1. Was your childhood ambition always to be a writer? If not, what inspired you to start writing?
It was. I’ve no idea where the impulse sprang from but I can’t remember life without it.
2. How long have you been writing?
I have a very clear memory of struggling with a story when I was about four or five. I asked my mother if she would write it for me and her reply made a huge impression on me. She said, ‘But if I wrote it it would be my story, not yours.’ It was a very astute answer, I think, as it spurred me to try harder. I’ve kept a diary since I was about nine and wrote stories during my teens. At university and in my early twenties I attended poetry classes, where I was taught by Jo Shapcott and then Michael Donaghy. These had a huge effect on my writing, forcing me to economise, to make each word pull its weight. I was 24 when I started writing what would eventually become my first novel, After You’d Gone.
3. What do you enjoy most about writing?
I love the solitude and the secrecy of it - as well as the escapism.
4. Which writers do you admire?
Dead ones: Charlotte Bronte, RL Stevenson, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Leo Tolstoy, Anthony Burgess, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Molly Keane, James Hogg, Angela Carter, Virginia Woolf.
Alive ones: Margaret Atwood, Philip Roth, JM Coetzee, Michele Roberts, Ali Smith, Kate Atkinson, David Mitchell, Colum McCann, Peter Carey, Jeanette Winterson, William Boyd.
5. Which authors have influenced your writing the most and why?
That’s a hard question. There are too many of them. The simplest answer would be, initially, Charlotte Bronte, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Albert Camus. I read them in my teens; your skin is at its thinnest then and you are at your most porous. What you read then will affect you for the rest of your life and I fell for Jane Eyre and The Yellow Wallpaper and The Outsider: they changed the way I looked at the world and my concept of what fiction could do.
More recently, I’ve been entranced by Margaret Atwood, Virginia Woolf, Tolstoy, Edith Wharton, Angela Carter. If I like a book I might read it several times and with each read you find something different. There are books I will study. I’ve been poring over Mrs Dalloway in the last few months, trying to unpick the prose and the structure, in an attempt to work out how Woolf does it. It’s almost impossible, as it’s so brilliantly and tightly written.
6. What was the last good book you read?
I’ve just finished Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, her interpretation of the Odysseus myth. I loved it as it always bothered me that Penelope seemed so uncomplaining and patient in the face of her husband’s extended absence and persistant infidelity.
7. To what extent has your life experience influenced your writing?
I don’t use my life in my novels, or not directly. I would never write autobiographically as I tend to write as an alternative to my life, not a repetition or imitation of it. But inevitably there are elements of it that come into my books, in different forms. I think all fiction is a patchwork of things you’ve made up, things you’ve borrowed or heard or read somewhere, and things you’ve translated from life.
8. Do you always know how your books will end before you start writing?
No, not at all and that’s part of the pleasure. I have a quote by Picasso beside my desk: ‘If you know exactly what you are going to do, what is the point of doing it?’ I couldn’t imagine anything worse than planning every last detail of a book and then spending the next two or three years working through that plan. I enjoy the way your ideas for a book mutate and alter as you go along. I start – sometimes at the beginning, sometimes in the middle – often without any idea how it will end. And if I do begin with an image for the ending in mind usually by the time I get to the end it’s all changed.
9. What inspired your new novel The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox?
It is a novel I’ve wanted to write for a long time. I first had the idea – of a woman who is incarcerated in an asylum for a lifetime – fifteen years ago. I tried to write it then, as my first novel, but it didn’t work and I ended up abandoning it to write After You’d Gone instead. This was in the mid nineties, after Thatcher’s Care in the Community Act, when psychiatric hospitals were being closed down and patients turfed out. There were a lot of stories flying around at that time of people, particularly women, like Esme who had been put away for reasons of immorality and left to rot. A friend told me about his grandmother’s cousin, who had just died in an asylum, having been put there in her early twenties for “eloping with a legal clerk”.
The idea never went away and I gradually amassed more and more stories and examples of girls who had been committed in the early Twentieth century for little more that being disobedient or incalcitrant. When you start to dig a little deeper, into case notes and medical reports, the findings are terrifying.
I’ve always been interested in the idea of what happens to the same type of woman – uncompromising, unconventional, refusing to fit into the domestic role society has set out for her – at different times in history. Centuries ago, she might have been condemned as a witch but as recently as sixty years ago she might have been deemed insane and committed to an asylum.
10. How is your new novel different from the previous ones?
It feels very different to me, in lots of way. It’s partly historical as most of the book takes place in 1930s Edinburgh and colonial India. I think it’s tighter than the others: there are only three main characters, whereas the others have tended to be more wide-ranging. I did a great deal more research for it, on psychiatric practices and institutions, on life and society in the 1930s.