1. A question from Katy Noyes on the TV Book Club Facebook Group: Where does the writing process begin? 'The big idea'? Chapter one? A character?
For me it's a character and a setting; I can't divorce the two. So for my first novel, The Rescue Man, it was an architectural historian in wartime Liverpool, and for Half of the Human Race it was a suffragette in Edwardian London. Once I had the character, and the character's name, I was away.
2. A question from Samantha on channel4.com/tvbookclub: Where and how do you engage in the writing of your work?
I write in a small room at the top of our house, at a desk facing a view of back gardens that I find quite soothing. I could probably write anywhere, though, so long as it's quiet.
3. A question from Mez on channel4.com/tvbookclub: Who or what has influenced your style of writing?
All sorts of writers, though I'm wary of naming them in case it looks like I'm setting myself up in their company. For instance, I have loved Jane Austen since I was a teenager and have re-read her often, because I enjoy her wit and elegance and lovely prose; but I would never dream of suggesting my work even approaches hers. Nevertheless, her sentences are often in my head while I'm writing. One of the best things a reviewer ever said about Half of the Human Race was that it reminded him of Jane Austen: his words, not mine!
4. A question from Jo Baines on the TV Book Club Facebook Group: Do you feel it's inevitable that an author's life experiences will influence their writing or is it possible to write a book that is pure imagination and creative process?
Yes, I think it is inevitable, though what matters is how you transform and disguise those life experiences. I'm all for 'pure imagination', but it needs to be anchored in a recognisable picture of human life. I always heed what the American writer Lorrie Moore said about the relationship of a writer to his or her life. She reckoned it's like a cook with a cupboard. What the cook makes from the cupboard is not the same thing as what's in the cupboard. You paraphrase your experience, you modify it, until it belongs to your characters and your story.
5. A question from Ali on channel4.com/tvbookclub: My GCSE English teacher told me (a few years ago now), that when authors write a book they know exactly what the plot is, and wouldn't start without knowing what the end will be. I've always found this difficult to believe; is it true!?
All authors? How would your teacher know that? My own experience is that I start with a 'shape', which develops into a plot during the writing. I have an ending in my head, but how I get to it is more complicated, involving much cogitation, reading, happenstance and a fair bit of daydreaming.
6. How old were you when you had your first book published, and what were you doing before you were a writer?
I was 44 when my first book was published: quite late. I would have written one sooner if I'd been able, but the idea rather daunted me and I despaired of finding 'a subject'. In a way I feel glad I waited that long, because I needed to get to a point in my life when I knew I could do it. Before I began writing fiction I reviewed films for The Independent newspaper; I still do.
7. A question from the TV Book Club Facebook Group: In a crowded market many authors don't get published; what's the secret of your success?
I would like to say my success (such as it is) can be ascribed to the hard, gemlike flame of my talent, but it's not. The truth is it's about a little bit of talent and a lot of luck.
8. A question inspired by Yaisa's suggestion on channel4.com/tvbookclub: How much research do you have to do, which are the most difficult types of scenes to research, and have you ever had to go to extreme or unusual lengths to research a scene?
I do a great deal of research in preparation, and then try to forget about it once I start writing. A great writer once advised me, just as I was beginning my first novel, not to put too much information in there, because it can kill a book. I know now what he means. Research is something that should be ever present yet invisible: it should be in the service of your story, not an adjunct to it. Extreme lengths? I recently ate a snail for the first time, thinking it might be useful for the book I'm writing. Not bad: tasted a bit like chicken.
9. What's the most outlandish idea you've ever had for a storyline, and has it made it into one of your books?
I don't know if it counts as outlandish, but about eight years ago the first half of a plot came to me in a dream, and I recorded it in my journal. Thank God I did, too, because I'm going to use it in the novel I've just started.
10. And another question from the TV Book Club Facebook Group: What do you think of e-readers and would you ever consider providing additional content for readers who use them (e.g. pictures, video clips, web links)?
I suppose e-readers are very handy for people who travel a lot or who work on manuscripts and such, but they're not for me. I like - I revere - the book as an object, I love holding a book in my hands and examining the cover. The tactile experience would be rather lost in a digital transfer. I don't think it's up to an author to include 'additional content' in his or her book. If readers want to follow up their interest in the book they've just read, that's fine: there's the web out there. But it's not the writer's responsibility: their work has been done, in sentences and paragraphs.