How did you become a writer?
I became a writer in quite a roundabout way. I started out as a stand-up comedian, in the Cambridge Footlights (once home to Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson, though they were before my time...). I worked as a stand-up for 12 years, writing my own material, but mostly notes (made in pencil, never pen, in case I changed my mind...) in tiny notebooks. Towards the end of my stand-up career, I knew I wanted to write more - more seriously, more words. I started to write op-ed, first for the London Times, and then the Independent. And I also started writing books - a children's novel, first (because my first fiction idea was a talking cat, and that seemed like a children's book to me). Then a non-fiction book on my great passion: classics. And then I wrote a novel for adults, which is what I was always building towards. I've realised making people cry is just as satisfying as making them laugh. Mwah ha ha.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I had great Classics teachers at school and at college, which helped me a lot with my non-fiction. I've never taken a creative writing course, though I wonder if I might have got the hang of fiction, especially, more quickly if I had. I love creating the structure of novels, and that was something I really had to learn about on my own. I think the quickest way to learn about writing is to read loads of it, but that can be expensive and time-consuming. Luckily, I have judged a couple of big book prizes - the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction and the 2013 Man Booker Prize - so I've managed to get (badly) paid for reading a few hundred novels over the past three years. It's a great way to learn what you like and hate, and what other people can do that you have never even considered. I think reading fiction of all hues - the kind you'd choose and the kind you'd normally avoid like plague-rats - is a great way to broaden your horizons.
When and where do you write?
I write in the afternoons, at my desk. The mornings I use for admin, and the evenings I'm either giving talks or seeing plays and films I'm supposed to be reviewing. But the afternoons are all mine. I find that if I have been writing in my own voice in the morning - say, for a newspaper column - it's very difficult to shift to a character's voice in the afternoon. So I try not to mix book-writing and column-writing days. I know loads of writers get up before it's light to work uninterrupted. But what can I say? I'm not a morning person, and my brain is not at its best till I've fed it lunch. And caffeine. And vegetarian jelly bears. I swore I'd dedicate the next book to my dentist.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on another novel. I have to plan out the structure on cards before I can start writing properly. And then I know it's going to take a while to fix the voices in my head, and on the page. I like this bit, though - embarking on a new adventure. The blank pages are a little scary, but they'll get filled in the end somehow. Anyway, my apartment will soon be filled with coloured index cards, each one covered in ever smaller writing, as I try to work out what will fit where and how long to withhold information for. It all looks a bit demented while I'm building it. Add string to the index cards and stick them on the wall, and my apartment would resemble that of the zodiac killer.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I don't think I ever suffer from writer's block for more than a few minutes at a time. I think it's the comedian/columnist in me: you always have a deadline, and you're always rushing to meet it. So if I'm not in the mood for writing the next bit of a novel today, I always owe so much other stuff that I can just switch and do that for the day instead. It all has to get done in the end, so I try not to beat myself up if I have to change the order I'm doing it in because I feel uninspired or whatever. And if I feel really uncreative, I can always do my accounts. Or clean the apartment. Then I'll feel smug and I can get back to work tomorrow. The downside of this system is that I work a seven-day week most weeks, and that gets tiring after a while.
What’s your advice to new writers?
My advice to new writers is to acquire resilience. It's a brutal life, sometimes. I know - it's not like going down a mine, or anything. But it is a constant sense of trying to prove yourself, and a constant sense of being judged: by agents, editors, publishers and readers. You need to be thick-skinned and thin-skinned at once: thin enough to leave your own self behind and inhabit the world of your characters. Thick enough to take advice when it's well-meant and not feel it as rejection. And - when rejection comes, which it does to us all - you need to be able to get up off the mat. I don't think it matters how you do it (I have to bottom out, cry for two hours till I have giant swollen frog's eyes, and then, in the words of the song, pick myself up, dust myself off and start all over again).
It just matters that you do. I think the ability to regroup after a serious setback is as much a part of writing as literary flair or a strong work-ethic. When I go and give talks in schools, it's what I always tell teenagers they need the most, no matter what field they plan to go into. Lots of people will make you feel bad about yourself if you let them. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to resist the urge to allow other people to dictate your feeling of self-worth. Their opinion is as valid as anyone else's, and they're entitled to express it, but it doesn't mean they're right.