Tell me what inspired you to write?  Have you always been a writer?

I’ve always been a writer in my soul, I’ve always needed to say things in writing in order to order my thoughts and feelings.  The search for the right word, the right expression, feels like drawing back the darkness a little bit, and letting more light in.

What can you tell us about your books currently published? Do you have a favourite & why?

I hadn’t realised until Pod was out and getting called cli-fi, and being asked if I intended to write ‘a cli-fi trilogy’, that that was in fact what had happened.  I only ever think about the story, but one book has led directly to the next. 

For instance, I never intended to write about the pollinator crisis, but when I started researching honeybees for The Bees, it was impossible to just keep my investigations to that one creature.  Flies are also pollinators, wasps are the older carnivorous cousins of bees, butterflies were once caterpillars also under threat from pesticides… I steamrollered myself with the amount of research I realised I had to do – but I did it.             

I thought I was done with animal books, but I had become fascinated – and frightened – by what was happening with climate change and the Arctic in particular (because you can’t research pollinators without touching on climate change and then you’re in deep waters).  So I went to Svalbard in the Arctic to see with my own eyes, the beauty and fragility of the top of the world.  And I fell in love with the Arctic, and the wealth of stories there, centuries old but also absolutely new and shocking: the way we are still pillaging that precious ecosystem, for fossil fuels and cheaper shipping, and deafening and no doubt killing its animal citizens with marine ‘war games’ and seismic testing of the seabed.  And I was shocked and angry and I went back twice more, and wrote a novel set in Svalbard, The Ice, which is about a naive British businessman who tries to combine his money-hunger with his love of the Arctic, but finds himself desperately compromised and fighting for his life.  It’s not a perfect book by any means, but I needed to write it and some people like it more than my other two.

How did you celebrate when Pod was announced on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year? (Very much hope you reach the shortlist. I love Pod.)

I went out to dinner with my husband and we had oysters – still a sustainable food!  And a glass of champagne.  Possibly two. 

When can we expect your next book & what hints can you give us about it?

I’ve learned not to blab myself into thinking the hard work is done – I’m excited by what I’m working on, but there’s a wonderful book by Dorothea Brande called Becoming A Writer (which I must re-read) in which I vividly remember reading her saying something like ‘if you talk about a piece of work before it’s done, your subconscious doesn’t know the difference, and thinks Job Done’.  And then of course the job doesn’t get done, but you get demoralised because it has become impossibly and mysteriously hard to go on.

How hard was it to get your first book published?

Before I had an agent, when I was still working on it but knew without an agent it would be even harder to get published, I happened to see an ad for Curtis Brown doing a speed-dating-for-an-agent day at Foyles.  You had to apply for the chance of a place – I got one.  Then you had to go to Foyles on Charing Cross Road at 9am on this particular Saturday morning – and join the queue of other hopeful unrepresented writers.  Which was hundreds of people long, because some must have been there since 7am.  Then slowly slowly it snaked through Foyles, now open, and be stared at by curious customers.  Then finally on the top floor, there was The Room, in which agents sat at tables round the side, writers were called in and told which table to sit at, as other writers vacated the chair and went out, trying and failing to be poker faced.  When you sat down, you had to pass your ONE page double spaced one-sentence description of your novel, and your three paragraphs No More, expanding on it.  The agent then read it in front of you, and returned it.  The one I had, flipped it round and gave it back to me and said, poker-faced, ‘Well it’ll either be a triumph, or you won’t be able to do it.’  I said:  I’ll definitely do it.  Good luck, she said.  That was The Bees.

How many publishers turned you down?
I believe quite a few. 

If people take one thing away from your books to reflect on, what would you like it to be?

Animals are sentient beings and the natural world is the manifestation of a divine intelligence beyond our puny means.   

Would you consider writing for children or teens?

I think I already do – it’s not uncommon for boys and girls who are keen readers and as young as ten, to be brought to things I’ve done on The Bees.  Maybe not so much The Ice, and too soon to say for Pod, though I think teenagers could well relate to that story too.  Young people are passionate about fairness and kindness, thank goodness.  I’m always proud when a teacher writes to me to say he or she is teaching one of my books in class.  That would have made the young me fall over in disbelief.  Such an honour. 

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

Well… I’d like to say Oh no, I never look – but of course I do.  Reviews are hugely important in bringing readers, and the reader completes the work, and the book belongs to them in every way.  Waterstones is a real champion of writers as well as having beautiful bookshops and great staff.  And it is always a thrill to see my books there – my shelf mates are often Jodi Picoult, Michelle Paver, and now, Sheena Patel – whose I’m A Fan is also longlisted for the 2023 Women’s Prize for Fiction, and is a grenade with the pin out.  So very good company. 

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

Like many writers, I’ve been a bit of a liability in ‘proper jobs’, but I have variously been a bank clerk (I know, disaster) a veterinary nurse, a receptionist, a film sales agent, a trainee agent in Hollywood (oh the stories) a cook (can still do and enjoy this) a farm-sitter (was actually not bad at this believe it or not) and probably have blocked out many other things. 

Which author inspires you?

The first time I heard Elif Shafak speak live, I was as yet unpublished.  She was not only incredibly beautiful but she spoke about how if you are a writer today, then at some point ‘politics will come knocking and it is your choice whether or not you open the door.’  And I got a shiver at her words, and thought to myself, ah, but she’s major, she’s a really important writer (and she most definitely is), but it’s unlikely that will happen to me.  But it has, in the form of the natural world.  The plight of the natural world has come knocking at my door, in through the window, up through the floor.  And if I don’t answer, I can’t write.  And of course, Margaret Atwood.

Which genres do you read yourself?

I’m an omnivore.  Really, everything.  And once when I was trapped somewhere (that’s another story) the only books were the entire oeuvre of Barbara Cartland.  So I had to eat that for a week. 

What is your biggest motivator?

The conviction that if I can tell good stories that not only entertain (or don’t write fiction) but also enlarge empathy in the reader, that work is worth doing.  We are all empathetic beings, but I think we have been conditioned by a cruel capitalist society with inbuilt injustices, to see this as ‘normal’.  Normal does not mean just or right, and sometimes artists can reach places facts and the horrors of the news, can’t.   If I can be any tiny part of the solution, it’s worth giving it my all.

What will always distract you?

My terrible cat, my wonderful dog.  Both adored, and both love being in my study.

How much say do you have in your book covers?


As a child were you a great reader?
Age 10 I was first in line at the bookshop to get the first copy sold of Watership Down, and I can reach out and put my hand on it right now. 

Which book shop is your favourite?

Dangerous question.  Waterstones always has a pull, so does Daunts, but I do love a good second hand bookshop, and those where they mix it up, new and second hand.  I also love it when there’s a cafe, when there are reading nooks and you can browse for hours quite a while, and I’m rarely happier than when I find one of those old bookshops that also serve food amidst the stacks, and you can request a table in War/Biography etc. 

What can you not resist buying?

Non-fiction about things I suddenly feel the urge to understand.  Neuroscience, Neanderthals, the wonder of soil, Mussolini, druids, astrobiology.  When I started researching The Bees I started collecting scientific books, and it’s snowballed.  I love it but I’ve run out of shelf space.

Do you have any rituals on your writing days?

Don’t talk much, do not open email or check phone.  Go within. 

How many books in your own to be read pile? Be truthful, we like an accurate count. 

Which particular pile?  Let’s just say several armfuls.

What is your current read?
Non-fic: the very atmospheric, scholarly – and gripping – Ashes&Stones by Allyson Shaw, in which she gives life to many of the women burned as witches in Scotland.  Shocking and important – it made me realise this hasn’t been done before, nor have I questioned why until now.  Recommended. 

Fiction: I’m about to start Homesick by Jennifer Croft, also long listed for the Women’s Prize.

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