How did you become a writer?
I adored elephants as a child. I suppose I was about seven when I began an elephant newspaper reporting all the goings-on in an imagined herd. I illustrated it, too – a talent that hasn’t survived into adulthood.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I might answer that every book I have ever read has influenced me for better or worse, but you’ll be maddened by such a non-specific answer. Books were my deepest connection in a thoughtful and solitary childhood. Earliest favorites were The Odyssey, the Greek myths and the Nordic sagas. In retrospect, I can see that they were the very best textbooks for a writer-to-be. Nothing better to teach you the technical things like plot, character and vivid economy of style, while at the same time nurturing your own human characteristics of creativity, empathy and imagination.
When and where do you write?
Everywhere and all the time, invisibly in my head. Then it’s just a matter of getting it onto paper. That can happen wherever I can find a flat surface to put my laptop. There’s only one constraint: it has to be totally quiet. I can only write in absolute silence.
What are you working on now?
Dear old Nietzsche so often comes up with the right word for things. He talks about a fishhook in the brain. Rather a disgusting image, but spot-on for how I feel when the idea for a new book takes hold of me. The fishhook tugs and tugs and won’t leave my brain alone until I start writing and then it tugs me along all through the book. As yet, no fisherman has sunk a new hook into my brain. I think I’m still recovering from Nietzsche, which isn’t surprising. I knew it would be a hugely difficult book to write. He’s vastly controversial of course. Not only that, but in the end he goes mad. Surely the ultimate challenge for a writer. You have be an excellent technician to wriggle under the skin of insanity and write it believably. If you can do that you can probably do anything. No wonder it took me four years and the deepest investigation into my own humanity. Writing about Nietzsche also involved a masterly juggling act in terms of making the philosophy as clear, vivid and exciting to the reader as any cliff-hanging sub-plot. If the reader skips the philosophy, I’ve failed. I felt I had succeeded when the wonderful Sarah Bakewell wrote about the book: “This is what every biography should be like – engrossing, intelligent, moving and often downright funny. Simply a blast!” I’ll take that.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Most mornings. I call it terror.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Most mornings, when my husband says; “Go to your desk.”
What’s your advice to new writers?
Give it a go. You’ll know if it works.
Bio: I never do this. Three-headed Cerberus guards the door to my personal life – he’d eat me if I let anyone in.