Tell me what inspired you to write your debut novel? The characters? The setting?

A clock. When I came across it in a shop in a back alley in Istanbul, I was intrigued to discover that it was made in Leadenhall St, London, in 1752. The clock cast a spell over me, making me want to find out why it was made, and what brought it to the city. That led to research into clockmaking, the Seven Years War, the Ottoman Empire, and different conceptions of time in the mid-eighteenth century. But none of those things made a story that worked. I became possessed by the idea that the clock held a secret, and I knew I needed to find a character to tell me that secret. I have always loved Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume, and particularly its opening with the birth of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, and I knew I wanted an opening that featured the birth of the principal character. That led to the character of Grace Morley, the wet nurse, who in many ways drives the rest of the narrative. The characters grew with each edit, and their voices became more confident. In the end they were the people who told me the story to write. The settings of eighteenth-century London and Constantinople give the novel colour – and smell! 

How hard was it to get your first book published?

The irony for most if not all debut authors over the age of forty is that their ‘debut’ is actually the third or fourth novel they have written. And in my case I didn’t begin writing until I was almost forty. I remember winning a short story competition in about 2004 and going to Ireland to collect my prize. I met the American author David Means who said that he didn’t get his first novel published until he had three unpublishable novels on the shelf. I thought to myself ‘well, that won’t happen to me’ – but it is, of course, precisely what happened. I had three complete novels that had been (rightly) rejected before this one was accepted. I’d learned a lot about my craft in those twenty years, and I’m very glad that those earlier novels weren’t published, because I don’t think they were good enough.

How long did it take to write?

I wrote a first draft of Zachary in about six months in 2017 while on a career break from my job as a civil servant. My agent at the time didn’t like it, and I put it to one side and returned to work. I rewrote it in 2019, working with a fabulous mentor, the author Liz Jensen. Liz worked magic, and pushed me to plot much more strongly and, most importantly of all, to heighten the emotional inner narrative for every character. Because I’ve been primarily a short story writer, I tend to write very sparingly – short stories work best when they leave the reader to ‘fill in the gaps.’ But novels work differently, needing to create complete emotional worlds, and Liz really showed me how to do that.

How many publishers turned you down?

Over the years and with different books? Dozens! One usually needs to approach literary agents before getting as far as a publisher. Oddly, the very first novel I ever wrote got accepted by an agent immediately, and I was with him for five years, but neither novel I wrote in that time got accepted – rightly so. I guess they were rejected by about twenty-five publishers. With my second agent and the third novel I wrote – which was better, but still not quite good enough – a further fifteen or so rejections. So that’s a good forty rejections. I’m now with my third agent – David Headley. When I submitted Zachary to him, he called me straight away, submitted the novel on the Monday after we’d spoken on the Saturday, and it was bought by Transworld by the Thursday. That was amazing, and it felt then as if all those rejections over many, many years had just melted away.

What kind of reactions have you had to your book?

It’s early days, of course, with the proof/net galley only just going out, but early reviews have been incredibly positive. I’m particularly thrilled that readers have loved the characters so much, and that many have commented on the way the novel feels immersive, and like a classic, but also modern. That’s just what I was hoping for. I like nothing more than a classic novel, but sometimes the social norms and cultural constraints of the era in which it was written can make for uncomfortable reading. With Zachary I wanted to show how women in the mid eighteenth century struggled for financial and intellectual freedom, how a trans man might have lived, and how a young gay man might have given expression to his feelings, but without that ever feeling anachronistic or preachy.  

What can you tell us about your next book? Which of course I’d be happy to read when ready for reviews.

In October 1937 the dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, was responsible for the brutal slaughter of many thousands of Haitians living near the frontier. Yet some months later at an international conference his was the only nation in the world to make an offer to take Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. He offered one hundred thousand Jews the chance to emigrate, but his motivations were sinister, and danger lay in store for those who made the fraught journey to his ‘refuge’. The novel, based on this little-known true story is set in war-torn Paris and Lisbon as well as in Santo Domingo in the Caribbean; a tale of bravery, cowardice, love, loss and, some forty years later, a remarkable reunion.

Do you try and read the online reviews you get on say waterstones website?

I try not to, because I think it’s unhealthy for authors to be looking at reviews all the time, especially pre-publication. But I am trying to be active on twitter and Instagram because I think that’s just part of being an author nowadays, and so I do see reviews that way.

Would you ever consider writing for children or teens?

No.I think lots of authors write for children and young people brilliantly, and I’m happy to admire them! 

What did you do before becoming a writer? Or indeed still do?

I was a civil servant. No more, thank goodness – I would struggle to work for this government. It was in many ways an amazing job – I got to work all over the world, and had spells with the Home Office, Foreign Office and Cabinet Office. For many years I taught civil servants to write for ministers and parliament, and that probably helped me to hone my authorial skills. I also worked on EU issues and saw at first-hand how the EU transformed the countries of the former Soviet bloc. Too many people have short memories, and there is a deeply worrying carelessness in the air about the importance of democracy and respect for human rights.

Which author inspires you?

Nikolai Gogol. An odd choice, perhaps, but I love Gogol’s surreal stories and the way his characters have such complete lives of their own. Gogol also feels to me a very modern writer, even though he was writing in the 1830s and ‘40s. Others…the New York short story writer Grace Paley for her remarkable voice; Flannery O’Connor for her deep, dark humour; and the woefully under-rated British author Elizabeth Taylor for her absolute control of point of view.

Which genres do you read yourself?

Literary fiction, historical fiction and, of course, short stories.

What is your biggest motivator? The simple urge to write. Once I’m into a short story or novel I just want to get lost in it without interruption. There’s no better feeling than a character leaping from the page and saying things that surprise you as a writer. It feels like a conjuring trick, though it’s one impossible to explain, since no writer truly understands how it happens.

What will always distract you?

Emails! I can resist social media, but I’m one of those people that just has to answer an email as soon as it comes in.

How much say do you have in your book covers? Your current book cover is fantastic!

It really is, isn’t it? That is thanks to the amazing design team at Transworld and Marianne Issa El-Khoury in particular. I got to see early designs and to contribute to the process. My editor at Transworld, Eloisa Clegg has been genuinely wonderful, keeping me involved and, most importantly, making the novel so much better than it would have been without her amazing eye for story, pace and structure.

As a child were you a great reader?

Yes. I loved books and was a precocious reader. I adored Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, and then gobbled up all of C S Lewis’s Narnia stories. By eleven or twelve I was reading Isaac Asimov, and as a teenager the brilliant Kurt Vonnegut.

Which book shop is your favourite?

As David Headley is my agent, I have to say Goldsboro Books! I’ve recently discovered a wonderful bookshop close to where I Iive in the Scottish Highlands called The Bookmark in Grantown-on-Spey, and we also have The Nairn Bookshop nearby. Like all writers, I treasure independent bookshops, but I also celebrate Waterstoneswhich has done so much to keep the bookshop habit alive during the lean years. It’s a wonderful thing to see bookshops thriving as we emerge (we all hope!) from the pandemic.

What can you not resist buying?

Short story collections. I think that makes me a slightly unusual book buyer if publishers are to be believed – I know that they all say that short story collections don’t sell, and I guess they have the sales figures to prove it. It’s a shame – I’d really love to publish several short story collections!

Do you have any rituals on your writing days?

My perfect day is to get up early, write for an hour or so, go for a long run while my brain churns away at a plot problem or bit of dialogue, and then write for a few hours after I’ve got back and showered. I go on a writing retreat a couple of times a year with a brilliant group of novelists and poets. We write all day, sometimes meeting in twos or threes for talks over the kitchen table. Then in the evenings one of us cooks a meal for the group (we’re usually eight or nine) and then we sit around the fire and read out our writing and critique each other. It’s the most amazing process. Without my wonderful writing friends there is simply no way I’d have got to this stage as an author.  

How did you find life during UK lockdowns?

Much of the 2020 lockdown was spent in Greece, where we’d been living for about a year. The Greek lockdown was just as strict as the UK one. Writing kept me sane, and actually the lockdown meant I was more productive than I would otherwise have been – in a normal year we’d have had loads of visitors. The beautiful Scottish Highlands became our home at the end of 2020, just as another lockdown began. By then I was working on the edits for Zachary, and so felt well-occupied. It’s been such a tough time for key workers and all those with school-age children and I know how lucky I am to have a job that I love, and that I can do anywhere. But I have missed book launches, signings and festivals, though was able to help at the Nairn Book and Arts Festival in August. Zoom book launches, while better than nothing (and great for enabling access to people who simply couldn’t attend a physical event) are not quite the same.

How many books in your own to be read pile? (Let’s have an honest count please)

Five or six are physically in my pile, which feels manageable. That said we’ve left quite a few books in Greece which are also awaiting reading, and I probably have about twenty others that I’m hoping to buy. I’m not yet getting proofs sent to me by publishers – I’m hoping I will be in that position soon and look forward to having the sort of teetering piles I see on book bloggers Instagram posts!

What is your current read?

Andrew Greig’s Rose Nicolson which I’m absolutely loving. Beautifully written, and evoking time and place (16th century Scotland) so perfectly.

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