What’s your writing day like?
I’m at my desk at 9am and spend half an hour pottering on Twitter and answering emails that came in overnight before I settle down to edit what I wrote the day before and continue with the next chapter. There are dozens of stops for tea but while waiting for the kettle to boil I’m thinking about the sentence to come. I swim every day in an outdoor pond on Hampstead Heath and in winter it closes early so I’ll go up there at lunchtime to break the ice and get my endorphin rush. (Yes, I’m aware it sounds completely mental…) In summer the pond is open later so I go at 6ish when the light is beautiful. I generally work until 6 or 7 then try to go out somewhere in the evening so I’m not a completely boring hermit.
Can you tell us a little about your novel, The Affair?
It’s set in Rome in 1961/2 during the making of Cleopatra, when Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor fell in love. It was a tempestuous time and I’ve stuck to the facts about their relationship and the filming schedule, but woven in some invented characters: an intelligent but naive researcher called Diana, a young American journalist who’s hoping to sleep with lots of girls during his Rome posting, and a fragile make-up artist who’s a great dancer. I love the whole period and only wish I could have been Elizabeth Taylor’s confidante, as Diana becomes.
Do you plan or simply write?
I write a full chapter-by-chapter outline, which is about 35–40,000 words long – around a third the length of the finished book. I’ve found it saves time in the long run because I don’t head off in any directions that won’t ultimately work. It also means the publishers know what I’m writing and can make comments at an early stage, so with any luck there aren’t big rewrites after I deliver. It wouldn’t suit everyone but it works for me.
Did you edit as you went along or wait until a complete draft?
I edit all the time. I often carry bunches of pages on the bus or tube to read and scribble on.
Is there a character from fiction you’d like to meet?
Loads. Elizabeth Bennett or Elinor Dashwood for their wit; Hilary Mantel’s Henry and Rose Tremain’s Charles II; Edith Wharton’s Countess Ellen or Lily Bart for their fragile elegance; Dick Diver from Tender is the Night or Valmont in Liaisons Dangereuses for their charisma; and Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie because he sounds cuddly.
Which book/author has made the most impact on you?
In recent years I’ve fallen in love with Diana Athill through her volumes of memoirs. Her extraordinary honesty in talking about her failed romances and less dignified moments is inspirational and shows what good writing should be like. I aspire to be like her as an old lady.
What makes you happy/sad?
I frequently get emotional watching the news when it’s a story of an individual whose life has been destroyed by something random: a bomb, a tornado, a hit-and-run driver. Fortunately there are lots of things that make me happy: my partner singing “Psycho Killer” in a squeaky falsetto; swimming; Lindt 85% dark chocolate; a bottle of Pinot Grigio with a good friend.
Which three things would you want with you on a desert island?
A solar-powered e-reader with unlimited books, and a lifetime supply of pens and paper. Could I have a wok as well, or is that pushing it?
Who are your ideal dinner guests?
Paul Merton, Gavin Esler, Diana Athill, Susie Orbach, Caitlin Moran and George Clooney.
If you could visit one point in history, when would it be and why?
I’m currently writing about Paris in the early 1920s so I think I would like to be at one of Gertrude Stein’s salons when Hemingway was arguing with her and Alice B. Toklas was serving jewel-coloured liqueurs in pretty glasses.
Five tips for new writers?
I give talks in schools to kids who want to write and I actually have ten tips in my list for them but I’ll give you the five best: write something every day; become an expert in something apart from books (astrophysics, geology, anything you’re interested in); find ‘readers’ you trust to comment on your work but use them sparingly and certainly not too early in the process; try to stop your friends putting drunk pictures of you on Facebook; and stay curious about life.
Novel Kicks is a blog for story tellers and book lovers.