Which writer has had the greatest influence on you?
My bookshelves are overflowing with books that I have loved, and to pick only one writer seems incredibly difficult. As a genre, however, I think that those beautifully-written British novels and plays from the 1920s and 30s, with their humor and clever sentences and imagery, really forged an impression on my own writing. Noel Coward, P.G. Wodehouse, Waugh, E.F. Benson, Munro, Forster, Katherine Mansfield, and the incredible Virginia Woolf all, I hope, made an everlasting impact.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Whatever you do, finish. I devoted too many years writing half-novels and then getting tied in knots and giving up. Keep going until you reach the end, regardless of the knots, and then you can take a deep breath and see what you have.
What were your favorite books as a child?
I dearly loved Beatrix Potter. All those adorable bunnies saving the day, with sentences such as “Peter was most dreadfully frightened,” and some sparrows “implored him to exert himself.” Enid Blyton also wrote wonderful novels with brilliant heroes and vile baddies. I especially liked the horrid Gwendoline from the Malory Towers series.
What is your favorite book today?
My current favorite is The Great Alone by wonderful Kristin Hannah. She truly is a genius of historical fiction. I also loved Summer Wives by Beatriz Williams, Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly, The Alice Network by Kate Quinn, The Undertaking by Audrey Magee, and Transcription by Kate Atkinson, although I think The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry deserves a mention.
What are your favorite movies?
Schindler’s List is an immensely poignant movie, as is It’s a Wonderful Life, but I also love comedies, such as Some Like it Hot. Then there are situations where I love the book, adore the movie: Atonement, The Constant Gardener, Room with a View, Dangerous Liaisons, and The Age of Innocence.
Why did you become a writer?
There are so many stories to tell, so many perspectives to every story, and so many characters with tales of their own. I felt a need to write them down, tell them in the best, most exciting, sad, frightening, or intense way possible. There’s nothing more exhilarating or life-changing than a truly brilliant book.
Where do you write?
My desk is the dining-room table, which gets the pale sunlight in the morning, and then is surrounded by homework and raucousness by evening. I love following the hours of the day, watching the birds and squirrels in the garden, the dog fast asleep at my feet.
Which book character is most like you?
I’d like to think that I’m most like Jo March: chaotic, a bit of a thinker, a bit of a tomboy, and rather stubborn. Or would I prefer to be Elizabeth Bennet: witty, clever, and fearless? In reality, I’m probably more like Clarissa Dalloway, continually replaying memories and harboring a complicated obsession with the meaning of life.
List your motivational music.
I love Bill Withers. The first few lines of “Just the Two of Us” blends tenderness and a sublime beauty: “I see the crystal raindrops fall, and the beauty of it all is when the sun comes shining through.” “Lean on Me” is another favorite, as is “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong.
What is the drink next to your keyboard?
A cup of tea. Every half an hour I make a fresh cup, so it has to be quite weak in case of caffeine overdose.
What is your guilty pleasure book?
I simply adored Gone Girl, The Rosie Project, and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. To put this into perspective, I usually stick to historical fiction and research-related memoir and nonfiction.
What is your ideal writing break?
Last summer I went away with my beloved writing group to the most gorgeous little writing retreat in the depths of southern Virginia. It was a nineteenth-century wood-framed house, with three levels of porches overlooking densely wooded hills and the river, running through the valley toward the sea. It even had hummingbirds feeding outside the kitchen window. There were four great writing friends there, working all day and sharing stories over a glass of wine each night. It was as if time stood still and I could see the world and my life with a delicate, fleeting clarity.
Who is your favorite historical figure?
After a quiet 99-year-old lady died in a pretty London suburb a few years ago, a Second World War Sten gun, ammunition, and various other espionage paraphernalia were found beneath the floor in a secret attic room in her house. Eileen Burgoyne was an MI5 espionage operative during the war, and although little is known about her work, it is clear that she took part in the interrogation of Nazi prisoners following the war. She remained in MI5 after the war, never marrying, and keeping silent about her double life until her death.
Where would be your time travel destination?
The Café de Paris club, London, during the Blitz, although preferably not on the night that it was bombed. I would love to feel that brave hedonism of the young women, working hard at men’s jobs in the city and making the most of life every night. The parties, the freedom, and the intoxicating omnipresence of death all spurned the explosive decadence and recklessness that thrived in the nightly underworld.