Tell me a little bit about yourself as a person?
Oh my, what can I say if I’m not allowed to talk about writing? Everything comes back to writing because I’m not suited to anything else.
Right from when I was a kid, I envied people who pursued an artistic life and decided it was what I wanted, if at all possible. I lived most vividly in books and my imagination, and so my chosen art was writing.
After college, I worked in a publisher. Most of the titles were careers books, but I was also responsible for a newspaper for students. I felt its remit was dismally narrow, as it concentrated on predictable graduate jobs in banking and retail, so I would commission articles about adventurous and inspiring occupations, and wild ways to use a law degree. On press day, my boss would replace them with reruns of old articles on banking and retail, and well-behaved ways to use a law degree. Of course, I realise they were trying to please their advertisers, but I felt it was my mission to show a life beyond the conventional.
Tell me about your journey as a writer – how you started and how you have developed?
I’d been scribbling for years, but didn’t take it seriously until I married another writer. Suddenly it was natural to have a book on the go – and there was no stopping me. I turned out short stories that fitted no-one’s editorial remit, ploughed into a novel, sent it to agents and got a round of polite rejections.
Meanwhile, my husband had a ghostwriting job that needed an urgent rewrite, which he didn’t have time to do, so he gave it to me. I turned it in, the publisher liked it – and voila, I was suddenly a reliable writer for hire.
I spent the next few years writing novels as other people, which sold about four million copies in total. I had to write genres that wouldn’t be my natural choice, so it was a terrific apprenticeship. I also critiqued for Cornerstones Literary Consultancy, helping authors polish their manuscripts to the stage where they would be taken seriously by agents and publishers.
Meanwhile I was honing my own fiction, and finally secured an agent. I started a writing blog, Nail Your Novel, and wrote a book to answer the questions I was most commonly asked – namely, how on earth do you get a novel finished? It did well, but I didn’t really feel I’d earned my spurs until I got a novel out under my own name – but more of that in a moment.
Thanks! The initial reason I self-published was I couldn’t get a traditional deal. Publishers told me my novels were good, then suggested I change them to fit the market – or preferably make them like the books I’d ghosted. But I’d spent long enough writing as other people. And my role models were unconventional storytellers like Donna Tartt and Margaret Atwood, who knew who they were and didn’t dance to another’s tune. At the same time, though, the publishers’ feedback dented my confidence, because I knew I’d taken creative risks. Still, my blog readers were telling me they were keen to see my fiction – so I published and hoped. To my great relief, I found my tribe.
So I began self-publishing because I had no other option. Now it’s a way to build a body of work and keep my creative integrity.
I may not always self-publish. I’d certainly be interested in partnering with a publisher who could take me far further than I could go by myself. I’ll take any amount of guidance on what isn’t working, and I need the people who will tell me that. But I won’t cheat a book to fit a market fashion. The writers I admire don’t do that.
And you have a lot of strings to your bow, a radio show, Guardian Masterclass etc, tell me about some of that and how it came about?
Oh goodness, that does look like a lot. I began teaching for The Guardian when Joanna Penn invited me to be part of her self-publishing masterclass. From my experience running the editorial department, I taught the module on making print books. Then Joanna suggested me to take over the entire course, but The Guardian looked at my website and invited me to teach writing craft instead. This year, the speaking and teaching has really taken off. I’ve taught in Zurich at WriteCon 2015, and in September I’m off to Venice to teach a course.
The radio show happened because I became friendly with the owner of a bookshop – Peter Snell of Barton’s in Leatherhead, Surrey. He was approached by a local radio station who wanted a show about books. He suggested we team up as he’s constantly asked questions by aspiring writers – and more than six months later we’re still going strong. So it’s a conversation about writing and publishing between a bookseller and an author-writing coach – the two ends of the book chain. And because it’s a radio station, it has a licence to play music – which delights me no end as I can play quirky tracks from my CD collection. All, of course, carefully chosen to illustrate the themes under discussion. Though I am very good at finding connections if there’s a track I’m determined to play.
Speaking of music, I have a blog series for writers who use music as part of their creative process. The series is called The Undercover Soundtrack. I started it when I released my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, which featured a classical musician. Music had been very significant in the creation of the book (here’s its Undercover Soundtrack), and I thought it would be fun to find a few other writers who used music too. Four years later, it’s still going strong. I love running it. When so much of our time online is spent discovering how to publish and find our audience, this series reconnects with the real heart of what we do – to sit down with our ideas and our emotions, and to create written work. It never fails to restore my love of creativity.
But really everything has happened because I started a blog. I’m constantly amazed at the opportunities we have now – the relationships we can form, the ways we can showcase what we do. I simply love the internet.
How would you describe your work – its themes and the important things about it?
My curiosities are memory, identity, what the soul might be and what makes us unique. I like to explore unusual conditions of haunting, but not the paranormal diet of ghosts and the supernatural. I puzzle about people who are undone by a buried past, a future they can’t face – and crises that unravel the very roots of who they are. I’m enthralled by an idea that DH Lawrence scholars describe as ‘aliveness’ – the sense that we are full of disruptive passions we don’t understand.