Based In: London
Education: St Hilda’s College, Oxford
Author Crush: Ursula le Guin
Your Writing Space: I quite like writing in bed!
If You Weren’t a Writer You’d Be: a forensic psychologist
Up Next: The English Girl comes out in the UK in August; it’s set in Vienna in 1937/38, before and during Hitler’s annexation of Austria. I’m currently writing a novel set during the London Blitz.
Who was the most avid reader you knew growing up?
Me! There were a few books in my childhood home, but mostly I borrowed books from the library. The Lord of the Rings was my obsession growing up: the English teacher at school introduced me to Tolkein, and I became addicted.
Which of your books have been the most problematic in terms of where you wanted to take the plot and where the plot wanted to take you?
The most problematic was my second novel, Alysson’s Shoes, which is about a psychiatrist who makes an error of judgment with devastating consequences.
How did you resolve it?
I think so often authors struggle with their second novel: you’ve poured so much of yourself into your first novel that for a while you can feel there’s nothing left! To resolve a plot problem, you just have to keep writing. Often a clue to where you can go is there in what you’ve written already – perhaps in a subplot or even some chance remark one of your characters makes.
You’ve expressed your fondness for strong female characters.
I do prefer to write about women: I don’t think I’d feel confident having a male protagonist! The protagonist/ main character has to be strong for the story to work – she can’t be too passive, she has to act on the world, or at least to learn to act on the world in the course of the story. I like to put women into interesting situations – like Guernsey during the Occupation, Vienna in the shadow of war, or the London Blitz – and see what they do!
With you were creating Vivienne de la Mare, and when you put into consideration the choice that she had to make between duty and love, did you weigh in the consequences of her going either way, before deciding where you would take the story?
I always work out the plot before I start writing, so I knew how the story would develop. The Occupation of Guernsey appealed to me so much as a setting because of these difficult choices people had to make. Situations like occupation or civil war are wonderfully rich for writers, because nothing is straightforward, and it’s often not clear what the right course of action is. Moral dilemmas can make for great stories.
When you compare The River House, and your other novel Postcards from Berlin…which drove you the craziest during the editing part of the publishing process?
I always feel that editing is the most difficult part of the writing process, as you’re responding to the suggestions of someone with entirely different life experience from you, and trying to incorporate their ideas into the story. So, it’s always a struggle, but usually the book is far better once you’ve been through the process! As a general rule, I tend to find cutting much harder than writing new material.
Why do you think that some books build reputations over time, as opposed to garner instant fame? Do you think marketing and publicity play a part?
I think there’s a great mystery about which books readers will take to their hearts, and publishers are almost as much in the dark as anyone else: after all, twelve editors in the UK turned down Harry Potter. But marketing and publicity are certainly hugely important, and it’s wonderful for an author when a publisher decides to really get behind a book.
What would you say to aspiring writers about getting started?
I always advise people to keep notebooks. So many touching, funny or extraordinary things happen to us, and we always think we’ll remember them, but often we don’t. If you keep notes, you have a wonderful resource which you can dip into again and again.
What are your views on self-publishing?
Like most writers today, I’ve certainly considered it! In fact I’m planning to self-publish my two early novels, Trust and Alysson’s Shoes, to make them available to my readers today. But, I suspect that to really reach an audience as a self-published writer, you have to have a very strong online presence, which takes a particular kind of talent and a lot of hard work!
Author Photo: Nikki Gibbs