How did you become a writer?
By reading, and by being alone. I grew up in a remote part of the English countryside. As a child I spent a lot of my time walking through the woods, talking to myself, telling myself stories. When I was indoors I was reading. My mother was a clever woman who had been denied a higher education and she was determined the same thing wasn’t going to happen to me. She believed children can understand pretty well anything you give them. They’ve just acquired an entire language from scratch. Their minds are prodigiously receptive. They’re not going to be thrown by an unfamiliar word or a new idea. So she gave me grown-up books to read and my vocabulary and my sense of what can language can do just kept on expanding.
I didn’t speak much – I was a very silent young person – but inside my head I was putting words together all the time.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I’ve been reading at least two books a week for over half a century, and every single book I read leaves a residue. Now, when I’m writing something, I never think ‘I’m going to be a bit Nabokovian now’ or ‘Let’s do this the way Stendhal would do it’ but those possibilities are there, along with a thousand others – tones of voice, rhythms, narrative devices, all stashed away in memory long after I’ve forgotten where I first found them.
Music is important too. When I’m writing I’m aware of tempo and tone, and the need to vary them - the way an adagio passage might require a scherzo to follow it. You get a sense of when a key-change is called for. None of this is fully conscious when I'm writing a first draft, but afterwards, when I’m revising, I can see it working.
When and where do you write?
I write when I can. Earning a living, looking after family – those things have to take precedence - but there are still plenty of hours in the day. And night. Now I’ve switched to writing fiction I no longer have to lug around a load of research materials. And the wonderful thing about laptops is that they make it very easy to write in bed.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a sequence of short stories, borrowing plots from folk-tales, classical myth, the Bible, and placing them in today’s Britain.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I don’t use that term – but there have been times when I hadn’t yet worked out what I wanted to say.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Rather brusquely, from an elderly editor when I was still in my teens ‘Stop going on about wanting to “be a writer”. Just get on and write something.’
What’s your advice to new writers?
See previous answer.
Bio: I’ve been writing for magazines and newspapers all my adult life, beginning with three years as a feature-writer on British Vogue, taking in five years as television critic of the London Evening Standard, and including writing arts features and book reviews for most of the upmarket British newspapers. I am a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and an Honorary Fellow of the Historical Association.
My books are
1990 – Cleopatra (winner of the Fawcett Prize and Emily Toth Award)
2003 – Heroes
2013 – The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio (Winner of the Duff Cooper Prize, the Samuel Johnson Prize, the Costa Biography of the Year Award and the Political Book Awards Biography of the Year)
2018 – Peculiar Ground - my first novel, described in the New York Times as 'large and rich... full of drama, vivid characters, wit, gorgeous writing and fascinating detail...a grand spectacle'.