When did you start to write?
I wrote my first book in an exercise book when I was eight. It was called The Year of Mr Goodbery about a lonely old man who made friends by growing vegetables. When I was ten I typed it out and sent it to the children’s publisher Brockhampton Press – Antony Kamm rejected it, but very nicely:
“Certainly I feel that one day you will be able to write a book which will be published. Don’t be depressed by this, writing books is very difficult. One needs a lot of practice and experience. Read as many books as you can of all kinds, and learn about writing from them and keep writing things yourself.”
So I took that sound advice, and just over 20 years later I succeeded in getting a book published.
How do you write?
I always carry a notebook and I keep piles of cards in every room for ideas, thoughts and references. Sometimes I use bus tickets or supermarket receipts. At home I write on a computer with about seven of my fingers, very fast and inaccurately. Then I print it out – I do a lot of editing on paper, up to 7 or 8 drafts.
Which book has influenced you most?
A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes published in 1929. The first novel about children for adults – it is brilliant.
Is writing a dying art?
Only if communication is.
When you go away, what do you take with you?
A circle of cycle tube as an emergency bath plug. And a new T shirt, toothbrush and pair of knickers. One often meets someone who has lost theirs. And if not, I use them on the last day as a treat.
How can I find out about your appearances?
Have a look at my twitter for links to events.
Will you sign my copy of your book?
Of course if we meet at a literary festival or signing. If you send it to me, it must have the correct return postage and packing. But not from abroad – it is too difficult!
Will you reply to my emails?
If they are interesting – and preferably complimentary!
Who is your favourite author?
One of them is Beryl Bainbridge who changed the term historical novel, as did Robert Harris.
Do you write poetry?
I had my first poem published the day I got my O Level results. The Kestrel, which neither rhymed nor scanned, appeared in a glossy magazine called Norfolk Fair. That day I got seven O levels and earned one guinea. Then I sent a poem called No Thoughts to the Christian Science Monitor. The editor rejected it but said,
I can see from these verses that you have some talent and I do hope that you will determine to put it to good use in the future. I never wrote any more poetry.
What’s the worst thing anyone has said to you?
“Should I have heard of you?” is difficult to reply to. As is “I think I saw your book in the library but I didn’t have time to read it.” Even if they had taken it out, I would have earned 6p!
Do you ever give talks for free?
Nobody says to their butcher, “Your sausages are so good, can I have them for nothing?” But for some reason the services of writers and speakers are often expected to be provided free! The Society of Authors recommends a rate for speaking, and as a member I stick to that. Unless the offer is irresistible.
Do you enjoy writing?
Some of it – having the ideas, doing the research, going for walks in the country having Great Thoughts. I can remember the exact spot beside a school playground in Zimbabwe where I thought of the title for my first book. But mostly it is sheer hard work. A long time later there is the reward of people reading one’s books.
What is the worst bit about writing?
Rejections, and the terrible pay. JK Rowling has done wonders for children’s reading – but everyone thinks all writers earn as much as she does!
What’s the best thing about being a writer?
It is one of the few professions you can do in bed.
What colour are your eyes and your hair?
My eyes are blue, and my hair changes colour according to mood. Right now it is purple. I am waiting to find out how old one has to be to have grey hair and wear cardigans.
What advice would you give a young writer?
Read everything you can, whenever you can. Go on an Arvon writing course. You can’t edit a blank page – just write and write, and it will always get better (even if not easier).
Who is your role model?
I am inspired by my great great great grandfather Thomas Fowell Buxton who despite huge opposition, fought against slavery. He was rewarded with the title ‘The Liberator’ but died of exhaustion at 58. And my great great great aunt Fifi Skene, a Victorian novelist, theologian and social commentator who spent her royalties on the homeless and destitute of Oxford.
What would you like your epitaph to say?
Never boring. She made us laugh.