Every now and then, they unchain me from my desk and let me loose on the book-loving public. I love to meet readers and am always flattered and amazed by the things they have to ask me.
While some questions are unusual – I doubt I’ll ever again be asked, as I was in West Hampstead, whether I make models of my characters out of wire mesh and clay to help me visualise them – others crop up time and again. So here are the questions I’m most frequently asked, in person and via email, with the answers as they occur to me today.
Where do you get your ideas from?
This wins the FAQ Olympics by a mile, for me and every other writer I know. The rather feeble answer is that I’m not quite sure. Ideas for plots, or plot twists, or characters, or locations float around in my mind for months, or even years. Sometimes a character will bump into a story idea or a location and the book is conceived.
What’s your writing routine?
It depends where I’m at. At the planning stage, I like to mooch around coffee shops, notebook and pen, and take road trips. Sense of place is vitally important to me: often the location for my book appears before the characters or the plot, and I like to think that my stories could not have happened anywhere but at that place, at that time. While this is going on, I am a delight to live with, partly because I am rarely at home.
For the middle stage, which involves trying to wriggle out of the knots I tied myself into in the first phase, I work nine-to-five. I am quite hard to live with.
And for the last few weeks of the process, I tend to rise with the sun and write until I’m starving, come downstairs in a foul temper having a blood sugar crash, stuff my face with carbohydrates and then repeat the process in an afternoon session. At this stage living with me is borderline impossible, but what can I do?
I am a dazzling young actress. Please can I play Biba?
The rights to The Poison Tree have been sold to STV, but I’m not involved in any stage of the process and that includes casting. I’m sorry I can’t help you! But thank you for the photograph. You look very lovely in your swimsuit.
How do you combine family life with writing fiction?
Is it very ungracious of me that this question, always well-intentioned, never fails to raise my hackles? I wonder if, say, David Nicholls or Chris Cleave get that question as often as their female counterparts?
I cope getting up before the sun and learning to live with constant, corrosive guilt.* Not really, I cope the same way men have done for years; I have a wife. Well, a househusband, who keeps the home fires burning while I write. It wouldn’t suit everyone, but he’s highly evolved, and it works for us.
*Actually there are still a lot of early mornings and guilt. But I’m a pioneer, and every revolution sacrifices a generation.
Are your characters based on people you know?
It’s inevitable that certain traits and turns of phrase I encounter find their way into my books. The closer my relationship with someone, the less likely they are to find any aspect of themselves appearing in print. The more fleeting the encounter, the greater freedom I have to take what I know of that person and run with it.
I have never based a character entirely on someone I know, or someone I know of. I think it would be a greater challenge to try to recreate in fiction someone who exists in real life than it is to make up an imaginary person. It would also lay me wide open to litigation, and nobody wants that.
The only exception to this rule (that I’m aware of) is Guy from The Poison Tree, the public schoolboy who wants to be regarded as a dangerous renegade but who is soon unmasked as a deluded class tourist. The boy who inspired Guy was the first person my age I knew who had a mobile phone (this was in 1995, when the only people who had mobiles were bankers and drug dealers). He led us all to believe that his frequent, furtive phonecalls were a vital part of gangland life, but his cover was blown when his mum turned up at his house with his clean washing (pants ironed and folded) and a Tupperware container of scones.
Will you read my novel and tell me if it’s any good / introduce me to your agent / publisher?
I actually wish I could. I understand that desire for someone, anyone, to breathe life into your novel. But my life is bursting at the seams. I have two careers, one small family and a dwindling circle of neglected friends. I don’t have that many spare days – and trust me, to give any work in progress valuable, practical feedback rather than a slew of platitude takes days rather than hours.
Have you got a Kindle?
No (other e-readers are available). I associate screens with work, with output. When I’m reading for pleasure – and I do still read for pleasure – I want to turn and fold, not to click and scroll.
The first time I held a bound copy of a novel I had written was a moment of perfect pride and happiness. It was my trophy.
I love cover art. I love the sound of a turning page and I like to dog-ear pages and scribble in the margins and I like to write my name on the flyleaf. I like the way paper holds onto scent; my copy of A Suitable Boy still smells of coconut oil and still retains the odd grain of sand from the Keralan beach where I read it.
Above all I love bookshops, quirky little independent bookshops with their library steps and hush and anxious passionate staff and their fully-priced books that are the only honest remaining reflection the years of love and craft that are poured into every page.
I know that lots of you are in happy and deeply committed relationships with your e-readers, and am aware that my dogged adherence to paper flies in the face of environmental consideration, shelf space, convenience, cost and the increasingly stingy Ryanair cabin baggage allowance, but there you go.
Will you ever write a detective series?
I don’t think so. My brain just doesn’t seem to process stories from that procedural angle. What interests me is the people on the other side of the divide, the ordinary people who are out of their depth. When police do feature in my books it is very marginally. I also like the freedom to kill off anyone I fancy at any stage, and the freedom of starting again.
Will you ever write a sequel to The Poison Tree or The Sick Rose?
No. See above re: freedom and murder.
Which book do you wish you’d written?
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. It’s a jewel of a book, with a perfect little narrative, and beautifully designed. Many families go through several copies, which must go some way to compensating for those negligent parents who don’t buy books for their children. The merchandise alone could probably pay my mortgage for a year. Sadly, there is unlikely to be much demand for Rex-n-Biba party invitations or paper napkins in Waitrose any time soon.
What are Richard and Judy really like?
Exactly like they are on television, only somehow more so.