’t exist in the published version.)
Where do you write, and how?
These days, I write in the living room with a particular view from the window that I like a lot and, in winter, a fire. I need silence and freedom from interruptions – and the self-discipline to go on staring at the page till something starts to happen. Needless to say, all these things are sometimes in short supply.
Do you ever re-read your earlier works?
Only when I’m asked to do a reading from them. It’s a no-win situation – either you think it’s bad and it’s too late to do anything about it, or you think it’s surprisingly OK, which reinforces your impression that what you’re currently working on is utter rubbish.
Do you have any writing rituals?
Only endless cups of tea. If they’re left to go cold that’s generally a good sign.
How would you define the role of the writer?
To keep the language clean by using it mindfully – and to tell the truth.
What’s the most useful piece of advice about writing you’ve been given?
When in doubt, cross it out.
Your favourite first line (written by you)?
No favourites. Anything that shoehorns the reader effortlessly (for the reader!) into the story.
How do you celebrate finishing a book?
Finishing is so elusive, there’s a real danger of never celebrating at all, since the book goes through so many post-delivery stages. I try to have a few days away or a really good night out. And then, having longed to be rid of it, I start missing it – and start the next.
And finally, what’s the question – and answer to the question – no one has ever asked you but you wish they would?
What possible relevance does the writer’s biographical details have to understanding and enjoying their writing?
Answer: none, or very little.