I was born in Warwickshire, read English at Cambridge and after spells in the theatre and in advertising, I got a job at the BBC. I also wrote freelance articles for magazines and newspapers such as The Spectator, the Evening Standard, the Independent and the Daily Telegraph. Within a month of the first column appearing I’d been signed up by HarperCollins…
Your new novel is called ‘Ghostwritten’ please could you tell me about it?
‘Ghostwritten’ is set in present day Cornwall, and on Java during the Second World War. Its main character is a young ghost-writer, Jenni, who is asked to ‘ghost’ the memoirs of an elderly Dutch woman, Klara. Klara lives on a farm in Cornwall, but grew up on a rubber plantation in Java. When the Japanese invaded, Klara was interned in a prison camp with her mother and little brother. She has never talked about what she went through – the atrocious conditions and daily struggle to survive, not to mention the cruelty of the Japanese guards. Now, approaching 80, Klara has decided to tell her story at last. Jenni is very drawn to the idea of working with Klara – until she learns that Klara lives in the very Cornish village that was the scene of a tragedy that has haunted Jenni for twenty five years. Jenni had vowed never to return but now, after much soul searching, she decides to go back, not just to write Klara’s remarkable story – but to try and lay to rest the ghosts of her past.
‘Ghostwritten’ is about Jenni, please could you tell me about her?
Jenni is a very self-effacing person, happy to be an invisible presence, working for months on books that she knows will not even bear her name. I was very interested in why she would be like this, and what might have happened to her to make her shun the limelight and gravitate towards the shadows. I decided that it was because of a childhood tragedy that Jenni had never told anyone about – not even those closest to her. Haunted by it, she lives in fear of exposure, and is still filled with remorse. So being a ghost writer suits Jenni very well. It requires her to immerse herself in the lives of others, which stops her from thinking about her own life too much.
Are any of the characters in ‘Ghostwritten’ anything like you?
In a way they’re all a bit like me, because I created them, and I guess it ‘takes one to know one’. The characters in a novel come out of the writer’s psychology and their soul; they reflect that person’s morality and their view of the world. I think I’m a little like Jenni in that I’m a writer like she is and I love shaping and crafting words to make a compelling story. I’m not as reticent and shy as Jenni, nor as tortured a soul, thank goodness, although I do have a fragile conscience, perhaps from being Catholic and having to go to Confession from a very young age, I don’t know.
They say the journey to being published is one of the hardest an author can take, please can you describe the journey that you went on?
I got off very lightly in this respect. I’d always hoped to write a novel, but never thought I’d be able to take six months off work in order to do so. Then I began writing a comic girl-about-town column for the Daily Telegraph, ‘Tiffany Trott’, and within a month HarperCollins had asked me to turn it into a book. So I did, and it was a bestseller, and they then signed me up for another book, then another, and here I still am, nine novels on. So the journey to publication wasn’t hard for me, and I look back on it with relief, grateful that I didn’t have to suffer what so many aspiring authors go through.
Writers put so much time and energy into their characters and I have been told in the past that a writer carries their characters around with them. So my question is if you could go out for a day with any one of your characters: who would it be, what would you do and why did you pick this particular character?
The character I’d most like to spend a day with is the heroine of my eighth novel, A Vintage Affair. She’s called Phoebe Swift and she’s a textiles expert who has opened her own vintage dress shop in south London. I love vintage clothing myself, and so it would be a great pleasure to help Phoebe in the shop, putting the glorious vintage gowns and suits on the rails, or helping customers find their perfect outfit, or perhaps going to someone’s house to value a collection, or helping Phoebe to restore and repair some beautiful ball gown by Balenciaga or Dior. Most of all I’d enjoy wondering about the history behind the clothes – who the women were who owned them before, and what their lives were like, because every vintage garment contains a story, if only we could know what it was.
If you could choose one book that you think everyone should read, what would it be and why?
It would be ‘A Town Like Alice’ by Nevil Shute which I read when I was 12, at my mother’s insistence. Set in wartime Malaya its quiet heroine, Jean Paget, and the Australian who is crucified for her, Joe Harman, have stayed with me all my life. Just thinking about what they go through makes me cry, and the novel was one of the main inspiration for ‘Ghostwritten’ along with the TV series, Tenko.
Name one of your favourite places in the world?
My favourite place in the world is the tiny coastal hamlet of Rosevine, near Portscatho in south Cornwall. I bought a tiny house there seven years ago and spend a lot of time in Rosevine with my children. The views of the sea are lovely, and the beach is just down the lane. We love it, whatever the time of year, and are always counting the days ‘til we’ll be there again. It’s the model for the village of ‘Polvarth’ in ‘Ghostwritten’.
How would you describe your writing process?
I walk the children to school, then charge round the park with our cocker spaniel Alfie for an hour before getting down to work. I write in the mornings, and edit in the afternoons, then suddenly it’s time to collect the kids again and so the writing stops. Quite often I’ll go back to the book late at night when the family’s asleep but by then it’s late and I’m tired and I often wake up with my forehead on the keyboard and akjfhjkadhjahfjkahdalkdflkajdfkajfdklj on the screen.
Please would you share who your 5 dream dinner party guests would be?
1. The painter, Jonathan Yeo. I interviewed him for my ninth novel, The Very Picture of You which is about a portrait painter, and he was fascinating to talk to, and I would love to resume our conversation.
2. Professor Brian Cox, so that he could educate me about black holes, string theory, singularities and dark matter, added to which he has that lovely voice.
3. Thomas Clarkson, the unsung hero of the anti-slave trade movement. He devoted his whole life to the cause of anti-slavery, and is the father of modern campaigning. I would love to be able to tell him how much I admire him.
4. The American mezzo-soprano, Renee Fleming. She wouldn’t have to say much, but I would make her sing for her supper.
5. Jamie Oliver – he’d probably take over in the kitchen, which would be fine by me.
Thank you to Isabel for talking to The Love of a Good Book and to Jaime at Harper Collins for inviting me to be part of the blog tour