How did you become a writer?
The only real answer is that I wrote. Ever since I can remember (in fact, I recently unearthed my first "book" in my cellar, written at the age of 10). Yet it never crossed my mind until I was in my mid-20s that a career in writing was an option. I was always supposed to be a scientist, which is what happens if you seem to have an aptitude for science. Only in retrospect is it clear to me that writing is what I always really wanted to do. But in practical terms, I got there by getting a job as an editor at a top journal (Nature), through pure good furtune, and then using that as a launching base for learning about how to write "properly".
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
There are stacks of good science writers, and while I never had a key influence among them, I learn little bits from anyone who writes well. For example, I noticed my style changing in tiny ways (fewer subjectives at the start of sentences) after reviewing James Gleick's The Information. I felt vindicated in my wish to write beyond the bounds of traditional science writing by the final pages of Richard Holmes' The Age of Wonder. My one published novel was hugely indebted to James Meek's The People's Act of Love for showing that it was OK to write in a thoughtful, intelligent way while telling a fantastic yarn. I get influenced by people not because they are doing things similar to me, but because they are inspiring writers: Sebald, Ishiguro, Angela Carter…
When and where do you write?
I write almost entirely in my study in my converted attic, looking out over all of London - which sounds grand, but it's an absolute tip, crammed with books, obsolete children's toys, a spare bed etc. I regard it as a job, and do it from 9.30 until 6.00 each day. A job but not a chore - it's a privilege that I hope I never take for granted.
What are you working on now?
A book on the role of water in Chinese culture and history. It is an absurdly immense subject, but I'm learning a lot - which is one of my key criteria for choosing a new subject for a book. I think I know what my next three books will be after this one, but I'm not saying yet...
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
No, I just write really badly when uninspired, and hope that I'll find a way to fix it later. But I suspect it is easier for non-fiction writers, who can fill in the "blocked" days with research. Doing journalism as well as books is great for combatting writer's block too: when the deadline is tomorrow, you have no choice.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Never try to tailor your writing to what you think will sell. But that's not the same as trying to make it engaging, accessible, topical etc. - those are fine. But the subject has to be one you really care about and have something to say about. In the final days of writing the book that won me my biggest award, I was convinced that it was a waste of time and that no one would want to read the book except me. Fortunately I didn't listen to that voice, but it taught me a lesson.
Bio: I am a freelance writer, and previously for many years an editor at the science journal Nature. I studied chemistry at Oxford and physics at Bristol. I have written something like 20 books, depending on how you count them, generally on science and its intersections with culture, art, history and society. I also write regular columns for various science and other magazines, and contribute to newspapers and magazines of whatever kind will have me.