First things first I am sure there is a question that you have always longed to be asked. Now is the chance. Ask your own question and answer it!
I can only think of questions I hope people won’t ask! Like, ‘How can you write about Bermuda when you’ve never been there?’
What is the genre you are best known for?
I’ve never been able to fit my books into a genre. Wish I could, it would make them more saleable. But that isn’t how it works.
If your latest book The Saturday Letters
was adapted into a TV show or a film, who would you like to play the lead role?
This novella is linked to my earlier novel, The Hatmaker’s Secret, and tells the story of the hatmaker’s grandmother, Henrietta, who makes a brief appearance in the novel.
Henrietta is of Barbadian origin. Maybe as an older woman and at the end of her life with make-up – Marianne Jean-Baptiste. For the young woman – Rhianna maybe?!
How do you get ideas for plots and characters?
Family secrets triggered both The Hatmaker’s Secret and The Saturday Letters. I was completely unaware of having a black great-grandmother until my mother died.
Pictures of strangers led to Alfie and Esther in A Place of Safety.
Facets of people who’ve made an impact on me, but never the whole person.
Plot emerges from how the characters behave, how they deal with their conflicts, dreams, obsessions and what life (or me) throws at them.
Favourite picture or work of art?
So many that I’ll have to cheat! I love portraits, trees, crows.
Once I would have said Rembrandt, Vermeer, van Gogh.
But just now it’s Ravilious – his picture Chalk Paths of the Sussex Downs lifts my spirit.
Plus a moody watercolour Welsh seascape by my husband and the Madonna del Parto by Pierro dela Francesca. We stayed several times in Italy just down the road from the village where it’s kept and I would stare and stare at the expressive faces of the pregnant Madonna and her attendants. And of course wrote about them.
Was becoming a writer a conscious decision or something that you drifted into (or even something so compelling that it could not be denied?) How old were you when you first started to write seriously.
Definitely too compelling to deny. I did it in secret from the age of 7 until adult. But I was 50 before I had ‘permission’ and believed I could write. Got into fiction, at last, in my sixties and was serious enough to claim the time and the space to write full time.
Marmite? Love it or hate it?
Love it. Don’t have it often. Why not? But all I ever wanted when I was ill as a child was a marmite sandwich.
Do you have any rituals and routines when writing? Your favourite cup for example or ‘that’ piece of music...??
Just stepping into my studio – no phone, no email – with a pot of coffee and my favourite mug.
If not at home, I need a long view, preferably of the sea. But then again, I can happily write in a certain sort of café (wooden tables, not too bright). Or with a log fire.
I promise I won’t tell them the answer to this, but when you are writing, who is more important, your family or your characters?
Put it this way, unless someone in the family is having a crisis, it’s my characters who keep me awake at night.
Other than writing full time, what would be your dream job?
Free-lance photographer – trees, clouds and people.
Coffee or tea? Red or white?
Coffee, real, black, no sugar. Red.
How much of your work is planned before you start? Do you have a full draft or let it find its way?
I don’t plan. I have to dive in – which makes for problems down the line, sorting chronology, eliminating daffodils in September etc. If only I could make myself construct a timeline earlier in the process.
Imagine that you could get hold of any original source document. What would it be?
The slave register of my 3 times great-grandmother in Barbados.
Have any of your characters ever shocked you and gone off on their own adventure leaving you scratching your head??? If so how did you cope with that!?
Yes! At first I tend to think, that’s too extreme. But when I’ve gone with it, it’s been a key turning point. And on reflection, I see that some part of my mind must have been setting it up all along, subconsciously. For example, by the way I’ve arranged the room or hints about a character’s past. The mind works in mysterious ways.
How much research do you do and do you ever go on research trips?
Place is important so, yes. I visit whenever I can, but I hate to fly which is limiting.
For the family-based books I did a lot of online genealogy research and visited archives in Kew and Gibraltar.
Research into issues – e.g. assisted suicide for A Place of Safety.
Learning about Bajan dialect via Skype with a teacher in Barbados.
Fiction authors have to contend with real characters invading our stories. Are there any ‘real’ characters you have been tempted to prematurely kill off or ignore because you just don’t like them or they spoil the plot?
No. But I have made some (deceased) family members into baddies.
Are you prepared to go away from the known facts for the sake of the story and if so how do you get around this?
Only trivial facts and only involving family.
Do you find that the lines between fact and fiction sometimes become blurred?
Yes. It’s the crack between the worlds, the creative interface. If talking of history, what is fact? We have dates, of course, but what happened on those dates is so subjective, there are multiple versions. And never more so than in family history!
Have you ever totally hated or fallen in love with one of your characters?
Yes. Hated a couple of baddies. Fallen for both a goodie and a baddie. And such good friends with one character that I very nearly bought her a birthday card when I saw one that was perfect.
What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?
Fiction, mainly by contemporary women writers, but love Patrick Gale, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Hardy to name but a few.
What drink would you recommend drinking whilst reading your latest book?
For The Saturday Letters it would have to be tea as Henrietta helped run a Temperance café! But roll on the next one where vodka would be most appropriate.
Last but not least... favourite author?
Impossible! Barbara Kingsolver, Andrea Levy, Elizabeth Strout, Zadie Smith…