Trailer Vs. Trailer

Just over a week now until the adaptation of my novel The Poison Tree premieres on ITV1 and to say I’m excited is an understatement. I’ll write at length about the experience of seeing my work brought to the screen closer to the broadcast. In the meantime, these two very different clips give you an idea of the differences – and similiarities – between the book and its dramatisation.

Here’s the teaser for the drama, starring Myanna Buring as Karen, Matthew Goode as Rex and Ophelia Lovibond as Biba.



And here’s the beautiful short film that HYPtv made to promote my novel when it was published by Hodder in 2010. I don’t know who the girl playing Biba is here, but she has a lovely way with a vintage parasol.


The Poison Tree is a) still available in all good bookshops and b) on ITV1 at 9pm on December 10th, 2012.

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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.

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In Suburbia

It has been about three weeks since I ventured beyond my own postcode. The view from my study window is nothing but houses and golf courses as far as the eye can see. On days like this, the suburbs threaten to swallow me up and the menace of it feels as acute as any skulking figure in an urban alleyway.  

One reviewer* described me as an ‘expert in the suburban macabre,’ which made me think about the British relationship with the suburbs and how that has influenced my work. Even when the setting is rural or urban, the complex British relationship with the margins of our cities has fascinated and inspired me. Karen in The Poison Tree is desperately ashamed of her solidly suburban background. It is her naive longing for a perceived bohemia that leads to the errors of judgement that drive the story. Paul, the male protagonist of The Sick Rose, feels both alienated and trapped by his (fictional) home town on the outer edges of the London sprawl.

The shame of coming from suburbia is a surprisingly rich seam to mine. But why? 84% of us live there, after all. And yet we remain pitched between two domestic idylls: a hip inner-city postcode with modernist interiors, or its rural equivalent, a country home festooned with Cath Kidston bunting and complete with Aga and boot room. There are magazines like Wallpaper and Elle Deco for the urbanites and Country Life for rural gentlefolk but no magazine for the metroland between the two states.  

Suburbia has always been scorned by intelligentsia and the design conscious. Its sitcom streets and its school run politics are there to be mocked. It has traditionally been fashionable and intelligent to despise them – George Orwell called them ‘semi detached cells’. Great music and literature has emerged from the suburbs – almost all of it, from Hanif Kureshi to the Arctic Monkeys, is about escaping them. David Bowie, who spent his teenage years in Croydon, said, ‘It was my nemesis, I hated Croydon with a real vengeance. It represented everything I didn’t want in my life, everything I wanted to get away from.’ He could have been speaking for Karen. For Paul. For me.  

I grew up in Hornchurch, on the eastern wingtip of the District Line, ostensibly a London borough but culturally a world apart from the spirit of the capital. My father grew up in the East End, and I hated him for leaving. To my young mind there was more allure in my grandparents’ grotty Bow council block than in the whole of suburbia. East London fizzed with a gritty glamour all the more exciting because I didn’t yet understand it. My mother was raised  in West London, where her siblings still live, and it was always a treat for us to drive back through the city, climbing and descending from the Westway onto the Marylebone Road. One of my earliest memories is of gazing at Park Cresent, the sweeping Nash stucco just opposite Regent’s Park, with the Post Office Tower (as it was then) looming behind it and thinking, one day I’ll live there. By the time we got on to the A13, we were back in Essex where the houses formed endless screens of pebbledash and net, and I would stop looking out of the window.

When I was 22, I moved into a flat in Wimpole Street, W1, a skip away from Park Cresent. The rent was cheap, largely because the flat didn’t have a front door, central heating or a shower. There were ninety steep steps to the top floor. But there was always a house guest, always a party. The party scenes from The Poison Tree did not tax my imagination, and anyone who saw the inside of my Wimpole Street bedroom will recognise Karen’s attic room in the Capel’s house in Highgate. On flush weeks, we bought our groceries in Selfridges Food Hall. The afternoon I moved in, I remember leaning out of my garret window to see the back of Wigmore Hall, the iconic tip of the BBC HQ at Portland House and a very good-looking solicitor a few offices down stripping off his suit and putting on his cycling gear. I vowed never, ever to leave.

 That was eleven years ago. Now home is a terraced house in Whetstone, a blip on the A1000 between Finchley and Barnet. It is neither fashionable nor central. A mile to the north, the London postcode runs out: two miles north and you lose your precious 020 area code, although to the 020 7 inner-London brigade, 020 8 is a fate worse than death anyway. I live here because my husband and I simply crept northwards on the map until we found an area we could afford to buy a house in. Like most suburbanites, we are here by default.

And do you know what? It’s actually… really all right. I’m married, mortgaged, a mother: it suits me to have three supermarkets, four playgrounds and two soft play centres within walking distance. Even if I had a bigger budget, I’d only move to a more fashionable suburb (yes, Hampstead does count as a suburb). My friends here – admittedly, other professional mothers, city refugees – say the same thing. The chances of my conflicted relationship with my suburban background slowly fermenting into a murderous rage are looking slim, and I am happy to leave that to the characters I create.

The trendy view of suburbia is starting to look lazy, clichéd even. In his cult book The Freedoms Of Suburbia, Paul Barker argues that the suburbs are more quirky and individual than the identi-lifestyles of the inner city or countryside. The estate agents have started to reframe suburban architecture: in many areas, 1930s semis with original fireplaces are now being marketed as period properties rather than potential developments.

The London suburbs have weathered the housing storm better than most. It’s the family homes have held their value better than the second homes or the first-time-buyer starter homes or the dockside lofts sold at the top of the market. The architecture of suburbia may be homogenised and uninspiring but the London suburbs can no longer be sneered at for their monoculturalism; healthy ethnic diversity is smoothed by middle-class values and property ownership, and we all rub along nicely. Kingston University’s Centre for Suburban Studies sums it up best, calling suburbia ‘a model for local living in a global society.’  

The very accessibility of the suburbs is why they will never become a truly aspirational place to live: that’s why the urban and rural lifestyle myths are so pervasive, because most of us will never have them. To live well and easily on either of these poles takes serious money or serious compromise.

I’ve opted out of the urban dream and know that its opposite is not for me either. My family sampled the country idyll last year year, taking a house in Suffolk while a family of rats was ejected from our bathroom roof and the whole thing replaced (how fondly I look back on that episode). It was idyllic for precisely a fortnight, after which I yearned for the naff convenience of a Pizza Express that will serve two parents and a toddler with no booking at 4 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon.

I was born in the suburbs, had my fun in the city, but it is in returning to suburbia that I have finally grown up, and in suburbia that I will raise my daughter. I cheerfully expect her to hate me for it and disappear into the city as soon as she’s able. I bet she comes back, though.   

These are some of my favourite novels that deal with suburbia – they range from the satirical to the gothic. It’s a subject I am unlikely to tire of soon. Can anyone recommend any more?

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureshi (sine qua non)

26a by Donna Evans

Spies by Michael Frayn

The Bridesmaid by Ruth Rendell

Metroland by Julian Barnse

Diary of a Nobody by George & Weedon Grossmith

Now You See Me by Lesley Glaister




*It was Rosie Ifould in Psychologies, talking about The Sick Rose.

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…to my newly revamped website. This is my first blog, somewhere for me to talk to you in more than 140 characters but less than 90,000 words.

I’m writing this in my London study, but this week exciting things are happening for me on the other side of the Atlantic. Today my first novel, The Poison Tree, is published in paperback in the US. It has a gorgeous new cover emblazoned with a great blurb from Stephen King, and what’s almost more exciting for a lifelong book fetishist like me, it has the iconic orange Penguin spine. I don’t usually keep my own books on the shelf in my sitting room but the temptation to slide a copy in my beloved ‘orange shelf’ was too much to resist. The Poison Tree currently resides between A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh and A Sense of Guilt by Andrea Newman. What a sandwich that is.

At the end of this week, The Dark Rose (published as The Sick Rose in the UK) makes its hardback debut. Early reviews have been good, and I’m hoping that the novel does well – I’m especially proud of this book. It would be all too easy to spend this week obsessively refreshing my Amazon page, but I have plenty to keep me away from the internet. I delivered my third novel – title to be revealed soon – to my editor on Christmas Eve. After a blissful January spent sitting on my arse eating cheese contemplating character and plot, I’m ready to return to my manuscript.

I’ll be updating this page soon with more news and reviews, giveaways. In the meantime, I hope this blog will become a two-way forum. If you have any questions about my novels, I would love to hear from you.

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